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How long does it take me to write an arrangement?

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I was talking to a well-published arranger maybe a decade ago and she told me she could write an arrangement book in a week. She was still writing out arrangements by hand (rather than software) which made her claim even harder to swallow.

Today, I know more and do not doubt that she was telling me the truth. I have talked to enough writers to know that the typical arrangement book you buy probably has less than a week of writing (40 hours) invested in it. While that may surprise you (if not make you wonder about the quality), understand this: from a financial perspective, it is challenging for traditionally-published arrangers to invest much more time than that into a book. The numbers usually don’t work.

I am the same way. I usually write one arrangement a month and my typical process looks like this:

  • 2 hours – Developing an idea, building the arrangement, and getting it into Finale
  • 1 hour – Refining and engraving (I usually come back to it a day or two later to see what is working and what is not. I also add dynamic markings and other details and make sure the formatting is professional.)
  • 1 hour – Practicing and recording a demo. I know that most arrangers don’t have to do this step, but I record every arrangement I write.
  • 1 hour – Marketing stuff such as building the demo video, uploading the piece to my website for purchase, sending it to my monthly arrangement club, and getting an intro blog post up.

That is roughly five hours invested per arrangement but as you can see, about 2 of those hours are things that I have to do only because I self publish.

Here are some other thoughts about each of these steps:

Typically, I can work out an arrangement on a high level in just a few minutes. In other words, I can play it through with the general harmony, texture, and shape I am shooting for. However, the devil is in the details and I can get bogged down when I actually start writing in Finale. Performers like me very often can get away with stuff (or think we get away with stuff) in real life that all of a sudden does not work on paper. When you actually start writing, the things you sort of fudge when you just play all have to be fixed. Sometimes, it is hard just to get what I play into precise rhythm and notes on paper.

An important thing about any writing (not just music) is that you have to be realistic going in that you cannot shoot for perfection. As I mentioned before, there are practical limitations on how much time you can invest in a piece of music. Yesterday’s arrangement is an example. I wrote that arrangement (Tis So Sweet) as I normally do (in about 2 hours). When I started it, I was thinking efficiency because I owed my club an arrangement by the end of the month and I was out of the time. I wanted to write something good (as is always my goal) but I was not expecting anything special.

However, as I wrote, I started to change my perspective. All of a sudden, the piece started to feel good to me and I remembered that I need an arrangement to present in a few weeks at Composers Symposium. When I decided “Tis So Sweet” would be my piece to present, I chose to invest more time so I went back the next day and spent another two hours reworking the arrangement. Specifically, I worked to improve the melodic lines of my hook and I tightened up the harmony (eliminating “throw-away” chords and substituting some more interesting ideas).

That extra two hours made a huge difference. I know it myself but even though I only posted the piece yesterday, the market has told me that too. This arrangement clearly has more legs than my typical monthly arrangements (based on sales and other interest).

I wish I had some great formula to share but I can’t tell you exactly how what I am saying applies to your own writing. I am well aware that there has to be a balance between artistry and the real world but that line is in a slightly different place for all of us. Your music will be better if you invest more time but if you are feeding a family with your music, you have to value your time correctly and sometimes choose to walk away from a piece even though you know it could be better. There are some that will not understand this principle because they don’t live in your world but it is truth nevertheless.

Once I am done with writing, I record. I have two very simple rules for recording demos. First, I have to be able to record a song on the day I finish writing it and second, I have to be able to record it without splices (in other words, I have to be able to play it all the way through without any mistakes). Both rules force me to write simpler music (I try to write for late intermediate and early advanced pianists) and the second rule also helps me stay sharp by simulating the pressure of recording albums.

The last step (marketing stuff) is necessary because I self publish but while tedious, is not too time-consuming. Using the new recording, I can usually generate my demo videos within 15 minutes with stock video and Final Cut Pro. I have a series of tasks in a checklist that have to be accomplished to get a song onto my website, announced here on the blog, and pushed out to my club. An hour is more than enough time to do all of that. I won’t go into more details because it would bore 99% of you.

Anyway, that is my process and gives you an idea of the time I spend to get a new arrangement up. I hope some of you find it helpful.

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