Introduction to arranging and improvising

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Over the past several months, I have been focused on the theory of improvised music.  I am far from done covering theory, but it is about time for you to start improvising your own music if you are not already doing it. Church music is full of opportunities for improvisation–preludes, offertories, accompanying, reflective music, etc. Today, I want to discuss laying a foundation that will work for all these situations. From a technical perspective, improvisation means “on the spot”.

However, the reality is that few musicians actually improvise music completely as they play it.  They are more likely to practice some parts ahead of time or at least have a bag of well-practiced tricks that they pull from.  In fact, when just starting, most musicians plan their “improvised” performances note for note.  You are probably in this category, and that is fine.  In many cases, I still practice music ahead of time until practically every note is planned.  However, this practice is normally referred to as “arranging” rather than improvisation.

If you are not already arranging and/or improvising music, you may not be interested in learning how unless you see how important it is.  Think how much more effective you could be if you could improvise music without being chained to reading notes.Can you be a church pianist without knowing how to improvise?  Sure you can, but your effectiveness is going to be greatly hampered.  Things happen in church that require more flexibility than you can offer if you only read notes.

So how do you start arranging?  Today, I want to offer some practical and philosophical points.  After you read this, I hope you will open a hymnal, pick a hymn and start arranging it.  It may take a while but you will get faster and better over time.

What are you about?
I have said this before–your philosophy of music will influence the music you arrange or improvise in ways much more dramatic than you might imagine.  You can often detect many things about the personality of a performer when listening to them.  You can also quickly detect many things about their musical philosophy and goals.

Unless you live under a rock, you know about the current music wars in Christianity.  Much of the debate centers around what elements music is supposed to convey.  Should music be intellectual in nature, emotional or a combination of both?  Your answer to this question will affect the way your music sounds.

Are you conservative, liberal, democratic, easygoing, uptight, traditional, or a perfectionist?  Likely, we will know when we hear your music.

My music is greatly influenced by what I believe, and I have spent a lot of time thinking about it.  In a summary, here is what I believe.  First, music should glorify God.  Second, my music should be bigger than me. Third, the primary objectives of my music are emotion and communication.  Fourth, musical accessibility (ability to communicate with average people) is more important thanstructure or compositional form (someone’s rules about what good music should be).

As you start down this path toward creating your own music, think about your philosophy of music and the goals you hope to accomplish.  Most musicians never really know what they are trying to do in their music, but that is only because they have not stopped to think about it.

Compositional Form
As a Christian musician, you may find yourself under pressure to write in a way that conforms to what is considered good form. There is no doubt that typical Christian piano arrangements follows predictable forms.  Here is a typical form–intro, fast verse and chorus, slow verse and chorus (for variety), fast and loud final chorus with a big ending.

I am often accused of being against compositional form.  I am not–I am only against form that interferes with the more important aspects of music. Unfortunately, music that rigidly follows a form often does so at the expense of more important factors such as accessibility, communication, and emotion.

Here is how this problem typically happens.  A pianist starts writing an arrangement following a standard form that he feels obligated to follow.  He picks a fast hymn like “To God Be The Glory” and quickly figures out a nice opening verse idea.  Then it is time for the obligatory slow verse.  He struggles a bit but comes up with a “interesting” idea in a minor key.  Then he spends a lot of time working on a flashy last verse and huge ending.

What is the result?  A piece that is not cohesive that contains a misapplication of a minor key and an ending that reflects glory to the performer rather than God.

Here is the bottom line.  Don’t let compositional form get in the way of the bigger picture.  Don’t be too diverse in your arrangements just because you think it is good form.  I would rather hear three verses played exactly the same than three verses played in different ways without being cohesive and true to the character of the song.

So how do you do it?
Here is the best advice I was ever given–just sit down and play a few minutes each day.  If possible, don’t open a book at all.  Just play whatever song comes into your head.  But don’t play it necessarily the way it feels natural.  Experiment with different ideas and chords.At the beginning, you may feel that you are not accomplishing much.  But bit by bit, things will start to sound good.  The best news is that the more you learn, the faster learning gets.

After a while of playing this way, you will find yourself drawn to a particular song.  That is likely a good candidate for your first arrangement.  By now, you probably will have at least a few unique things to do with it–perhaps some interesting chords or a technical ornament.At this point, you need to do something very important–keep track of what you are doing by recording yourself or writing things down.  I do both–I keep a microphone on my piano at all times, and if I am just playing and something interesting comes from it, I record it.  If I did not, I would probably only have a 10% chance of remembering it later.

I also chart songs using the Nashville numbering system.  I will cover this later, but it is a quick way to map out the harmony you are going to use.  I also sometimes sketch out overall plans for the song or an interesting motif or ornament I want to use. If you do not keep track of your ideas, you will feel like you are starting over every time you sit down at the piano. I promise you that you will arrange a lot faster if you record yourself or write down your ideas.

As I have mentioned already, don’t try to bring diversity to your arrangement just because you think it is expected.  If you do, you are going to find yourself doing unnatural things to songs–like playing “Just As I Am” like a Rachmaninoff prelude or perhaps playing “Hold the Fort” in a minor key. Instead, try to keep the contrast within a range that is appropriate for the song. Go from p to mf in a soft song rather than ff. The same is true for technical ornamentation–don’t force horribly complex ornamentation on a simple song or something too simple on a fast rhythmic song.

Try to develop a “hook” or recurring theme that somehow relates to the melody that you can use throughout the piece–perhaps in the intro, modulations, and ending.  It really helps the overall continuity of the piece.

In my opinion, you do not need to write out your arrangement note for note.  A chord chart or lead sheet should be all you need if you have been working through these lessons. Preferably, when playing publicly, try to be prepared enough to play entirely from memory.  But, don’t let memory issues keep you from playing–if you struggle to remember your arrangements, use a lead sheet or whatever else you need.

Need ideas for your music?  Listen to good musicians as much as possible.  Eventually, you will start playing like them.  Or, study arrangement books.  But most importantly, PLAY every day and force yourself to be creative.Sometimes I can go weeks without coming up with anything I like.  At other times, I can arrange a song within a few minutes.  Interestingly, people seem to like the songs that I arrange quickly more than the ones I agonize over for a long time.

Here is the key.  If you are sitting at the piano and not getting anywhere, don’t stress.  Practice technique or your theory instead or just get up and do something else.  Be patient–good ideas will come.  They may just not come when you expect them.

Those are my thoughts for today.  I know they are fairly generic, but I really don’t know how to be too specific about this topic without stifling your creativity.  I know I have already said it a few times, but you really just need to sit down and start playing!