Arranging Processes

Every so often somebody will ask me how long it takes to do an arrangement, and I invariably find it a difficult question to answer. The headline answer is usually 2-4 weeks, depending on what else is going on in my life. But that’s just the time elapsed between starting work in earnest and delivering a completed chart, which isn’t the same as how long I spend working on it.

The more detailed answer is that it is impossible to say, as the distinction between working on an arrangement and not working on an arrangement isn’t very clear cut. (This is a specific instance of the observation that to talk about work/life balance assumes you can tell which is which.) Anyone who has been involved with practical music-making is familiar with the way your brain keeps processing the music you are working on between rehearsals and practice sessions. I may only spend an hour or two at a time actually sat at the piano or the computer, but the effectiveness and productivity of those sessions absolutely relies on my brain’s ruminations in between them.

And it turns out that this background processing isn’t just a continual, generalised mulling. I have gradually become aware of certain types of musical problem-solving emerging in quite specific circumstances:

More Musicking in Yorkshire


Wednesday night took me back to Yorkshire for my second evening of music-making with Sally McLean in a month, this time with the chorus she is featured working with in my choral conducting book, The White Rosettes. And, like my last visit, the task was to work on a new arrangement in its early stages of development.

So, once again it’s all going to be a bit cryptic, as I’m not going to tell you what the song is before they are ready for the big reveal. I realise that this makes the reading experience a bit abstract, but it will all be worth it when you hear the contest premiere in October as they sing to defend their LABBS and European Championship titles.

A theme throughout the evening was the different ways a piece of music can be challenging. There are several dimensions in which I had deliberately chosen not to stretch the chorus in this arrangement. Apart from a somewhat rangy melody (the composer’s choice, that one), the vocal parts stay well within the compass the chorus are used to. The texture isn’t unduly complex. The chord choices are in the main the obvious ones suggested by the melody – indeed, quite often the harmony is less complex than the original. And the lines have had received a lot of work on making them intuitively singable.

Minor Changes in Availability of Arrangements

There have been some alternating rumbles of excitement and disappointment in the arranging community over the last year or two over a programme developed by Sheet Music Plus in collaboration with Hal Leonard. They have produced a list of about 1000 songs pre-approved for arranging, so long as you publish the arrangements through SMP. Anyone who has to grapple with the bureaucracy of copyright permissions for new arrangements finds their ears perking up when they hear of it.

The disappointment arrives when you realise that one of the excluded ensembles is choral. I’d been round that loop a couple of times when my friend Debi Cox had the bright idea of actually contacting them with a query, and established that while they don’t know when they’ll be able to add choral arrangements to the list, they are able to accept arrangements for chamber-sized, one-a-part a cappella groups such as barbershop quartets and contemporary a cappella ensembles, up to 8 parts.


Sing for Europe

EUflagThis week brought an interesting creative collaboration my way – working with someone I met in a Facebook group to produce a singable arrangement in English of the EU anthem, Beethoven’s Ode to Joy. I’ll talk about the creative process in a mo, but first I’d like to invite you to download it from the bottom of this page and sing it with all your friends. In particular, if you can join us on 25 March in London, that was the primary occasion we produced it for, but really sing it wherever and whenever you like.

So the thing about this that was interesting is that it would seem on the face of it a simple and obvious thing to do to sing the Ode to Joy in a mass open-air gathering. It is, after all, written to evoke the great odes produced for mass open-air gatherings during the French Revolution, and the melody is transparently accessible in both its vocal demands and its memorability.

Harmonious Yorkshire Spirits

SpiritFeb17Thursday evening took me up to the Vale of York to work with Spirit of Harmony on some arrangements I delivered to them last year. I had arranged for the chorus several times some years ago, and also worked with a couple of smaller ensembles from within the chorus, but this was my first time coaching the full body of singers. As ever, I’m not going to tell you what the songs are so as not to anticipate the moment the chorus chooses to reveal them, but I can reflect on the process.

It’s an endlessly fascinating exercise in practical aesthetics negotiating how music should go: who decides, and how you decide. As an arranger I’ll have always imagined the delivery in depth as part of the arranging process – as Neil Watkins used to say, the arranger’s task is to conjour up the full performance in their mind, then write that down. But equally, it is the performer’s job and prerogative to bring their own creative imagination to the shaping of the narrative.

Interval Class and Vocal Style

One of the first aspects of barbershop harmony I wrote about in my early years of discovering it (and which found its way in into Chapter 2 of my book) was the genre’s idiosyncratic approach to the concepts of consonance and dissonance. Traditional music theory sees these as unfolding in alternation, with dissonance injecting energy into the sound which is released with the resolution into consonance. Much of our experience of musical tension and release comes from this harmonic process.

But the barbershop world associates the concept ‘consonant’ with its characteristic soundworld of lock and ring. So it includes the perfect intervals and triads of tonal theory, but also adds to the category a bunch of other chords – mostly notably the dominant-type (or barbershop) 7ths – that tonal theory would label dissonant for their capacity to generate a sense of forward motion.

Constructing Medleys

Putting more than one song together to make a bigger structure is a standard part of the arranger’s craft. There are all kinds of interesting things to think about the how you join the songs together, but today my interest is on the more fundamental level of how you choose them.

I think about medleys in two types. One is a collection of tunes that share a common origin or set of associations. Say, selections from a show, or songs by (or made famous by) a particular artist or group, such as my Madonna Medley or Meatloaf Medley. I tend to think of these as show pieces, useful as they offer a longer span of musical time without a break than single songs would, in much the same way that classical concert programming places more substantial works as focal points amongst the shorter items.

Musings on ‘Old Barbershop’

Some time in the early part of the millennium, around when I was writing my first book, my then boss asked me what were the new and happening things in the world of barbershop. The question entertained me, as I had been in the midst of documenting the ways in which the genre has been built on an aesthetic of nostalgia. The slogan ‘Keep it Barbershop’ (and the identity label derived from it: KIBBERs), which was still in some currency at that time, was about the resolute resistance to innovation.

It is hard to put your finger on exactly the moment it changed (Michigan Jake? Team OC Times + Aaron Dale? Westminster Chorus?), but the last decade and a half has seen not only a good deal of innovation, but also a cultural shift to a world in which the new is greeted with excitement. The seeds were planted in the early 1990s with changes to the judging system that allowed a greater range of repertoire and arranging techniques, but it has taken nigh on a quarter-century to change people’s felt experience in relation to the defined boundaries. Back in 2005, when I wrote my article on ‘Cool Charts or Barbertrash?’, this was still a very active area of contention.

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