Origin From: Total Vocal
Author: Deke Sharon
Date: 2014-06-16

People often ask what they can do to perfect their arranging style. Are they using the right kind of chords? Should they consider other syllable sounds? 

The fact is, the single most important factor in every a cappella arrangement has nothing to do with harmony, rhythm or music theory. The single most important factor can be summed up in a single word: 


Arranging for a cappella is unlike any other form of arranging because the elements you're arranging aren't only people's voices but their emotions, their focus, their excitement, their attitude. Singers need to believe in the notes they're singing or it doesn't matter how brilliant you are. 

We've all heard amazing arrangements sound bad, but I've also heard very questionable arrangements sound transcendent. 

As an arranger you should think about "playing" your ensemble the same way a musician plays their instrument. I'm not talking about manipulation, but rather the careful understanding of a group's proclivities, attitudes and opinions. Know where to push and where to pull, when to pull someone up and when to take someone down. 

This of course isn't always possible, if you're arranging for a group you've never met several time zones away. However, you're likely arranging for groups you know, and when you are, you need to consider not only their voices but their desires, tastes, beliefs, hopes and needs. 

If you'll allow an analogy from my prepubescent years, in Dungeons and Dragons there's a type of sorcerer called an illusionist who casts spells that appear but are ephemeral unless/until the person perceiving it believes it and then it becomes real. If your enemy doesn't believe the goblin that appeared before him is real, it disappears, but if he does, it's a real goblin. 

Arrangements work much the same way. If a group believes in a chart, they'll sing it with heart. If they don't, you're stuck with a long chain of notes and a bored audience. 

There is no single way to guarantee a group will love your work, regardless of how excellent it might sound in your computer or how great it sounds when another group sings it. Example: I was commissioned to arrange "White Christmas" for the Nylons, one of the groups that inspired me to make a career of a cappella. I was honored and thrilled... until they summarily rejected the arrangement I presented them, which I had poured my heart and soul into. It sat on the shelf until a year later I was asked by the Gas House Gang if I had any 4 part male holiday songs they might like, so I sent over the chart which they immediately recorded, put on their album, and it's now the single most performed arrangement of mine throughout the barbershop world, and once I published it quickly became my most performed holiday arrangement, from middle school choirs to the LA Master Chorale. 

What can you do to try to inspire the greatest level of conviction when groups are singing your arrangements? 

* Make sure the song choice suits them. Sometimes singers love a song but it's not right for them, and sometimes a song would be perfect except that they just don't like it. Rehearsal time is precious and opinions coalesce quickly, so before you start make sure you're set up for success with a song they're excited about and will effectively make their own. 

* Present your vision clearly. If a group learns from sheet music and you won't be running the rehearsal, make sure to indicate your thoughts in the arrangement, from dynamics to notes in the margin. If a group learns by ear, do your best to make it easy for them, be it sending over midi files for them to listen to or ideally sing the parts. Much will be made clear by your inflections. 

* Leave some space for your arrangement to breathe. In other words, don't create something that's very challenging and delicate that can only be done under precisely controlled conditions (all singers in perfect health with their highest and lowest notes intact, etc). Try to give your singers some wiggle room so that your vision will hold within a certain range of tempo, if moved up or down 1/2 step (groups do drift flat and sharp at times, it can't be avoided), and so on. 

* Give your singers an opportunity to make suggestions and incorporate them into the arrangement. This is best done if you're teaching the chart, and if you have a section of the song that could go a couple of different directions. As for a group's suggestion about a vowel sound, or number of repeats at the end. Sometimes it won't matter to you but by soliciting their opinion you'll find they feel more ownership once their idea or suggestion is incorporated. It's simple psychology, and it works. My philosophy is that there are literally thousands of possible ways an arrangement can be altered and still be great, so you have some wiggle room. 

* Lose some battles. It's ok if you acquiesce sometimes and give in to a change you're not entirely happy with. If your ego is bruised at one point because they don't love one of your favorite choices, just remember that they'll sing their preferred option far more convincingly, which will in the end make the arrangement and performance better, and that's what matters overall. Your arrangement isn't what matters; their performance is what matters 

* Remember that you don't have to keep all of the changes that a single group makes. If you're convinced your ideas are sound, keep a version of your arrangement the way it is, and send it off to another group in the future to see if they're on board with your vision. 

By the way, this is exactly the reason that I not only tolerate but heartily endorse and encourage the changing of my published and custom arrangements by anyone who sings them. Fact is, if I were in the rehearsal, I'd be changing my arrangement partially based on what I hear, and partially based on suggestions and ideas from the peanut gallery. They're the ones who are selling and eating the peanuts, so they really should have some say. 

Ultimately, like a custom tailored suit, an arrangement's success is a careful balance between how your singers look/sound to others and how comfortable they are. The most beautiful jacket won't look good if the wearer is constricted or looks stiff, and sometimes that's a matter of how tight the suit is and other times purely a matter of how comfortable the wearer is. 

Even if it pains you, sometimes your best move is to let it out a bit, have a happy client who proudly displays your work at every opportunity, resulting in more clients and more requests for your work, which eventually will be presented exactly the way you originally intended. 

photo by Jeff Twiss



related articles