I like to keep some involvement with teaching as it makes me reflect on how I do what I do, and I enjoy supporting the kids that are the future of the music industry. I do believe music professionals have some duty to provide a connection between work and learning in order to keep the art and craft of music making healthy, so that each generation can build on the last.
I have taught arranging and thought I’d analyse how I go about it here.
Of course, every arranger approaches the job in his/her own way and that diversity of methodology is what makes us all offer our own particular character in an arrangement. I’m continually fascinated by how differently every musician I encounter works, and I believe I have to adapt to each way of working, to suit the individual writer and producer.
For me, I like to get inside a song in order to empathize with it before I can add anything that enhances it. Arranging is not only about part writing and harmony, but about bringing out the rise and fall of the song, helping it to communicate its ideas most effectively, and support the flow and journey.
So I start by immersing myself in it and trying to get a picture of the ‘shape’ of the song; I make notes about the sections, number of bars, chord sequence, rise and fall, existing melodies and hooks. There might be string ideas on the arrangement already so I transcribe those to give me a 1 or 2 page overview. It’s a continual challenge to be able to ‘see’ the elements of a composition, to translate the aural to something visual.
It is only with this ‘picture’ (a combination of lists, rough notation and scribbles) that I can start to consider what strings can add. If I need to add lines and counter melodies I’ll essentially improvise these along with the track, humming along (it’s not pretty) or playing a keyboard. I’ll write these lines down or play them in as midi and gradually build up a ‘pot’ of ideas. Then I’ll structure these ideas, based on the shape and direction of the song. I generally expect to provide something different for each section of a song, giving the composer/producer plenty of options. So even though they may well go for one particular chorus line, I provide a different one for each chorus, and suggest something for the intro, verses, links, bridges etc even if it’s unlikely to get used – you never know, it might just press all the right buttons (and I like to think I give value for money!).
Reference tracks are really useful too, particularly as so much work is done remotely now, with people around the world, often purely by email and skype.
For most jobs where I’m contributing creative ideas, I’ll demo the arrangement with some basic live recording and samples. Most writers like to hear an arrangement idea, though some still prefer a score. This demo will provoke more response than any amount of talking about the concepts of an arrangement and lead to updates that help me provide the most valuable contribution to a production.