Today’s guest post is an article by Deke Sharon, who, as Wikipedia puts it, is an American singer, arranger, composer, director, producer and teacher of a cappella music, and is one of the leaders of the contemporary a cappella community and a pioneer of the contemporary a cappella style, referred to as “the father of contemporary a cappella” by many. That’s high praise and not completely unjustified. If you watched “The Sing-Off” on national television, you’ve heard many of his arrangements. He was the main force behind the sound of many of the groups who performed. He’s done MUCH more and you can find out more about him at totalvocal.com.
The following article was written in response to multiple requests for him to critique arrangements. I think his response is spot on and I would like to share it with you. I hope you enjoy it.
I’m frequently asked to look over an arrangement and offer my thoughts. I find an alarming number of my responses contain the same comments, the same thoughts.
So I’ve decided to create a one-size-fits-all, universal arrangement critique. If you want to know what I probably would say about your arrangement, read below:
BORING BASS LINE
Yes, the bass in most cases needs to hit the tonics of each chord, and yes he needs to let notes ring long enough for the upper voices to lock into his tuning. However, if your bass line is boring, your bass will be bored, and that will drag down the overall performance. Instead of a 1 measure repeated rhythmic figure, how about a 4 measure phrase? How about some melodic elements as opposed to a string of tonic notes? Perhaps a couple cool fills and stand out moments? Even Atlas was able to hand the earth over to Hercules for a spell.
CLUNKY TOP VOICE
Popular arranging isn’t 18th century 4 part writing, so you can break many of the “rules” you learned in theory class (with good reason, hopefully), but you must always remember that human perception still draws our attention to the highest voice we hear. Whatever that is – soprano, first tenor – it’s going to be heard as a counter melody. I realize you might have written your background voices and then flipped inversions, but that’s not always workable. Write that top background part then build your harmonies down from the top.
There’s a reason so many arrangements have the bass down low with the other voices clustered over an octave above: it’s because of the harmonic series. This gives your singers a chance to “attach” themselves to the harmonics your bass is casting. There are moments to disregard this voicing, but they’re few and far between when you’re arranging for live performance, as a cappella is hard enough and tuning potentially problematic for many groups.
Yes, popular music is compressed to death, and you’re used to everything being the same volume. However, you’re not on the radio. Sound only has 4 elements: Pitch (which combined creates melody and harmony), duration (which, with silence, becomes rhythm), timbre (all vocal sounds and colors) and loudness (which in contrast becomes dynamics), and the best grade you’re going to get on this test is a 75 if you eliminate one of the four. Pretty much every song should at least be able to span mezzo piano to forte, and many can (and should) go beyond.
Moreover, your audience would benefit from all the drama you can provide them, since you’re lead singer’s last name isn’t Springsteen. Start small, grow, pull back, build to a climax. Yes, even droning club remixes can be arranged with nuance and direction. A song’s shape and growth is more than just dynamics; it’s the combination of all of the elements of music reinforcing and underscoring the song’s journey. Not sure where to go?
NO EMOTIONAL FOCUS
This might be a result of a lack of emotional focus. Music is communication, and every song has a message, explicit or implicit, that your singers will reinforce. An arrangement is merely a road map which gives a group of singers a set of directions so they know how to collectively take the audience on a journey. If you don’t have a feeling when you listen to a song, and you’re not clear how and why and when your singers will be directing the audience’s emotions, then you shouldn’t be arranging this song, as you’re handing them a speech without meaning, a movie without a plot.
NOT ENOUGH BREATHS
And, to make sure they can remain lost in the fog of emotion without passing out, you need to make sure there are enough breaths throughout. Sing each line, and if you’re not sure, remember they’re going to be on stage, perhaps nervous, perhaps moving. They’ll need more air than you do now.
YOU’RE TRYING TOO HARD
Yes, we all want to be geniuses. But take a step back: you’re not curing cancer, you’re coming up with the right notes for some singers to share a song to some people. Take a deep breath, and stop trying to make every measure a masterpiece. Sometimes whole notes are exactly what the doctor ordered. Take some risks, have some clever and complicated moments, but don’t overdo it. I don’t think I can say it better than Steve Martin: “I believe entertainment can aspire to be art, and can become art, but if you set out to make art you’re an idiot.”
LISTEN TO THIS
The frustrating thing about arranging is that it never sounds the way you think it will in your head. However, that’s your problem, not the singer’s problem, as you’re making a suit for them to wear, as opposed to them sculpting their bodies to fit your fabric. Go to a rehearsal, hear your arrangement, and start custom tailoring it as soon as you hear how it really sounds.
People cook thousands of meals before becoming great chefs.There’s no shortcut. You might be on the fast track, with excellent skills and instincts, but you will still benefit from every new group and new song you encounter. I’ve arranged over 2,000 songs and I’m still learning. Frequency will bring fluency which will bring an understanding of the inherent potential of the human voice, and more importantly your own style.