Thoughts on Arranging Music - My Personal Process Part 1: Who are you writing for?

I recently have been in the process of publishing some of the arrangements that I've done for various groups, most of them my orchestra class at the Utah Conservatory (click here to see my publisher page, and click here to see my new website).  Some of my colleagues commented that the arrangements were fun and very high quality.  They were long enough to be recognizable, but short enough to be enjoyable for the students to play.  I've also started to have some success in selling these arrangements, and I wanted to take some time to talk about the process I go through when I start to arrange a piece.

In this article, we'll be talking about your intended audience:  those who will perform the arrangement and those who will hear the arrangement.

The first consideration I start out with is: what kind of group will be performing this? What is the group I'm going to be writing for like?  Who do I have to play the different parts and what are their strengths and weaknesses?  This is a huge part for me in creating successful arrangements:  while I know that my ultimate goal is to push the overall ability of the students in my orchestra, I also know that this can be done in small and manageable bites, so I try to work in keys, time signatures, rhythmic patterns, etc. that will help ensure that the arrangement is able to be performed in a quality way.

For example, if I knew that the students I was writing for had never played in keys with more than 2 flats, I may want to stretch them with E-flat Major (3-flats), but I certainly wouldn't want them to play in A-flat Major (4-flat).  If I knew the group I was working with was not as familiar with compound meter, I probably wouldn't give them 9/8 or 12/8 time.  I may stretch them with 6/8 time. 

I have had the luxury of knowing my group pretty well.  This has allowed me the opportunity to tailor my arrangements for the group I'm working with.  In general, though, I also try to make the arrangements ones that any group could work on and play without too many challenges to overcome.  I find this to be one of the most beneficial things in writing successful arrangements:  while I want students and players to face challenges that will make playing the arrangement fun and interesting, I also don't want to give so many challenges that it becomes miserably hard work to overcome those challenges.

There are a few ways I address this:  the first is to come up with a clear picture of what the biggest challenges will be during the arrangement.  One piece may be rhythmic complexity, one may be intonation, one may be speed, etc.  If you have all of these challenges together, it becomes hard to put work on all of these challenges at once, so I try to stick to keeping only one major challenge per arrangement.

As I'm writing, I also try to gauge how frequently each instrument has challenges.  If only one instrument has challenging material, the whole piece becomes challenging just for that section, and the rest of the instruments are either just okay or get very bored.  For this reason, and because it's nice to have a good change, I like to spread melodic lines and fun but challenging rhythmic figures around the group.  This allows everyone to be challenged, everyone to be able to have fun, and everyone to be able to shine, if even for just a little while.

As an audience, hearing the melody in different groups also creates a great variety.  In addition to this, though I try to make the piece interesting for the audience listening in a few other ways, which all start with trying to pick what piece to arrange.  This is probably one of the trickier things to do, and I've found that if it's something I'm very familiar with, many people will be as well.  All the same, I try and look up online and gauge the popularity of a piece.

To help create a more interesting experience for the audience (and performers), variety is important.  Generally, if a melody or idea is heard frequently, I try to create some sort of climactic motion:  slower rhythms to start and then driving rhythms as the piece goes on, more intense dynamic shifts, etc.

For examples of some of my arranging work, check out my YouTube Channel.

In Part 2, we'll talk about the end goals you have in mind for the arrangement, and how this can help guide you in your arrangement.

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