On Milestones and Skill Level

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I noticed as I entered my most recent arrangement into my master list spreadsheet that the one I’m working on next will be the 250th row. I’d not been consciously counting charts, not least because it’s always a little ambiguous which ones to count. My master list doesn’t include some of my earliest efforts, nor a handful of throw-away pieces done for specific occasions (though it does include others throw-aways, such as the ones NoteOrious sang on Radio 1). And of course it doesn’t mention all the ones I started and never got round to finishing. But it does include quite a few that I don’t make available for various reasons (copyright complications, or simply that I don’t like them any more.)

But anyway, now that I’ve noticed the milestone, it sounds like quite a big number. I guess that’s what happens when you keep doing something for a lot of years.

Anyway, I got to wondering about experience levels, skill levels, and how they fit with milestones. When my Dad first taught me to drive he told me that once I’d got my first 10,000 miles under my belt I’d feel confident as a driver. At the time I couldn’t imagine getting to that, but of course by the time I did I’d forgotten I used to feel underconfident and didn’t notice the milestone on the way past.

In stand-up comedy, you are generally held to have done your basic apprenticeship after your first 100 gigs. Interestingly, a lot of people stop around then, myself included. There were external reasons as well for me, but there was also a definite sense of having learned what I was going to learn operating at that level, along with a realisation that I wasn’t prepared to commit to the extra intensity of gigging I’d need to move up to the next stage.

So, what are the milestones with arranging? I can remember thinking in 2010, when I was working on the Marry Poppins set for Cottontown Chorus, that I was moving into a new level of work, and I notice that those charts come in the early 100s in my list. I notice also in my work-in-progress folder, that the steady stream of started-but-abandoned charts stops in around 2009, when my list was up to the mid-90s. (That was also about the time I started getting serious numbers of commissions so didn’t have the time for such luxuries as giving up when I got stuck!)

Mind you, that 100-chart mark is very different from the 100-gig mark of the stand-up: more of journeyman to mastery than finishing your initial apprenticeship. I’m not sure where the ‘end of apprenticeship’ milestone would be in the earlier years, not least because when I started my master list spreadsheet, I didn’t bother to include all the early efforts where I was learning my craft.

The earliest one I actually list is Don’t Stop Me Now, which the Barbershop Harmony Society ended up publishing in a later, revised version in the women’s key in 2015. (The one in the men’s key is available through SMP.) So it’s not the case that early work is necessarily inept: there are things in that chart that I would probably do differently now, but there are also things that I find refreshingly creative that I might not think to do after 25 years exposure to barbershop arrangements. (I also prefer the original, shorter, version of the arrangement; I’ve actually cut out the extra bit I put in at the request of the BABS National Youth Chorus for use with my own chorus.)

The other things muddying the question of how many charts does it take to get competent as an arranger is the variability of people’s starting-points. If you are learning your music theory at the same time as you are learning the craft of arranging (as both the Barbershop Harmony Society and Sweet Adelines International arranging manuals support), it will take you longer than if you come with a music degree that entailed a good deal of both pastiche and original composition, as mine did.

Still, from my own experience I think it is fair to say that your first few efforts in a new craft, however much of a leg-up you get from previous experience, are going to be a bit clunky. A lot of people get dispirited early on when they don’t have enough control of the musical materials to make the music they aspire to. But just keep at it – you only get better at doing your thing by doing your thing. Before you know it you’ll have been doing it half your life and will be a bit boggled by the amount you appear to have done.

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