Arranging to Make Singers Happy

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singing group cartoonOver on Smartermusic, Dan Newman makes a passing comment in his quick ‘n’ dirty guide to a cappella arranging that I think deserves a little more attention than its brief mention there:

Entertained singers sing better

This is something that all arrangers should have engraved on their partner’s foreheads, so that they contemplate it whenever they are gazing at the person they love most in the world. It lies at the heart of my point here that elegant arrangements make groups sound better than they usually do.

But how can arrangers make singers happy? There are, I think, three dimensions to this:

  • Vocal. So this is about how our arrangements require singers to use their voices. There are some basics here about range. If you keep people singing higher than where they sound growly, and lower than where they sound screechy, they’ll find life easier, feel more comfortable and sound better – therefore they’ll be happy, and sound better. So, that’s two lots of sounding better for the price of one.

    If you know who you’re arranging for, then there’s no excuse not to ask about preferred ranges, and then stick rigorously to what they tell you, or a bit within that range. If you’re doing a generic arrangement, be generic in your requirements.

    So far, so obvious. But there’s more.

    You also want to match the parts of the range you’re using to the expressive demands of the song at that point. You don’t want to be putting the gentle, intimate bits in the top third of someone’s range, nor the big climactic moments in the bottom third. Otherwise, you’re asking the singers to fight against themselves – making conscious musical decisions that counteract the way they’d sing the arrangement were they just thinking in vocal terms. Obstacles like this lead to distracted singers, not entertained ones.

  • Voicing and voice-leading. This is about how the parts lie in the voices, both individually and in the ensemble. You’ll be astonished to hear that singers get more anxious about jumpy lines and hard-to-tune intervals than lines that make intuitive sense. If you want the performance of your chart to be expressive of an overwhelming musical anxiety, then write manically illogical lines; otherwise, be kind. Hint: make any big leaps in the harmony parts occur within the same prevailing harmony, rather than across chord changes.

    Voicing is about how the chord gels. Some chords just fall into place like a dream, others need careful rehearsal to get them to balance. Guess which ones make singers happier? This is the purpose behind all the standard rules on who gets which notes, and how chords should be spaced. You can break the rules, but you risk grumpy singers.

  • Meaning. Now the first two points were basically about not irritating or distracting the performers; this one is about actually entertaining them. Close-harmony styles traditionally locate melodic interest in the lead line, with the harmony parts tending to stay simple so as to keep the focus on the combined effect rather than the individual lines. Nonetheless, harmony part singers are people too, and respond well to musical content that has some inherent meaning they can connect to and express.

    With classic homophonic textures, everybody at least gets to sing the lyric, even if the tenor part is typically only marginally more melodically interesting than a mains hum. But – related to my point above about voice-leading – it is possible to make these lines more or less inherently singable, and singers do reward elegance in a line with commitment in performance.

    The issue becomes more urgent if the harmony parts are singing syllables: in the absence of meaningful lyrics, there needs to be some sense of musical meaning if the singers’ brains are going to be enticed into cooperating in the act of performance.

    So, if you have a backing texture of repeated chords, consider creating lines that move between notes of the chord rather than keeping each part on the same note all the time. This gives them more to do, and also means they have to listen afresh and reconnect to the other parts as they reconfigure the chord each time. And if you find you have one part that just has to stick on the same note for eight bars, make sure you give them some candy later on and reward their patience with a featured counter-melody or other such material to get their teeth into.

    Or if you are using a pared-down version of the lyric to accompany the melody, make sure that the harmony parts’ version not only lines up with the lead in terms of word sounds, but also makes sense in the context of the song. For instance, I was particularly pleased in my recent arrangement of 'Moondance' for Heartbeat to have the accompanying parts sing, ‘in my arms you’ll Oh-Oh-Oh’. My hope is that the fragment of lyric will mean they perform the phrase-end syllable as part of the narrative rather than just as a phrase-end syllable, if you see what I mean.

It’s always an interesting balance to juggle the twin imperatives to make arrangements easy to learn to give the ensemble a quick musical reward and to make them interesting to sing, so that singers want to keep them in their repertoire. My feeling is that if we have to choose between them, then our first duty is always to keep from throwing up any obstacle that will prevent singers from connecting with the song. But if we’re really doing our jobs as arrangers, we should aim to go one further and give singers some reason to feel excited about the song, not just in the overall effect, but from the perspective of each individual part too.

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