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The Easy Way to Choose an Arrangement

“Can you recommend a good arrangement of XYZ piece?”

This is often a difficult question to answer. What makes an arrangement “good” for me, may be the exact opposite of what makes it “good” for you. I may like lots of notes; you would prefer a simpler texture. I may like unusual harmonies; you want something that sounds like you expect. I want chords; you want arpeggios. Po-tay-to, po-tah-to.

While there are some objective measures of a good arrangement, often the choice is purely a matter of taste. On the one hand, this makes choosing simple. You just have to choose one you like. There are a couple of other important considerations too, however, and even when you get those right, it’s still a bit of a hit or miss process.

Ideally, you would like to buy an arrangement, knowing that it would sound right to you, be playable for you and not take you too long to learn. 

The good news is that it’s easier than ever to find out what an arrangement sounds like before you buy it. Chances are good that someone has made a YouTube video of it, and even if it’s not a polished performance, you can get a fair idea of what the arrangement sounds like.

One caveat here: do your research carefully. For instance, there are many pieces called “Gavotte” or “Minuet.” Check the names of the composer and arranger carefully so you aren’t listening to the wrong piece.

If you’re looking at a piece of sheet music in a store, there are apps available for your smartphone that can “read” and play the music just from a scan. PlayScore is one of the more familiar ones, but there are others too. It won’t be a beautiful rendition, but at least you can get an idea of the sound of the music.

In evaluating how the piece sounds to you, think about your own expectations for the piece. Are you looking for an arrangement with a gentle, relaxing mood? Would you like something that’s just a bit splashy? You might be surprised at the variety of expression different arrangers can bring to a single piece. 

A good example is “Silent Night.” A quick online search will yield reflective arrangements with simple harmonies and concert versions with brilliant scales and arpeggios. Which would suit your style best? Which would be best for where you expect to play the piece? Although the virtuoso style might be your preference, it may not be the best choice for a contemplative midnight mass.

While it’s not too difficult to discern the sound and mood of a piece, it can be much more challenging to decide if it’s an arrangement that is within your capabilities and time frame for preparation. Sometimes music that looks daunting on the page turns out to be not so difficult to play. Often, though, music that looks disarmingly simple can be deceptively difficult. 

If you’re uncertain about the difficulty level of a piece and your time frame is fairly short, I have two words of advice for you: go easy.  I will explain with a quick story.

When I was young, my piano teacher would occasionally give me popular music, usually standards, to learn, or Christmas carols in the season. She chose arrangements that were up to her musical standards, but those were only the starting point for our work. As I learned the notes of the arrangement, she would also point out places we could “dress things up a bit.” We would add an arpeggio here, a low octave there, perhaps move the right hand up an octave. When we were finished with the piece, I not only had a version that I had “dressed up” with her help, but I had learned about how to create different moods and expression. And of course, that was how I began learning to arrange music myself.

This is my reasoning for choosing an easy arrangement. If you start with an easy arrangement, the structure of the piece is clear. You can see the chords and the melody. This allows you to confidently add more complex chord patterns or melodic decoration. It can be much more challenging to figure out which notes to leave out of a more intricate arrangement. Naturally, you can learn an easy arrangement more quickly, and it can either stand on its own, or it can serve as a springboard for your own creativity.

Over time, you will learn to quickly see which arrangements offer you the opportunity to “dress them up.” And I hope you will discover, as I did, that that is where the fun begins.


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