HomeDeke and Dylan's Wisdom Distilled; A Review of A Cappella Arranging

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Every writer has faced stumbling blocks: the threat of a blank page; the surfeit of inchoate ideas; the troublesome passage that resists clarity, even after its third reworking. An artist who has tried her hand at arranging vocal music—in any genre, for any number of singers, and with any level of technical proficiency—has met these foes, plus some more that are custom-built to annoy the arranger: you suddenly find that you can't cover the third of the chord without your tenors making an awkward jump; you found a mistake, fixed it, and then found that the 'fix' threw something else out of whack; your charts made perfect sense when you were typing, but now the parts seem confounding in rehearsal. Oh, what we wouldn't give in those moments for some practical, hands-on advice.

Deke Sharon has been distilling, popularizing, and proselytizing the art and science of arranging vocal music for two decades. He has shared his hard-earned wisdom in the form of one-hour workshops at a cappella summits, multi-day intensives in and around his San Francisco home, and CASA blog posts. Most recently, he has partnered with prolific arranger Dylan Bell to produce what they hope to be the definitive manual on the topic of contemporary a cappella arranging. Their handbook, A Cappella Arranging (Hal Leonard, $29.99) is a 384-page treatise which does more than flesh out Sharon's popular 10-step approach: it is a hybrid of a textbook, a desk reference, and a peek behind the curtain at the creative process of two of the a cappella industry's most celebrated and sought-after professionals.

The book is comprehensive, but not unwieldy: it has been thoughtfully composed with a broad audience in mind. The beginning arranger (who would be a fool to write a single eighth note before reading this book's first 150 pages) is encouraged to read straight through, perhaps skimming past some of the more technical language; the seasoned veteran looking to troubleshoot a tricky project is invited to go directly to the relevant section and start solving problems. When addressing both audiences, the tone is pragmatic and conversational. A few painful clichés aside, the book is a pleasant read, peppered with anecdotes and reassurances.

Flexible as the outline may be, she who skips to the end will miss two pieces of the authors' most profound advice. First, they entreat the arranger to listen to the song she is arranging, many times and in many different ways. "The principle," they write, "is the same as in foreign language study: listen over and over again until it becomes second nature." (Lest the listening be an exercise in futility, the authors suggest exactly what to listen for and how to train yourself to hear it. And they recommend headphones, both to increase your chances of catching subtleties and to decrease your chances of divorce.) Second, they implore the beginning student to develop her ear by conducting a thorough study of one or several existing a cappella arrangements – a process they liken to a student of painting "painstakingly recreating a masterwork by da Vinci." This advice rings equally true for one penning her first arrangement or fifteenth. Those who made the leap from 'singer' to 'arranger' by trial and error, but skipped some of the foundations in service of efficiency, might do well to go back to basics with this book. The authors make the case that between the boom of high-quality collegiate albums, the surge of a cappella in mainstream media ("the Sing-Off", "Pitch Perfect"), and the slowly but steadily increasing number of professional vocal groups performing original music, the a cappella landscape today is a fecund source of ideas. There has never been a better time to become a better arranger.

If you enjoy the game of chess, and know enough music theory to play ball, then you will love the section entitled "In-Depth Arrangement Analyses," which is just that: detailed, methodical explanations of choices that these master arrangers made and ways they solved tricky problems in four very different songs. In this section, and throughout the book, the arrangements they pull apart were written for (and sung by) real-life groups. Some of the book's illustrative examples come from the professional groups of which the authors are members (The House Jacks and Cadence); others are from arrangements commissioned for other professional, scholastic and community groups. Only in the last chapter ("Specific A Cappella Styles: A "How-To" History of A Cappella") do they contrive artificial examples, serving up the hymn "Amazing Grace" in eleven different ways, from plainchant through SPEBQSA to big band. If you have ever thought "This pop song could really use a few measures with a gospel feel" but not known how to write it down, this will be your starting place.

This book will do a great service to the a cappella community if it manages to promulgate the value of active and refined listening. (I suspect it will be more effective when the authors make good on their intent to deliver recorded versions of each arrangement example at www.acappellaarranging.com; as the authors themselves write, "The principles in the book can be discussed on the page ad nauseam, but they mean very little until you actually hear them.") For this purpose alone, anyone who may find herself in the position of judging competitions, reviewing albums, or coaching groups (or who wishes to start doing any of these) will immediately and substantially improve her ability to make careful observations and give meaningful feedback by digesting this book. Of course, any group of singers who wish to impress a panel of judges may assume that those judges will surely have read this book, and so the singers can stay one step ahead by reading the book themselves. And the high school student who wants to be way ahead of the curve can start by reading this book (and then a few years down the line, have her pick of college groups). You never know about overly-attentive parents these days – Sharon and Bell's biggest audience could turn out to be ambitious Park Avenue types who see their toddlers as future (Tufts) Beelzebubs.

About the writer:
Marisa Debowsky learned to love singing contemporary a cappella in days of yore (namely sixth grade), and sang her way through college and grad school (in the UVM Cat's Meow).  While in the Northeast, she co-founded and co-produced the Vermont A Cappella Summit.  She continues to be active in the community, both as a singer and an event organizer (and arranger and sometimes booking agent).