WARNING: Barbershop / acappella talk dead ahead. Take detour to avoid geeked-out music chatter.
I just changed our furnace filter, and it was disgusting - no wonder my allergies in Kentucky are horrible! But it spurred thoughts on other filters I use - in my arrangements.
Sometimes I purposefully think through this filter concept, and other times it just happens naturally. It's like knowing the algorithms and patterns for solving a rubiks cube. Have you ever gone through that learning process? Really works your memorization skills! My 13 yr-old son is all in to it right now - solving 3-sided, 4-sided, and wants to try anything new possible. So he's taught me the patterns, and I'm slowly getting it - memorizing everything. For me, I have to take my time and go through every step and turn and pattern carefully... feeling very stupid along the way - while my son solves it in a minute because it's all second nature to him. He's to a point where he doesn't think about anything and he just looks at it and solves it - plus he's just way smarter than his dad in most areas! It's a poor analogy, but perhaps the process of solving that stupid cube is like the arranging process I go through. I know what I need to do, but sometimes I have to think through it carefully, while other times it just goes smoothly and things fall into place naturally.
So, when starting to work on a new composition/arrangement project, there are some things I have to find out and plan out ahead of time - based on what the group wants. When I first started doing commissioned work for groups, I just wanted to make sure I didn't screw up the song for them - that alone motivated me to find out everything possible I could about the group before writing. It was great motivation for making the arrangement good... or not suck... however you want to put it. I'm sure all of you find out certain important things up front... as every song and group is different and they might want song to fill a certain need compared to other songs in their repertoire. I guess at first when discussing the arrangement with the group, that's when the big filters are used. That's when we decide things like...
- contest or show
- do they care how tight in the Barbershop style it turns out - how strict it should be
- do they want to sound as much like the original as possible… regardless of whether it has to bend or stretch some rules.
- Do they care if the arrangement fits “in the rules” or not.
- Do they need a washboard, banjo or harmonica interlude? (very important!)
- What are their strengths and weaknesses (in their opinion)... do they have any range or skill limitations (no one is super human), that you need to avoid or you could exploit appropriately.
- Can you get legal clearance for the arrangement if not Public Domain? (is Bourne involved? Ask Adam Scott, Joe Liles, or Janice Bane for war stories)
Once I get through portions of the song I can go back through and sift those sections through small or big filters.... then again once the whole song is finished. The idea of using "filters" may be too formal for some people… And I certainly don't always think this formally about it. But it's a good way of voicing or writing down the thought process.
I already mentioned a few, but here is totally unorganized and uncategorized list of more questions and filters that pop in and out of my suffocated brain during an arrangement.... much of which could be pulled straight from the side of the BHS judging systems score sheets...
(if you don't get any of these, send me a reply and I'll elaborate more)
- Homophony (how and when does it exist)
- Singable Melody
- Melody that sounds like a Melody and not a really weird Harmony Part
- Sevenths - when, where, how much, and appropriateness
- Rhythmic build/complexity and placement
- Embellishments and how are they used, placed, developed?
- Climax - is there one that is noticeable… How is it developed?
- Contemporary a cappella versus the barbershop sound (what would a guy on the street call it if he heard it)
- "coolness" factor (tough to define this, but applies if there is something stylisticly awesome you don't want to disrupt about the performer)...similarly, if the group has a certain persona/character/style they are trying to portray - does the arrangement fit and help them?
- Singability of harmony parts
- Ease of voice leadings - or how much does it matter for this group?
- How do the chord inversions build throughout?
- Does it get too high too soon?
- Where are the hardest places to sing?
- Is the hardest stuff right at the end where they may be most tired?
- Are there good places to breath throughout the song?
- If there is a post or hanger for any of the parts, does that part have some downtime prior to that hanger… Or does it just build and build constantly without any break? Or do you really want that … If so then it needs to be a pretty good group that can handle it.
- Do the key changes work smoothly? Are they cool to hear? Easy on the ear? Jarring? Do you want that? Do they "surprise" the audience - is that what you want?
- Is the harmonic rhythm too complex at any spots?
- Does the harmonic rhythm change and modify smoothly throughout the song?
- Same for the simplicity and complexity of rhythmic devices … Does that develop naturally?
- If it's for a chorus, how would these parts sound when sung by that particular groups sections? Is it too difficult and could potentially be A huge learning trap for the group?… Example: really difficult rhythmic passages that are syncopated or just challenging in someway that might give the group a hard time.
- Tag length and suitability
- Intro length and suitability
- Lyric, harmonic, and melodic connection between intro, tag, and any added material? Do you want a connection?
- Overall form of the song? Make sense? Does it work?
- If it's a medley/montage, does it all work? That's really a question for a whole other post.
- Does the intro and tag and any other extra material tie in well with the rest of the arrangement?
- Are there places where the rhyme scheme and lyrics seem awkward or two repetitive or just "not good"? (for example: using "now" "say" "and" "Oh" etc, too much as filler or connector words) - I once found a passage in a completed arrangement where I had every cadence on this one page transition with the word "now" ... drove me crazy when I realized I had done that it!)
- Do repeated words make sense in the context of the lyrical sentence/phrase? (Caught one of these in my first rendition of the Tennessee Waltz - ask Tim Brooks about "the old friend I saw and happened to see")
- Did you write an original verse or other "new material" for the song? If so is it good and fitting? (likely a topic for another post - or ask some masters of this...Jay Giallombardo, Clay Hine, David Wright, Joe Liles, Steve Delehanty...)
- Where are the most powerful spots in the arrangement? Do those places allow the group to sing strong and powerfully? Definitely something to consider in big long uptunes, or power ballads.
- What do you want the group to feel at the end, and what do you want the audience to feel at the end?
- What do you want the end to do? Will it trigger a standing ovation? Or is there another place prior to the tag that will be the "trigger" for an eventual standing O?
- Did the group want an "in your face ringing loud tag"… Does it do that properly? If not what can you do to change it?
And the list goes on and on! Whether consciously used, or just second nature, I think all we sift our projects through filters... and sometimes it's good to write them down for future recollection! Who knows?! Maintaining a checklist of questions and filters might save some time with the next project, or could just relax your brain! After all, this should be a fun process, so why not organize the tools to make the experience awesome!
DISCLAIMER: This post might not really apply if your just writing for your own pleasure and have absolutely no care in the world to please or meet any groups needs or desires! If this is the case, you should know there are no rules or filters and you should proceed full speed ahead with no caution or worry of what others will say, and with total abandonment of rules and restrictions!