Arranging: The Hidden Best Bits

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Every time I finish an arrangement, I realise the bits I am most proud of are the bits that nobody else will ever notice. In fact, this is why I am proud of them: they are usually the places where I struggled with some technical or artistic problem, but have found a solution that appears perfectly natural. The whole point is not to have anyone be impressed with the ingenuity of how I solved it, it’s for them never to notice there was a problem in the first place.

I have written over the years in general terms about this phase of the arranging process, and in more detail about how to generate a smooth and singable line that allows performers to commit to the song’s message without too much interference from their inner Manager.

But just recently I’ve been thinking about those things that your notation program will hide from you, that you only discover when you sing through the lines with your own voice. A lot of the changes I make at the final stages of an arrangement would be virtually inaudible to someone listening to the before and after versions on a midi output, but I get enormous secret pleasure from knowing how much rehearsal time these tiny tweaks will save.

Not so secret now, of course, as I’m about to tell you what kinds of things these involve...

  • Breath management. Did you notice how your notation program never runs out of breath? And therefore how easy it is to give one part a nice propellant to join two phrases which leaves them without a sensible place to refill for unfeasibly long? A rookie error, perhaps, but one that’s all too easy too make.

    I quite like singing through parts hunched over my keyboard with really poor posture. I reckon that the breath deficit this gives me is about equivalent to the extra demands on the lungs you get from a an ambitious choreo plan and a dose of performance adrenaline. No point delivering a set of lines I can only sing when I’m on best vocal behaviour thinking consciously about managing my breath, this stuff needs to survive the heat of real-life performance.

  • Line shape in context. There are some intervals that look perfectly easy until you try to sing them. In a I chart finished recently there was a major second in the lead part, and a major third in the baritone that both looked perfectly normal. And I could sing both just fine when singing the bar in isolation. In the context of harmony and phrase structure both were complete pigs. Possible - just about, on a good day, when thinking about it - but do you really want a quarter of your chorus to suddenly drop facially out of the song and instead use their ‘ooh I need to place this note carefully’ face?
  • Tangled up word sounds. Staggering the start of a word can work okay - say if the melody has a rest on the downbeat, so you have one or more parts start the bar, with the leads joining in with the same word a quaver or a crotchet later. But if the word ends with a consonant (or, as you often get in English, multiple consonants, in a mix of voiced and unvoiced), you need to get them lined up if it’s going to sound crisp - and indeed comprehensible - in performance.

    This one often interacts with breathing. It may look all lined up, but the people who have been singing on the downbeat are going to be looking for a breath somewhere else and may shorten a note to get it.

    Mind you, my favourite tangled-up word sound experience was one that, although hidden by the notation program, may not have been revealed by singing through the lines individually. It involved a rather clever weaving together of two different lines of lyric as part of its embellishing strategy, and managed to get a word starting with ‘sh’ in one part tangled up with one ending in ‘ight’ in another for a completely random and gratuitous expletive in the middle of the phrase. Easily entertained? Me?

  • Automatic pilot errors. These are my favourite to discover and root out. You have to leave the arrangement at least overnight, even better over a weekend, and then come back to it. When you sing through, any error you make because you are half-remembering and anticipating rather than actually reading the line is a huge great heffalump trap that everyone else who ever sings that line will fall down. Because everyone else will also have had that same experience of doing some work on it, then putting it down to other things and coming back to it later.

These all sound like very simple things to be dealing with as an experienced arranger. But it’s a bit like the way singing teachers are forever going on about stuff like posture and breathing that you work on in your very first lesson. Just because it’s simple, doesn’t mean you get to stop working on it - you have to keep getting it right.

And what you need to do to get it right is likewise nearly always to make it simpler. Take out the clever crap, get out of the way of the singer, and let the song through.

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