How Do I Get More Creative as an Arranger?

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Last year, over on the Facebook group for Barbershop Arrangement and Composition, Jim Emery raised the following question:

I do actually have several arrangements that are OK but not stellar. One was performed in contest by my international competitor level quartet. Several others found their way to our quartet CD. But they seem kind of vanilla. Short of just "getting more creative", I'd love to exchange ideas for how to approach sprucing them up.

(Actually, while I’m at it I’ll make this implicit plug for the FB group more explicit. It’s not maybe as active as it might be, but it has some really good people involved in it, and has a wonderful range of experience, from relative beginners to some of the biggest names out there. If you’ve not been over there, do go check it out.)

Anyway, Jim’s was one of those questions that has stayed with me. He’s really put his finger on a particular dilemma: it’s all very well to recognise that you want your arrangements to be more creative, but how do you go about making that happen?

Creativity is a function that is at least partly mysterious even (or maybe especially) to the people who wield it. The following thoughts arise from a combination of miscellaneous reading on the creative process over the years and reflection on my own process. I know there’s more to it than this, but hope that this much might prove helpful to others ploughing the same or similar furrows.

First, my hunch is that going back to rework older arrangements is not the best way to develop. Those arrangements reflect the person you were when you did them, and the fact that they no longer do everything you hope for in a piece of music reflects your own development as an artist. Engaging with new songs is harder, but will produce more fruitful growth. Or maybe that should read: Engaging with new songs is harder, and will therefore produce more fruitful growth.

To develop your own imagination, study other people’s work. This is at the heart of David Wright’s training for advanced arrangers, and also reflects a central part of how composition is taught. Analyse other people’s arrangements: How have they crafted the structure? What is their embellishment strategy? How have they managed chord choice? How do the individual lines work? What surprises you in how they’ve gone about it? What would you have thought to do differently, and why do you think they did it the way they did?

Time spent studying other people’s work – whether that of experts whom you wish to emulate or less experienced people you want to help – is always repaid in increased technical fluency and imaginative breadth. Sometimes I’ll spend time studying a particular arrangement because it interests me as a distinctive piece of work; other times I’ll go through a pile of different arrangements looking at how they deal with a particular issue I’m interested in at the time (how to get into the tag, the relationship between voicing and harmonic charge, how much or how little ‘stuff’ do they use?).

Then when you are preparing to arrange a particular song, study its performance history in other genres. Youtube is the most amazing resource for an arranger. For instance, at the moment I am poised to arrange Pokarekare Ana for Beating Time in Ireland, and so I’ve been listening not only to Hayley Westenra and Kiri Te Kanawa but also to choirs and folk singers, both maori and white, both professional and amateur. Even in the many live performances of Westenra’s there is variety, since each live event seems to present a different orchestral arrangement to accompany her.

All this stokes the imagination, gives it material to feed off. I think the key means by which this the arranging process can then draw on this is to think about a song’s characterisation, its persona. A song isn’t just a piece of music, but has a sense of identity, and the more vividly imagined this identity is as you start to arrange, the more interesting the arrangement. The sense of identity is informed by the content of the song itself (its lyric, its genre references), by its performance history, and by the people who will be singing the arrangement.

For instance, when I arranged Ma, He’s Making Eyes at Me for Eu4ia, I latched onto Connie Francis’s performance as giving a more appropriate sense of character for the quartet than, say, Lena Zavaroni’s. (And if you listen to Francis and Eu4ia side by side there are quite audible traces of this – ach no youtube link for Eu4ia’s yet. Well, ask them to sing it to you next time you see them.) At the same time, the arranging decisions were driven by knowing the voices and the personalities of the singers. Neil Watkins describes the arranging process as imagining the full performance and then writing that down, and I find I agree with him more with each arrangement I do.

The standard method by which we are taught barbershop arranging is to craft a basic harmonisation and then give it character by adding embellishments. Now, while this is fine way to learn our craft, it is limiting as a way to practise it once we’ve established a modicum of technical control. You get a more integrated and therefore more interesting result by letting the characterisation drive both voicing and embellishment decisions. The interest therefore becomes more continuous; you get focused on how each singer will be able to use their line to communicate the story.

Indeed, sometimes creativity in arranging is less about the stuff that we put in and more about how we empower the singers to entertain their audiences. Sometimes I’ll challenge myself to see how little I can do in terms of embellishment – to just get out of the way of the song and the singers and let them do their stuff. You could argue that the sign of a successful arrangement is that the audience thinks, ‘Wow, what a great performance!’, and that the sign of a successful performance is that the audience thinks, ‘Wow, what a great song!’

One more thought. (This is turning into a bit of a mammoth post – told you that Jim’s question had really caught my imagination…) All these ideas about process are at bottom ways to keep your attention on the task without second-guessing yourself too much. The real work in the creative process takes place while you sleep, or in the shower, or when you’re out for a walk. It needs you to have done lots of thinking and technical problem solving and artistic planning if it is to happen at all, but it works best when you don’t stare at it directly.

As Abraham Kaplan quotes Picasso:

The goal of an artist is to draw a perfect circle. Since a perfect circle cannot be drawn, the deviations from the perfect circle will express the artist’s own personality. But if the artist tries to express his own personality by concentrating on the deviations, he will miss the whole point.

Hi Liz

I kind of agree with you, but ...

Re: going back and revisiting arrangements. There is one way to do this that I find very creative. If I have, for instance, made a three-part arrangement of a song (probably not something that happens in the barbershop world!), I might go back later to turn it into a four-part arrangement.

If I stick to what's already there, I find it an incredibly creative challenge to fit the new part in and it ALWAYS makes me come up with things that I wouldn't have thought of if I'd started from scratch.

Re: listening to other people's work. I agree up to a point. An analogy: when play writers want to get stuff onto Radio 4, they are encouraged to listen A LOT to the afternoon play. What then happens is they end up writing stuff that sounds just like all the other stuff in that slot. You can spot a Radio 4 afternoon play a mile off. I can spot a barbershop arrangement a mile off. But I sit up and notice when something is REALLY original.

From the Front of the Choir

Hi Chris,
Some really interesting stuff in there - I started to reply as a comment but ended up with tomorrow's blog post!

Thank you so much!

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