My bluesy arrangement of the traditional spiritual “Jericho” for my course 88 Keys to the Blues

This is an introduction to a new series about the timeless and incredibly useful art of arranging.

A practical skill for any intermediate-level pianist – and a required skill for any aspiring professional – is arranging.

Arranging means writing (or being able to spontaneously play) a unique version of a previously-composed song or piece of music. Arranging may be as simple as inventing a simple broken-chord pattern to play the chords of a lead sheet, or as intricate as reducing the orchestral score of a symphony to a two-handed piano score.

Just like rearranging the furniture can make your home feel new all over again, musical arranging can bring a fresh, creative and individual flair to both timeless and timeworn music. It can make a simple song more complex and interesting, or a complex piece simpler and more accessible. It may bring music written for other instruments into the realm of the keyboard, such as Liszt’s transcription of Beethoven’s 5th Symphony. It is another avenue for bringing the joy of creativity into music-making, rather than keeping it off-limits to dead composers. It’s a way to express your individuality with pieces that aren’t your own – a wonderful way to be creative for those who are intimidated by (or not interested in) composing or improvising original music.

Arranging skills are important for working and playing with other musicians. A proficient keyboard player should have a variety of arranging techniques ready to use when the need arises in an ensemble or band setting. And, of course, pianists who are able to create arrangements not only for piano solo but for an entire band, ensemble, or orchestra have another marketable skill at their command.

There are hundreds of fascinating ways to arrange music at the keyboard. In upcoming posts I’ll present a framework for understanding the various aspects of arranging, including melodic techniques, harmonic techniques, rhythmic techniques, and techniques related to musical form.

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