A cappella arranging: Choosing the right song to arrange | Choir With Knut | Ep. 5

[JAZZ MUSIC] Right, I’ve chosen my song,
and I’m ready to go! How do I do this? You’re going to arrange
“Afternoon Delight”?! Yeah! For your children’s choir? Yeah, it’s such a fun song! Do you know what it’s about? Yeah, it’s about sweets! Right? [CHOIR SINGING “CHOIR WITH KNUT”] Believe it or not, choosing the right song is what’s going to make or break your arrangement. It might seem obvious, but if you’ve ever been stuck trying to make something work for your group when you know deep down that it’s just not going to, you know how soul breaking this can be! You can avoid this situation by thinking carefully about your song choice before recording or writing down even a single note! If you’ve been commissioned to arrange something, it’s a different matter, of course, but if you’re, for example, writing for an a cappella group that you run yourself, then it’s worth thinking about your song choice before you commit to it. If you’re watching this video,
I’m assuming that you already have a song in mind. Maybe something you heard on the radio, or an old favourite, or even just something silly that you
thought would be fun to perform. Now, ask yourself: “Why this particular song
for this particular group?” Will it suit the image of your group? If you’re running a community choir
with mostly elderly members, is a song like “California Gurls”
by Katy Perry the best choice? Would “Gangsta’s Paradise” by
Coolio really make a good choice for your children’s choir? Also, be aware that
some songs are controversial, so it’s important to
research your song choice! While it might be fun to choose some
quirky or unexpected songs for your group, like “Girls Just Want To
Have Fun” by Cyndi Lauper for an all-male ensemble, remember that they’re likely to want to
keep using your arrangements in the future, and if you’ve chosen something
that’s hard to add to a programme, you might not get much use out of the
arrangement in the long run. Song choice goes beyond
the group as well; you need to think of the venue where
the song is likely to be performed. In general, slower and quieter songs
will work better in a concert space, like a church, as there will be less distracting
elements around, and the audience can really take in the
emotional depth of the song. If a performance is outside, maybe at a festival, choosing something loud and upbeat
will probably make a better choice, as you’re less likely to get
drowned out by the surroundings. I’ve personally performed at festivals where we didn’t have microphones, and there were large sound stages on either side with loud music! So, suffice to say, you can easily find yourself in less than ideal performance situations, and then it’s important to have arrangements that can cut across the noise. If you know that your arrangement is likely to be performed in loud surroundings, then I have some tips on how to arrange them to make them work as well as possible, which I’ll cover at a later time. Finally, you’ll have to decide whether you’d like
the arrangement to have a lead solo or not. The reason why you need to decide
this right from the beginning is that a soloist can make
or break a performance, and a good arrangement can’t
salvage a bad soloist! Think about your group, and whether there are certain
people you have in mind for the solo. This will also give you some indication
about which key to put the song in, as the song definitely has to be
in a good key for the soloist! Remember, you don’t have to use
the soloist for the whole song, maybe just the first verse and chorus, but it’s still important to decide if you should
use a soloist at all right from the start. I’m going to assume that you’ve made your song choice now. Are you sure? Are you extra sure? Remember, arranging takes time, and you’re going to get extremely familiar with the song going forward, almost to the point of getting a bit sick of it! The more you arrange, the less time it’ll take, but in the beginning it can take a long, long time. Don’t worry; we’ve all been there! The next step is to learn and internalize the song. What does this mean? Well, basically, you listen to it, a lot! Like, again and again, thinking about the structure, what’s going on in the background, if there are any important melody lines happening apart from the main melody… Basically, what you’re trying to do, apart from learning the song, is to find out what the song “is”. What I mean is: What makes it stand out? Two obvious features are the melody and the lyrics, but there are other things that can define what a song “is” as well. For instance, if I ask you to think about George Michael’s “Careless Whisper”, what’s the first thing you think about? Is it the verse? [SINGING OFF KEY] I fear so unsure, as I take your hand to the dance floor Maybe the chorus? [SINGING OFF KEY] I’m never gonna dance again, guilty feet have got no rhythm, it’s easy to pretend Well, what you’re probably thinking off is: [SINGING THE SAXOPHONE INTRO] See what I mean? What I usually do, is that I transcribe
