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The Arranger’s Bottom Drawer

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Addressing anyone here who classes themselves as either an ‘arranger’ or a ‘wanna-be-arranger’ or a ‘not-sure-I’d-claim-to-be-an-arranger-but rather-like-fiddling-around-with-notes’:

Hands up if you have a bunch of half-finished and indeed barely-started arrangements hanging around in your desk drawer and/or hard disk (depending on your preferred technology).

Have a look round – see how many people have their hands up? Pretty much everyone.

I quite often find myself in conversations with people who feel bad about this, you see, and I wish they wouldn’t. They talk about their pile of unfinished charts as if it’s something to be ashamed about, as if not turning every tune they play with into a finished product marks them as a failure. Whereas in fact it’s just a normal part of the existence of an arranger.

We all have to learn our craft, after all. It would be surprising if we could turn out fully-polished performance-ready arrangements without a few practice runs first. Just like performers learn a lot of pieces in their training that they don’t end up programming into concerts. The point about the engagement can be how you develop as a musician – what the song does to you, rather than what you do to the song, so to speak.

Quite often, what you learn from exploring a particular song can be learned without finishing the whole thing. That’s when you find yourself losing interest – it’s not that you have a poor attention span, it’s just that you’ve already got what you’re going to get from that song.

Other times, you get stuck (that happens to other people, too, yes?). You try three or four different solutions to the problem, but find yourself not entirely convinced by any. After a while you stop banging your head against the wall and go do something else. This also is healthy – the analysis and problem-solving skills you gain from doing this pay off time and time again in other arrangements, whether or not you ever come back to nail this one.

And sometimes, it’s just that you feel like doing a spot of arranging. It’s a Sunday afternoon, and your spouse is out doing something, and your kids are round playing at a neighbour’s house, and so you have a couple of hours you can fritter away doing something that’s endlessly fascinating and best enjoyed when you’re feeling free from other demands on your attention. The point is the fun of the process – like sudoku, only more multi-dimensional and humane.

There will always be far more cool songs in the world than any one arranger can get their head round – even the amazing Ed Waesche ‘only’ left a legacy of around 600 charts. So we don’t need to regret the ones that get away – there’s not time in any one life to get on with all our future projects as well as complete all the unfinished ones from the past.

The half-done and partly-started charts are just the normal flotsam from the process of arranging. They are the sign that we enjoy arranging enough to take the time to get better at it.

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