4 Lessons from Arranging a Broadway Cabaret
It’s been about a month since I’ve worked on anything other than the arranging project I just finished. I put most everything else on hold, save for my basic trumpet fundamentals. I’ve had many interesting musical and travel related experiences since then, some of which I will write about later, but the focus of this post is about what I learned from arranging a Broadway Cabaret.
Back at the beginning of my cruise ship contract in early March, two singers from our production cast approached me and asked about the possibility of arranging a Broadway Cabaret for them to perform before they left ship in late April. They first asked our band leader, but he had to decline due to commitments to other gigs and also finishing his film scoring degree. When they came to me I accepted with fervor. I had never had a paid arranging gig and I was eager to cut my teeth.
The ensemble for this project would include piano, bass, drums, woodwinds, trumpet, and trombone. There would be 2 singers, but I didn’t have to worry that aspect as much. I had done a decent amount of writing for roughly this same setup in my band Goosetown and I was confident I could crank out this project in 2, maybe 3 weeks. As I got started writing, my confidence quickly dissipated. Even though Goosetown was essentially the same set up, it existed in a different setting with different parameters. When I was writing for Goosetown, I was content to give only the barebones information to most everybody, especially the rhythm section. This made it easier to crank out arrangements and also gave the ensemble more freedom during performance. Everyone generally preferred it that way. I quickly learned that arranging for Broadway is completely different.
Though the pop, funk, and rock tunes for Goosetown have similarities with this cabaret music in terms of song form, melodic structure, and harmonic tendencies, there is an extra level of complexity in Broadway. There are constant key changes, fluctuations in tempo, a broader and more robust musical context, among other factors. To truly do justice to the latter aspects pinpoint detail is not a luxury, but a necessity. When the culminating moment of the piece hinges upon 6 musicians and 2 singers definitively landing on the word “cry” in a ensemble crescendo with no definite rhythm or tempo, pinpoint detail is not a luxury, but a necessity.
Yes, I learned many things about the literal skill of arranging music during this project. I could continue to bore you with nitty gritty musical lingo, but that’s not where I want this go. Rather, the above story is more for context, so you have a greater understanding of the project and a framework for which to consider the below lessons. I think the following thoughts have potential to resonate beyond a musical setting and into the realm of anyone starting out in a gig or freelance economy.
Lesson 1: Articulate and agree upon all details (or as many as possible) out front.
At the beginning of the project both parties were fairly casual about details and it came back to bite me moreso than them. Before I agreed to write for the singers, I wish I would’ve had all of necessary materials to complete the project, any extra relevant information pertinent to the project, and perhaps most importantly, exact deadlines. I have specific examples for each.
The bulk of this project involved taking a piece of music written for piano and voice and then expanding it for 6 piece ensemble. Each tune to be arranged had a score and multiple mp3s, depending on key or the performer. It wasn’t my job to procure these items from the singers, but it partially ended up that way. That means that when I should’ve been in the writing process, I was messing with trying to find pdfs and correct mp3s to base my arrangements off of.
One embarrassing moment for me was the evening of the premiere of half of my arrangements, when I learned that one of the tunes was in the wrong key and therefore could not be performed. It was particularly frustrating because I had spent the most time on this chart and was relatively proud of the writing. This essential information wasn't strictly laid out at the beginning of the project and though briefly discussed in passing, fell into the bottomless pit of my mind. This lack of clarity from both parties led to 20% of the music for that evening being cancelled. I’m still mad at myself for it.
I had a professor that once said, “I don’t need a timeframe - I need a deadline”. Oh, how true it rings. At the beginning of the project, I was content with being given a timeframe and I ended up paying the price. My deadline and even repertoire was changed multiple times throughout this process, sometimes last minute. Obviously things happen and we need to be flexible, but I left a lot of personal security out on the table by not being firm about and setting an exact deadline. Without that deadline, I was left open to whims of singers, which forced me to rush through some arrangements and drastically change my personal schedule.
