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I have an arrangement of Bobby Darin's song "Don't Rain on My Parade" for Vocal, 2 alto saxophones, 2 tenor saxophones, 1 baritone saxophone, 5 trumpets, 4 trombones, piano, guitar, bass and drums - probably something very similar to the original arrangement of the song.

I'd like to play this with my band, and I would have to arrange it myself (even if I've never done something like it before!), since we are amateurs and have no one who can do it (at least not better than I, in principle), nor can we pay anyone to do it.

I don't mean to say that I believe anyone can make an arrangement, least of all myself. I'm fed up with playing band arrangements with the band, so I know how easy it is for someone to write something believing it's good when it isn't. But I've thought that this could be a good way to get started at something I've always wanted to learn, and play with the band a song I love, too.

The band I play in has: flutes (3), clarinets (3), oboe (1), trumpets (3), French horn (1), trombones (3), alto saxophones (3), tenor saxophones (2), baritone saxophone (1), drums and percussion, and for concerts (not rehearsals) we usually get reinforcements if needed (1 tuba, 1 euphonium, 1 French horn).

I had thought of trying to make the simplest of arrangements to begin with. I had thought of something like:

  • 5 saxophone lines -> 3 alto saxophones, 2 tenor saxophones
  • 5 trumpets -> 3 trumpets + 1 French horn, hoping to be able to remove one voice
  • 4 trombones -> 3 trombones, ditto (The extra French horn and the euphonium could be used for these two missing voices)
  • Piano + guitar -> clarinets
  • Bass -> baritone saxophone (reinforced by tuba when available)
  • Drums -> The same
  • Violins I hear in the song, but not in the original arrangement -> Flutes
  • Vocal -> Oboe

I suspect such an arrangement may end up not being too appropriate, to say the least (if it doesn't make you feel like puking I'll be delighted). What worries me most is what to do with the vocal line. Having the oboe play it all the time would be a bit boring, wouldn't it? Anyway, I can't think of what to do with the oboe otherwise. I had though that another option would be to make the oboe, flutes and clarinets take turns in the vocal.

Does this sound reasonable, or should I abandon the project? Could you please give me ideas, advice...? Remember I've never done this, although I'm willing to start trying.

Thank you!

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I have never tried to do something like this, so take my advice with more than a grain of salt. But I have played extensively in both types of bands. Have a look at the answer at How do I approximate instruments when arranging an orchestral piece for brass ensemble. You have a similar problem.

Have a look at the pieces you already have for your band and look at the groups of instruments that tend to play together. For example, clarinets and flutes will (probably) often play similar parts. Saxes are odd - sometimes alto/tenor play together and sometimes altos are treated as winds (with clarinets etc) while tenors are playing with say trombones or horns.

I think what you want to do is to first is work out which group of instruments you want to be playing the lead in each section of the song and which you want to be playing the counter part. Usually in big band music, you will have one section playing the melody (eg saxes, trumpets or trombones) and another either responding or playing a different, contrasting melody. With a vocal, this is less true but one group should be supporting the vocal and another providing contrast or interest.

By the way, I hope you are doing this with software.

  • Hello JenB, Thanks a lot for your answer. I've checked that link, and have found useful information there. I wonder how come I didn't found that question and answers when I browsed the site before I posted my own question. I also thank you for your tip on thinking about groups of instruments rather than individual instruments. I think I'm going to approach this not so much as writing an arrangement for my band, but as my first exercise on arranging. If I don't find a good solution, at least I will have learnt which ones aren't good. – Eliza Doolittle Jan 6 '16 at 22:51
  • (Continued) My idea was to write the different instrument voices using Finale, which I've got, to get an idea whether I get something that resembles what I've got in mind. The problem is that I don't think I'll be able to find out whether the different timbres contrast as I think they should. Many instrument sounds I get that way seem not to be too close to the real thing. But it's either that, or writing on paper. – Eliza Doolittle Jan 6 '16 at 22:51
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I find useful the following general advice when doing an arrangment:

  • Identify clearly the layers of the section you are going to arrange and what their contribution to the texture is. This could be for example "melody", "asincopated chords", "contrapuntal accompainment".
  • Find out the function of the section in the song as a whole (is the section the exposition of a sonata form, or the verse of a rock song). The orchestation must be influenced by this. Also keep in mind that the orchestation of similar sections should be consistent.
  • Decide how you are going to distribute that material to the different sections in you ensemble (the flutes are not doubling the bass in one measure and then doing counterpoint with the melody in the next). You will need to take into account the characteristics of the original song as well as the orchestal color you want to create and the characteristics of the instruments in your ensemble.
  • Start writing the material for each instrument with all of the above in mind. Each musician has to be able to tell clearly what's his contribution to this texture, clarity is very important. Remember the relationship between the different layers, avoid doubling just to have a section doing something.

There are exceptions to all of the above, as always in music. For example, changing the instrument that plays the melody as you suggested may be at odds with the second point ("the orchestation of similar sections should be consistent") but if the change in instrument serves the structure of the song, it may benefit the arrangment.

There are a lot of resources on orchestation available, and you can analyze arrangments you like to try to find out why you like them.

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