Arranging for Women’s Voices 0: Before You Begin



While arranging music for any a cappella group requires musical sensibility–not necessarily training, but sensibility–arranging music for an all-female group requires particular dexterity. It is a socially challenging activity, especially at an 18% Greek liberal arts school when you’re asking hot, cool girls to sing nonsense syllables. More often than not, collegiate a cappella groups are comprised partly, if not almost entirely, of excellent shower-singing members–not musicians who get excited about chord progressions. Before you arrange your next (or first!) song, read over these ideas to get your mind right.

These ideas have currency for any group, but I found myself guided by these kinds of principles much more than, say, some of the all-male groups on campus.

  • Arrange for your girls

When I arranged music in college, it was for 16 fiery women with amazing–and amazingly diverse–talents. Writing arrangements to highlight the exact strengths of your group’s members is one of the greatest secrets to success. When they can sing what’s written for them, great. When they can sing it with tremendous confidence, and when they trust that the notes written for them make them sound good, the result will always be a better sound.

  • Learn their strengths

Applying this philosophy requires no small amount of observation and study on the behalf of the arranger. I did my best to know the limitations and “money ranges” of each one of the girls–in volume, in tessitura, in movement, in stylizing–as well as which circumstances were best for stretching their comfort zones. If you have a password on your computer, you could even try making a [top secret] spreadsheet and making notes for each woman.

Then, arrange parts that highlights what everyone is best at.

  • Make adjustments

If your second altos are getting nodes because their parts are too damn low for women (beware the folly!), for God’s sake, don’t make them sing low Cs this time. If there’s a soprano II who’s terrified of the F an octave and a half above middle C, don’t make her sing it. Unless you’d like to teach a lesson to the very shy soprano, don’t assign her a descant. Scratch their backs, and they’ll scratch yours. Write parts that make them feel safe and confident, and they’ll perform better. Really!

  • Assign by names, not just parts

If you arrange a song with divisi parts, don’t just haphazardly break up the first altos during rehearsal. Assign names to each line before rehearsal, so you can carefully decide who would be best singing which part. If it’s written on the score before rehearsal starts, there’s a much smaller chance that anyone will protest or ask to sing something else. Of course, this is done best when the soloist and percussionist are already assigned. Make allowances if they are chosen later.

  • Don’t coddle them

This applies more to the teaching part of the arrangement, which is still many black lines and dots away, but I wanted to clarify. I do recommend shielding women from their own trouble areas, and generally making their lives a little easier in your arrangements. However, once you get to rehearsal I don’t recommend telling them your master plan, or babying them. Once you’ve arranged a song, and you’re confident that it will sound good, stick to your guns. Help them learn that tough transition, but don’t offer to change it.

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This article reminds me of the kind of self-imposed sexism usually reserved for Cosmopolitan Magazine, and The Rules book. That is sexism that uses the most common stereotypes of women, and uses their worst qualities to explain their points. Are these “amazing, fiery, and strong,” women really in need of “back scratching, shielding” and most of all — so handicapped that it is imperative to write parts that make them feel “safe and confident?” Is catering your music to the group’s emotional needs really what arranging for women is all about? Please reconsider your assumptions about women singers, as well as the language and style of writing. I don’t argue the points, expect that they seem to paint these women as being overly emotional, insecure, and spoiled. I’m sure this is not a true reflection of the group you are trying to reach.

Written By Kim on January 13th, 2009 @ 1:15 pm

You may have caught me in an editing mistake, but I firmly stand by my post.
Most of my experience is in directing a womens’ group (2.5 years), and arranging for a coed group after college (8 months).
Perhaps I should have titled the entry “A few considerations for the music director.” I’m mostly a contributor for thoughts on working with all-female a cappella groups, so I started with the title as it stands now, and the content admittedly became a bit tangential.
In reaction to your strong comments, I’ve gotten feedback from three men who have directed all-male groups, and they agree that the points I made apply to men as well as women. As a manager, it’s important to massage the egos of the group members, and to highlight their strengths. It’s the positive way to handle a situation, and has nothing to do with sexism, or with Cosmopolitan magazine.

Written By Catherine Cheng Jones on January 15th, 2009 @ 1:58 am

Why is this being touted as suggestions for writing all-female arrangements then if you know its general information? If you’re not trying to be sexist, then your premise undermines you. This is sexist purely based on the fact that you are calling all these issues all-female-specific. That’s great that men’s groups agree, they should, because this is just about good arrangement writing. When those individuals told you that it was good advice for you should have realized that this article is written with the wrong focus. Accidentally or not, what you presented was, indeed, sexist.

I’m also really curious about this sentence:

“I do recommend shielding women from their own trouble areas…”

Change “women” to “people” and it’s about human nature, but right now you’re saying women should be shielded while men do not need to be. ???

Kudos to you for writing good advice, but I was actually looking for help writing a women’s arrangement, and just got general advice. Not much help.

Written By Laura on August 26th, 2009 @ 1:07 pm

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