The Arrangement Triangle
Some years ago, a friend introduced me to a project management tool he called the Golden Triangle. It framed a project in terms of three dimensions: time, scope and resource. That is, how long you had to complete the project, what you needed to do to complete it, and what resources (human and other) you had available to do it.
The point of the triangle is that you can only ever control two out of the three dimensions. Projects, by definition, are special-occasion enterprises, things you do as one-offs, so each one is new and, whilst it may have routine elements, will overall represent something you’ve not done before. So, you will likely encounter unforeseen obstacles.
And when you do, you have to decide which of the three dimensions you are going to compromise on. Are you going to do everything, but run late? Or finish on time, but cut down how much you achieve? Or do everything by the deadline, but over budget?
So, it’s a useful tool. Not my main motivation for writing this post, but I needed to explain that idea before I could use it as a reference to compare part of the arrangement-development process with it.
When an ensemble approaches an arranger with a potential commission, there is a similar dynamic, with the three dimensions being: song, performance purpose, and arranger. Sometimes - indeed, quite often - all three come together just fine and you don’t notice the interactive process. But every so often, it’s not going to work and one or other dimension needs changing.
The typical example (and the one that brought this into focus for me) is when an ensemble asks for a particular song for barbershop contest purposes, but the arranger doesn’t hear it as a strong possibility. The options are then:
- Negotiate a different song as your contest piece
- Continue with the commission of that song, but as a show-tune
- Ask a different arranger to take the original commission
And you know, any one of those changes can produce a good outcome. The first two are probably the most obvious ones, and if they were the only options, we wouldn’t have needed to go through all that triangle rigmarole to get here. But the third one is a valid option to consider, and I can think of at least one occasion where another arranger made a very successful contest ballad out of a song that I had thought would be spoiled by trying to barbershoppify it.
One of the points of having different people in the world, after all, is that you get different perspectives, different ways of hearing things. The flip side of valuing the distinctive creative voice of individual musicians is recognising that there are some things they will say more convincingly than others. So, if the first arranger you talk to isn’t lit up by the prospect of a particular song for a particular performance situation, it may well be worth talking to others. You want the person arranging your music for you to be excited by it on your behalf.
Of course, some combinations just won’t work whatever. There are some songs that will never be appropriate for a church wedding, for example, whoever arranges them. (I like to entertain myself thinking of songs in this category; my favourite so far is from The Beautiful South. Please feel free to entertain me by sharing other wedding-inappropriate songs when you come across them.) And if every arranger you talk to sucks their teeth and says, ‘Really...?’, then you’ll need to look back options 1 and 2.
If getting something for that particular occasion is the most important thing, then you’ll need to find a different song for it. If it’s just that you love the song with all your heart and can’t bear not to sing it, then go ahead and get it arranged, and go find yourself an audience that will love it too.