Jiggering with Your Own Arrangements

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I wrote some years back about how I don’t really hold with jiggering with other people’s arrangements – not least because of seeing some rather inept changes to mine over the years. And I still hold this view: if an arrangement isn’t working in some way, it’s much better to refer back to the original arranger in the first instance for a solution, as they will have spent a lot of time thinking about how the thing works already, and need to be told if and when things don’t sing as well as they planned.

A somewhat different experience is when the arranger whose work you’re messing with is your own past self.

Again, I don’t often re-work past charts. Not because everything I have ever done is perfect (ahem), but because even when your older, wiser self has better techniques and ideas than your younger, more naïve self, that previous version still has its own integrity. At the time you did that arrangement, you had a particular shape of result in your imagination, and it held together in its own way.

Going back and touching it up could be like going back to touch up a pencil drawing with acrylic paints – more vivid, but hard to hide the joins until you’ve painted over the whole thing. Then you get like Virginia Woolf’s character Orlando who kept re-writing the same epic poem from before Shakespeare’s time through until the middle of the Romantic era. At some point, you have to let go and call a job finished.

Having said that, I have recently had reason to go back and re-work a couple of arrangements from several years ago, and I have found the experience both troubling and interesting. Both were charts that had originally been intended for particular ensembles who, for different reasons, did not end up using them, and the task was to re-work them for different groups.

In both cases, the initial intention was simply to re-voice things as little as possible to fit the ranges of the new singers, and in both cases I ended spending a lot more time twiddling with all sorts of other details than I had intended.

This is partly because different voicings of a chord are only partly interchangeable. One of the things about the concept of ‘harmony’ of course is that in some ways a D7 chord is a D7 chord in any inversion or voicing. But in a particular musical context, its narrative meaning and emotional impact will change according where it sits in the singers’ ranges and how tightly it is voiced. So, revoicing for singability also changes the sense and flow of the music. And what may have been an appropriate starting point and destination for a phrase when it went through the original voicings in the middle may not make so much sense with the new route it is taking through the song.

So, both revisions took a lot more time and effort than I’d anticipated. But I learned quite a lot in the process about the changes I have undergone as an arranger since 2005. In general, I’m quite impressed with the sense of overall concept/contour of these past efforts – the imaginative shape works well; they are expressively vivid. But these days I can create the same effects in ways that are significantly easier to sing.

I have blogged about some of these techniques as I have been working on them over the years. Many of the revisions I made involved revoicing not just for tessitura, but also for balance and for the internal shape of each line. The less the singers need their internal Managers on duty to navigate through either the parts or the coordination of them, the more their Communicators can do justice to the emotional shape.

The other set of changes I made reflect how I am much kinder to singers these days on the matter of breathing. It’s very easy to think a phrase is doable in a single breath when running through the parts at home, but my observation when out coaching ensembles is that everybody wishes they were better than they are at singing long phrases, and even people who are good at it have good and bad days. My job as a coach is to challenge people to exceed their own expectations on breathing; my job as an arranger is to make them look good.

Probably the changes my technique have undergone since I first produced these charts are best summed up by the following thought experiments:

  1. Imagine a world with no teach tracks in which you have to teach the quartet their parts in person. What would you differently?
  2. Same scenario, but now you have to pay them by the hour for the time it takes to teach them. Any other changes?

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