Welcome Aboard, Aspiring Writers!

by Yumiko Matsuoka

I am probably one of the luckiest people around, in the sense that I get to do what I enjoy tremendously, and somehow make a living. It all started when I heard the Singers Unlimited's Christmas album on the radio in Japan, back when I was in high school. The amazing sound of Gene Puerling's arrangements and their impeccable blend absolutely blew me away, and the impact was so strong that 1) I had to find out what they were doing to create those chords, and 2) I told myself that one day I would try to do what they were doing. Thus began my long journey to a cappella writing and singing. It took a lot of turns unrelated to a cappella, or even music, but I feel that everything I encountered or got to do on the way has helped me shape my sound.

So how does one go about writing contemporary (as opposed to classical) a cappella arrangements? I'm not about to offer a definitive answer to this question, nor do I have the space to go into the details of writing techniques. But maybe I can give some tips to my fellow a cappella-heads who aspire to write for their own group, friends and relatives.

The first point that comes to my mind is the choice of songs. A song has to speak to me at a deep level in order for me to want to write an arrangement. It could be the lyrics, melody, chord progression, rhythm, any combination of the above, or something even more intangible. Anyway, it has to inspire me one way or another. (I truly admire songwriters who can create those wonderful songs from scratch!)

There are times, however, where a client asks you to arrange a particular song, rather than lets you choose one. I remember a time where Vox One was hired to sing at a wedding reception, and was asked to arrange a specific song for the occasion. I volunteered to write, but it wasn't a song I really liked, and the result was (at least in my mind) mediocre. It never entered our permanent repertoire. But most of the time, if you keep an open mind, you can find something good about a song and a seed of inspiration can go a long way.

After a song is chosen, I let my mind come up with some ideas for it. Or rather, let the song play with my imagination to create some musical fragments. While making a song sound more or less like an original can be a valid and fun exercise, I'm not partial to that type of arranging. I would like to add something new to it, modify it, and enhance it so that what is already wonderful is given a fresh angle and it shines in a different way. Some songs may be harder than others to do so, because the original is arranged and performed in such a manner that it's almost impossible to give it a new life and make it equally engaging. That's another aspect of choosing a song which needs careful consideration. One should pick a song that is great, yet has the potential to be molded anew. Folk songs are some of the best materials, I think, because the melodies are often beautiful and the chord progression simple that they allow for much room to play with. Furthermore, most of them are in the public domain meaning that you are free to record and publish your arrangements without having to pay royalties.

How can I let the song help me create new ideas, you might ask. For that to happen, you have to build a catalogue of sounds and ideas that you like (and to a certain extent, what you dislike). In order to do that, you have to start listening critically to what you hear. In some ways, it takes away the fun of listening to the music, but it's a very important step in building one's own music vocabulary. If you like what you hear but don't exactly know what it is, transcribe it. It can be frustrating at first - so start small - but once you get the hang of it, it can be addictive.

I have had the privilege of getting acquainted with quite a few Japanese college students who are big fans of Vox One, and almost every one of them tells me that he/she has transcribed a number of our music (so that they could sing them)! Instead of leaving the task to one person, each group member takes on one part, and they bring it together. I was very impressed by their efforts, even if they may not have been quite accurate. As an arranger, you have to be able to look at the big picture, so you can't necessarily ask someone else to do one or more parts for you, but trust me, the reward is big. I can't tell you how much I've learned from transcribing Gene Puerling. The secret is that you learn what works from within, rather than from what a book or a teacher might tell you. By the way, the source doesn't necessarily have to be vocal music either (or, for that matter, strictly contemporary). I would name the Beatles and Debussy to be some of my other teachers - with the former, probably more for their instrumental lines and phrases than the vocals

It might also help to write out the lyrics on a separate sheet. Read the poem and let it speak to you. I have a few arrangements where I did that first and it gave me a new perspective to those songs. This way, you could come up with a new concept for the arrangement, rather than just ideas. Knowing whom you are writing for is another advantage. You can write in such a way to let each person in that group shine.

With an idea (which could be as tiny as just a chord) I sit down at my keyboard (alas, I don't have a room for a piano!) and start fooling around. Sometimes it happens and sometimes it doesn't. When it happens, for me, it's God at work, because in retrospect I can never understand how I've managed to create something that actually sounds good. After the arrangement is done, it takes on a life of its own. It's not necessarily easy when I'm in the middle of it, but somehow I get done unscathed. And it's one of those precious moments that you completely forget where you are - hours seem like minutes, and you're flowing in it so freely, even when you're struggling. On the other hand, when it doesn't happen, I write down the fragment so that I wouldn't forget it, and come back another time.

Ultimately, my goal is to create music that means something to some people; if possible, something that could heal. If I could rework an already beautiful song and give it a new light (instead of killing it!) my mission is accomplished.

So, welcome aboard, aspiring writers! I hope our paths cross one of these days

Matsuoka, Yumiko

Yumiko, originally from Tokyo, Japan, is an accomplished arranger/composer/performer as well as a seasoned educator/clinician. She was the founder of Boston-based a cappella quintet Vox One whose albums Vox One (1993), Out There (1995) and Chameleon (1997) won multiple awards from the Contemporary A Cappella Society of America (CASA). Yumiko's arrangements can also be heard on another Vox One album Say You Love Me (1995), released by a Japanese label, Vap, as well as on recordings by other a cappella groups around the nation including m-pact and Toxic Audio. She is an assistant professor at the Berklee College of Music in Boston, teaching ear training and vocal writing. She has been a guest facilitator at the Western Wind Ensemble Singing Workshop, and has coached collegiate and semi-professional groups in and out of New England. Her current group is In the Mix, a mixed quartet pursuing a rich and exciting sound with their own compositions and arrangements

Contact Yumiko at YMatsuoka@berklee.edu

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