What is Arranging?
Arranging could be called “re-arranging” because it involves changing music from one form to another, creating a new arrangement of preset parts. For example, Liszt arranged (translated, transcribed) Beethoven’s Symphonies so that two pianists could play them together. Often, difficult piano pieces are arranged so that beginners can play a semblance of them.
The most common kind of arrangement is a familiar song transformed into a piece for solo piano. When we play the melody of Greensleeves on a piano, we lose all the fine lyrics. As a result, the piece becomes less interesting on repeats. Part of the art of arranging is making a piece sound fresh on the repeats, “re-arranging” the harmony or style to keep the melody full of life.
For our purposes here, “arranging” will be refer to arranging familiar songs and themes for solo piano, at the piano. Arranging at the piano means using one’s knowledge of chords to turn a tune or theme into a satisfying piano piece. This can be folk tunes (Silent Night, Danny Boy), songs from musicals (Memory, Somewhere), popular “standards” (Over the Rainbow, Yesterday), hymns (Amazing Grace, Abide with Me), or pop tunes that will come into existence tomorrow. Arranging also means being able to convert orchestral themes such as Blue Danube Waltz and Canon in D into piano pieces. (Commercial arrangements are often too simple, too complex, or lacking in some other respect.) It also means being able to quickly make an accompaniment for a singer, or instantly make an artful arrangement from a “fake book.”
Arranging: The Most Practical Musical Art
Why should piano students (and their teachers) learn how to make their own arrangements at the piano? Because these various abilities allow pianists to make both art and—amazingly!—cash. As long as people give parties, have weddings, and plan other special events, pianists will be asked to perform familiar tunes, either solo or with others. That’s why I call arranging the most practical of the musical arts. Very few people can make a living from the arts of interpreting, composing, or improvising, but I have known a number of pianists (including myself) who have kept their landlords and stomachs happy by playing arrangements at public events.
When I took a two-year sabbatical from teaching in my late twenties, I supported myself for two years working as a pianist. In addition to playing at church services, I played for corporate events at various hotels and resorts, holiday parties, weddings, receptions, funerals, anniversary parties, birthday parties, retirement parties, and special dinners. I accompanied singers and I played in a dance band on a cruise ship (not as glamorous as it sounds). Once I even provided music for a high-class dog show at the local Hyatt Regency hotel! I had an agent, and I paid her 20% to find me such “gigs.” Though I would often play at events where no one paid much attention, I usually left feeling that I had added something significant to the event—and to my pocketbook. I still play at Bill Gates’ home every May for an annual event. It’s quite nice to get paid to attend this gala event and play a freshly tuned Steinway B!
To play at such events, one does not play Bach Fugues or Chopin Ballades. The job requires a different kind of music and a different skill set. Yet, these abilities are not taught in most music lessons. I once met a teacher who has a Doctorate of Musical Arts (DMA) in piano performance. She told me that she has five friends who also have DMA’s from top music schools. All five of them are now either selling insurance or unemployed. She went on to say that these friends were rigorously trained to become concert pianists, but none were taught how to become piano teachers or professional pianists/arrangers.
We ought to provide our students with a basic training in arranging so that they may become well-rounded, satisfied musicians. Even if they don’t want to work as a musician, they should at least be able to artfully turn their favorite tunes and themes into something of their own. It’s part of being a whole musician.
We become much more effective teachers when we know how to make arrangements for our students. Many times, I have taken a sheet-music version of a song that has ugly blocked chords and changed them into Chopin-style chords. Within minutes, the piece is transformed into something that sounds rich, flowing, and resonant.
Many commercially available arrangements of popular songs are not all that pianistic or even attractive. As one advances at the piano, this becomes the case more often. Advanced pianists want to play complex arrangements that sound fuller, yet the commercial arrangements are written at an intermediate level. We need to know how to create arrangements that fit our abilities, our hands, and the moment.
A Lost Art
The art of arranging, like improvisation, was a staple of concerts before 1850. A pianist such as Liszt would fill his program with arrangements of operatic themes and improvisations on popular themes. However, pianists began to devote themselves to the masterworks about this time, and the art of interpretation became king. Arrangements began to be perceived as second-rate compared to original masterworks, and pianists quit programing them despite their immense audience appeal.
