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.


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:


  • 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!

Rebecca Hass

Pianist and composer