Arranging tips

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I have some thoughts about arranging that are a bit controversial (what else is new?).  Take them or leave them, but they might help you at least think through some issues about arranging that are actually very important.

Never before have I seen so many church pianists arranging their own music.  That is a good thing.  In my opinion, the bar is being raised constantly.  The kids I judge in competitions today are way more advanced than my peers and me at that age.  They know far more than we did, largely because they have access to far more information.

So, as I talk through these things, I want to emphasize that I am always tremendously impressed with what I see you guys doing.  The arrangement submissions I get for this blog often blow me away.  I am just interested in giving you a bit of food for thought and pushing you a bit.

Throw away the instruction manual.
Most arrangements that I see and hear all follow a well-worn formula that goes like this:

1) Come up with a treatment for the first verse.
2) Decide that the second verse needs to be different.  Come up with a very different treatment for the second verse.  (For example, if the first verse is fast, make the second verse soft and slow.)
3) Come up with a totally different treatment for the third verse.
4) Tack on an intro, ending and maybe a modulation or two.

I think this is a very flawed approach.  But I know that many of you arrange that way not only because of what I see and hear, but also because I find myself falling into this trap.  Many of us were taught to arrange using this process.

I refer to this process as the “theme and variations” process.  Many of us played themes and variations back in our early days of piano lessons where a composer took a theme and came up with a lot of interesting but disjointed ways to play that theme.

Frankly, the theme and variations approach is not very conducive to church music arranging.  Remember my maxim about arranging–arranging is story telling.  It is very hard to tell a story when you have a lot of disjointed ideas going on. 

Let me give you what I think is a better approach.  Come up with one idea for an arrangement and then elaborate on that idea through the verses while focusing on the overall shape of the arrangement and the story that is being told. 

You do not need a lot of ideas.  You just need one.  Be as diverse as you want, but be diverse within the framework of that idea.

Be careful of ruts.
It is unavoidable that arrangers will start to fall into the habit of using the same ideas over and over.  That is OK to a large extent, but you still need to be careful.  I knew an arranger who somehow managed to get a verse in a minor key into every arrangement.  Other arrangers tend to use the same rhythmic ideas in every arrangement.  I tend to go to the same chord progressions a bit too often.

There is absolutely nothing wrong with developing your own distinguishable style.  There is a fine line though where you go too far and become predictable. 

Stop being safe.
I have to be honest.  My big beef with conservative Christian music (of which I am a part) is that it tends to all sound the same.  It tends to be stiff, unimaginative, predictable, and above all, safe.  By safe, I mean most musicians are purposely writing in ways designed to avoid creating waves and to avoid alienating their base. 

Again, I know this because I struggle with it myself.  Also, I talk to numerous arrangers.  I know that often what they are writing is not what they want to write.  What they tell me in private is often not what they say in public.

Let me encourage you embrace your individuality and revel in being different.  Decide between you and God what your music should be like and then write that way.  Don’t worry about what people are going to say.  I have said this before, but throughout history, the great musicians have been the ones who have chosen to take the risk of alienation, writing music that they wanted to write rather than what people wanted to hear.

These big picture concepts are far more important than what technical treatments or chords you use.   Don’t get lost in the details while ignoring the big picture. 

As always, I invite you to submit your arrangements for critique here on the site.  We have a lot of people who are very qualified and willing to help you with suggestions.  Happy writing in 2011!

One thought on “Arranging tips

  1. Daniel Blomdahl says:

    I like your idea. At college, I’m taking a hymn playing class. We arranged one hymn this last semester. While doing that, we basically followed a “formula.” I don’t necessarily have anything against it because the class had many people who had never opened a hymnal before. The teacher did teach us to shape the arrangement based on the hymn, but we ended up following “the instruction manual.” I hope to be able to learn much more from you through your website and products. Thanks so much for your dedication and time.

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