HomeINSIDE THE ACA STUDIO...with Tom Anderson

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with Tom Anderson

As popular music has “go to” songwriters such as Diane Warren and Max Martin, contemporary a cappella over time has seen a small group of gifted arrangers come forth to provide their unique work to groups around the world other than the ones they sang with.   Tom Anderson isn’t just a name that comes out of clients’ mouths when awesome arranging is discussed – it regularly comes out of the mouths of other top arrangers as well.  

His business, Random Notes LLC, is the latest stage of over a decade of arranging work.  However, it was his arrangement of Mr. Mister’s “Kyrie” for University of Oregon’s On The Rocks – featuring at that time a fellow by the name of Peter Hollens – that kickstarted Tom’s career as Peter’s exclusive arranger as well as a “go to” for many of the top names in a cappella, a career that he recently has committed to full time.

I recently had a chance to sit down at length with Tom to discuss his past, present and future within the industry, as well as some questions anyone who is serious about aca arranging would love to ask of him.   As an arranger aspiring to work at the level Tom does, it was a very enlightening experience.
Give me an idea as to what goes into YOUR arranging process. Do you have a basic formula that you adapt to the situation, or is every gig a completely new process?

Generally: the client tells me what song they want and any other particulars they have in mind (style, soloist, etc.), as well as any limitations or talents unique to their group that I should take into account in arranging for them. I usually start by listening to the song many, MANY times. I arrange in Finale, though I work in Sibelius from time to time out of professional necessity; I pop open a blank file and set up a road map for the piece, including keys, meters, double bar lines between sections, etc. And of course all of those things can change as the arrangement takes shape.

After that ... honestly, it's like they say with literature: the blank page is the hardest part. Sometimes I have an idea right away; sometimes it takes forever. But I mess around with the song until I find some sort of idea that I can latch onto, something that says to me "here's how this song should be done". Once I get to that point, it's a piece of cake. I do a hefty amount of riffing in my head. I experiment with different feels & moods, especially with more familiar pieces. And I listen back constantly while I'm writing. It's extremely important to get a feel for how everything works together, not just isolated parts or sections that may be cool on their own but don't square with the rest of what's going on.

What, in your experience, tends to happen more often: A stellar group elevating a mediocre arrangement, or a stellar arrangement elevating a mediocre group?

Oh wow. GREAT question. If by "elevate" you mean "disguise", then definitely a stellar group elevating/disguising a mediocre arrangement. Showmanship, professionalism, and talent from stellar singers/performers are invaluable, no matter the level of the material with which they're working. On the other hand, a mediocre group often makes even quality material seem ... well ... mediocre.

Fair enough. When it comes to arranging, can you learn creativity over time, or is it a matter of "you have it or you don’t"?

TA: I don't know. I'm not sure anyone does.

BUT, what I can say with authority is that I've never heard a great musician, in aca or any other realm, who hadn't done his or her homework. The reason the best are the best is because those are the ones who are always trying to get better. In music, this means LISTENING! A lot of people don't understand the vital importance of not just hearing great music, but listening to it - a LOT of it, in every style you can get your hands on - and internalizing what aspects of that music cause you to have a positive or negative response. I'm convinced that that is an absolutely indispensable ingredient in whatever combination of traits make a person successful in this gig.

As contemporary a cappella starts gaining more popularity and commercial viability, should arrangers and groups start to be more concerned about the legal ramifications of what they do? Do you think the community will start drawing Napster/Limewire level focus from the music industry, and if so, what steps can we take to better protect ourselves? What would it take for the music industry to make available an "arranging license" similar to the recording licenses musicians get through Harry Fox?

TA: I don't think there'll ever be a Napster/Limewire issue, because artists have known for as long as popular music has existed that other people are covering their songs. And, though I wasn't a copyright lawyer, I'm pretty comfortable with the notion that license to arrange a song is part and parcel of license to record a song - it seems as though that's just a given.  [To me,] a separate license would be superfluous in the recording context, and hopefully unnecessary in the live performance context. The place where it would really help is in terms of being able to copyright an arrangement of a song - right now, unless the song's public domain, there's really no way to do that, and for people like me whose stock-in-trade is crafting unique vocal arrangements, it would be a nice change to the current system. But from a legal standpoint it really wouldn't make sense, as someone else owns the underlying material.