Though arranging and improvising left the concert stage, they never disappeared. They continued to thrive among other kinds of musicians. And now, we can see them returning to the classical stage. An example is the duo-piano team of Andersen and Roe who devote most of their concerts to playing their own fascinating arrangements of classical themes.
Teaching the Art of Arranging
How can this skill be learned and taught?
I wrote the Chord Play series so that piano students and their teachers would be able to learn the art of arranging in an artful, step-by-step way. Here’s a quick overview of the Chord Play approach.
Since an arrangement always begins with someone else’s melody, the student first learns to play simple tunes, either by ear or by reading. (Every musician should be able to play by ear as well as by eye. It not only deeply enriches one’s musical experience, it can prevent public humiliation. Anyone who has been asked to play “Happy Birthday” at a party knows that!) The student then learns to add bass notes to the melodies, then fifths, then simple, root-position triads.
At this point, the art of arranging (and the real fun) begins. Every chord can be played in countless ways and styles. I tell my students that a chord is a family of notes. C major, for example, is made of C, E, and G. As shown below, you can play these three notes as Mozart or Alberti might have, or as Scott Joplin, Chopin, or even as Fats Domino! As long as you are playing only C, E, and G, it’s still a C major triad.
So, the student learns to play root-position triads in various styles such as ragtime, boogie-woogie, jump bass, and simple “Chopin style.” Jingle Bells, for example, can become a respectable piano piece once the tune is set in ragtime or boogie-woogie style. Danny Boy sounds much better when played in a simple Chopin style. With this knowledge, students are able to quickly make quite satisfying arrangements of many traditional Christmas songs, folk tunes, and hymns, since these tunes are often harmonized with just a few simple triads.
Once students can play triads in a variety of styles, the next step is to add new tones to these simple chords to change the “color” of the harmony. In other words, we add new members to the chord family. To make a minor chord sound more “minory,” we can add a second to the chord, the note a whole step above the root. (See below.) This same technique also works to make a major chord sound more “majory.” In Chord Play 3, students learn how to make a major triad sound more “minory” by adding the major seventh to the chord. (Play B instead of a C with your right hand. ) To make a minor chord sound more “majory,” add a minor seventh. (Add B-flat to a C minor triad.)
The student also learns how to “substitute” new chords for the usual ones. For example, the student can play an A minor triad instead of repeating a C major triad. A person can make an arrangement called Unhappy Birthday by playing the tune of Happy Birthday and substituting minor chords for the usual major ones.
The art of arranging largely consists of these three main techniques (styling, coloring, and substituting) combined in increasingly complex ways. In Chord Play 2, students learn about inversions and new ways of styling chords. They play arpeggios with the left hand and make song accompaniments by playing chords and inversions with their right hand. In Chord Play 3, the student learns how to play 7th chords in a variety of styles and “voicings.” Chord Play 4 explores “chromatic connecting chords” that add chromatic movement and dramatic interest to tunes. These include secondary dominants, diminished chords, diminished 7th chords, and augmented triads. InChord Play 5, the student learns to arrange with rich, complex 9th, 11th, and 13th chords. This involves adding more and more tones to the basic major and minor triads, and exploring ways to play all these tones so they sound resonant rather than clunky.
And so, in a progressive way, students (and their teachers) learn the art of arranging and develop valuable musical abilities along the way. They learn about harmony by creating music. They learn familiar tunes and develop a repertoire that can be performed in a variety of settings. They learn to play by ear, read lead sheets, and create accompaniments on the spot. In short, they learn to be more complete musicians and artists.
Piano teachers need to provide their students with a basic training in arranging so that they may become well-rounded, satisfied musicians. It is worth remembering that the fathers of the three B’s (Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms) all worked as musicians in their communities, and none were concert performers. Only a relatively few can make a living as a concert musician, but many can enrich their communities and their finances by becoming arrangers and performers. Why not your students? Why not you?
