Arranging music is extremely rewarding but it is not without its challenges. In looking at my own early arrangements as well as mentoring other arrangers, I’ve learned to watch out for certain pitfalls. Avoiding these five common mistakes is one way you can make sure your arrangements don’t come across as amateurish.
1. Over Arranging
A lot of new arrangers feel like they have to put everything they’ve ever learned into every arrangement. Sometimes this means that an arrangement is needlessly difficult or that there is so much going on in the accompaniment or the orchestration that it competes with the melody. It can also mean that musical ideas don’t get the time they need to be developed and appreciated fully. A good arrangement guides the listener by keeping the musical focus on the things that are most important. Being ruthless and cutting ideas (saving them for future arrangements of course) is sometimes the best thing you can do.
Ron Simpson, a mentor of mine in college, taught about the “golden brick rule” in his songwriting classes. The basic concept is this: In a wall constructed entirely out of golden bricks, no individual brick is going to stand out, even though they are all shiny and valuable. On the other hand, if you place a single gold brick into a wall made of red bricks, you’re not going to be able to look at anything else! The same is certainly true of arranging. Don’t try to constantly reinvent the wheel, but make sure you choose a few moments to throw in something special.
2. Sticking Too Closely to the Source Material
Let’s be clear about something: there’s absolutely nothing wrong with writing an arrangement that sounds like the original. That’s one of the reasons we arrange—because we hear a song and we want the chance to perform it. But sometimes arrangers shoot themselves in the foot by being so faithful to the original source material that they refuse to change certain practical things that are going to hamper the performance. Maybe the original is in an uncomfortable key for your singers, or the original rhythms are too advanced for your students. It could be that the orchestration of the original is so busy that it makes balancing with your choir impossible. Or perhaps the original is too long for what you need it to be. There are a host of small things like these that don’t change the character of the original song but go a long way towards making your arrangement accessible to performers.
3. Using Too Much Copy/Paste
This manifests itself primarily in two ways: Arrangements that are too long and arrangements that are too boring. When determining how long an arrangement should be it is helpful to think of it in terms of the whole concert program. On its own a five-minute arrangement might seem fine, but in the context of a 30-minute concert it might feel long. Is it designed to be a concert opener? A quick change of pace? A short encore? The function of the arrangement, or how you intend to use it, will tell you how long it needs to be.
Nothing in an arrangement should ever repeat in exactly the same way. NOTHING in an arrangement should EVER repeat in exactly the same way. NOTHING IN AN ARRANGEMENT SHOULD EVER REPEAT IN EXACTLY THE SAME WAY. (see what I did there?)
This is where copy and paste (one of the arranger’s greatest tools) can become your enemy. This is especially true when arranging popular songs with repeating choruses. Avoid the temptation to just copy the chorus or add a repeat sign. There are so many ways to change things up: using different dynamics, changing the accompaniment, altering the tempo, reharmonizing, revoicing, and so on. Variety is the key to any successful arrangement.
4. Not Knowing Comfortable Ranges
This is perhaps the most obvious sign of the amateur arranger. There’s a big difference between what is “playable” and what is “comfortable” for a particular instrument. For most instruments (especially brass) there is a tremendous difference in timbre between the upper and lower registers, so although something might be easily playable, the resulting sound may not be exactly what you had in mind.
When writing for choirs, it’s important to keep in mind not only the comfortable ranges for each of the voice parts, but also the type of vocal placement (chest, head, belt, etc.) required to sing in a certain register. What you’ve written for the choir may be easily singable, but if the sopranos are forced to use their head voice while the altos are deep in their chest voice you may have difficulty getting the parts to blend. Similar problems can occur when vocalists are asked to sing around their break.
5. Sloppy Score and Part Preparation
This one goes without saying but I’m going to say it anyway: your scores and parts need to look professional and be free of errors. An otherwise great arrangement can be easily hobbled by parts that are riddled with typos, misprints, and formatting problems. The sheet music should contain all the information necessary for a performer to execute your creative vision without any additional instruction. Don’t assume that your performers will interpret the music in a certain way—make your intentions clear in the music. Avoid the temptation to rush through this part of the arranging process just because it’s boring!