What I Learned From My Last Arranging Project, Part 1

I meant to put this post out last week, but I needed some time to rest and process after my performance on February 3 (and I've still only had one day off!) Now that my thoughts have gelled, and I have the time and head space to write again, I'm sharing what I learned from writing and performing my solo piano arrangements of Samba de Orly, Piano Na Mangueira, and Explode Coração.

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As I’d hoped, I felt like these arrangements represented a forward evolution of my work, but this also posed some issues (when doesn’t the creative process do that!) Here’s what I learned:

PART 1: MUSICAL / CREATIVE LESSONS

  • I can get past creative blocks by forcing fluency.

Forcing and creative aren’t usually words I like to use together, but this worked for me in figuring out how to arrange Explode Coração: I had first gotten stuck in a traditional idea of how the original song sounds, with some frevo vibes added. Despite writing the first chorus in a straightforward, uptempo samba enredo manner and liking it, I realized that I didn’t want that feel for the entire song, and didn’t know what to do next. I had done a bunch of improv on it (my usual tactic), but couldn't figure out how to continue in that style without it getting boring. Instead of staying in this rut and panicking (okay, there was a bit of panic), I forced myself to truly participate in the creative process. I numbered a sheet of paper 1-10, and came up with 10 different approaches to the basic melody. This helped me think in different ways to get new ideas I wouldn’t have had otherwise. After playing the second idea, I liked it, but didn't let myself get too attached to it, because fluency is what I was after - who knows when a new awesome idea will present itself! Which leads me to...

  • I can throw out ideas, even good ones.

In the past I’ve often had a scarcity mindset about writing arrangements or compositions - worrying about running out of ideas, and obsessing about saving all of my ideas, improvisations, everything. This time, more often than not, I felt like I had too many ideas, and the issue was more with deciding which ones worked best with each other to present a unified idea. I kept thinking back to this quote from Tom Waits:

“Children make up the best songs, anyway. Better than grown-ups. Kids are always working on songs and throwing them away, like little origami things or paper airplanes. They don't care if they lose it; they'll just make another one.”

I always knew that it worked better not to be too precious with my ideas, and am getting more comfortable with throwing some out, but I still feel pulled to write everything down. But...

  • My approach is changing - I don’t have to write everything down.

I’ve always been someone who straddled the divide between classical and jazz music - I read music extremely well but also enjoy improvisation. Three years ago, when I wrote my first set of Brazilian piano arrangements, 2 choros, I was very precise about writing down every single note. As I’m shifting even more toward playing jazz, I still feel this pull to write things down, so that I don’t forget my ideas, and because I’m such a visual person. It really comes down to having trust that good ideas will come in the moment, which I’m still working on.

  • I don’t need a definitive version of each arrangement, each performance is its own experience.

I still want to write down my arrangements so that I can eventually publish them, so for that, there needs to be some definitive version that ends up on paper, but I can choose and instruct how much freedom the player has (and they can totally ignore my direction if they want, I support that creativity!) Even when I do write out music very specifically, as I continue to play and perform the piece, it changes anyway, according to how I feel like interpreting it that day. Letting go of controlling it so specifically has only helped. So, I’m becoming less convinced about finding “the right notes” to write down - each time is different. This is a long way from where was, say, 10 years ago!

  • One performance represents one stage in the evolution of how I perform that piece.

I used to have more anxiety about each performance being perfect (or at least, up to my very high standards - I no longer have illusions about perfection), and it still sometimes gets the best of me, but I’m more often letting go of being goal-oriented, in favor of being process-oriented. I’m actively trying to shift these self-criticisms into curiosities, like “Oh, that’s interesting that that part didn’t turn out the way I thought it would. What do I need to do differently to make it turn out ___ way?”

  • My perceptions of how I sound while performing can still surprise me.

First, how I feel musical expression internally is still almost always stronger than how it comes across externally. And second, tempos: I’ve been well aware of the performance adrenaline tempo speed-up phenomenon for a long time, but I sometimes have more subtle shifts in tempo that creep up in little spots. This is something I’ve focused on a lot by recording myself practicing, and I did have purposeful tempo shifts in Explode Coração, but I don’t think that I got the pacing to sound quite right. That’ll be the next editing phase before I perform it again.

Here’s the video of my performance on February 3, 2017 at MacPhail Center for Music:

Look for Part 2 next week, with more life/habit/big picture lessons!

My Arranging Process

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I thought that January was going to be more of a mellow month, but it is not - I’m in the midst of finishing 3 arrangements of sambas for solo piano, to be performed at an upcoming concert on February 3. So, I thought I’d take this week to talk about my process for arranging music. I always wish that I had started earlier, but, let’s be real, I’m very motivated by deadlines. To be fair, this time I did start early, I just didn’t sustain that level of effort consistently enough to finish early (sigh). I can only get away with this timeline because I continually play everything I’m writing to try it out as I go - built-in practice.

Right now I’m in the dreaded middle phase (no longer shiny and exciting, you are tired of what you’re working on and think it’s terrible, and maybe you also want to give up). I’ve been here before, and especially in the last year with composing my own pieces more often, I’ve gotten comfortable enough with this aspect of the creative process. I just have to work through it, and if I keep going, I will get to the other side (where I actually like it).

So, here’s how I usually approach writing arrangements:

  1. Select pieces and instrumentation.

  2. Transcribe the melody and chords (unless I already have the music) - I like to do this on paper.

  3. Notate what I’ve transcribed into Sibelius, decide how many times to repeat, and fully lay out each repeat (instead of using repeat signs), so I can fully visualize the whole thing.

