What is music arranging?
Arranging music simply means taking existing music and making it playable on your instrument or for your ensemble. Good reasons to arrange might be to make a piece easier to play. Or convert music originally written for an ensemble so as to be played on a solo instrument, possibly with accompaniment. Although arranging can be a highly complex skill, it is also realistically within the grasp of every music teacher and most music students. Also, it’s great fun!
I have personally found that arranging pieces especially for my students has given me a USP (unique selling point) to help me market my music teaching business. The idea that a prospective student can learn any song they want at the skill level they are at, is an extremely appealing reason to start having lessons. I also enjoy arranging as it is often very creative without the pressure to compose something from scratch. Encouraging students to try their hand at arranging is a practical way for them to develop their theory knowledge and creative skills. How proud they are to perform their arrangement to others.
Where do you start?
I would strongly recommend arranging on a computer using Sibelius or Finale. These are industry standard notation software packages that many school age students will encounter and will perhaps need some assistance to use for end of school/college coursework. Also, it is worth mentioning NoteFlight, a free browser based notation software that also produces excellent results and is a great starting point for teachers and students alike. Pupils can login in their lessons to access their work on the teacher’s computer.
Firstly, I try to gather as much material as possible. A recording, some existing sheet music, a video on YouTube – whatever is available that might help build an arrangement.
• Will your arrangement be in the original key so your students can play along eventually? Or is the key to complex for their skill level? Don’t be tempted to dumb down. The motivation in the student will be high to learn the piece and this could help them reach new heights of music reading.
• From early into the project, work out the melody. That is often the main element around which the rest of the arrangement can be built.
• If you are writing a solo for a polyphonic instrument like piano or guitar then the next step is to develop a bass line. On the simplest level, use the root notes of the chords.
• Once the melody and the bass line is established, start adding internal harmony according to the ability of the student.
• Where the melody is busiest, keep the accompaniment simple. At the end of phrases in the melody is a good place to make the accompaniment more complex.
• Try it out! Often the music might look fine on the screen but presents playability challenges that need resolving.
• Keep the file for the project safe so you can edit the arrangement further as you experience first-hand pupils reaction to what you have written. I often spot areas for improvement both from a musical and playability point of view so the arrangement can keep evolving over time.