By Guest Blogger: Billy Carleton Jr. '15
When I was in Falconize’s first ever rehearsal, practicing Larger Than Life and learning the basics of beatboxing, I had no idea how much those rehearsals, that overall experience of being in the Danvers High School Choral Program, would shape who I am as a singer, arranger and now as a music educator. I look back at a program that had 30-40 kids between the 2 chorus classes we had in the school (this was the year before Mr. Grover started), and look at it now with an amazed expression as about 75-100 students sing together at A Cappella Night. The choral program at DHS provides students with an education that gives them a hands on approach to learning the necessary skills to become a leader in the musical, academic and professional worlds. As an arranger, this is the best environment to start learning your craft and start delving into the growing scene in music that is Contemporary A Cappella. Looking back at my beginnings as an arranger, there are quite a bit of things that I did that I would never ever do again, such as giving Mr. Grover an arrangement that only had 1, maybe 2, measures per page (it turned out to be 50 pages double sided). These are the ten a cappella arranging tips that I wish I knew when I was in high school:
1. Listen, Listen, Listen!
To be an arranger, you are creating something out of someone else’s work. You have to make the best choice that you think will enhance or shed a new light on the song’s story. Therefore, you need to listen to the song as much as possible, as if it is your new favorite song of all time. Each time you listen to it, you likely will hear something different. Your focus may shift from section to section as you start to get ideas, and that’s okay! If you are asking when enough is enough, that is a question that I can only answer by saying when the arrangement is done, that is when you have listened enough. You should listen to the song plenty beforehand, and even have the lyrics next to you to help you plan. However, you should always be listening to the song while you arrange. You may never know what idea will pop in your head while you are listening to the original, a cover or another group’s performance. Using all of these as references to your story as an arranger is okay and encouraged.
2. Learn How to Write Clean Looking Arrangements.
It’s important to look at the format tool on whatever program you write on (Noteflight, Sibelius, Finale, Muscore). You should be able to change either the size of the score, space between measures, system, note size etc... Make sure that you have roughly the same amount of measures in each system if possible. Most programs should let you alter when the break in systems are and that will help a lot with making the score look organized. Additionally, most arrangers choose not to have repeats or codas to reduce confusing page turning. Lastly, make sure that you know how to write rhythms correctly in a measure. Writing rhythms correctly will make it easier for your performers to understand what you are trying to write and will make it easier to perform what you intend in regards to the rhythmic stress of a phrase (ie: use the invisible barline - see instructional video).
3. Transcribe Other Arranger’s Works Into Your Notation Software.
My senior year of high school, I discovered the Nor’easters from Northeastern University and grew obsessed with their arrangements. I was at a loss for words because of how they were able to create such powerful arrangements and rewrite the song almost completely. One day, I decided to sit down and transcribe their arrangement of Counting Stars by ear (with the help of some sheet music to help me with the melody and chords). I learned so much from just that one session of listening and trying to write the parts down correctly. There were a lot of sessions for that one song, and the transcription was not at all close to being correct, but I learned new techniques that arrangers used that I hadn’t learned yet. I learned how to write a simple dance beat in the bass, how to use “catapults” to build momentum when transitioning from one section to another, and about line. All of these things may be advanced for a beginning arranger, but are all things that you can work on developing from the very beginning and start to understand. The longer you implement these types of tools into your arrangements, the more effective their purpose will be when you use them in an arrangement later on in life.
4. Study Vocal Orchestration and Understand How It Affects Your Group’s Capabilities
The most common definition for orchestration is the organization of parts in a score or group, such as how an orchestra’s or band’s ensemble is grouped. The instruments are placed in 1.) a specific order on the page, and 2.) combined together as a specific collection of instruments to create an ensemble. The other definition is the one that I will be referring to, the study of an instrument's range and how its color (characteristic of the sound) is affected within certain sections of their range. Studying how the voice reacts in specific parts of the range will allow you to make smarter and more effective decisions for your group. It will also make you think more cautiously as an arranger, which is good. We don’t want every powerful moment to feature a high soprano belt, it sounds great, but realistically, the soprano voice won’t last an entire song if you have them sing high for an extended period. Make a decision to change the chord around so other parts are in their higher part of their range. Thinking of your groups abilities in regards to the sound you want to get as an arranger will enable your group to physically sing your arrangements over a longer amount of time. The other thing that orchestration will affect in your arrangements is balance. Can you hear every single part? Does the tenor’s high E over power the alto’s E on the first line of the treble clef? (Hint: it does) Thinking like this will allow you to create arrangements that sound more balanced and full. You want to hear every part, and every part should sound supported and not tired.
