Approaching New Arrangement II – The Singer

Aug 15

Approaching New Arrangement II – The Singer

The Human Factor

In my last post I wrote about my conception for new arrangements. That post was purely a musical one; this time I want to discuss the human aspect of the equation.

As a professional arranger, you are commissioned to write arrangements as a service provider. In some cases you will be hired by the same artists who will be performing the song in a concert or in a recording studio. In other cases you might be hired by a third party: a festival production, musical institution (e.g. opera house) etc. Many talented and inexperienced arrangers fail to understand the significance of the human factor in this process. Eager to prove their skills and their creativity, young arrangers sometimes forget that there are other artists involved in the process: the singer, the orchestra and last but not least – the audience. This post will deal with the singer.

The Singer Comes First

The singer is the person who is going to be on the stage. Everyone’s eyes and ears will be focused on him or her. Should the third chair in the second violin section is out of tune for a moment, most people won’t notice. But if the singer doesn’t feel absolutely comfortable with the arrangement, it will severely damage his/her performance and, be sure, the audience will notice.

First Meeting

Creating a good relationship with the singer is extremely important. Even if you have one meeting with him/her before starting to write, make this meeting meaningful. Little things, like arriving a few minutes earlier, dressing up appropriately, being polite and kind, and, most importantly: curb your ego and first let the singer express what he/she has to say to you. The purpose of the meeting is for them to let you know what’s important for them and for you to be attentive to. This is a very important thing to understand: a singer who performs with an orchestra, especially for the first time, doesn’t have a clue of what the song will sound like. The singer can’t know, and doesn’t even know how to approach singing in this particular context. The singer will most likely have 2-3 rehearsals before the concert/recording, and that’s it. All of this huge artistic and financial responsibility is in your hands. So let the singer speak; listen to what he/she has to say.

Many of you now may ask: “But what about my ideas, my artistic integrity?” my answer to you is: “be patient.” Over the years I have worked with some singers who raised ideas and demands that were impractical, artistically unacceptable or simply wrong. In most cases, these ideas and demands result from their applying non-professional terms or their misinterpretation of professional ones. We must keep the conversation professional. If a singer uses metaphors, ask him/her exactly what he/she means by them: what does it mean musically. Don’t think you can translate their words into music, because you can’t, music is abstract. A certain melody could express sadness to you and happiness to the singer. A certain chord progression could be very pleasant to your ears, and tense and dissonant for someone else. So ask the singer to give you examples of other songs that use similar musical language. Let the singer talk as much as he/she wants. Don’t end the meeting until you are convinced that you fully understand what he/she wants or, at least, what he/she thinks he wants. Beyond the musical details, listening and understanding the singer is about gaining his/her trust. You shouldn’t promise that you’ll do everything he/she wants; this is not your job. Your job is to understand what the singer wants, and then do what’s right.

Doing What’s Right

Once you know what the singer wants, it’s your job to write the best arrangement possible. The two things, by the way, might and might not work together. Now it’s all about writing good music. If the singers could write the arrangement on their own, they’d probably do it. Singers approach you because they can’t, or because they seek your input and taste. They want you to make their song better. So after you considered all their wishes, you must be as precise as possible in the writing process. Sometimes it means that you should dismiss some of their requests. In most cases, the more experienced the singer, the more relevant are the requests, and the more are they complimentary to the song. In other cases you will be surprised to see how remote can you go artistically from the singers requests, presenting a sketch they’d never imagined they want, but eventually falling in love with it and desiring nothing else. You do not need to speak much before presenting the music; simply provide a damn good result. There is no guarantee that the singer will always love your work, and in many cases you will have to make changes here and there. But you can be sure that creating the right atmosphere in the preliminary meeting, helping the singer to understand he/she is in good hands, personally and professionally, will help you convince him/her to take your word and your work without hesitation. Important: Never apologize before presenting a sketch! Do everything you can to create the most sincere and accurate work. It will be very difficult to convince the singer that some things will sound better with the orchestra, because the singer can’t know what ‘better’ means; better in what way? He/she must be certain where you are heading.

Always save your first version

Listening to a song in a totally new arrangement can be intimidating for singers who are used to sing their song for years in a certain arrangement. Countless times did I receive angry, dissatisfied reactions after sending a sketch to a singer. “It’s not what I wanted” is the most common claim. When I was younger I immediately began writing them back a heaps of words to, explaining them why they are wrong, and why the things they want are don’t do the song a good service… You must understand these reactions, the singer’s and your, are mostly emotional. Nowadays, I usually tell the singers I’m writing for to wait three days before they say what they think about the arrangement. I ask them to listen to the arrangement at least 5-6 times, let themselves fall in love with it. To myself I keep reminding to never reply immediately to the singers’ criticism (in case they have any). Nobody likes their work criticized badly, we must enable ourselves to look at things unemotionally, to address the criticism from the most neutral and professional point of view. In many cases in recent years, the same singers who weren’t satisfied with the sketch at first called me few days later, and said they have changed their mind after listening to it a few more times. Delaying or restraining my response to their initial criticism, and avoiding an emotional debate prevented us both from climbing on a tree from which we would find it difficult to descend.

If you keep things professional, in 99% of cases you’ll both be happy with the result. In the next posts I will talk a bit about the two other elements: the orchestra and the audience.

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