In Random Neural Firings, Thoughts on Writing

Yesterday, while reviewing some of my old blog posts,  I ran across a post from 2006, that could only be described as a “rant.” In fact, the title of the post was “Forgive Me While I Rant.”

Now it is no revelation that I am a grumpy old man. When I turned fifty (and that wasn’t a particularly recent event), my friend, Chris Machen, offered this pithy observation: “Robert, at least now you have the excuse to behave the way you’ve always behaved.” Right after that I went outside and yelled at the kids on my lawn.

That said, in the first paragraph of my 2006 rant I wrote: “About the only thing any arranger has to protect is his or her name.” This statement was offered in defense of me turning down an arranging job because I believed the assigned song was so poorly written I didn’t want my name associated with it.

Bold move? Foolish move? Or just another gripe from an aging curmudgeon?  More than likely it’s “all of the above.” But I’ll leave that for others to decide. Right now, I want to focus on that quote. Is it true, or not? And regardless, does it even matter?

“About the only thing any arranger has to protect
is his or her name.”

When you take on an arranging job, how important to you is the quality of the song itself? How bad would the song have to be for you to say, “No thanks. I’d rather not have my name on that piece of music”?

I suspect the answer is different for all of us. It may even be different for any given arranger at particular times in his or her career. And I think those of us working in sacred music may consider the issue differently than arrangers working in secular music. (Sacred music carries with it the added weight of theology.)

A lot of arrangers, especially those in the secular market, take the attitude, “It’s just a gig and this is my profession. What’s the big deal?” When the assignment is the latest pop song that will disappear in less than a year, what does it really matter when you have bills to pay? (And believe me, that is a perfectly valid position to take.) If that’s where you land, you probably aren’t worrying about the song’s musical merit. You may even relish the challenge of diverting the listener’s ear from the song’s mediocrity with your dazzling skills – a sort of musical sleight of hand. The audience won’t notice the weakness of the lyric thanks to your amazing modulation! (Ta-dah!) I’ve been there. I get that.

And when we are new to the business, gaining experience is far more important than any other consideration. It certainly isn’t a good career move to say “No thanks” to your early job offers. You may never get a second opportunity. When I was getting started, I pretty much jumped at any chance to get my name in print. The last thing I was concerned with was the integrity of the song.

But over time, I came to realize that one of the primary factors choir directors use in selecting music is the arranger’s name. Once an arranger has proven to consistently write quality music, a director will be predisposed to choosing that arranger’s work. It’s all about trust. The director trusts that the arranger’s new music will work as well for the choir as did his previous music. This turns the “Arranged by” credit into a powerful sales tool. Make no mistake, “Arranged by” often carries more weight than any other credit on the title page, including the title itself.

This association between the choir director and the arranger’s name can be a very good thing for the arranger. When there are multiple arrangements of the same song available, the choir director is likely to choose the one penned by his or her favorite arranger. But this name association is a double-edged sword. It also carries with it the assumption that the arranger not only approves of the song, the arranger personally picked that song to arrange. The arranger’s name is a de facto endorsement of the song. If the song turns out to be a real stinker, the arranger runs the risk of losing the choir director’s trust. Once lost, it could be difficult to regain.

Over the years, I did my fair share of dressing up mediocre songs with solid arrangements and sparkling orchestrations. Those charts may have sold well for a time, but they never sold for very long. Bad songs are like chaff. No matter how awesome the arrangement, they blow away pretty quickly. Somewhere along the line, I determined that any piece of music that has my name on it, whether as writer, arranger, or orchestrator, could be trusted to be of a certain quality.  What sort of quality? I have to decide that with each opportunity that comes my way. All I know is over the past decade I have said “no” more often that I have said “yes.”

True story: I became so notorious at one publisher for saying “no,” the editors began taking bets on whether I would accept any given assignment. The guy who always bet on “no” won more often than he lost.

So why do I do this – other than for the obvious reason that I am cranky by nature? I do it because I want to be trusted by the men and women who purchase music for their choirs and orchestras. I do this because I want those choirs and orchestras to look forward to singing and playing the music I write for them. I do this because when I’m dead and gone, my name will still be on that music and I want my sons and my grandchildren to be proud of the work I did.

Whether you are writing your first arrangement or your 500th, remember – your name could be on that title page for a very long time. Your name matters.



Showing 4 comments
  • Ed Rush

    Robert, as you know, and as Joe Martin has told me, I am not an arranger, I am a songwriter. But this blog reminds me of a time when I was first beginning to write, around the mid 1970’s, that I turned down an arrangement request. This guy had written a song? all about Purple Martins. Now , obviously, he loved purple martins, and wanted to get his feelings put into a song. He sent me his manuscript with lyrics, and a melody. First, he had about 12 verses that went on and on praising the usefulness and beauty of the purple martins. The ryhme scheme was non-existent, and he had written the most boring melody (even more boring than some of mine). I finally sent it back to him, and told him that I just was not near familiar enough with the subject to do his song justice. Even now, I don’t get many requests to arrange anyone else song. However, I am enjoying collaborating with some of our folks I met at the Symposium. Looking forward to seeing everyone again this year.

    • rsterling

      I’ve never used a lack of technical knowledge about the song’s subject matter as a reason to not do an arrangement. That’s a new one. I may have to try it some day! 🙂

  • heather sorenson

    Loved this! I accepted a few things at the beginning of my career that I would probably turn down now – but it helped to maintain my shaky little foot in the door, and also to eat :).

    I find I have a similar reluctance with collaborating with lyricists. I turn down far more lyrics than I accept. Sometimes, even if the text is strong, I don’t instantly feel a musical click with it. If I don’t have a melody and harmonic structure in place within 10-ish minutes, I pass on it. I would hate for there to be a forced marriage between music and text. Neither the lyricist nor I want that, and if the lyric is strong, then it needs to land with someone who can make it shine.

    Good thoughts!

    • rsterling

      Thanks for your insight, Heather. We all take on work at the start of our careers if for no other reason that to build a career. The rent is due on the first of every month, after all. But it’s nice to know I’m not the only one saying “no.” Unsurprisingly, it sounds like your reasons are more humble than mine often are.

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