On Choosing Songs to Arrange

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Funnily enough, picking songs to arrange is something I no longer have much difficulty with, since I’m mostly arranging to order songs that other people have picked. But the people I’m arranging for sometimes have trouble with this, as do many arrangers – it was something that came up in conversation several times at our arrangers’ day back in April 2009. And even though I don’t have to do this so much these days, I’m interested in it, as it is something that didn’t come naturally to me at first, so I had to learn how to get better at it.

Like many skills, a good start is looking at people who are already good at it and see what they do.

I have a handful of friends who are always noticing songs that would make cool arrangements – not necessarily for their own ensembles, but for all sorts of groups. If you ever receive emails that contain a youtube clip and the message, ‘Can’t you just hear [insert name of mutual acquaintance] singing this? LOL!’, the sender has the kind of skills you need for song searches.

The difference between these folk and people who have trouble picking songs is that the former never stop looking. If you only start wondering what to arranged/have arranged for you at the point when you need a song, you’re going to struggle, because you’re starting from scratch. People who are always collecting ideas (a) have a fund of possibilities already and (b) are fluent at the processes of both seeking ideas and evaluating them.

So, the first thing to do to get better at picking songs is to spend more time doing it as a matter of course. (Hmm, practise something to get better at it, never heard that one before.) This may involve getting songbooks out of the library to play through, or listening to CDs, or surfing from related link to related link in youtube. (The internet is the perfect research medium for people with the ‘ooh, shiny, new toy!’ type of personality.) But spending time thinking, ‘hmm, would that arrange?’ is the only way to get better at making those judgements.

Now, making these judgements is at its best a process of shunting back and forth between intuitive responses and conscious analysis. If a song doesn’t twang your ‘ooh, that’s interesting’ instinct, it’s not worth spending any more time on. But then there’s also the process of making sensible decisions about whether a song that catches your attention would actually work in an acappella format: whether it would suit the voices of the singers in your ensemble in terms of range/technical difficulty, whether the persona of the song and the personality of the groups are compatible. The analytical brain plays the part of your Mum saying, ‘Yes they are lovely shoes, but they’re too high for school’.

The other trick, with both the finding of songs and evaluating them, is to use other people’s brains. If you are singing in an ensemble, then by definition there are multiple brains available, and some, you will discover, are better at generating ideas than others. Moreover, using other people’s brains is a great way to find ideas you would never have thought of yourself (this is what I like about arranging to order).

The trick here is to accept all ideas in the first instance before you start to sort. If you shoot down the first idea that comes out of a brain (whether yours or someone else’s), the brain won’t trust you any more and it will clam up. If you say, ‘Thanks, great, what else?’ the brain will throw a couple extra mediocre ideas out just to check whether you really are to be trusted. If you accept those too, all sorts of imaginative and brilliant ideas will start to emerge to reward your patience and openness. And then you’ll end up with far more ideas than you need, and the sensible filters start to look like useful tools to whittle down the list rather than boring and repressive ways to damp down creativity.

The ensemble can be useful in the final decision too. Just observe people’s body language. When they’re talking about the song that is absolutely right to arrange at this moment, the eyes will shine brighter and there will be a ring in the voice that tells you their hearts are happy. When you hear that, you know you have the song that they will sing best.

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