5. Texture is Everything!
Texture is the how we combine parts to create a specific part or sound. Simply speaking, the most common textures you’ll see in a cappella are Unison, Harmony (the number of notes in the chord can affect texture), Arpeggiation (a chord broken up and having it’s notes played at separate entrances), and Polyphony (Multiple voices singing different notes and different rhythms from each other). Texture is what makes your audience engaged (or not) in an arrangement. The ear gets bored if it hears the same full sounding chorus over and over again. It needs a change in the texture so that it does not get used to the same sound that it hears. A great example of texture in the professionally recorded world of a cappella is “Make it Holy” by OneVoice, arranged by Rob Dietz. Dietz uses the tenors voice as the theme from the guitars arpeggiation in the original recording by The Staves (you’ll hear it if you put the two parts side by side), and uses the other parts of the choir as the other guitar strings that are being plucked and ringed while the soloist sings over it. When they get to the chorus, they all sing in harmony and build a wall of sound that “wakes your ear up” because something new just happened, it’s not the same broken chord anymore. If you got the chance to hear Falconize’s performance of Innocent by Taylor Swift, I used a lot of textural variation in the arrangement, and used Make it Holy as an inspiration for the entire arrangement. Take a listen to the arrangement and look at the score. See what the parts are doing throughout the arrangement.
6. Go to A Cappella Festivals, Reach Out to Your Favorite Arrangers, Collaborate, etc.
One of the most inspiring experiences I had in my a cappella career was attending The Vocal Company’s NXTLVL: ACASWAG. This was a week-long, arrangement focused, a cappella workshop where I got to work with the best in the business and learn about developing my story in arrangements, and identifying my sound as an arranger. I also met my arranging idol, Rob Dietz. I was able to get a one-on-one lesson with him and learn how to write a more effective bass line, something that I was working on since my senior year of high school. This experience literally brought my arrangements to the “next level.” High schoolers can do this too. CASA runs an a cappella festival in Boston called BOSS (Boston Sings) where they have professionals give lectures on topics in a cappella in hopes of bringing your skills up in whatever categories you want. There is also Camp A Cappella out in Ohio which is run by Deke Sharon (Known as “The Father of Contemporary A Cappella”) and is a week long experience where campers will attend a cappella classes throughout the week and have a giant concert at the end where they perform in small ensembles. This sounds exactly like my last festival or experience that will help you, A Cappella Academy. This is run by Rob Dietz, Shams Ahmed (Arranged for the Nor’easters) and Ben Bram (Arranger for the Pentatonix). These camps will introduce you to so many people who will influence your taste and choices as an arranger. Reach out and write a song together, get their input on your songs, do the same for them. You don’t have to learn arranging alone, we are all growing together as arrangers, myself included.
7. Starting Arrangements
Last week I actually made a change to how I start my arranging process. I have always known about this method, but I had my own established method that worked for me and I was comfortable with it. But after an arranging workshop with Shams Ahmed and Ben Brams, I wanted to try it out. Take your song and write out the melody completely. After that, sing yourself a bass line while listening to the melody. Go section by section if needed. This will allow you to create a groove that is very natural to the song. You do not have to get the notes/pitches right either. Just take the root of the chord, and sing the rhythm. Write that into your program and that is your bass line (for now). Notice how I didn’t tell you to look at the sheet music for writing out the bass line. Use your ears and creativity to create the bass line. Only copy things from sheet music if it’s the melody or some cool bass line that you think is important and integral to the arrangement. From now on though, this will be my method: Write the melody in full, sing the bass line and transcribe it. After you have done that, then you can start to work on the inner parts. You may want to go one part at a time, or all the parts at once and have a section done. Whatever works for you is the best way. Do not be afraid to change the melody or bass line too once you start adding in your other inner parts. You can’t make big moments consistently in arrangements if you are not actively changing and adapting what you have.
