Tips & Tricks of the Trade



Mervyn Warren Quotation

5 Quick tips on how to compose or arrange for a contemporary a cappella group
- 7 June 2016

'If you wish to get a good result, you need to have two ingredients, great composition and great singers'... Mervyn Warren.

This is one view I found to be quite useful for composers. We wish to have as composers a good sound disseminated by the singers, but sometimes we fail at the initial stages of this exercise. It is not at all times solely about the song, the singers still need to bridge that gap, convey the message through song. They also need to see the vision of the said song so that they can realize its path and represent it properly to the audience.

Here are 5 quick tips on this topic:
1. Range.
The vocal range of any singer in an a capella group has to be considered by the composer so that the singers are singing comfortably in their ranges. What would be there to gain and achieve if the singers are singing way above or below their different ranges. In my younger days as a singer I used to be worried about two parts, the soprano and bass (although this can be a key/pitch issue) during a performance where the soprano would be singing way too high or the bass way too low.
This then affects the performance of the song and subsequent to that the singers also give in or cave in in the process of rendering this performance. The singers perform exceptionally well if they are comfortably placed in their parts. The range can affect the singers, performance, and the rendition of the song because of comfort challenges. So when writing for an a capella outfit you need to consider the range. Check if your soprano and bass are comfortably placed.

2. Suitability.
Composers can get excited and misled by a few things (which is perfectly fine by the way). Is a song suitable for a particular group? In the music industry there is what we call the A&R person, also known as the Artist and Repetoire person. This person's function is to make sure that the artist is the most suitable person to sing a body of work. There are innumerable cases where a singer or singers are given a song that really does not belong to them. Because of a few reasons, they end up getting the song, singing it and sounding terrible on it. So as a writer you need to make sure that the styling of a certain song you wish to give to an a cappella outfit is suitable to it so that the song and the singers complement each other.

3. Dynamics.
Dynamics are one of the important components of any song. Sometimes a song is good and great yet lacks the dynamism, as a result it suffers. What I personally do is listen intently to the lyric of the song. The lyric often tells me what dynamic is needed in say, a particular line in that song. Sometimes a phrase can do that too. So you need to stay alert as a writer, so that you do not miss out on giving a song just what it wants. Dynamics more than anything are also talking to the audience. I once had an experience as a singer in an American male ensemble. I was particularly intrigued by the conductor in the way in which he conducted that male chorus. His hands were not all over the place (as is normally the case in some occasions) when conducting. The singers responded exceptionally well, I was totally mesmerised by the experience. The song had life, yes!!! Dynamics inject life in a song and as a result the audience gets to hear and understand the song. Dynamics need to be well placed and by dynamics we do not mean noise hahaha... Placement and tact are enough on that.

4. Music appreciation.
Any composer needs to understand that the singers also need to appreciate music as individuals. There is nothing as exciting as knowing that you can throw anything at a particular set of singers. You have the full confidence that the mission and the direction of the song will be realised by this group and performed well. The singers need to familiarise themselves with divergent stylings so that they are able to interpret any material. This goes back to what we talked about earlier, great arrangements plus great singers create the bomb!!! Have you not asked yourself the question why many people in the world love certain people more than the others?? It is my view that this is where you find that good combo of great singers and great arrangements.

5. Research.
This is another imperative aspect of a composer's life. We need to constantly keep researching music. Relying only on your talent is not only irresponsible but it is careless. Take for instance this vast African continent. The culture, its music, the life, the stories, the history and other things that can help spark the creative bug. I have discovered that the African countries are merging artistically even though I have not seen this in the a cappella fraternity. Imagine the possibilities undiscovered. Every instrument in an African setting is saying something, dissecting that is possibly a mission, but as a composer you need to be relentless until you find something usable in order to carry it to your group. There is a London based group that I have worked with and written music for - I Fagiolini, apparently this is Italian for, 'little beans'. Their songbook is Europe rich. They cover very old material from across Europe, very old music, well researched. We also cannot fail here in Africa, we need to research ourselves and our continent so that we outlive our times. We cannot do many things without research.

6. Carving a Niche.
There is a certain composer and pianist, Dr. Michael Blake. He once wrote somewhere that composers need not be content with just a 'happy' audience.. 'You need to unsettle your audience as a composer and not be comfortable' (paraphrased). One of the tips is to always seek to carve a niche as a writer and make sure to get just the right singers for the sort of material - singers who are well-rounded and appreciate music in general. It'll be easy to throw anything at them. So in seeking to find new frontiers we need to constantly as composers research, get the material and try it out. In so doing we might end up finding new audiences which is an exciting part for me. I remember this one time in Grahamstown, I had gone there as a composer for a workshop. This one evening there happened to be a show at some venue at the Rhodes University. I came in and sat down hoping to be mesmerised by this performance. On stage there was a young white male with his laptop busy creating funny sounds.. To this day I cannot tell what that was as I ended up dozing off and feeling terrible about it. He was playing around with his mouse and some images.. To be honest I thought that this was crap. >> Fast forward to today.
I keep hearing those sounds in movies, many movies, the sound has a techno effect and some suspense in it.. My point is that we need to find new things for a capella and this is a challenge firstly to me and to whomever is reading.

- written by Vusi Nhlapo
Composer & Arranger at Africappella

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