Soapbox: Technical Difficulty is not the Same as High Standards

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soapboxToday’s opinion piece arises from a conversation about an arrangement I was helping an ensemble with recently. They liked the song but were concerned that the chart might be too hard for them. My view was that the arranger had placed quite a lot of unnecessary obstacles in their path.

Ah yes, came the reply, but that arranger is working with [an ambitious up-and-coming group] and sets the bar high.

I’m not saying what the chart was, or who the people involved are, as it’s really not about them personally, it’s about the ideas that emerged in this exchange. There are any number of other examples that I could be equally opinionated about, it’s just this one sparked me to return to writing on a theme long-time readers will have seen before.

So, first, let’s make the distinction between a challenge and an obstacle. They both require the performer(s) to put in more time and thought to learn the music than usual, and probably also to develop new practice strategies to handle them. The difference is in the result this extra effort produces. If it delivers a significantly heightened audience experience, then it was worth it and can reasonably be classified as a challenge. If it is something you have to put effort into climbing over just to get to the music as you might expect it, then it is an obstacle and you can be reasonably annoyed at the composer/arranger for placing it in your path.

The kinds of obstacles one routinely sees in a cappella arrangements include (but are probably not limited to) the following:

  • Notational. Writing things in such a way that makes them harder to read at sight, e.g. parsing rhythms such that it is not immediately visible where the boundaries lie, or spelling harmonies incorrectly.
  • Vocal idiom. Writing lines that lie awkwardly on the voice. This may be simply from not singing through the lines to check if they’re singable, or it may come from transferring an instrumental line too literally. A lot of arpeggiated lines that are easy on guitar because the hand stays still with different fingers on different strings become very athletic on the voice. (Hint: this is what the bell chord is for.) Ideally, you want all your vocal lines to invite the singers to be communicative, but at the very least they shouldn’t set them up to fail.
  • Ensemble. Writing parts that are tricky to fit together, either through counter-intuitive rhythmic intricacies or awkward voicings. This one, like the previous, is one where your notation program may deceive you. Just because a machine can do it, doesn’t make it automatically viable for human beings.
  • Structural. Making it hard to perceive the form of the piece radically increases the cognitive load on the singer, especially in idioms where music is typically performed from memory. The most common problem here is mistaking variation for development, and presenting repeated material in a different arrangement each time it appears. Yes, you want to use your embellishment strategy to build narrative, but the return of the familiar is also an essential part of the musical experience, for listener as well as performer (see under ‘Rondo’).
  • Stamina. Okay, so where do we breathe? Yes, that quaver rest is enough of a breath if I’m only singing the first page, but there are 12 pages of this thing. It’s fast, and I’ll be doing choreography too.
  • Miscellaneous other over-complications. The one that leaps most readily to mind is notating rubato in performance as if it were syncopation and treating the execution on a particular recording as the definitive text to be arranged. By all means get inspiration for your arranging from particular performers, but do also leave space for the people who will be singing your chart to be expressive themselves. Also in this category is syncopating so much that the location of the beat disappears.

Now, the chart that sparked this post did not have all of these problems (though it had a fair few of them), but it’s a safe generalisation that if an arrangement has one issue it will have several. (Hmm, possibly with the exception of poor spelling, which you sometimes see in the music of an experienced ear singer with little experience of notation, where the intuition born of practical experience shines through but the reading of it is hard work.)

And it’s certainly in the dimension of over-complication where a number of these emerge as the symptom of working with notation programs and not having the experience of having to help nice, normal singers to get their heads and voices round it in limited rehearsal time. A good rule of thumb for any arranger is: if you had to pay people by the hour to learn this, would you write it that way? That makes you work out whether the artistic reward is worth the investment of human effort to achieve it.

I also think that spending some time working the old-fashioned way with pencil and paper is a good discipline to clarify your conception of rhythm, as you have to add it all up yourself rather than keep trying things out until it sounds like the recording you’re working from.

Sometimes arrangers comfort themselves by thinking, well, the person making the tracks sang it fine, it must be singable. Note that the person recording your tracks didn’t have to sing it from memory (structural), could use a click track (ensemble), can do it in several takes (stamina), and can tweak tuning and timing errors afterwards (vocal idiom, general over-complications).

In summary: technical difficulty in a piece of music may be a by-product of unusual artistic ambitious, or an appeal to virtuosity for its own sake. Or it might simply be unidiomatic writing by someone with insufficient real-world experience of the medium for which they’re writing. When deciding whether you want to invest the amount of extra practice and rehearsal time technical the challenges will demand of you, you need to work out which of these it is.

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