The Difference Between Arranging and Composing
The arts of arranging and improvising are often confused, and this is understandable. Jazz musicians and others will often start out by playing their own arrangement of a song, and then they will improvise new melodies over the chord progression. In this way, the two arts merge.
However, I think it is important for teachers to maintain the distinction. To teach improvisation with Pattern Play is to recognize the role that intuition plays—it is not necessary for the student to know anything consciously to do it at first. To teach arranging with the Chord Play approach is to recognize the place of theoretic knowledge. The teaching of improvising with PP is more feeling-based and non-intellectual, while arranging relies on knowledge of harmony and involves more thinking and more formulaic work. The art of arranging involves understanding chords in a deep way, enough to use them artfully to change a piece from one form to another.
Here’s another way to think of the difference: improvising began with an unknown melody, whereas arranging begins with a familiar melody.
A More In-Depth Discussion of Teaching Arranging
The art of arranging always begins with a tune, then brings in chords. Let’s talk about melody first, then harmony.
Arranging requires us to have at least a basic understanding of harmony (chords). So how can we teach this art to absolute beginners, or even experienced musicians who have no knowledge of chords?
Learning Tunes by Ear
Beginners can’t read music. We could teach them to play melodies by rote, but rote teaching, though efficient, doesn’t help the student to develop reading ability or the ability to play by ear. So, we ask beginning students to learn to play tunes by ear. In this way, they begin training their ears in a way that is natural, practical, and quite musical.
The first lesson is a perfect time to begin developing a student’s ear and cultivating her ability to make choices—the foundation of later creative activities. If a person isn’t encouraged from the beginning to trust her own ears and make choices based on what she is hearing, this person may end up being someone who is only comfortable making music according to another’s directions and feels “stuck to the page.” A whole musician, a confident musician, can play both by eye and by ear, though this is often overlooked in our highly literate culture.
The approach I’m about to show you is similar to how Clara Schumann’s father taught her in the beginning. He taught her to play melodies by ear, add chords, and play in various keys. After she had a little repertoire, she began to learn how to read treble clef, then bass clef two months later. We can assume that she learned to read quickly because the symbols on the page related to experiences she had already had.
We begin with a tune the student has heard. Since everyone has heard Happy Birthday and ought to be able to play it, I often use that tune. I tell the student, “Did you know that someone can play Happy Birthday starting on any key of the piano, except the very top ones and bottom ones?”
This is a surprise to most students. They assume there is one correct key to start on. They don’t yet know about the equal-tempered pitch system.
I then tell them that the piano is a like a treasure chest, and any melody they’ve ever heard is hidden somewhere in the piano. I say to them, “Can you find the tune of Happy Birthday?”
Usually, they say “I don’t know how!” So, at this moment, we empower them by saying, “Let’s find the melody together.”
As I play G, I say, “I’m starting on G.” At this point, I cover my hand with a book so the student must use her ears rather than her eyes to proceed. I have found that Chord Play books are perfectly suited to this task. I play the first four notes of the tune and sing, “Happy Birthday.” I say to the student, “Can you do that?”
Usually, after a little experimentation, the student plays the four notes correctly. Sometimes, I have to repeat what I’ve played a few time. So, from the beginning, the student is learning to listen, discern tones, and make choices. Perhaps she is learning something even more valuable: that she is capable of generating music from within herself—she doesn’t have to rely on external directions such as notes to make music. This is empowering to a student, especially one who desires to create.
What if the student doesn’t play the melody correctly? Then I play a game I call “easy choices.” As I play the four notes correctly (G G A G), I say, “Does the tune go this way?” Then I will play something such as G, G, C sharp, G, and ask, “Or this way?” The student will be able to tell the difference. So, then I make the difference a little less obvious, and less obvious again, and in this way, I build the student’s confidence while I also develop her ability to tune in and discern pitches.
After the student can successfully play the first four notes by ear, I add the next two notes to complete the phrase, and take the same approach of covering my hand. By the end of ten minutes or so, the student can play all twenty-five tones in the piece by ear and by memory.
Then, I ask the student to play the tune with her left hand. We work on basic technique, so she learns to play with proper alignment of the hand and without any stiffness.
