Arrangers Block

Origin From: Total Vocal
Author: Deke Sharon
Date: 2005-09-24

* PASSIVE LISTENING: Listen to the original recording(s) over and over. Dont worry about focusing on the recording; just put it on in the background and play a game, clean the room, listen while you drive. You want your right brain to start working, and the best way for that to happen is for you to not to focus on the music (which sends it into your left brain's analytic centers. This method can be a little scary at first, especially if you have a looming deadline, as it's a bit of a zen approach (improve your arranging by not arranging), but I've found it to work better than anything else. 

* ELIMINATION: Should you be in the midst of arranging a song and have a specific roadblock ("what should I do here?"), you might help yourself by answering "what shouldn't I do here?" By eliminating bad/inappropriate choices, you might help narrow down to a good choice, or a short list of options, from which you can choose your favorite. 

* INCORPORATION: Try weaving in lines from other songs by the same songwriter or artist, or perhaps something with a similar lyric. It's not easy, but sometimes it's the challenge that gets your creativity focused enough to soar past the hurdle. 

* FOCUS ELSEWHERE: Move on to another section of the song. I'll often start arranging the song in the chorus, as it's the most important section of the song. But if I don't really know what to do there, I'll jump back to a verse. Or onto the bridge. Doesn't matter. Whatever you find easiest. 

* ADVICE: Find a musician you trust, and bounce the arrangement off him. Perhaps some new ideas will come up. It doesn't even have to be someone who reads music; you could sing some lines, and then he'll sing some others back to you. 

* STOP: Take a break from arranging and from music. Do something else. 

* BROAD STROKES: Sketch out what you do know. If you know the chords you need, at least write them in as whole note triads. If you know there's a specific melodic or rhythmic pattern you need in there (because it's in the original, or you just like it), drop it in as well. Put in as much as you know without forcing yourself to be creative. You may find the remainder is easier as a result. 

* PLOW FORWARD: Don't worry about doing a great arrangement, but rather just focus on getting the job done. You don't have to live with what you have, but you might end up liking some of your choices, and you can go back and fix what you don't like. 

* COPY: Steal ideas from other a cappella arrangements you admire, perhaps a background texture, or a rhythmic figure. It'll end up sounding different when it's a part of your piece, and as Stravinsky said, "Good musicians borrow, great musicians steal." 

* TAKE A CHANCE: Write something you think probably won't work, and then try it. Some of my best work was the result of a shot-in-the-dark, "I-have-no-idea-if-this-is-gonna-fly" chances. In fact, it was a collegiate arrangement of Peter Gabriel's "In Your Eyes" back in 1989 that forced me largely throw glee-club and doo-wop convention out the window and use each voice as an instrument (including four vocal percussion parts). Of course, other risks have failed, but you're not gonna surprise yourself if you don't try. 

* NEW PROCESS: Your process might be a part of the problem. In an earlier column I outlined my ten-step approach to arranging, which starts with the big picture items (song choice, form), moves through easier decisions (key, writing out the solo, putting in the bass line), saving the less easily definable issues (what should I do with my background voices in the chorus?) to then end, where theyre better defined. The more you have decided, the easier later decisions become. If youre the kind of arranger who just dives into arranging measure one, you might want to consider this new method, as it can save you many difficult decisions. 

Hopefully these ideas will help. If you have any ideas to add to this list, please email 'em to me, or post 'em in the casa forum. The arranging community at large will forever be in your debt!



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