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So You Want to Be an Arranger

by CPO Scott A. Silbert

  • Introduction
  • The Art of Arranging
  • How to Get Started
  • The Importance of Orchestration



It's very likely that as a musician, you've played a piece of music at some time in your life in which a sound or chord or phrase caught your ear, and you said, "What was that chord? What was that sound?" It's the kind of sound that makes you want to grab the score to investigate.


That curiosity is what led me to become an arranger. Growing up I listened to big band music, like Benny Goodman, Duke Ellington, Count Basie, and Woody Herman, and marveled at the sound of the arrangements. In junior high school jazz band, I was fascinated with the scores of arrangers like Sammy Nestico and Carrol DeCamp. I had no idea what all the notes meant. But the seed was planted.


This article is intended for anyone who has thought about becoming an arranger, but isn't sure where to begin. It will also give the reader some insight into what kind of work an arranger for the Navy Band does.


The intent of this article is not to give specific technical information on arranging or orchestration, but rather to provide an introduction to the art of arranging. Specific information can be found in any number of sources. I include a few of my own favorites at the end of this article.


The Art of Arranging

By definition, arranging is the adaptation of a composition to performers or instruments other than those originally intended. That's a good academic definition.


On a more creative note, arrangers could also be described as painters. For example, say you had millions of dollars, and wanted to have some of the world's most respected artists paint a picture of your Jack Russell terrier. So using your time machine, you gather Van Gogh, Picasso, and Dali, and ask each of them to paint a picture of your beloved Sparky.


A few weeks go by and you are presented with your three pictures. You look at Dali's and see a wide, vast expanse of blue and grayish green, and Sparky is melting over the glass of time! Good job, Dali, but I don't think so. You look at Picasso's work. Sparky is a red skeleton with six eyes dancing next to a fish, and you say, "Close, but no cigar." Van Gogh's picture is of Sparky wearing a straw hat, in vivid blues and yellow splashes (and of course, he has only one ear), and you say, "That's it! It's wonderful!"


This analogy reflects the art of arranging. It incorporates a combination of colors (instruments or voices) and imagination to interpret a composition (dog). The academics of arranging are presented in a wide variety of books, but the real test is standing in front of the ensemble you have written for, giving the downbeat, and standing back as your creation unfolds, sailing to the heavens of musical greatness, or crashing like the Titanic against the iceberg of arranging and orchestration ignorance.


The latter, otherwise known as "crash and burn," is what keeps many would-be arrangers from ever putting pen to paper. This fear is evident in most all musicians I know who tell me, "I'd like to write a chart, but these guys will tear me up if it doesn't work." All arrangers know this fear. I admit that I still get very nervous before any arrangement of mine is read through, though I am very sure that arrangers like Sam Nestico or Bill Holman or Billy May do not suffer these jitters, being the professions that they are. They have done it so long that they know what works and what doesn't.



How to Get Started


I always tell aspiring arrangers the following things:

  1. Start Small, Start Simple.
    Let's say you're a college trumpet player in a brass quartet. You've got the bug to arrange something for your group. What piece would you choose to write? Where would you start?


    1. Start with something you studied in college theory class, like a Bach chorale. Or consult a church hymnal. The two present many advantages. First and foremost, they are already written. You'll just need to assign a voice part to a corresponding brass instrument, i.e. soprano to trumpet, alto to French horn, tenor to trombone, and bass to tuba. This is more of an exercise in orchestration than in arranging. We're starting on a beginning level here.

    3. Transpose your parts. Take your time and consult some references on transposition. This is an area where many mistakes are made.

    5. Copy your parts out in the most legible way possible. Add dynamics and phrase markings. Now you are ready for step 2.


  3. You're On - Give the Downbeat.
    Present your arrangement to the musical group for which it is written. At this point, it pays to have someone playing your part if you are a performer in the group. You will need to be up front, giving the downbeat, cut-offs, special directions, etc.

  5. Stay Out of the Way and Listen.
    Give the downbeat and stay out of the way, and don't stop unless it completely falls apart. LISTEN!! This is the time when some of you will get really nervous. But you will need to concentrate and absorb what is being played. Try to handle questions after you are finished. Just get through the chart.

  7. Listen Some More. Now you have heard your arrangement, and miracle of miracles, it was okay. It didn't fall apart. But wait, the trombone player says that one note is really below the range of the horn and might work better if you place it here. Or the tuba might say that you wrote this in the wrong octave, and you might want to put it down here. Now, hear me now and believe me later. You must listen to and understand what these instrumentalists say. Being a trumpet player, you may have a great understanding of what the trumpet can do. But the trombone may be completely new to you. You need to understand what the trombone or horn or piccolo can and cannot do. This fact falls into the category of orchestration, an area that is a lifelong study unto itself.



The Importance of Orchestration


Orchestration to me is more than knowing the range of the instruments. It is knowing what combination of instruments to use to express a specific sound, and better still, knowing the technical and mechanical limits of each instrument.


For example, a very fast passage of 16th notes will be performed with less headache by the flutes, clarinets, or saxophones. This is not to say that the trumpets, horns, trombones, or tuba cannot play technical passages cleanly. They can, which leads to two points.

  1. Know the musical and technical limitations of the group you intend to arrange for.

  2. An arrangement does not have to be hard or difficult to be good.

Learning to write simply and cleanly with good, clear orchestration and sensible voice leading, combined with creative and investigative ideas should be a goal for all arrangers. Writing "simple" is often harder than it seems.


Another point for the young arranger: Resist the urge to fill up every bar of a blank page of score paper. Often, my first thought is that there should be more going on here. But nine times out of ten, I will edit portions that I deem too busy. Editing is an important skill an arranger must develop. Henry Mancini said, "Don't fall in love with every note you write." I follow his advice more often that not.




Along with creativity, an arranger needs to develop a number of other essential skills. These include good orchestration, editing, first-rate theory, and proficiency on piano (this is jokingly referred to as "arrangers" piano).


Like all musical endeavors, arrangers need to constantly hone their skills. You should learn more each time you write an arrangement. That means you need to keep writing. Once you finish an arrangement, whether it fails or succeeds, you need to do it again. And again. And again.


Try to keep an open mind to all forms of music, and stay curious. One of life's more rewarding pleasures is standing in front of a group of musicians, giving a downbeat, and hearing great music that you created.


Recommended books:

The Complete Arranger, Sammy Nestico - Excellent
Inside the Score, Ray Wright - Excellent for the big band arranger
The Professional Arranger/Composer, Russ Garcia - great book for beginners
Orchestration, Walter Piston
The Techniques of Orchestration, Kenneth Tyman