My Arranging Process

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!

Rebecca Hass

Pianist and composer