If the student is able, we may start to play the tune starting on different keys. Playing the tune in other keys may be part of the student’s assignment for the week. After doing this for a few months with a variety of tunes, the student can play a small repertoire of familiar tunes in some different keys.
Since the beginning student’s hand is not yet able to play chords, she isn’t ready for the art of arranging. So, next, we begin adding bass notes in a similar game-like way. I say to the student, “There are three bass notes in Happy Birthday: C, F, and G.” I play all three with the first downbeat, and ask, “Which one is it here?” We play this guessing game until the student is able to hear the differences and then add the base notes themselves.
After playing this game and after some experimentation at the piano, the student ends up with a full sounding, two-handed piece to play. Beginning students (particularly adults) are much less likely to quit when they can play familiar music that sounds appealing and full.
When the student is ready, the next step is to add a fifth above each bass note. We are preparing the student’s hand to play chords, and also adding fullness to the sound. I encourage the student to have a nice arch in the hand to minimize tension in the hand muscles, then to release the tension from the hand when lifting the arm. I believe this basic motion is critical for a sound technique.
The next step is to add the middle note to the fifth to make a root-position chord. Encourage your students to play blocked chords in the mid-range of the piano for maximum clarity and resonance. Some students are not able to play chords without stiffness, and for these students I recommend breaking up the chords.
At this point, the student has a repertoire of simple tunes and chordal accompaniments that he or she can play in a few keys. It was at this point that Clara Schumann’s father began to teach her to read the treble clef.
The Chord Play Books
By learning to play some tunes and adding blocked chords or simple broken chords, the student has taken the first step into the art of arranging. At this point, if the student reads, I recommend working with Chord Play 1. If the student doesn’t read, you can follow the same approach as laid out in Chord Play 1.
In the Chord Play series, a student learns in three main ways: First, the student learns to arrange by reading and/or hearing sample arrangements that illustrate the new technique being taught. Second, the student reads a score with chord symbols added above it, but then the left-hand part is removed from the score, so the student must complete the piece by adding chords in the same style. And third, the student transposes pieces by ear. This not only develops the ear, but helps the student get to know how to style other chords in other keys. This three-way approach cultivates knowledge and skill in a natural, intuitive, “hands on” way. For arranging to be an art, intuition must be a key player!
There are three main arranging techniques that Chord Play explores. Arrangers use these techniques at all levels. They are styling chords, coloring chords, and substituting chords.
To understand this, think of hair stylists—they can either style our hair by cutting or curling or straightening it. They can add color to it. And finally, they can substitute hair for ours by placing a wig on our head or applying extensions. Arrangers do three similar things. First, let’s explore how they style chords in many ways.
Once a student can play some tunes and add some simple chords, the art of arranging (and the fun) begins. Every chord can be played in countless ways and styles. I tell my students that a chord is a family of notes. C major, for example, is made of C, E, and G. As shown below, you can play these three notes as Mozart or Alberti might have, or as Scott Joplin, Chopin, or even as Fats Domino! As long as you are playing only C, E, and G, it’s still a C major triad.
In Chord Play 1, the student learns to play root-position triads in various styles such as ragtime, boogie-woogie, jump bass, and simple “Chopin style.” Jingle Bells, for example, can become a respectable piano piece once the tune is set in ragtime or boogie-woogie style. Danny Boy sounds better when played in a simple Chopin style. With this knowledge, students are able to quickly make quite satisfying arrangements of many traditional Christmas songs, folk tunes, and hymns, since these tunes are often harmonized with just a few simple triads. Students soon realize that a chord is not just a dry theatrical abstraction, but something that can be varied in countless ways to create different effects, and that is much of the art of arranging.
In Chord Play 2, the student learns about inverting chords, playing arpeggios with the left hand, and creating various accompaniment styles by playing chords with the right hand. The remaining books introduce other ways to style chords.
Once students can play triads in a variety of styles, the next step is to add new tones to these simple chords in order to change the “color” of the harmony. In other words, we add new members to the chord family. Think of the basic chords—major triads, minor triads, and dominant seventh chords—as harmonic outlines, and other chords such as 7th, 9th, 11th, and 13th chords as various ways of coloring in those chords.
