Clinician's Corner - "Arranging: Give It a Try"|
by Master Sgt. Steve Erickson
The USAF Band
2/27/2009 - BOLLING AFB, DC -- I've had many musicians tell me, "I wish I could write - but I can't." I'm often stunned to hear them say this. They act as though you have to be some kind of genius to write an arrangement for band or orchestra. I'm living proof that such a characterization is not true. While I don't consider myself to be some kind of genius, I have been doing arrangements on and off since high school (and that was 30 years ago). Experienced arrangers know a lot of stuff, that's for sure, but one thing is true about experience: you don't have any until you try it.
As soon as you sit down to do some writing, you'll realize there are some preliminaries you have to deal with, like how you write a part for tenor sax or viola. If you don't know about a certain instrument, hang out with the players and ask some questions: "What clef does a baritone saxophone read?" or "What's the transposition for a French horn?" Take a look at a score of the ensemble for which you want to write. Conductors like to see things in "score order," but if you don't know what that is, common sense often does just as well. Bar numbers and section letters can save a lot of rehearsal time and are not hard to figure out, but arrangements can still function without them if you don't know what you're doing. Even choosing the appropriate paper to write on can make a difference, but really, you should just get started.
The next thing that you need is a plan. Is your arrangement a march or a waltz? Is the melody in the trumpets or the tubas? Is it "Jingle Bells" as a cha-cha or "My Wild Irish Rose" as a rock ballad? Most arrangements can be divided up into sections: the introduction, the 'tune,' maybe a transposition or interlude, the verse, the chorus, perhaps a variation or some original writing, etc. Imagine your piece from start to finish; plan out how the whole thing will go. Endings are always important, so think it through right to the end.
| Once my pencil hits the paper, I usually try to create a skeleton outline of the whole arrangement. Melody and bass together already form a functional musical product. You can fill in the inner parts later. A lot of the creative work takes place when you write the melody and the bass lines.
Filling in harmonies is the part that most inexperienced arrangers fear. If you're in this category, try writing just a few measures as an experiment, and then get some people to read it through. The cool thing about writing for ensembles is, when you do something wrong, they tell you about it--right away! Knowledge about harmony and chord writing can be gotten from a book, but mostly you just need to write something that sounds good. The ear can guide you far better than any book, so trust your musical instincts and use your ears. Remember, there are no rules in arranging, only guidelines, and they can always be ignored to achieve the sound you desire.
A tough moment comes for a lot of people when they hear what they wrote, and it sounds bad. This is not such a terrible thing. You've just discovered something very important: you don't like your arrangement the way it is. Now, re-write it. Any horrible chord or melody can be shaped, shaved and polished until it is beautiful. It's not over until you say it's over. Just keep working until you like how it sounds.
There are several useful music programs that can help you over a lot of hurdles, and can let you hear your creation in the privacy of your own home (on headphones!) There is a wide range of price and complexity here, so if you're just starting, you might hold off on getting the most sophisticated software. Sometimes it takes a lot of time and work just to learn how to use the program. Don't let your creative drive get stalled by a computer! Write something!
Remember, like many other things, musical arranging gets easier with more experience. But you can't gain any experience until you get started, so give it a try! There is no risk, and the satisfaction gained from hearing your own musical ideas can last a long time. Take it from me--every new project is still as fresh and fun as it was 30 years ago, and I don't plan on giving up any time soon!
Master Sgt. Erickson is the pianist for the Airmen of Note. Click here to read more about him. For more information about other Air Force Band members, click here.