By JEANNIE WILEY WOLF
CAREY — If you have sheet music for the 2013 animated Disney film, “Frozen,” you have Mark Johnson to thank.
The Mount Blanchard man makes his living turning movie soundtracks and pop songs into sheet music for the Hal Leonard Corp., Milwaukee, Wisconsin.
“It’s nice to come up with something that indeed someone can sit down and play,” said Johnson.
“I think my favorite part is when I’ve really got something that I feel like it’s playable that sounds like the recording, that’s fun to play,” he said. “That feels like I’ve done something good.”
Johnson, 52, grew up around music; his parents were both musicians and music teachers.
His father wrote music and also taught band, then choir and later strings.
“He wrote a number of band pieces,” Johnson said. “Summertime was when he would be writing, and I can remember sitting under his desk while he was copying out his parts, out on the screened-in porch … so music I guess was always something natural to me.”
His mother played the piano and string bass. She was also Johnson’s first piano teacher.
“One of the pieces that was influential in my learning to play music by ear was ‘Tubular Bells,’ the theme song to the movie ‘The Exorcist,'” he said. “I had been learning piano for a few years when I first heard that on the radio, and since the piano was the centerpiece, I had to learn how to play it.”
Johnson said he would listen intently each time the song came on the radio and eventually learned to play it.
“About a year and a half ago I was asked by Hal Leonard Corp. to do a project called ‘Keyboard Instrumentals,’ a collection of instrumental songs featuring prominent keyboard parts, everything from ‘The Miami Vice Theme’ to ‘Music Box Dancer,'” said Johnson. “In this case, I was asked to do full scores of every keyboard on these particular recordings.”
One of the songs he was assigned was “Tubular Bells.”
“Which kind of brought my journey with that song full circle, almost 40 years later,” he said.
Johnson grew up in Dayton and attended Centerville High School.
“They had a very excellent band program, and I was interested in that,” said Johnson, who studied the trombone.
He graduated in 1980 and attended the University of Miami in Florida.
“I was interested in jazz and was looking for good jazz programs for college, and they have one of the best,” he said. “They still do.”
Johnson soon realized he wanted to write music.
“But as far as jazz, I didn’t see that I was going to be able to write totally what I wanted to write, and I started getting interested in the modern classical composition,” he said.
He changed his major to composition, but kept jazz piano as his main instrument.
While still a student, Johnson began doing piano and vocal arrangements for Columbia Pictures Publications, headquartered in Florida.
Johnson stayed with the company after graduating in 1984.
“I was able to use the writing and what I learned with jazz piano and everything for arranging, so I ended up getting a very good education there,” he said.
Initially, Johnson worked as a freelance arranger.
“The jobs that opened up at the publisher weren’t exactly arranging,” he said. “I started as a proofreader and then I ended up as an editor in the band department. But I still continued to do some freelance arranging on the side.”
He met his future wife, Jan, in Ohio. A seminary student at the time, she was also singing in a church group with Johnson’s sister.
“I went to hear the group that my sister was singing in and met Jan,” he recalled.
The couple have been married for 14 years. Jan Johnson is pastor at Mount Blanchard United Methodist Church.
“When Jan and I got married and I relocated to Ohio, I actually got in touch with the folks at Hal Leonard, just looking for more work,” Johnson said. “So then I continued to work for them, and that’s become now pretty much 99 percent of what I do.”
“When a CD or recording comes out, if you wanted to play this on the piano, you’d go down to the store or now go online and get the sheet music. This is what I do,” he said. “I write the music that someone would use to play it on the piano or sing with.”
The job has its challenges, he noted.
“I listen to the recording … and just figure out how to play it and what would work well as a good piano arrangement,” he said.
When Johnson started in the business, he did all of his arranging using a pencil and paper. But in the early 1990s, he changed over to the computer.
The computer is connected to his keyboard, he explained. He can either type the notes in using numbers, or play it on the keyboard and it will appear on the computer.
“I can play one hand at a time. The nice thing about that is I can also listen back to it, which is also a good check to make sure I’ve done it right,” he said.
His main work is with the piano, and the software he uses, called Sibelius, is designed specifically for composing sheet music. It’s also the same software Hal Leonard uses, he said, so what comes out of his computer is ready for print.
It takes an average of four to five hours to arrange one song, he said.
“Now some of those songs (in ‘Frozen’) were kind of involved, so some of them took a little longer,” said Johnson. “It depends on the song. And some of them translate easily to piano and some songs take a little more work to adapt.”
Johnson has played a lot of different styles of music over the years, so it’s usually easy for him to figure out what works on piano.
Unless an editor at Hal Leonard makes changes, what comes out of Johnson’s computer is what gets printed. And hopefully, he said, the people who play his arrangements think they sound like the recordings.
“It should be fun for them,” he said. “This allows people to play those things that they hear in the theater or on the DVD or whatever, so it’s kind of a satisfying thing. It feels good when you’ve got something that someone will enjoy playing.”
Johnson works out of an office in the Carey Area Chamber of Commerce building.
“It doesn’t take a whole lot of gear to do this particular thing,” he said. “Mostly it’s the computer and keyboard and something to listen to, like headphones, when I try to listen to something more closely.”
As long as he has an Internet connection, Johnson said he can work most anywhere.
“It’s nice to have a separate office space. I just need a quiet space, so this is perfect,” he said.
More recently, Johnson has been working on a Jason Mraz album.
“I may do all the songs on an album. If they need something out quickly, they may divide it up between their arrangers. This particular one, they’ve got some time because the album isn’t yet released, so I’m doing all the songs on it,” he said.
Johnson estimates that he arranges 200 to 250 songs a year which translates to 2,000 to 3,000 over the course of his career.
“I try to keep cranking them out,” he said.
Johnson said many people would be surprised to learn that most current artists don’t write down their music.
“I did a couple of the albums for One Direction. A lot of people probably think that, oh, they probably sat down and wrote out those piano parts. Most of them don’t.” he said. “Even if they write a song … very few people actually write out the music, certainly not the whole arrangement.”
Johnson has also done arrangements for songs by Josh Grobin, Michael McDonald, Little Richard, the Jonas Brothers and Elton John, and for the movies “Once” and “Rio 2.” But you won’t find his name on any of the music.
“It’s work for hire,” he said. “There are a few transcriptions they have put my name on, but not too many. I kind of think they should. It’s kind of like the movie credits at the end. You don’t know who those people are, but you figure out. ‘OK, a real person worked on this.'”
Johnson said he’s happy with his career.
“It’s turned out very well, and Hal Leonard, I appreciate that they’ve been able to keep me busy, even through some economically lean times. They’ve always been good about sending me work, so I’ve appreciated that very much,” he said.
In addition to his work, Johnson does some of the music at his wife’s church.
“We actually have a lot of pianists at Mount Blanchard, but I do some things as well, and sometimes even things with the other pianists which is a lot of fun,” he said.
Johnson has written some of his own music as well, including several cantatas and Christian songs. He and his wife also occasionally perform together which he enjoys.
“She is an excellent clarinetist and percussionist and singer. That’s one of those things I wish I could do more of,” he said.
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