Arranging advice from C. S. Lewis

What does this quote have to do with arranging?

Even in literature and art, no man who bothers about originality will ever be original: whereas if you simply try to tell the truth (without
caring twopence how often it has been told before) you will, nine times out of ten, become original without ever having noticed it
. – C. S. Lewis

I know that C. S. Lewis did not have hymn arrangements in mind when he wrote this, but this quote should spark some thought in those of us that arrange.  Here is are my thoughts on why.

First of all, regardless of what perception might be out there, there is no dearth of piano arrangements or even good piano arrangements.  Go to the Christian book store and listen for the shelf that is groaning the loudest.  That will be the one sagging under the weight of one arrangement book after another.  There is never more than one of the same book either.

How many piano arrangements of “Great is thy Faithfulness” do you think are available for purchase?  1,000? More?

If you decide you want to arrange “Great is thy Faithfulness,” it is worth taking a moment before you start to ask yourself why.

Some people arrange purely for a pragmatic reason–it is easier for them to arrange a song than learn someone else’s arrangement.  That is why I started arranging.

But if you arrange because you want to share your arrangements with others in some way, there needs to be a reason why your arrangement should join the ocean of all the others.

We could get very complex in trying to figure that out, but it really comes down to one answer: you arrange because your arrangements are original.  If you are not original, your arrangements are unnecessary.

Because of that truth, the quote from C. S. Lewis is very applicable to us.  After all, arranging is telling a story in your way and the story (the song you are arranging) has been told numerous times before.

And here is something I have noticed.  It is very easy to tell when arrangers are struggling with originality.  Their arrangements start to feel disjointed and unnatural.  Often, they have the feel of a theme/variations piece where a melody is played a few times in several diverse styles.

I am convinced that we would be better off if we quit going about the process of arranging by frantically searching for a few ideas we can string together.  Really, we just need to be focused on honing our personal style.

When you arrange a song, you need one style–yours.  And you need one idea–an idea that reflects your style.  Yes, you need to develop the idea through the course of the song.  But one good idea that is properly developed and reflective of your style will normally lead to an arrangement that works.

Your arrangements should be original because you are original.  Just play authentically and don’t worry so much about diversity that you end up with a mishmash of all the stuff you hear other people doing.

As Lewis says, just tell the story your way and you will be original without even noticing.