  4. Hide all whole rests in the left hand and create line breaks to spread it out so that I can print and write in things at the piano. (If feel like I’m running out of time, sometimes I skip this step, and just arrange directly into Sibelius with my computer on top of the piano.

  5. If it’s a piece I’m not as familiar with, or that’s very complex (like when I arranged Rodrigo’s Concerto de Aranjuez for trumpet and piano, reducing it from the score), then I listen to the original version. Otherwise, I go from my memory, so that I’m not too influenced by others’ versions.

  6. Play and record a bunch of improvisations on the changes, repeating again and again so I can stretch out and try lots of stuff. The repetitions are key - otherwise I don’t usually get to anything good or interesting.

  7. If time, wait a day or longer, and listen to the improvisations and make notes about what ideas I want to use.

  8. Start plugging these ideas into my Sibelius template where I think they should go, not thinking too much about whether it’s the “right place” - it can be easily cut/pasted later.

  9. Once I know the basic ideas to be used in a section, I start playing it and experimenting with different possibilities, pausing to hear in my head what should come next. I go as far as I can, and maybe skip to another section if I get stuck.

  10. Repeat steps 6-8 and 9 as needed until finished.

If I get really stuck, I usually go for a walk or do something to step away (coloring is great for this!), and wait for ideas to present themselves. Sometimes I think I’m a little too methodical in my approach, because my brain likes being sequential, but I’m always looking for new ways to creatively stretch outside of that and think differently.

Right now I’m almost done with Samba de Orly (and should share a video soon), partly done with Piano Na Mangueira, and have a few vague ideas for Explode Coração (Salgueiro’s samba enredo from 1993) - I may be a little crazy for attempting this one, stay tuned!

My Composition Process + A New Video!

I played my choro on this 1878 Bechstein at the Schubert Club Museum in St. Paul when I visited over the weekend - this piano has also been played by Brahms, Bartok, Liszt, and other famous composers and pianists!

I played my choro on this 1878 Bechstein at the Schubert Club Museum in St. Paul when I visited over the weekend - this piano has also been played by Brahms, Bartok, Liszt, and other famous composers and pianists!

In last week’s post about what I’ve been working on, I mentioned that I just completed the second section of the Brazilian choro that I’ve been writing this year - the one that jump-started this blog. Composing as a habit is somewhat new to me, so I haven’t totally figured out my process (and maybe figuring out my process is also a process), but here’s what’s worked for me so far:

This piece started through a challenge that I did in fall 2015: for a month, I wrote a 4-measure snippet of music each day, with the intent of brainstorming tons of ideas that could develop into a full piece. This was really helpful because it let me get started without the pressure of needing to succeed - I could throw away any snippets that I didn’t really like, and could experiment as much as I wanted. I typically came up with ideas either through just sitting down for some random improvisation, or by being quiet and listening to what I might be hearing in my head (a skill and type of focus I am still developing). Some days were harder than others, but committing to doing it every day helped me stay accountable and develop more fluency with getting ideas from my head to paper.

In preparation for sharing a composition at the New Ruckus Composer Night, I went through my dozens of snippets and starred the ones that I thought were best, but I had known that this choro had a future even as I started writing the first few measures, so it was the clear choice. As I started writing, I worked to have a mindset of separating the creator from the judge inside my head (THIS IS HARD!), telling myself that I was just writing a draft that could eventually be changed, but I ended up only making small changes after the initial draft. I worked slowly, writing semi-daily, sometimes only a measure or two at a time until I got stuck, and then would go for a walk to continue my thought process, if possible. The only problem with walking was that if any ideas came to me, I wouldn’t be near a piano to figure them out and write them down! Generally, I could keep humming or repeating the idea in my head until I returned home, but luckily, the one time that a longer idea started to whoosh through my head, I had paper with me, and had to hastily scribble down some DIY staff paper so I didn’t lose it.

There were also times when I got stuck writing the melody, but mostly understood where I wanted the chord progression to go, and I experimented with getting methodical, writing down many different possibilities for those couple of measures. This helped because it forced me to go beyond the first couple ideas that had come to me, and prevented another problem I sometimes have: the first idea getting lodged in my head after repeatedly playing it on the piano, so I couldn’t hear anything else in that spot.

Though I was writing a Brazilian choro, which has some existing conventions for how melody, harmony, and rhythm work, I found my ear drifting toward less diatonic shifts, more whole-tone steps downward, almost reminiscent of Chopin or even Debussy or Ravel. As I went, I thought, “This is weird, but I like it.” My main criteria for what to write next eventually turned from, “Is this good?” to “Do I like how this sounds?”, which felt much healthier, and elicited a piece that I am really liking. I anticipate adding one more section to the piece, since choro form is often AABBACCA, but I haven’t figured out how that should move forward yet. I also let the music continue to evolve as I play it more (and there’s always an element of improvisation in this type of music) - sometimes I originally write something down in a certain way that doesn’t end up being as intuitive to actually play, so I usually wait to notate it in Sibelius until I have a finished draft of at least a whole section.

Here’s a new video that includes the original A section plus the new B section, then back to A again:

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I wish that I had more time and head space to complete pieces faster, but even committing more time to creative music pursuits this fall doesn’t leave me feeling like I have enough. Still, I’ve proved to myself that steady work does lead to finished sections, and eventually finished pieces. I’ll plan on sharing another video once I finally finish the last section!