How to arrange music: part 1 – The basics

Hallo! I’m Harry, the composer half of MusicForMy. Alice is away this week (something about enjoying the wilds of west Wales) so I’m stepping up to shine a light on how I approach my musical arrangements. Whether it’s reducing a pop song to string quartet or a symphony to organ, the way I start is always the same, with extensive listening. When we love a song so much that we want to hear it as we process down the aisle we’re not just thinking about the melodies, we’re thinking about how those melodies make us feel. By listening intently we can strip the song to it’s very core and then build something truly magical.

You see, music is greater than the sum of it’s parts and when we change the arrangement of a piece there is always that danger of collapsing the very thing that makes a song special. When I first started arranging Sibelius’ Symphony no.5 III Allegro for Alice’s wedding I was lucky to have known the piece from a very young age. I think part of the reason Alice chose it was the memories my siblings and I had driving up to Scotland and listening to an old Sibelius cassette as the hills rolled by. Even then, knowing the orchestral piece as I did, difficult decisions had to be made in setting it for organ. The soul of this piece is it’s dynamics and percussion, thrilling you with their intensity and vigour. Church organs (unless you have a super fancy one) tend not to have percussion and really struggle with dynamics. Luckily an organ does has a very ‘percussive’ sound for a split second when you open a pipe, something you can hear for yourself by blowing across a bottle, so I could happily put an approximation of the timpani hits in the bass. Equally I knew that to get that sense of pomp at the beginning I could pull out all the stops and blast out the chord. But then I faced immediate problems with where to place the melody, which neatly brings me to my second point.

Know your instrument. It seems such an obvious thing to say but knowing all the ins and outs of the instrument (or instruments) you are writing for is absolutely vital. Every instrument is different and they all have little secrets that you can exploit to hide their limitations. The organ, as mentioned, can give a sense of percussion even if it can’t make the percussive sound itself. But you must always remember that the organist only has 10 fingers and two feet and you always want to make the music as playable as possible. If using percussive bass lines with the organ I am always careful to make sure I have enough limbs to keep the melody and harmony moving satisfactorily. Another good example of this is my arrangement of Copland’s Fanfare For The Common Man. The original orchestral piece is on the surface very simple, individual brass melodies following each other in beautiful Appalachian harmony. The problem in this case is that the genius of the original is the way it slowly gets thicker and thicker in tonality until the final chords blare out across the octaves. I could only realistically score for 10 notes at once so had to be acutely aware of which hand I needed to put which melody at which time. I also had to make sure that all the counter melodies were present as the interactions they have dictate the harmony and make this piece (at least to Alice) special.  It was no mean feat but with a little trimming and much use of the pedals I managed to create something truly awesome!

So that’s a little primer for you on how I approach my arranging; I always listen intently first and then make sure I know the instrument well enough to satisfactorily make any arrangement a magical experience. Those two rules form the basis of all my arrangements, classical, popular, folk or other, so that at MusicForMy the only limit is your imagination!

If you would like to know more or have a chat about how we can add to your special day, send us an email at harry@musicformy.net.

My favourite dress

My favourite dress is a fabulous sequin number I originally bought for my wedding day. I knew that I wanted to wear a different outfit in the evening and I knew that I wanted sequins. As someone who tries to be frugal, I justified the additional expense as it is the perfect performance dress.

Audiences can be fickle. When entering that stage, you want to immediately grab their attention. A dress made of hundreds of little mirrors paired with super trooper spot lighting is something your audience are going to find hard to miss. And then you will have them in the palm of your hand ready to be wowed by your performance. A sequin dress is a powerful tool for a performer.

This sequin dress of mine is one that I feel invincible in. It is my armour. It protects me from my nerves and gives me confidence. This dress makes me feel amazing which enables me to give the best performance I possibly can.

It is my favourite dress.

Why practice makes (nearly*) perfect

I have never been good at practicing. When I was younger and progressing through the ABRSM grades, I found every excuse not to practice. It was around the millenium and Buffy the Vampire Slayer was a very tempting distraction. But I soon learnt that practice does indeed make (nearly*) perfect and it really is worth putting the effort in.

When we sing, whatever we sing, it should feel effortless. We shouldn’t be worrying about the words, or the notes, or the technique as our full concentration should be on the performance. Practice is the only way to get to this level.

There are many that say it takes 10,000 hours of practice to truly master a skill. Just look at Beyoncé. She is the queen of practice and the result is the amazing performance she is able to give each and every time she is on stage. She commands that stage. She commands that stage because she never stops practicing. And the great thing is that practice is something everyone can do. It takes no money or pre-existing talent, it just takes a bit of time. But as the saying goes, You have the same amount of hours in the day as Beyoncé.

Tips to help with practice

1. Set achievable goals – you won’t be Beyoncé tomorrow if you have only started today. Baby steps.
2. Build practice into your daily routine – do some warm up scales while making your breakfast, or driving to work.
3. Ramp up your practice before a performance and do a rekkie of the venue beforehand – you want to remove all other worries before a performance, so a practice of navigating backstage will focus your concentration on the performance.

*There is no such thing as a perfect performance, so stop worrying that it has to be!  That’s a subject for another blog.