Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Where Do I Find A cappella Arrangements?

I get asked this question time and time again:

“I want to start an a cappella group, but I don’t know where to find arrangements.”

Okay, that’s more of a statement than a question. But it’s a common problem for amateur a cappella directors or choral directors who want to incorporate a cappella into their curriculum.

Hopefully, this handy guide will help:

1)   Betteracappella.com

One of the most popular websites for a cappella arrangements is betteracappella.com. Arrangements are often cheap (or sometimes free if you ask REALLY nicely). You will have to contact the arranger by email to do business, so if you’re looking for an arrangement at that very moment, this is NOT the place to go. Also, anyone can post their arrangement on the website, so there is no quality control. Be sure to ask for a sample before you buy.

2)   Random-notes.com, Acappellapsych.com, thevocalcompany.com, totalvocal.com, human-feedback.com, thebenbram.com, edboyeracappella.com, clearharmonies.com, etc.

All of the websites above offer arranging services, with either a catalogue to choose from or a service that creates a new arrangement tailored for your group. The good news is that all of the above websites are run by experts in the field, so you’re almost always guaranteed to get a quality arrangement. For example, random-notes.com is run by Tom Anderson, arranger for Peter Hollens and many other groups. Total Vocal is Deke Sharon’s website, the father of contemporary a cappella. Thebenbram.com is Ben Bram’s website, arranger for many groups including Pentatonix.

The bad news: With quality comes price. Custom arrangements are expensive. They are worth every penny, but they will dip into your already limited choral budget.

It’s important to understand that once you purchase an arrangement, it is generally understood that you can make as many copies as you need, without paying per copy.

3)   Borrow arrangements

Do you have a favorite a cappella group that you’ve seen on youtube? Try contacting them directly and asking to use one of their arrangements. More often than not, groups are happy to comply.

4)   Do it yourself

Arranging a cappella is an art, but that doesn’t mean it is a talent. It’s a skill, just like composing other music. Through trial and error, or resource guides (like A cappella Arranging by Dylan Bell and Deke Sharon) you can learn the skill yourself.

5)   Formal websites such as jwpepper.com, Alfred.com, etc.

There are pros and cons of buying arrangements on these websites. One benefit is that most school districts favor these companies, because they usually have an account with them, so ordering is simple.  Another benefit is the authenticity of the arrangement. It would be a mistake to assume that every song you buy on these websites is a quality arrangement…I’ve been burned by too many scores to back that statement up. But well known names in the choral world, Kirby Shaw for example, carry more recognition capital than arrangements by unknown authors. If you’re playing the political choral game, this may be your best bet.

As an a cappella superfan/academic/crazed stalker, I try to avoid these websites as much as possible. Only a small handful of a cappella arrangers have had their music officially published (Deke Sharon has the most titles), but these titles are often older and written for general use. Let me explain each of these further:

Typically, a cappella groups want to sing pop music, and even more typically, they want to sing CURRENT pop music. The chances of finding an a cappella arrangement of a current radio hit on a publisher’s website is next to impossible. The publishing world doesn’t work that quickly. If you’re looking for an earlier song, maybe ten years or more, that would be much easier to find.

The other problem is the general use: The go-to a cappella arrangers are writing arrangements for specific groups. They ask a lot of questions, so that the arrangement comes out exactly the way you want it. They even ask you to pick your soloist in advance, so that the key fits the soloist perfectly. Published arrangements are not tailored to specific groups. They are tailored for a unknown group, or commissioned by a group that isn’t yours. You have no idea how many parts are in the arrangement, or if the key fits all of your singers. It’s a roll of the dice.

6)   CASA.org and Acappellaeducators.com

Both of these organizations have a free a cappella library. All of the arrangements are public domain or original material, so you’re not going to find the current radio hit you are looking for, but the arrangements you do find are 100% legal and 100% free. Speaking of which…

7)   Copyright problems

Okay, so this isn’t a website to find arrangements, but I believe it needs to be addressed. Want to know why there aren’t a lot of guides pointing you in the right direction of where to find arrangements? Want to know why it is so difficult to find a cappella arrangements? Because there are a significant amount of copyright problems associated with a cappella music.

Typically a school will have an auditorium, and for that auditorium to be legal, the school will have a performing license. Wonder why you can put on so many concerts in your school? It’s because the performing license covers this. It says that anyone can perform any minimal work legally (note how I said minimal…full length plays and musicals are NOT minimal). A cappella is included under this umbrella. Performing an arrangement of a pop song, that just happens to be with a cappella singers, is fine. Writing an arrangement and selling it is not. A cappella arrangers have ways of selling their material legally, but since I’m not a professional a cappella arranger, you’re going to have to ask them how they do it.

There is a handy-dandy website that explains all of this in much better detail than I have: acappella101.com

Marc Silverberg

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