As a child, I heard people play or sing songs with five or more verses—every verse the same dirge-like tempo, same key, same inflections… The intent of the songs deserved better. I wanted to arrange songs to reflect the message and engage the listener. Now I help my students create arrangements as well.
A very young student might play/sing only one note differently. It’s a start! Perhaps a vocal student has a two-verse song. She goes through the melody twice and ends. Ask her if she can think of a way to change the ending to have more impact. If she can’t think of anything, give an example and have her try it.
Play a repeated passage two ways: once identically and once with a change. Ask which version held his interest, or would keep an audience engaged.
Students singing together might start singing harmony by splitting to a third only on the final note. Starting simply might mean simply making them aware.
List Changes to Make
Ask students to list ways to make a song their own. Here are a few:
- Key change
- Create a bridge
- Quote another piece
- Make a medley
- Change octaves
- Embellish the melody
A good arranging skill is to know how to simplify pieces, enabling them to play music that would otherwise have been out of reach for them (have them play at least the melody and the bass line). This helps if someone throws a song to them at the last minute.
If a student is asked to accompany hymns at church, they will want to develop the ability to arrange as they play (The Hymnproviser or Greg Howlett ). It beats plunking out the four parts on the page. Make sure they know not to alter the harmonization or melody when accompanying a congregation.
Recognize the Audience
Another way to help students create arrangements is to train them to consider their audience. If listeners are musicians, the piece can be as complex as they could wish. They might re-harmonize a song. Experiment. Lengthen it. But an audience of young children or seniors might better appreciate the familiar. And having it kept short!
Recognize the Purpose
The purpose of the performance should determine in what direction the arrangement will go. If the purpose is to show off skills, get flashy. Add a glissando. Arpeggios. Move up and down the fingerboard or keys.
If he’s playing background music for, say, a wedding reception, he can arrange the song to have lots of repeats. He can change the keys of songs if necessary, to flow from one to the next seamlessly.
If she’s playing the wedding processional, help her learn to mark her own spots where she can cut portions or add portions as needed to fit the pace of the wedding party getting to the front. These are facets of arranging.
If playing or singing for a funeral, it might not be appropriate to have a dynamic ending, but rather focus on what would make the piece comforting and sympathetic.
A pair of students wanting to sing a duet need to decide on an arrangement: you take the first verse, I’ll take the second; we’ll sing parts on the third verse and on the chorus. And it might be effective to end in unison.
If students create arrangements, they might simply jot ideas above words or in margins. Or they might write it out in full-fledged notation. Either are legitimate arrangements.
What Happens When Students Create Arrangements
When students create arrangements, they see the music in a new way. They add their own interpretation, their own stamp. The music takes on something of the personality of the musician as well as the composer. They become a part of the creative process, partnering with the composer.
They make it their own.