Note to the blog reader: This is a handout that I give my Arranging students at The New School for Jazz and Contemporary Music (where I have been teaching since 2007) for their final projects. I find it useful for myself honestly, and hope it would be for anyone who has an interest in composing and/or arranging music of any kind. There are references to the materials that the students have, but you don’t need then in order to grasp some ideas about what’s being discussed here. Hope you dig it :)
Writing, composing and arranging work differently for everyone, these are the steps that I suggest you take, but it doesn’t mean you have to follow them. I think this is a good guide for when you want to move forward and are stuck. The most important is to not get overwhelmed and give up. If you’re tired of working in a section, take a break and work in a background, or score layout, or something else. As long as you’re moving forward you will be good! Here’s the list:
❑ Choose the piece-song-tune you want to arrange (not your original, and a well known tune is better) and that you have a special connection with.
❑ Think of the VIBE that you’d like and try to hear it in your head: Tempo, feel-groove and time signature are great vehicles for this. Sing and dance to it and establish an emotional connection with the music you hear.
❑ Create a “Formal Map” as discussed in Week 12. Be as detailed as possible here, try to imagine everything without writing any notes. E.g: How is the intro? who plays the melody in each section? What kind of 3-part texture will I use? What’s the role of the Rhythm Section? How is this background going to be? Etc, etc… If something doesn’t work along the way, just change it! This is your point of departure and just a set of guidelines.
❑ Pay special attention to the MELODY, how are you embellishing it? Does it sing? Is the same instrument always playing the melody (avoid that if you can!)? Is it a good range for that particular instrument? Meaning will the instrument sound not strained in that range? Remember that the “safe” spot is always inside the staff, but risking out of that may give you a nice edge. Sing the melody and make sure it BREATHES! The horn players will be grateful for that ;) Review all the instrument ranges that were discussed in Week 3. Review all the scores that we have in our archive, and observe in which range instruments are most often written in.
❑ Work on the HARMONY of the piece. Can you reharmonize the tune at all? If so, how will this reharm make it hipper-nicer-cooler? Work with just melody and chord symbols here. Play it at the piano or program software to hear it back. Consult all the reharm docs in the Week 7 folder.
❑ Engage the rhythm section! Avoid lots of “slashes and chord symbols” in the piano and bass parts. Write specific drum parts as described in Jon Wikan’s handout. Can the drums support some horn hits? How to write that? All the info is in the Week 4 folder. Can the piano or the bass double a melody at some point? Can you write a hip unisson bass line for the left hand (8bv!) and the bass? Those are great effects.
❑ Time to work on the 3 horns: Review all the materials from Week 11. Remember that homophony is an important aspect of the assignment, so start with the target-longer notes and work your way backwards with the main approaches we discussed (diatonic parallelism, chromatic parallelism, linear approach or tonicization). Can you find cool “inner progressions” with secondary dominants? Can you find interesting points for contrary and/or oblique motion? Can you sing each line and make it interesting? Did you make sure to AVOID roots and 5ths, or if you didn’t, why did you make that choice? Could you write some voicings that don’t have 3rd or 7th and that still make that harmony clear? Since this is a class assignment, avoid unissons and 8ves, you can do that later “in the real world” ;). Once you’ve worked on some homophony, try some counterpoint, and see if you can lay down something simple and effective. The more you write the most you’ll get of of this experience.
❑ Work on backgrounds, the main 2 options are: pad or kicks. Whichever you choose, or if you use both, make them rhythmically interesting (i.e. no footballs!), and dynamically and range-wise non-disturbing for the soloist. Consult the playlists and score examples on our archive and see what other arrangers did.
❑ Does your chart have enough diversity? Remember that it’s not a good idea to use the same exact 8 bars for the 1st and 2nd A sections (aka copy-paste), so if you’re using, say, a homophonic texture on the 1st A, write one with a different technique for the 2nd A. You can also use pretty simple textures like “melody and hits” or “melody and pad” that can save some time!
❑ Intro and coda: How do they relate to the chart? How do they relate to each other? Is the ending climactic or do you want it not to be? Surprise is always a good element to consider here. The intro and coda will give shape to your arrangement narrative, and although they don’t have to be complex, they’ll greatly contribute to the VIBE!
❑ Time for articulations and dynamics. We did this in WEEK 1. Remember, if your piece is swung you better articulate all quarter notes. Don’t under or over use articulations and dynamics, write something that makes sense to you when you read it and that it’s not a brain-eye-tongue twister. I advise to always have the melody at a louder dynamic range, and to avoid MP (mezzo piano) as it doesn’t seem to be a registered dynamic in the jazz musician’s brains ;) P, MF and F in general and PP-PPP FF-FFF for extremes. Remember SFP (sforzando-piano) and hairpins are a cool device to use, at least once in a while.
❑ Now that you have your score all drafted, time to lay it out. Remember that we need a TRANSPOSED score. So first take care of that, and the parts come second. The parts should be an EXACT representation of the score. If you’re using notation software you can consult the Lynda.com tutorials on Sibelius and Finale. For the part layout, use the Kirk Nurock handout on the WEEK 9 folder. Good principles to remember for the part layout: Start sections at a system break. Distribute the bars per system in a way that makes sense within the form of the tune (i.e: in a typical 8-bar A section with a pickup bar, it’s best to have 5 bars on the first system and 4 on the second so you can have your letter B right at the start of the third!) Use bar numbers and consecutive rehearsal letters (No AABA!) for efficient performance.
❑ PROOFREAD! Are all your transpositions correct? Do the accidentals in the transposed parts make sense? Are all your rhythms clear? Are all the beats that have to show showing? Are all syncopations clear? Is the beaming correct? Stem direction?... You can’t never proofread enough! Even if done with software.
❑ Time management: Give yourself time to do the score and part layout, at least ½ a day. It’s tedious and detail oriented… If you’re in a pinch and you need to spend a sleepless night, I suggest to do that TWO nights before the performance. That may give you time to rest and review one more time, as well as give you time to submit on time in case there’s a last minute computer failure. This is not for the faint of heart and since the assignment is 40% of your grade, you really want to submit it on time, and make sure your parts are printed on the day of the performance.
Hope all these tips will be helpful. Have fun writing!