Inside the Arranging Process with Cheshire Chord Company

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CCCmar21On Thursday evening I joined the Cheshire Chord Company to offer a presentation on the arranging process, walking through some of the practical and artistic decisions that inform how a chart takes shape. As ever with these kinds of events, I came away far more interested in the questions than they were asking than what I had presented – after all, I knew what I was going to say in advance as I’d prepared it, but the questions take the conversation into all kinds of interesting places that I’d not necessarily anticipated.

One question that I’m often asked and find almost impossible to answer is what is my favourite chart. I’m generally poor at picking favourites of anything, but I think the reason it is particularly hard with arrangements is that every time I am arranging something for someone, for them it is their special thing. So, for the duration of the time I’m working on it, it is my special thing too. If I want the groups I arrange for to be delighted with their music, I can’t approach it as ‘just another chart’.

(Also, I remember hearing Brian Wilson, aged about 70, saying that ‘God Only Knows’ is the best thing he ever wrote. It’s a great song, but I don’t want to reach that age feeling that everything I’ve done for 50 years has been overshadowed by my 19-year-old self.)

There are some charts that stand out as making particular stages on my journey as an arranger, which isn’t quite the same as being a favourite, but more about what the process of working on them did to me. Candyman, for instance, is the first chart that is so imbued by the personalities of the group I was writing for that I think of the lines as Kate, Nancy, Jane, and Sandra rather than tenor, lead, bari and bass. And Feed the Birds is the chart in which I developed the idea of the communicator and the manager, in tandem with the goal to make every line one that can be sung from the heart.

Another question was whether I ever disagree with an MD about the interpretation of my arrangements. The first point here is that there are always multiple valid ways of shaping a piece of music, and the ‘Oh I wouldn’t have thought of that!’ response is a positive one far more often than not.

Sometimes, people do make interpretive decisions that I feel are pulling against the arrangement in some way or another. If I’m invited to coach the group, then I’ll bring it up and work with them to resolve it. In that context, the whole reason I’m there is to offer the arranger’s perspective so it would be unhelpful not to! But if the first I hear of it is in performance, I’ll keep that opinion to myself – there’s nothing to be gained by inviting people to feel less good about their efforts when they have put their hearts into preparing and presenting a performance. There will invariably still be much to celebrate, and that is the appropriate response to their gift of music.

And this leads nicely onto another question, about what it takes to make me respond to a performance – or am I permanently in ‘evaluating’ mode? This is far more about the listener than the performer I think: sometimes I might be going through a phase of obsessing about a particular musical element or aspect of vocal technique and so am listening to everything through that filter.

But in general, I genuinely love being sung to, it always feels like a blessing. (And as I quip with my chorus, this is fortunate given my line of work!) The perception of things still to work on really doesn’t get in the way of my appreciation of what people have to offer. So long as the skills are solid enough that you don’t have worry about the performers falling out of the music, you can hear the intent. And I guess the performances I enjoy most are the ones where the performers aren’t letting worry about what listeners might be thinking about them distract them from that.

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