When I was in seventh grade I joined the track team. I have no idea why – I’m not especially fast, nor do I really like running. In fact, I dislike running so much that I’ve tried some very unusual, often dangerous forms of exercise in an effort to find a substitute for the cardio it provides (I have scars from my brief flirtation with the art of Parkour – Google it). I think it was this aversion to running, along with the inconvenient fact that I was now on the track team that lead me to pole vaulting.
Middle school pole-vaulters don’t vault very high – maybe 8-9 feet if you get really good. Still, this was a pretty big part of my life for two years (this was pre-music in my life, but stay with me, I promise this relates to arranging!).
One day, I don’t remember why, I had a total meltdown in my vaulting technique. The sport is all about muscle memory, and it was like my muscles had amnesia. I had two choices: switch events on the team (a common solution to the problem of a temporary setback at the middle school level), or go back to basics, practice my technique, and basically lean how to vault all over again. Long story short, I chose to practice, and once I got back into it I actually found that I was even better than I had been before.
Why am I telling you this story? Because this past summer, much as I re-learned how to pole vault in seventh grade, I had to learn how to arrange all over again. In the same way that going back to basics gave my muscles new ability, so too has this new experience given me brand new perspective on arranging that I want to share with you!
I spent July-September of this year arranging for an audience that I had never considered before – the people in TV land. The citizens of this great and vast land don’t have a lot of patience, they don’t typically have much awareness or appreciation for the technical aspects of a cappella, and they love a good story. I don’t mean back-story, though TV provides plenty of that. No, I mean the story of a song, or what I’ve taken to calling “emotional arc.”
Stories, and by extension songs, have a beginning, a middle, and an end, all designed to impact an audience in different ways. The most important function of these different story elements, I think, is to recycle audience focus. Different things occur at these different stages of presentation: the beginning of a story introduces you to the characters and their setting, the middle expands on that introduction with new information and the development of old information, and the ending ties everything together in a way that aids mental digestion of all that came before.
The best stories and the best arrangements have these conventions in common. Think about your favorite arrangements. If you’re like me, they all establish within the first few bars:
1. A palate of harmonic sounds that will be the basis for the whole work.
2. The main syllabic sounds that will recur throughout the song
They also typically introduce you to the main character: your soloist! How you bring all of these elements into play is your decision, and is informed by your arranging style and aesthetics.
One preconception I really want to destroy is the idea that you as an arranger are in any way constrained by the original form of the song. The original form was a decision by the original artist about how to tell the story they wanted to tell. There is as much merit in it as there is in your interpretation (provided it’s well thought out and well communicated).
You have all the power. If you feel that your version of the song’s drama is best summarized in its ending by a repeat of the intro, do it, even if the original doesn’t. Make these decisions before you start working so that they can inform your whole arrangement – it makes for a more cohesive product.
A practice I was introduced to this summer is the process of the “cutdown” – of actually creating this new outline by chopping up the original song in Garageband (or Audacity, any sound editing program works). We do it on the Sing-Off to get songs down to the required length, but you can use it to craft your arrangement. Indeed, this is part of the *arranging* process. It’s not just about turning instruments to voices; it’s about making artistic choices about the way that transformation unfolds for your audience.
Speaking of your audience, they don’t have a lot of patience, so get to the point. It is well documented that a cappella music requires more focus than instrumental music (something about voices makes our brains perk up differently), so keep this in mind when you plan your form. Tell your story succinctly, and in a way that is most clear and personal (ie, usually this means more vocal solo, less guitar solo). There’s no hard and fast rule though. The key is to put yourself in the audience’s shoes. If you’re bored, they probably will be too!
You’ll find that once you start building elements of story into your arrangement, it gets a lot easier to stage the song and to craft a great performance from it. In the studio, it makes the point of the song clearer, which in turn influences its placement on the record. Just remember, it’s your arrangement, so take advantage of everything you possibly can to make it unique – craft your own vision for the overall form and emotional arc of the song!
About the writer:
Robert Dietz is a graduate of Ithaca College in upstate New York where he received a dual degree in music and business. He began singing in high school when he founded the Contemporary A Cappella Recording Award (CARA) winning male quintet, Ascending Height. During his time at Ithaca College, Robert had the pleasure of performing with and conducting Ithaca College’s only all male a cappella group, Ithacappella. Along with Ithacappella, Robert had the honor of twice advancing to the finals of the International Championship of Collegiate A Cappella (ICCAs), as well as sharing the stage with the internationally renowned rock band, Incubus. In addition to his CARA awards and nominations, Robert also holds three ICCA awards for outstanding vocal percussion, and his 100th arrangement received the award for outstanding arrangement at the ICCA semifinals at Rutgers in 2009. Most recently, Robert was a vocal arranger and coach for The Sing-Off on NBC, and he maintains a web-based business for a cappella arranging, production, and writing at www.human-feedback.com.