Directing Collegiate Acappella: Arranging

This is the first in a series, putting together the knowledge I gained while directing the UC San Diego Tritones acappella group. This article describes what I believe is a director’s role when it comes to arrangements.


Why you shouldn’t arrange

Consistency of arrangements is perhaps the most important aspect of being a music director. Singers join a group to create great music, and it is incredibly important that the group can expect success when the arrangement is learned. Good arrangements mean that the group has a consistent payoff at the end of learning an arrangement; if they know it will sound awesome by the end, they will work harder in getting to that point because it feels good to improve towards a goal. In addition, consistent strong arranging buys time for arrangers to experiment and try more interesting ideas, because a group trusts that the song will sound good.

However, the away to achieve this consistency is not to write all of the arrangements yourself. Although this chapter about arranging, you should be arranging as little as possible. As a director, you really don’t have the time for this. It takes away time from rehearsal prep, and lowers the overall consistency of arrangements. Not arranging is very difficult to maintain in practice, because the music director often is the person most invested in the music of the group, and has the most drive to write arrangements. Writing arrangements takes a large amount of time, and any music director that is writing them from scratch will not produce enough arrangements for the group to learn, except for maybe the most prolific arrangers (or those that have all the time in the world). This is mainly because the more time you spend writing them, the better your arrangements are, and the easier and faster they become to learn.

The solution to this is difficult to implement, but better for the group. Your arrangers’ jobs are to make really cool sounding arrangements. Your job is to make those arrangements fun to sing, and easy to understand.

Arranging for the Audience

Song Choice #

Proper song choice is super important for immediately changing how a song is perceived. Covers give the opportunity to play with an audience’s expectations of how it should sound. Original songs give your group the opportunity to express themselves in a more fluid way without expectations.

Covers of songs no one has heard are dangerous: they create a dependency on using other peoples’ songs, while removing the ability to play with an audience’s expectations. It inhibits a group from singing originals, and I would say that groups should avoid these songs, until they feel comfortable singing original songs.

Vowel and Consonant Choice #

The voice is the most flexible acoustic instrument in the world. The pallet of sounds that the human voice can produce is criminally underutilized in acappella music. You Literally don’t even need to change any notes or rhythms to make an arrangement more fun to sing.

Sing Words, Dammit!

Try this: take any arrangement of “Jeng“s and “dm“s and replace them all with words. Although this is more difficult to apply for some things than others (bass voices come to mind), overlapping words between parts creates immediate interest for an audience, while being dead-simple for a group to sing.

Playing with Vowels

Another technique that is underutilized is the vowels. Change vowels in the middle of a note (start a note singing eh, and end the same note singing oo). Have parts singing different vowels at the same time. DO SOME WEIRD SHIT.

Create Dynamics

It’s incredibly easy to arrange dynamics into a piece with acappella music. mm’s and nn’s will be quieter than oo’s, which will be quieter than oh’s and ah’s. Use this to your advantage. If a part needs to stand out, put them on stronger vowels or on words. If a part needs to barely be heard, give them something that’s closes their mouths more.

Arranging for the Singers

Arrangements NEED to be fun to sing for any group to be good. Boring arrangements create bored singers, which create uninspiring and forced performances. Difficult arrangements can take much longer to learn and be hard to execute, creating sloppy and nervous performances. No matter how cool an arrangement sounds if sang absolutely perfectly, no one will care if the singers don’t care. As a director, you need to find a balance of interest and difficulty that is maintainable for singers and arrangers, but creates a good environment for singers to learn music. We will be discussing some of the techniques that can help with this.

Everything should have a melody #

If you talk to anyone who has sung great choral music about how they remember a song, it’s more likely they remember their own part, rather than the actual melody of the song. A lot of choral music does a great job at giving melodic relevance to every part of a group.

Since contemporary acappella has started focusing on pop music, a greater focus has been put on the solo line of a song. The downside of this is that poor arranging can relegate a lot of parts to singing boring and repetitive “jeng jeng” and “dmm dmm” lines. Those parts are there for no reason but to create a chord for a soloist to sing over. Basically it’s boring as hell to sing, and nobody has fun. Creating fun melodies is also the best way to engage basses, who so often have the mind-dissolving 5-note patterns that repeat until the end of time.

Basically, strive to be the group that makes every line not boring. The more fun people have, the more they enjoy practicing, the better they get, and the even MORE fun they have. It’s a never-ending loop of awesome, and it all starts with the arranging, so eschew boring lines like the plague. GIVE DEM SINGERS WORDS, MELODIES, AND INTERESTING SOUNDS.

Recording Arrangements #

It’s really difficult to hear how a song will sound without hearing the vowels and consonants in action. Whenever possible, record arrangements to make sure that a song is singable and sounds the way you expect it to.