the song on manuscript paper, at least the melody and
the chord symbols. This gives me a good visual
outline of the song, and it makes me pick up on
features of the melody very quickly, such as slides and syncopations. Another option is to record
yourself singing the song, trying to match the timing and
tone of the original singer. This can take some time, but it’s going to be worth it when you
get further along in the arranging process, as knowing the song really
well can spark your creativity, and make it easier for you to decide
what’s important to keep in your arrangement, and what’s not
really necessary. Another useful thing to do is to listen
to different versions of the same song, to see how other arrangers have
treated the song before you. You’ll then hear what they thought
was important to keep in the song, and they might even have had some
interesting ideas in their arrangements that you can steal. Uhm, I mean, borrow…? Okay, so I’m joking, but the copyright laws on
arrangement are very lenient, and there’s nothing stopping you from using
other people’s ideas in your own arrangement. After all, there’s no need
to reinvent the wheel! Even if you’re not outright copying
what other arrangers have done, you may get some ideas for
transforming the song into something a little
different from the original, depending on what you find. You may even get some
ideas for a mash-up, or how to deal with an extended
instrumental section in a song. All in all, doing your initial research
can only help you in the long run. Just be careful that you don’t get
too wild with your ideas, or it may get difficult to
stitch it all together! [SINGING FOUR DIFFERENT MELODIES AT ONCE] Let’s imagine that I’m running a choir, and I want to make an arrangement for them. We’ll say that it’s a “mixed” community choir, so that means it has both men and women, and that there are some really strong singers on each part, but that it mostly consists of less experienced singers. They’re are all adults, they’re roughly between 30 and 60 years old, and I’ve divided them into three sections, so soprano, alto and baritone. We use a piano accompanist for our concerts, and she will need a part as well. She can read both notation and chord symbols. The song I’ve been thinking about arranging is “Leave A Light On”, by Tom Walker. I’ve listened to it a few times, and I can kind of imagine my choir singing it, so I think it might work. What do I do next? First, I’ll have to check
the lyrics properly, to make sure that the
subject matter is relevant, and that the theme
suits my choir. “Leave A Light On” is about
worrying about a friend who is struggling with
drug addiction, and trying to support them. I think this is a good
message that will suit my choir, so I decide to continue
with the song. I listen to it over and over, trying to get some idea
of what the song “is”. It’s mostly melody-driven, but it has a prominent synth
countermelody in the chorus, which I want to keep
in my arrangement. Most of the instruments in the track
serve as accompaniment to the melody, rather than being independent parts, which means there might be
some space to add something; maybe some reharmonization
or counterpoint, if it suits the feel of the song. I also decide that I probably don’t
want a solo singer for the song. It doesn’t really need it, and should
sound beautiful with choral voices. Overall, it seems like a good fit
for doing an arrangement. Until the next episode,
I’ll listen to it a lot, and seek out some other
versions of the song, to see if there’s anything
else I can add. Great! You’re well on your way
towards making your arrangement! Remember, the most common pitfall of
arranging is not knowing the song well enough. So, don’t skip this step, or you may find
yourself struggling to get ideas once the initial spark of
inspiration disappears! Anyway, in the next episode we’ll start looking at how to adapt our song for voices. Let me know in the comments below about some songs you’ve chosen for your groups, and why you chose to do so, even if it didn’t turn out to work out well in the end; it’s always good to learn from your mistakes! [CHOIR SINGING “LIKE,
COMMENT, SHARE, SUBSCRIBE”] [SINGING SAX INTRO OFF KEY] KNUT: (in Swedish) Okay, that’s enough, huh?

Michael Martin

4 Responses

  1. We're going to try Yellow Flicker Beat by Lorde!! Because, well, we need something just for fun! Thank you so much for these videos- they're so helpful!! Maybe I'll post it here when we're done and you can listen to it!!

  2. Is there a song you'd like to arrange for your choir or a cappella group? Why would it be a good fit for them? 🙂

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