Behind the scene: Acapella arrangement, an art in itself

Photo Courtesy of Momo and The Coop Facebook

All vocals and no instruments. Lewis & Clark’s four a cappella groups, Semper, Momo and the Coop, Section Line Drive and The Merryweathers are entirely student-led, from arrangement to performance.

Students within groups collaborate to arrange songs and medleys. Usually, they vote on songs they’d like to sing. They either volunteer to arrange the music or take turns. Groups meet about twice a week and rehearse bits of different songs at each rehearsal.

The Merryweathers singer Monique Calfe-Smith ’17 loves the fun and creative a cappella community. This semester, she has arranged two songs: “Milk and Cereal” by the band G. Love & Special Sauce and “Q.U.E.E.N.” by Janelle Monáe.

“Typically in my group when someone gets inspired by a song, they arrange it on Noteflight, which is an online music-arranging software,” Calfe-Smith said. “Depending on how much time I spend on it – or how obsessive I get about it – arranging can take me anywhere from a couple of weeks to a month or so.”

According to Semper singer Ryan Cook ’19, Semper usually performs two and four songs per concert. They start rehearsing songs about four weeks before each concert. Cook enjoys the creative musical outlet that a cappella offers him.

“I love Semper for indescribable reasons,” Cook said. “Each group has their own vibe, and you just kind of mesh or you don’t. It’s hard to explain but everyone has such a unique personality and we all just jive well together—like a big group of friends.”

Semper singer Eleanor Chen ’19 appreciates how in a cappella they get to choose music they love while pursuing it in an educated, artistic way. According to Chen, once they learn the pitches of a new song, which usually takes some sectional work, they then tackle all the nuances.

“This will always mean working things like diction, energy, and dynamics, but different music presents different challenges, especially for memorization,” Chen said. “[With song arrangement,] the thing that makes arranging take so long is the sheet music software, not the song itself. When you’re writing out the sheet music, you have to annotate each individual note in each part. The annotation process can be exhausting – and then you have to look over [and] listen to your work and make sure it’s what you want it to be.”

According to Section Line Drive singer Zoey Kambour ’18, the first step in song arrangement is to listen to the song repetitively in order to try to pick out individual parts, the key signature, and the time signature. When Kambour arranges, she pulls up software such as Music Notes or Free Score and then inputs the key and time signature and finds the starting notes.

“I never start with the solo – it usually is the last thing I arrange,” Kambour said. “I work measure by measure, making sure first that the notes are right, and then making sure the rhythm fits. An arrangement goes through extreme amounts of editing and by the end of it, you’re pretty sick of the song. But, there’s nothing cooler than hearing it all come together exactly how you imagine it.”

Section Line Drive alumnus Michael Severson put a cappella arrangements into one of three categories: Transcriptions, Lifts, and Arrangements. According to Severson, a transcription is an arrangement that stays true to the original song and just adapts it to fit the a cappella medium. A Lift is like a transcription that the whole group does together. For example, during rehearsal they might play a song and start singing along with it – each picking out their own parts. A true Arrangement of a song is something that completely reimagines the original song and does it in an interesting new way.

“[An Arrangement] takes the longest time because the arranger has to form a unique musical vision for the piece, write it all down, and get everyone else in the group on the same page,” Severson said. “You’re not just trying to recreate the original recording, it’s more like you’re composing a new piece using someone else’s framework. Examples of this are arrangements that completely change the rhythmic groove or harmonic language, or combine parts from different songs. To me it is the most challenging and rewarding part of singing in an a cappella group.”

According to Section Line Drive singer Sofia Puorro ’19, song arrangement can take many hours, especially if starting from scratch. However, if they have a borrowed arrangement to use for reference it makes the process a lot quicker.

“The nit-picky part is trying to distribute different harmonies and rhythmic textures evenly between all the voice parts and then arranging things in a way to make the song a little bit different from the original,” Puorro said. “We have four hours of rehearsal every week and we usually work on two to three songs for the first concert of the semester and four to five songs for the winter concert. The great part about this whole process is that it is completely collaborative; anyone and everyone will chime in to offer suggestions about what we can change and what we can do better.”

A cappella is a place for students to come together with a supportive group of peers to share their passion for making and singing music.

“A cappella has been a unique experience from all of my past choral singing because it such a fun and informal environment within which we have the opportunity to collaborate [to] make music that we are really excited about singing,” Section Line Drive singer Cheylane Brown ’17 said.

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1 Comment

  1. I know this article is a few years old, but I am looking for an arrangement of Milk and Cereal for my wife. She wants to learn it as a family to keep ourselves sane during quarantine 🙂 Do you know how I can contact Monique Calfe-Smith to see if she still has the arrangement?

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