8. Arrange A LOT
I once told Mr. Grover that I had 30 arrangements written one time in junior year, a year after Falconize started. He was shocked and surprised, and the fact I told him that it would take me 4 hours to write one surprised him even more. Granted, these arrangements were literally the same exact thing over and over and over again. Same rhythms from arrangement to arrangement, same types of random jumps in parts that didn’t make sense in regards to the line, all the things that most beginning arrangers will do. But with each new arrangement, I learned something new, or I wrote a line that I really liked that I would want to use in another arrangement. These are reasons to arrange a lot. You cannot grow if you “stop and go” when trying to learn a craft like arranging. You have to work on your craft regularly so that you are able to develop and improve your skills. Along with arranging a lot, have your group perform your arrangements when possible. Using a piano sound or a choir sound (though I would highly advise against using midi voice sounds) on your notation program and actually hearing the arrangement live are two completely different things and will show you what needs to change. It’s okay and encouraged to make those edits from rehearsal to rehearsal so that you are able to get the sound you want. Shams Ahmed did it constantly with the Nor’easters. It’s how you learn what works and what doesn’t. The more you do it at the beginning, the less you will have to do later on and the more confident you will be in your decisions.
9. Explore Different Methods of Arranging
The leading arrangers in a cappella today arrange strictly by ear. They do not use sheet music, rather they record themselves singing the parts they want in the arrangement. You can easily start this by either using a DAW (Digital Audio Workstation) on your computer like garageband, pro tools, audacity, etc, and importing the original song’s MP3 into that application. You record yourself singing the melody about 2-3 times, record yourself making a bass line about 2-3 times and fill in the inner voices, each voice getting about 2 recordings, all while listening to the original while you are singing. This is a great way to get your ear trained and will show you exactly what your arrangement will sound like before you bring it to your a cappella group. Another great way to record yourself and arrange is using a looping machine. A lot of professionals will use it to start off an arrangement, or they will record themselves singing parts in the arrangement, loop the recording, and try and find something that will work with those parts. The repetition makes it easy to come up with parts fast. Different methods of arranging will allow you to experiment with new musical writing tools that you may not have thought of if you were writing only in a notation program.
10. Be Patient and Take a Break.
As I mentioned, I did arrange 30 songs between Sophomore and Junior year of high school. By the time Senior year came, and Mr. Grover, our president and I were planning our ICHSA set, my creativity was fried. It was harder to make arrangements because I was arranging so much, trying to get to the level of arrangement quality that I saw at the previous year’s ICHSA semifinal. I struggled arranging Better Dig Two, the opener to our third place set at the 2015 ICHSA Finals. During that process, I thought that this song should not be written for a cappella, and would put it off a lot. I got it done, and the end result sounded very good. It got great feedback at Finals in regard to its textural choices, energy driven climax, and opportunity for the soloist to tell the story effectively. If I had taken a break whenever I felt like I was in a creativity slump instead of working through it, the same result would have come with a lot less frustration. I overworked myself when I arranged for a group out in Minnesota once, and my creativity suffered. I took the whole summer off from arranging, and started Innocent for Falconize in 2018 as my first arrangement back from the break. When you are arranging for groups, it is important to give your mind a rest, get good sleep, eat well, and exercise. All of these will affect your brain’s ability to function, affecting your overall creativity. Once you overwork your brain, it takes a while to rebuild your creativity and get back to that level that you were at before. Arrange, Arrange, Arrange, but do it safely.
Billy Carleton Jr was a graduate of Danvers High School in 2015 and was the first PitchPipe of Falconize. Billy received his Bachelors in Music Education (Voice) from the University of New Hampshire in 2019. Currently, Billy serves as the Director of Instrumental Music and A Cappella at A. Crosby Kennett Middle School in Conway, NH and the Choir Director at the Jackson Community Church in Jackson, NH. Billy has arranged for multiple high school, collegiate, and semi professional groups across the United States, notable groups being DHS Falconize, DHS Deception, Salem High School WitchPitch?, UMass Amherst S#arp Attitude (Sing That Thing 2016), and Due North (2018 Chicago Harmony Sweepstakes Champions). If you would like to have Billy come in to work with your group, or arrange for your group, feel free to contact him at Bassaholic1221@gmail.com.