Jiggering With Other People's Arrangements

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Imagine you are a pianist preparing a performance of Beethoven’s Op. 2 no. 3 sonata in C major. You find the parallel triads in the right hand at the start of the finale a bit tricky, so you decide to omit the lower notes and just play a scale. On the other hand, you decide that the II7 chord in bar 4 is a bit bland, and change it to a 3rd inversion flatVI7 instead. When you get to the end, you think that the last two chords, V7-I don’t really make the point about how exciting this movement has been, so you add another V7-I after them, taking the right hand back up into the higher registers of the instrument.

With these changes, you feel that the piece suits your performing style and personality much better. But what does the audience think?

I’ve written elsewhere about the way that barbershoppers feel free to jigger about with other people’s creative work in a way that would be completely unacceptable in a classical context. While there is a reasonably stable concept of musical work as applied to songs (though even this is less secure than it might be), arrangements are seen as much less fixed, either in content or authorship. People routinely simplify, or re-voice, or add bits to customise an arrangement to their own group’s needs, or take someone else’s chart, make a few changes, then announce it as their own.

There are some good reasons for these practices. Many arrangements are originally written for a particular group, and things designed specially for them might not fit another group with different vocal capacities. Also, when an arrangement for men is adopted for women (and vice versa), a straight transposition doesn’t always leave the parts sitting comfortably, and a degree of revoicing is also needed.

However, I have taken to adding the following clause to invoices when I sell someone an arrangement:

If you or your coach wish to make changes to any of my arrangements, I would consider it courteous if you would contact me to discuss them.

There are several reasons for this:

  1. If something I have written is not fit for purpose, I need to be told about it, so that future arrangements can take that into account. This is true both of technical issues and artistic preferences.
  2. The person making the changes may not spot that in solving the problem they have identified they are also introducing other problems, or removing elements of elegance in the original, whereas I can pretty much always find a solution to their problem that leaves the overall singability and artistic development intact. A competent arranger jiggering with the work of an elegant arranger by definition won’t have the technical control or even the awareness of where technical control is being exerted to avoid potentially detracting from the arrangement.
  3. Just occasionally someone suggests I change that I simply cannot bear, to the extent that I would feel embarrassed to have my name attached to an arrangement that included it. If I can’t persuade people out of changes like these, I can at least request that they don’t announce in performances that it’s my chart, and if that anyone asks about it, they say that it’s based on mine with some changes, rather than let anyone think I’d produce something that I just wouldn't. (Of course it's entirely possible that my taste is warped and that these instances are actually improvements - but I still have to live with my responses to them, even if they're wrong!)

An anecdote about the late Ed Waesche, who always refused to muck with other people’s charts:

One time he was asked to ‘fix’ an arrangement, and – as usual – he refused. ‘Oh go on,’ said the requester, ‘It’s not rocket science.’

‘I am a rocket scientist,’ said Ed, ‘and I’m still not doing it.’

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