As explained in CP1, to make a minor chord sound more “minory,” we can add a second to the chord, the note a whole step above the root. This same technique also works to make a major chord sound more “majory.” Seconds are what I call flavor enhancers. They make major chords sound more majory and minor chords sound more minory.
In Chord Play 3, students learn how to make a major triad sound more “minory” by adding the major seventh to the chord. To make a minor chord sound sweeter or more “majory,” add a minor seventh to make a minor-seventh chord.
In CP5, students learn to add even more colors to chords—9ths, 11ths, and 13ths—and how to style these complex chords to make them sound resonant and full rather than lumpy. One has to know which tones to leave out, how to spread out the tones and voice them, and how to place them in the right range of the piano.
The third main technique that arrangers use is substituting. Instead of playing the expected chord, they play a different chord having a different root. In book 1, the student learns that a C major chord and an A minor chord have two of the same notes, and it often is appealing to substitute an A minor chord for a C chord. For example, in Amazing Grace, instead of repeating a C chord in the second measure, why not play A minor there and create a new harmony? A person can make an arrangement called Unhappy Birthday by playing the tune of Happy Birthday and substituting minor chords for the usual major ones.
In book 4 of Chord Play, the student learns about secondary dominants and “chromatic connecting chords” that are often used as substitutions.
Even the most complex arrangements can be thought of as combinations and refinements of these three basic arranging techniques.
The Chord Play approach begins at the beginning, and slowly and progressively builds up to advanced understandings. Students learn about harmony by creating music. They learn familiar tunes and develop a repertoire that can be performed in a variety of settings. They learn to play by ear, read lead sheets, and create accompaniments on the spot. In short, they learn to be more complete musicians and artists.
Developing Musicianship and Musicians
A person’s level of musicianship is largely dependent on their sensitivity and their responsiveness—these are the essential qualities. One’s musicianship can also be assessed by the diversity and range of musical abilities that one has cultivated.
If a musician can only play tunes by ear, we recognize that this person is undeveloped in critical ways. The doors to the richness of musical literature are closed, and the person likely feels inadequate and insecure as a musician, afraid at any moment that he will be asked to read something and be exposed. Likewise, a person who only plays music by reading it from a score is undeveloped, and tends to avoid situations in which this deficiency might be revealed. A musician who cannot compose or improvise is also limited. Also, a pianist who does not have a hands-on knowledge of chords and cannot make arrangements will have a difficult time working as a professional pianist, or in a church, in a band, or as an accompanist.
As teachers, our job is to cultivate musicianship and to cultivate whole musicians—people who can “do it all.” We want to help our students become musicians who don’t have to make excuses or apologies, and can confidently create music in a variety of ways. So let us cultivate musicality in our students, and cultivate whole musicians.
There are many ways we can use the Chord Play approach to work toward these goals. Here are some of the ways:
Teaching the Art of Arranging
A whole musician is, above all, a person who is able to do everything she wishes to do at her chosen instrument. What do many piano students (perhaps the majority of older beginners) want to play on the piano the most? Melodies they know—popular melodies, movie themes, folk melodies, Christmas tunes, and so on. Doesn’t nearly every pianist want to be able to sit down and play a spontaneous rendition with rich harmonies of a song such asSomewhere Over the Rainbow, or improvise blues, or compose pieces and songs? Though such abilities are the central desire of many music students, they are not often addressed. While arrangements are taught, the art of arranging is not, so students do not feel capable of playing music without reading it note for note. With Chord Play, we finally have a progressive way to teach the art of arranging.
Making Music From Within
A true artist confidently trusts her senses and her inner guidance, and can make choices based on that. However, the typical beginning music student is rarely asked to consult his or her guidance and make creative decisions. The student is taught to play by note or by rote, and both of these approaches are, in essence, directions given by others. The unspoken assumption and message is: “Making music is like cooking from recipes; it consists of following someone’s else’s directions carefully. You need to follow directions because you don’t have such directions inside you.” Well, is it any wonder that so many musicians feel bound to the page?