Lesson 2: Don’t be afraid to delegate.
I came to an impasse when I finally got a deadline that was in about 10 days. I still had around 4ish charts to complete and I was starting to feel the stress. I realized that I could finish all the charts on my own or I could *drumroll*…... ask someone to help me. Gasp!
I very much could’ve finished the rest of the charts by myself, but honestly, I didn’t want to. My trumpet playing was beginning to suffer as a result of the time I was putting into this project and the deadline for another arranging gig was quickly approaching. I sucked it up and asked a friend to step in and arrange 2 of the remaining charts for me. Even though I felt like I was ‘giving up’, I saved myself a few days worth of time and some serious peace of mind. It was the right decision for me personally and I also gave work and a payday to a friend. Both are good things.
Lesson 3: Always consult the specialists
As I mentioned before, I was given piano reductions and mp3s to assist me in my arranging. At the beginning of the process, it seemed completely logical that I take the left hand piano, the lower of the two, and slightly modify it to make the bass part. This is a big no no. After our first performance of the charts, our piano player grilled me about the awkward LH piano parts and silly sounding bass lines. He didn’t mean it personally; It’s just that it was the wrong decision for a variety of reasons.
It had also never occurred to me that the piano player is the vital link between the singers and the band. For that reason, the piano player needs all relevant information such as lyrics, chord symbols, and possibly even horn or bass hits. In my infinite wisdom I left this information out, only to receive another grilling.
Interestingly enough, the days previous I had deliberated on whether or not to meet with our bassist, drummer, and pianist. I was going to ask their advice on the parts I had to written to see if I had made any "egregious errors" (same professor, btw). I kept pushing the idea back a few hours or days and never pulled the trigger. I assumed that I knew best and my methods would be just fine. Obviously I was mistaken. After that first performance, I actually spent more time correcting the mistakes I made in my original ignorance, than I would’ve spent meeting with each player individually and doing it right the first time.
Lesson 4: Know what you and your skill(s) are worth
I didn’t necessarily feel good at the end of this project. Don’t get me wrong, it is extremely satisfying to hear and see your work come together, but I feel that put in more much effort than I got compensated for. Again, I did it to myself. I made multiple errors when setting the initial price for the project that I now know to approach differently in the future.
First off, I was desperate to get the gig. I thought by setting a lower price the singers would be more likely to hire me. I was also worried that if my price was too high they would look elsewhere and I would miss out. The problem with this mindset is twofold. Not only does it undercut other professional writers, but it also devalues my work. I didn’t know it at the time, but the bulk of the writing I had done in the past had prepared me extremely well for this project. Overall, I produced a good product in the correct timeframe.
Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, I really didn’t know the value of what I was doing. This is another instance when consulting a specialist would’ve proven highly beneficial. It would’ve taken me 1 minute to send a text to some old professors and see how much they might’ve charged for a project like this when they were at similar point as me. I didn’t do it and literally paid the price.
Imagine my mind when at the end of the project, when one of the singers told me that in the past, they had paid 2x and 3x as much for similar charts. AHHHHHHH.
‘something about gaining knowledge is more valuable than money'
It should be stated, though, that I wouldn’t have felt great for charging the singers substantially more than I did. They are in a similar position as me: about a year out of college and trying to gain some professional experience and a little bit of money working on cruise ships. The kinship in experience would’ve made it difficult for me to go much higher. The music business is tough and a little assistance is always appreciated, in whatever form it takes. They were giving me a shot and in return they got a good deal. I don’t know if there is a best way to navigate sentiment vs. business, but if you know the golden way please let me know.
Overall, this was one my favorite projects I’ve ever done. It was hard to see the forest from the trees in the depths of the writing process, but now that I am able to more adequately reflect I am deeply grateful for the experience. I learned many things the hard way. But really, if you’re not learning the hard way are you really learning at all?
As always thanks for reading! Please post your thoughts, related experiences, or pictures of your cat below. Or dog too, I guess. I would love to hear from you 🙂