How Do I Get to Be an Arranger?

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I had an email recently introducing me to a 12-year-old who was expressing an ambition to study music in college and become a barbershop arranger. Some of her questions were unique to her circumstances, but the general issue of what kind of things should she be doing to position herself to be ready at age 18 to fulfil these ambitions are things I thought worth discussing here. After all, though I am mildly boggled at someone having such clearly formed ambitions at that age (I am sure I didn’t!), she is probably not the only person wanting to tread such a path.

So the first thing to point out is that studying music in higher education is moderately unlikely to include studying barbershop arranging per se; it is a genre that may occasionally appear briefly in college curricula, but you can generally expect your education as a barbershopper to be largely self-directed. Don’t let that stop you studying music; I’m just clarifying so as to set your expectations. Studying music will make you a much better barbershopper, and doing barbershop will be great for your musicianship. Just be aware that it is a niche specialism within a wider discipline.

With this in mind, there are two aspects to this question: how do I become an arranger? and how do I get to study music at university? The second is the bigger question. There are so many different types of course, offering different approaches and content, and thus with different demands for entry, that you really need to do some research into what is available and what is likely best to match your profile of interests and activities.

But I would also say that 6 years before you’re likely to start a course is too early to be too tactical about this. Courses can change a lot in 6 years, and so can people! The best plan at this stage is to go out and become the musician you want to become, and nearer the time see which institutions are best set to continue the process.

So, what can you do at age 12 and beyond? Basically, you put the hours in. The way to become expert is to spend all your free time in your teenage years doing stuff you find fascinating. Use the formal mechanisms for education that exist within both barbershop organisations and your schooling, for sure, but it’s how you spend your alone-time that converts that instruction into knowledge and skills that are part of your self.

For this profile of ambitions, I’d suggest at least part of your youth should be misspent in the following ways:

  1. Do lots of barbershop arranging. The early examples won’t be very good, but you only get good at it by doing more of it. And don’t just do it on paper - get it into a form you can hear it. Ask your friends to sing it through; learn how to do multi-track recordings of yourself singing it. You learn different things from each of these, and there is endless fun to be had both when you nail it, and when you don’t.
  2. Study other people’s work. How does Nancy Bergman do things? How about Ed Waesche? What do they do alike, what do they do differently? If you haven’t got sheet music to study, transcribe music from recordings (this is a *really* good skill to develop!)
  3. Learn an instrument. No, you won’t need it for singing a cappella, but it give you a whole new perspective on how music works, as well as a whole different set of repertoire to absorb. Learning piano gives the advantage that you can play whole musical textures at once; learning an orchestral or band instrument gives you the advantage of more opportunities to play in ensembles. Either is good, or both. But, whilst I have met many people who regret having given up playing an instrument, I have never met anyone who regretted learning it in the first place. It is quite simply a good way of spending your life.

And it has to be said also: if by age 14 you actually decide you want to be an engineer instead, none of this will have done you any damage whatsoever. You’ll have had a lot of fun, made some good friends, learned application and commitment, and done really good things to the inside of your brain. Any line of work that involves intelligence and social skills will be enhanced by time spent making music. And you can still be a barbershop arranger if you are also a maths professor or a rocket scientist or a sales manager or a school teacher (to name the professions of four barbershop arrangers you probably already admire).

So, there you go. Go for it.

excellent blog, Liz and a great response to this young woman. I received the same email from her and I'm sorry to say I got busy and did not respond. You have given her such wise advice however, I know I could not have done better!

Thanks June, glad you approve :)

I find that having the blog gives me space to answer this kind of query in more detail than I would find just in personal correspondence. It can be hard to find time to give give random queries the attention they need, but since I have time aside for writing anyway, it is nice to think that every so often I am writing about something that I know at least one person will be interested in!

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