What is your reaction to the following thought process: "The effort/product of a group is diminished if they're not doing their own writing/arranging."

I take issue with reviewers (some of whom are good friends of mine) who say that it diminishes the quality of a CD if the group hired outside arrangers. Bullshit. If they hire someone to do an arrangement, and it's better than the arrangement that a group member would've done, then it's by definition a superior product. I don't care a lick whether a group I'm listening to does its own writing/arrangements or not. What I care about is that they have good writing/arrangements, no matter the source. I want to hear good music. Period. Nobody bashes groups for having pros do their mixes. Why arranging is sometimes held to a different standard is a mystery to me. (Though I 100% support the notion that aca groups, and college groups in particular, need to do more original songs!!)

Is there anything currently on your arranging wishlist?  Something you’re dying to put out that folks haven’t asked about yet?

TA: Excellent question. I can't believe you seriously asked me that without me prompting you. Wow.

So here's the thing. I'm about to launch a new feature on my website where I post a list of songs I'm dying to arrange. Whoever gets to me first on a given song on that list, I do the arrangement for ... well, really cheap. I'm still whittling down the list, hoping to keep it to 5-10 at any given time. And that could take a while. But it'll be up on the site before school starts again so that people can take that into account, should they so desire, in making repertoire selections.

The top song on my list for years was "Bruised" by the Bens, but I just got to do that one a couple of weeks ago for Outspoken, which was sort of the catalyst for my Most Wanted List, or Wish List, or whatever I decide to call it.

To give a marginally more specific answer... anything off Bon Iver's new record, or Amos Lee, or Tallest Man on Earth, or Belle Brigade. That stuff is golden and I'm really not hearing much of it in the aca world, which is a shame. (Bon Iver just came out, but you know what I'm saying...)

You went to Kansas City recently.  Any specifics you can share?

TA: I went down there for a few days to get out of familiar turf (MN/WI) so that my head would be sufficiently clear to work on some new original material for an upcoming aca-heavyweight project that's in the works. Not much else to tell, I'm afraid. :) (Got some good writing done though!)
Wait…super aca-heavyweight project?  OK, I have to ask for you to throw me the Dr. Evil Memorial Frickin' Bone here...ONE small exclusive? Please?

TA: Well you'd hardly be doing your job if you didn't ask.  We have seven guys who are all a cappella pros joining forces for a studio project. Sadly, we'll probably never all be in the same time zone simultaneously, much less on stage, but it's an opportunity for some guys with a lot of creative energy to let off a little steam. Peter and I had wanted to do a group together for years, and we finally felt like, even if it's just in the studio, the time was right. So we made a list of our dream team guys that we wanted to work with, and everyone said yes. Blew our minds. Now we're just in the process of getting material written, as it'll be primarily an original-material thing.

…I really should throw you an actual bone here, shouldn't I? 

That would be nice, although that was a dodge White Goodman would be proud of.

TA: Well just so you have at least a couple other names besides Peter & me… we do have a kickass guest arranger doing one piece for us. Other than that, the arranging duties will be handled primarily by me and our illustrious baritone, Christopher Diaz. And the bulk of the songwriting for this project will be done by the two of us along with one of the tenors in the group, the wickedly talented Roopak Ahuja.
As a sage orator once said - freakin' sweet! Tom, it's been an honor.  Looking forward to hearing the end results of your current plans in the months ahead.

TA: Thank *you*. Really flattered to be asked. If you have any more questions or want to follow up on anything - or just want to shoot the breeze / talk shop - you know where to find me! 

For more comments from Tom not included in this interview, including his insight on some of his most well-known arrangements, please check out the “Inside The Aca Studio” bonus questions at ValueVocals.com.

About the author:
Shawn Pearce is a CASA Ambassador for Western Pennsylvania, a former RARB reviewer and a former ICCA producer.  He was active in the Penn State University a cappella scene for several years after college, founding two groups and directing two others while there.  Today, after spending several years out of the scene raising a family and dealing with life, he's chasing his passion both through his own arranging business (Value Vocals) and through articles such as this.  Although he realizes he's not as cool as James Lipton, he is interested in speaking with others about stepping "Inside The Aca Studio" in the future - contact him via Twitter, Facebook, or through CASA.  Grace and Peace.