When beginning students are invited to improvise a melody over a Pattern Play piece or they are asked to learn to play a familiar tune by ear, the underlying message is radically different. The message is: “You are able to make music out of yourself. You can figure this out. So tune in, listen, and make decisions!” This is an extremely powerful and important message, because this is exactly what a creative person must do at every step of the journey. A soldier can be an excellent soldier by simply following directions, but an artist cannot be an excellent artist by taking this path—the two activities are fundamentally different, and require a radically different approach.
When students learn to make music only by reading notes, they often play in a note-by-note way. They listen to one tone at a time, so the resulting tones are not shaped into a melody. In other words, there is no phrasing.
When a student learns to play tunes by ear, they are hearing tones as part of a phrase, just as words are heard as part of a sentence. At any level, learning tunes by ear is excellent for developing a natural sense of phrasing.
Learning Theory in a Musical and Practical Way
Music theory can be the most exciting and empowering subject, or it can be one of the driest and most lifeless—it all depends on how it is taught. Music theory is brought to life when we are learning the art of arranging.
When we learn about a sus4 chord or an add2 chord, we can immediately hear the effect this chord creates. The chord becomes part of our working musical vocabulary, not merely something to remember for an exam and then be forgotten. Students immediately appreciate that theoretical knowledge means creative power. If I know how to make a minor 7th chord, this give me more colors to paint with—it expands my palette. Chord Play teaches chord theory in this empowering way. Students are learning chords so that they can create something of their own, not merely because someone is telling them to.
Basic Ear Training and Audiation
Music is an auditory art. Recognizing this, many pedagogues stress the importance of being able to play by ear as well as eye, and teach sounds before signs. (For example, the Music Learning Theory stresses audiation first and foremost.) I have come to believe that the single biggest mistake in the last two hundred years of piano pedagogy is that teachers do not teach students to play by ear as well as by eye.
Since music is an aural art, why has playing by ear become discredited? Most teachers place music literacy as their central goal, so they start teaching students to read from the very beginning. Students are not encouraged to play by ear, and often actively discouraged. Many teachers have observed that people who play easily by ear tend to resist learning to read more vehemently than those who don’t or can’t. But this is a classic case of throwing the baby out with the dirty bathwater. If our goal is to create whole, well-rounded musicians rather than just good readers, we must find a way to teach both. The Chord Play approach gives us a way to begin teaching tunes by ear from the first lesson.
A common complaint of music teachers is, “My student reads well, but they don’t listen to themselves as they play!” Is this that surprising? From the beginning, the ear didn’t receive an invitation to the party, and it eventually got tired of waiting and went elsewhere.
Playing by ear and improvising are different process that are often confused because they are both distinct from reading. Playing by ear means playing while referring to an aural image—that is, trying to play a tune one has previously heard. Improvising doesn’t require this ability. A person can improvise without reference to a pre-existing aural image. I found this out when I took jazz lessons. I could improvise well, but couldn’t play tunes by ear. Many people I have spoken with had the opposite problem.
Learning the Heritage
With funding for music education being cut in schools, students seem to know less about our musical heritage than ever before. And so, someone might ask, “But how can I teach kids to play melodies such as Shenandoahby ear when they haven’t heard the tunes?” It’s a good question since playing melodies by ear (unlike improvising) requires a pre-formed aural image.
If we think of ourselves as music educators rather than piano teachers, we might consider it to be part of our job to acquaint our students with our rich musical heritage. Someone needs to introduce our students to Amazing Grace and Greensleeves, and that may as well be us!
If a student doesn’t know a tune, here’s a way to proceed: Play the tune for them, and/or sing it if you are comfortable doing that. Then, play (with the book over your hand) or sing one phrase at a time, and have the student try to replicate the phrase on the piano. The approach is similar to the one discussed above with Happy Birthday—the difference is that you are playing the tune first a few times so they can hear it and get to know it.
When a person understands harmony and chord progressions, memorization of any kind of music (classical as well as popular) becomes so much easier. We think and listen in terms of groups of notes rather than individual notes, and this greatly reduces the cognitive burden.
