I recently received a phone call from a publisher asking me to arrange a new choral anthem for their next release. They needed it less than two weeks from the initial request. I thought this presented a good opportunity to blog about my workflow for this type of work, and then do a later post with a closer look at how I moved through the process as a case study.
Here’s how my composing/arranging process typically works.
1. The editor presents a request or pitches an idea.
After I was first published in the early 1990’s and my reputation grew, I started receiving requests from my various editors to write specific pieces of music for their publishing companies. These are referred to as “assignments.” Editors usually have an idea of what they want in mind. They are either looking for a particular style of piece to “round out” their next crop of music, or perhaps a previous piece I published with them sold well and they want me to write another one like it.
You may not know that this initial work is done “on spec,” which means I don’t get paid upfront to write the piece. If they don’t like the work you’ve done, or it’s not what they had in mind, they move on. This has happened to me a few times, and I have usually found another publisher to publish the piece later, but it’s not a situation you like to be put in. Assuming they decide to publish the piece, they issue a contract where I surrender my rights to the piece to them in return for an annual royalty (usually 10% of the selling price) on the music’s sales.
2. I research (or create) the source material.
If the requested work is to be an arrangement of an existing song, then I familiarize myself with the source material: the lyrics, melody, and harmonic structure of the song. If the request is for an original, entirely new piece of music, then I get to work creating that. Sometimes I’m given an assigned text to work with, sometimes not.
3. I noodle (brainstorm) ideas.
After I have learned (or created) the melody and the song’s basic harmonies, I’ll usually sit down at the piano and begin “noodling.” I might try a variety of “feels,” or styles. This is an experimental phase where I’m basically “playing around,” and not critiquing myself too closely. I still listen as I play, however, and see if some idea catches my ear and inspires me or excites me to keep developing that particular musical idea.
4. I begin notating the music on the computer.
Once I have anything to work with, which may be only a few measures of a piano groove, I will get started notating the score on the computer. I may not start at the “beginning” of the piece (the introduction) but just dive in with what I have so far. Getting started can help spur me on to the next idea, and to feel like things are now underway. I use Make Music’s Finale notation software, which I’ve been using since the early 90’s. I usually use a publisher’s choral score template that is laid out to look like the final product, and work in “scroll view,” where all the music continually scrolls to the right on the screen, which feels a bit like “follow the bouncing ball.” I tend to input notes via “speedy note entry,” where I hold down notes on my piano keyboard with one hand, and then press a number key on my computer keyboard to tell it what kind of a note value it should be. I dream of the day where I can play a piano part in real time and it all magically appears on the screen, but that’s not how it works at this time.
5. I consider and vary musical ideas as the piece develops.
As I develop the piece, I look to bring in some variety to keep things interesting. If I start the piece with a solo, I may next have the choir enter in parts. Sometimes I’ll go back to the noodling phase, using what I have already notated as a starting point. What could the piano do next to bring a little surprise or change of pace to the piece? Often I end up more or less mentally mapping out ideas (key change here, dynamic contrast there) in my head, and then I go back and notate it on the computer. It definitely feels like I’m “following” my muse sometimes, listening to where the music seems to “want” to go. Frequently, it is a series of stops and starts: work on this section for awhile, take a break, review what I’ve written, then move on.
6. I have self-doubt, then revise and edit.
Sometimes I may not have definitively decided on a musical idea, even after I’ve written it down. I may come back to it after a break or the next morning and think, “That’s not really working for me now.” Depending on how confident I’m feeling I may delete a whole section of the piece, or cut and paste it to the very end of the document so it’s “out of the way” but still available to re-visit, or I’ll do a “Save As…” where I can keep the original version in case I change my mind again.
This process of noodling, notating, and editing repeats until I “finish” the arrangement: first in my head most likely, and then on the computer. I will frequently let the computer play back what I’ve written as I go to see if I like what I hear. Sometimes I won’t, so I’ll go back and make changes. When I have entered all the notes for the music, I’m what I consider “half-done.”
7. I add in the details.
I will often add some articulations (especially to the piano part) as I move through the notating process (like an accent or staccato marking) to get the computer playback sounding more like what I have in mind and less robotic. But once all the notes are officially “in,” then I go back and add all the lyrics, dynamics, articulations and expressive markings (like “ritard,” or “a tempo,” etc.). This can get tedious sometimes. Every two syllable or greater word gets hyphenated in choral music, so I’m often checking a spelling dictionary to see how to hyphenate words like “Father.” Is it: “Fath-er,” or “Fa-ther?” (Spoiler alert: It’s the latter.) I also try to remember to sing through each choral part individually to see if my voice-leading could be improved. This is a great way to get a feel for what each voice part will be doing during the song, and what singing the piece will feel like for them as a singer, in contrast to how the piece heard as a whole when performed by the entire choir.
8. I adjust the visual layout of the score.
In “Page View” in Finale, I can see how the score will look on actual paper. Sometimes the software attempts to crowd too many measures on a page, or the opposite can happen: a page will only have 2 measures. This step is largely a visual editing process, making sure everything looks appropriate. Are there any lyrics that are touching the note heads? Does that crescendo sign overlap a lyric? There are lots of little things to look out for and adjust.
9. I print out the sheet music.
This is another step to check the physical layout of the score, and to see if I missed anything when I was viewing the music on the computer. Sometimes my eye catches things when I’m holding a physical copy of the score that it missed on the computer. I go back and correct any formatting issues and print it again.
10. I send it off to the editor!
When I can’t find any more corrections, and I’m happy with how it sounds, then it’s time to send the piece on its way! I usually include the Finale file (so the editor can listen to the computer playback) and a pdf so they can print it out easily.
11. I wait to hear back from the editor.
Ah, the fun part: the waiting begins! Will the editor love it? Like it? Hate it? Ask me to make a bunch of changes? I’ve had all of these responses, and it goes with the territory.
12. I make revisions (or not) to the music at the editor’s request.
Apparently some composers are very averse to having their music edited, but I take the view that the editor is the one who will be advocating and promoting the piece, and he/she knows the needs of their particular market better than I do. If the editor believes I need to re-voice a chord, or make it a unison, or take out some of my oh-so-hip chords, then I’m usually okay with that (up to a point). Sometimes I feel more strongly about making a change, and I will say something like, “I’m not comfortable doing that,” but I try to be as accommodating as I can. If they have any tweaks, they are usually minor ones, and not a big deal to me.
13. I review proofs of the music.
Once the piece is in its mutually-agreed-upon final form musically, it is sent to an engraver who makes sure that everything is laid out according to that publisher’s style. Each publisher has “their” look and way of doing things. I don’t have to worry about that when I’m composing or arranging the piece, but I try to do things the “right” way to make the engraver’s job easier. I usually get a final proof before the piece is printed to check for any errors or oversights. At some point, the piece is recorded for use in their promotional materials, but I’m not usually involved in that part of the process.
14. I sign the contract.
After that, the next time I think about the piece will usually be when either I get the contract to sign in the mail or when I get a few free copies in the mail once the music has been printed! You might think that the contract would be signed earlier in the process, at least before I receive a set of proofs, but for some reason, most publishers I work with are slow to get contracts issued. I have even signed contracts after the piece has been printed.
And there you have it! From the editor’s phone call (or email) to the final product!
Is there anything about the process that surprised you? Anything you’d like to know more about? Let me know in the comment area below!
P.S. Next up: A Choral Arranging Case-Study: ROOM AT THE WELCOME TABLE, where I will go detail each of these steps for you with a real-life example!