Australian Idol is part of the global phenomenon that is the “Idol” franchise, which has spawned no fewer than 42 different shows around the world since its debut in the UK as Pop Idol in 2001. The show has aired in Australia since 2003, and has so far crowned seven talented winners.
Sibelius has always played a big role in the music on the show, and I caught up with Dave Pritchard-Blunt, who has been an arranger with the show since its first season and took over as the show’s musical director last season, to find out more.
“From the very first episode, Sibelius has been used to produce the hundreds of orchestrations that have been used in the show,” says Dave. “And that’s something like 1200!”
That’s a lot of music over the course of the last seven seasons, and clearly Dave can’t do it all on his own. “There are three full-time arrangers, including myself, and we all use Sibelius,” says Dave. “When we started the show, the other two arrangers were predominantly Finale users, but Sibelius became the program of choice to facilitate easy file sharing between the three of us.”
How did those Finale users feel about having to make the switch? “Well, they have since become total Sibelius converts!”
A week in the life
With an average of 12 arrangements to be written for each week’s live show, the final few months of each season is a very busy time for Dave and his team. I asked him to talk me through a week in the life of Australian Idol‘s three arrangers.
“On Monday and Tuesday we workshop the songs for the live show with the artists and the vocal coaches,” he says. “At the end of each workshop, a recording is made with the artist and piano, and a rough sketch of the arrangement is scribbled out with relevant notes for the arranger.”
Then the fun really begins! “The workshop recordings and sketches are given to the arrangers on Wednesday morning, and each of us then typically needs to produce two arrangements a day to meet the Saturday deadline, when we have to do a sound check and rehearse with the band and the artist. And on Sunday, we have the camera rehearsals – and the all-important live show!”
Of course, sometimes even the controlled chaos of this very tight schedule is stretched to breaking point, and Dave remembers one episode in particular as being especially punishing. “The most insane schedule for the 2009 season was the big band episode. All 10 totally new arrangements had to be written and delivered by Thursday, two days ahead of the usual schedule! We had to use nine arrangers rather than the usual three: one of them emailed in his arrangement from his hotel room in New York. He said he found writing in New York very inspiring, but given that he was vacationing there, I’m not sure how inspired his wife was with the deal!”
Getting things done
With such a tight schedule, the arrangers have to double as copyists, producing the parts for the band as well as writing the arrangements themselves. “We’re very proud that Australian Idol was the first in the Idol franchise to use a live band on the show,” Dave says.
“We always use a seven-piece rhythm section, which is then augmented for each episode as required. We have two keyboards, two guitars, bass, drums, and percussion, plus three backing vocalists,” says Dave. “When we use strings, we typically have 10 violins, three violas, and two cellos, plus harp. Brass sections can vary from a four-piece section to a whole big band.”
Sometimes the forces used can be bigger still. “The grand final at the Sydney Opera House is usually full orchestra, plus a sizeable choir. And every once in a while we have some more unusual instrumentalists: last year was notable for the inclusion of a DJ scratching and a banjo – though not in the same number.”
With a minimum of seven parts and normally many more to produce for each arrangement, the arrangers have their work cut out getting the parts onto the stands in time. “I’ve always preferred to prepare my own parts,” says Dave, “because I use that process to proof-read the arrangement.”
Although Dave has used Sibelius for many years, he is wary of taking advances in technology for granted. “I’ve been playing in television bands for 20 years, and the improvements in music technology have made previously impossible situations totally workable,” he says. “A prime example has happened more than once on Australian Idol: on the day of the show, the artist has come down sick and needs to change the key of their song. Because we have the Sibelius scores at the studio, we can transpose the score and print all the parts while the orchestra continue rehearsing.”
Dave says that Sibelius’s dynamic parts are the greatest time-saving feature ever introduced, and have saved his bacon more than once. “I remember one such incident when a full orchestral score was transposed, printed, and the parts stuck together and put back on the stands in less than 15 minutes. Can you imagine doing that prior to dynamic parts? As for hand-copying, it would have been simply inconceivable.”
I asked Dave whether he had any particular favourite arrangements. “Having been involved with the show for seven years, it’s difficult to pick out highlights as there have been so many memorable moments – and, of course, a more than a few I’d prefer to forget,” he says. “Probably the most memorable performances have been working with the international artists who have been gracious enough to join us.”
A personal favourite was Lionel Richie. “I’ve played All Night Long in more late-night venues and on more occasions than I care to remember, but it’s a whole new thing when you’re playing it with the original artist, with a great band and orchestra at a venue as special as Sydney Opera House.”
Dave is looking forward to another year of writing arrangements and performing with tomorrow’s musical talents. “At the end of the day, I’m still just a hired hand and grateful to make a living from making music.”