These days, more and more groups are arranging their music in house, especially in scholastic a cappella groups. Purchasing arrangements from the pros isn't going out of style anytime soon, and professional arrangements can be great tools for studying vocal arranging and getting into it yourself! For beginners and veterans alike, one of the most tried and true ways to improve your arranging is to talk about it with other arrangers.
Elliott von Wendt finessed his a cappella career at Berklee College of Music, where he took the reins as music director for the school’s all-male group, the CharlieChords. During his tenure, he brought them from modest beginnings to ultimately placing at 2015 Northeast ICCA Semifinals. After graduating, Elliott continues to mentor and arrange for many groups in the Boston area and beyond. Currently, Elliott serves as music director, arranger, and bass for The Nor’easters, most recently bringing them to to their win at the 2017 ICCA Finals.
Elliott’s training at the prestigious Berklee College has given him a rich musical palette — he has experience arranging and performing classical, jazz, pop, and electronic styles of music and is dedicated to making every arrangement he works on specially tailored to the unique singers in the group.
We reached out to Elliott to give us some of his insight on a cappella arranging and how to bring out the best in your arrangements by sharing some of his own experiences.
When I start a new arrangement, I find myself getting stuck after notating the parts of the arrangement I’m most passionate about. How do I build a cohesive arrangement around a simple idea?
I think the best way to do this is to have a simple idea in the first place. I like to comb through the original song, remixes of the song, non a cappella covers, anything, just to find the “golden egg” that sets the tone for the arrangement. It could be a phrase in the lyrics, a melodic line, chord progression, anything in the song that grabs you and makes you want to hear more.
As for getting stuck after notating a part of an arrangement you’re most passionate about, my advice would be to take notation out and try layering yourself in a recording program to inspire yourself. Arranger’s block is DEFINITELY real, but a lot of the time, arranging in a recording program and THEN notating forces you to think creatively and come up with new ideas. Of course, everyone has their own individual process for arranging. To those who notate first and sing after the fact - good for you!
When it comes to competition, I find myself trying to emulate the arrangements of past winners. How do I create an arrangement that sets my group apart from what everyone else is doing?
Emulation is a great place to start! If you hear an arrangement that really moves you, transcribing it (or bugging the arranger to send you the sheet music and doing score study) can be an incredibly effective in figuring out the technical aspects to WHY the arrangement worked the way it did, and help you eventually find your own arranging style.
A word of caution though: if you want to emulate an arrangement or group, make sure you’re emulating for the sake of musical improvement and/or inspiration, and not just because you think emulating the group will make you win ICCA/a CARA/whatever.
For the technical side of the question, I think it ties into the first question quite a bit. Figuring out what the “golden nugget” is can absolutely help you put your own unique spin on the arrangement.
As an example: Say you’re arranging Elastic Heart. After hearing all the millions of a cappella covers of this song, you want to make your own version, but you can’t get a certain beginning of a version of the song out of your head: “AH! …AH! …AH! NO AH!” You can absolutely use that motif (which is in the original song), but as a challenge, try looking for another thing in the song that you can use as your “golden egg”. By making that new element the main motif, that automatically pushes you to arrange the song differently than just adding to the sea of “AH! NO AH NO AH WON’T GIVE UP!” alto lines (Don’t @ me, every group).
One of my favorite things about some groups is their ability to take me out of a groove with a really cool moment, and then jump right back into the groove. What advice do you have for creating moments in an arrangement?
The funny thing is, creating this effect is easier than one might think. Many times, arrangers will see their perc and bass as “cruise control”, just doing their thing throughout the whole arrangement with no breaks and no variation. The rhythm section consists of vocalists, just like the rest of your group. And just like how you wouldn’t write an arrangement where the alto 2s (always gotta pick on the alto 2s) are singing the same rhythmic figure or note for 32 measures with no breaks (I would hope), giving the rhythm section room to breathe can be very effective. (It also allows them to, you know, breathe.)
As a jumping-off point, try taking away perc and bass for one measure near the end of a phrase, then have them jump back in at the beginning of the next section. Try doing the same with the entire group, just having the soloist by themselves on the last phrase of the verse. To sum this up, sometimes the key to creating effective moments is subtracting. Less is more!
My group doesn’t have the most theory-inclined members, so we buy arrangements from professionals. But sometimes we can’t perform everything in the arrangement as well as we think we should. How do we tailor a purchased arrangement to our group’s abilities?
There are two ways I can think of to go about this. If you (the MD I’m assuming) have arranging knowledge, it is 100% okay to change things in an arrangement that don’t work. The first way to do this is in rehearsal. Even if you know your members’ voices really well, you don’t have their voice, so you won’t know exactly what sounds good until you hear them singing. If there’s a part that does not sound good (a complicated rhythmic pattern was written in and the section singing it can just never get it, for example), work in rehearsal with the section to see how you can simplify the part so that it sounds great with the people you have.
The second way is to see if you can get the arrangement edited. Many times, the arranger can absolutely make edits to the arrangement. Otherwise, get it edited professionally. TVC has an arrangement editing service which is preeeetty neat. #ad
Either way, it’s important to remember that the human voice is an individualized instrument that doesn’t have a set range or timbre, like a saxophone or violin. Every person in your group has their own range, timbres, breaks, strengths, and weaknesses. They key to a good performance is taking the arrangement, whether from the group arranger or professionally done, and adapt it to YOUR singers so as to maximize their strengths and hide their weaknesses. Why would you sing something that you know doesn’t sound good in your voice?
(One caveat: this isn’t to say that if a group can’t sing the arrangement after running through it twice, to immediately change/have the arranger change everything to whole note “doo”s. This is more about things in the arrangement that don’t work for a particular singer - like if some people are noticeably bad at singing intricate rhythms, put them on another part or simplify the rhythm, rather than getting them to learn the rhythms only to perform them about 70% correctly.)
And lastly, what advice do you have for people who want to get into vocal arranging? Are there any tips or tricks that have helped you along the way?
1. SING YOUR ARRANGEMENTS! It doesn’t matter if you don’t think you’re the best singer in the world. Singing your arrangements not only is the best way to proofread and make sure you wrote things that are actually singable by real humans, it also does WONDERS for your creativity by thinking of the music as it’s happening and not while looking at notation and trying to figure out how to not write whole notes.
2. BE OPEN TO FEEDBACK FROM THE GROUP! Nothing you write will ever sound 100% perfect in someone’s particular voice, as I mentioned above. Work with your singers and come up with alternatives if the line you wrote for them doesn’t sound good. The result? You have a better understanding of that individual’s voice, AND you’ll have an arrangement that is performed at its maximum capacity.
As for tips and tricks: Don’t only look at choral music to know how to write for vocals. Look at orchestral and band music. Look at film music. Listen to lots of different genres. Avoid writing low thirds between basses and baritones. Don’t write for the girls too high.
Oh, did I mention: SING YOUR ARRANGEMENTS!