The Chord Play series develops a person’s intuitive and conscious understanding of acoustics and voicing. If you ask music students or teachers to play an F7 chord, many will often play it blocked in the bass so it sounds chunky and ugly. However, after learning to voice triads in Books 1 and 2, and learning to spread out and voice 7th chords in Book 3, students will develop the sense that roots and fifths generally sound better in the bass, while thirds and other color tones sound more resonant in the mid-range of the piano. This sort of sensitivity transfers to the playing of literature—a student has a better sense of how to voice a chord.
Reading Fake Books
In Bach’s day, musicians would read chord symbols and make instant arrangements. This was called “thorough bass” or “figured bass.” Today, this same practice has a different notation, so it goes by a different name: Fake books. Lead sheets. Charts.
Professional pianists in non-classical fields often know this skill. For example, when I used to make my living as a pianist, I would arrive at a “gig” with about 20 “fake books” in the trunk of my car, ready when I needed them. If someone asked me to play a tune from a musical, I’d grab the Broadway fake book, find the tune, and make an instant arrangement from the lead sheet. The ability to do this kind of “sight reading” is essential in this sort of work.
Enhancing the Art of Improvisation
Beginning students sometimes find it difficult to improvise with a simple chord progression such as that in Canon in D. This is because so many of the scale tones clash with the chord tones. Once a student understands chords and chord progressions, she will find that her ability to improvise improves. So much improvising revolves around the play of dissonance and consonance, of non-chord tones and chord tones. Once a student becomes aware of chord tones and non-chord tones, then they understand where the difficulty lies and where the art lies.
Often, it is wise to have the student improvise above a chord progression using only chord tones at first, then later add in non-chord tones. This technique also works very well when learning advanced chords such as 9th and 13th chords.
Foundation for Composing
Improvisation and arranging can be considered to be parents of composition. Once someone has the flow of ideas that comes from being able to “talk with tones” (improvise), and once someone understands how to create stylish, rich harmonic environments for tunes (arrange), this person has a wonderful foundation for composition.
Creating Accompaniments (Playing with Others)
Once someone has worked through the Chord Play series, especially Chord Play 2, they will be equipped to create accompaniments for singers and instrumentalists. This can be done from lead sheets (where just the melody, lyric, and chords are given), by ear, or from a score.
Arranging for Ensembles
Once someone understand chords and has a sense of how to style them in acoustically pleasing ways, this person also has developed the ability to make arrangements for ensembles. For example, a pianist in a praise band can help the bass player find and play the roots and fifths of the chords.
Modifying Orchestral Scores
Any pianist who has ever played an orchestral transcription knows that notes sometimes have to be changed! Once someone understands chords and the basic principles of arranging, they will be able to make adjustments to scores with more confidence. As an example: “I can’t reach all those notes. Ah, the third is doubled, so I can leave it out of the lower voice to be able to play the rest of the notes.”
Making Concerts Accessible
Performers can add their arrangements of familiar tunes to recitals to engage the audience, as was commonly done before 1850. This practice seems to be making a comeback on concert stages, with performers including arrangements of popular songs, movie themes, and classical themes.
Providing a Community Service
A pianist/arranger helps people celebrate the passages of life—weddings, birthdays, funerals, holidays, anniversaries, ceremonies, grand openings. Music enhances the feelings of the day. Such music is not made for the concert stage, but rather the human stage, sometimes a very human stage.
Bach’s father was employed as a violinist, then a court trumpeter and a town musician. This job involved providing music for various functions (feast days, civic events, etc.) and conducting a chorale twice a day at the town hall. He did such an outstanding job that he was allowed to brew a certain amount of ale without paying taxes. Mozart’s father was also a professional musician, a violinist and later a deputy Kapellmeister. Beethoven’s father was a vocalist, and he also played violin, zither, and keyboard instruments. Brahms’ father made his living in Hamburg by playing the double bass and horn, mostly at dance halls.
All these men were social musicians who mostly played arrangements. There will always be a place for the kind of music they played. It is time to begin teaching the art of arranging once again.