How To Become an Arranger
What Exactly Does an Arranger Do?
Arranger Carl Marsh says of his job, “I am always in some way, shape or form working with an orchestra or a group of musicians. I might be working with a rhythm section, a string quartet or a seventy-piece orchestra but I’m either rewriting music for them, rehearsing them or conducing them. Everything I do has to do with a group of musicians. It could be a solo musician but more often than not I’m working with a group of musicians, writing arrangements and orchestrations for them. What I do is step in a room by myself for about maybe a week, maybe a month sometimes (maybe three months sometimes on the big projects), and write lots of notes. Then I either go out on the stage for a performance or go in the studio and I conduct what I’ve written. It’s a lot of calm followed by a lot of really intense activity — short but intense activity.”
He adds, “I work with clients, who are generally speaking Producers and artists. They come to me and say, ‘We’re envisioning a project that will be realized by a group of musicians.’ The artist may have some songs that need to be arranged or orchestrated and they say, ‘This is our vision for them, you take the reins and supply the specifics’ — i.e. write the notes that are involved to realize this vision they have. They come to me on the front end and initiate the process. Their vision might be to have a rhythm section accompanying the artist or a choir accompanying the artist; it comes in any permutation you might think of. Even three banjo players! That’s the fun of the job. I write the notes and we either go into a studio or on a stage together with the group of musicians and we realize the vision.” Marsh explains, “Orchestrators and Arrangers are very closely related. It’s overlapping quite a bit because Orchestrators arrange and Arrangers orchestrate and it’s not always very clear who’s doing what. There’s a very elastic definition on both sides of the fence.”
Like many careers in the music industry, advancement for Arrangers comes in the form of working with more well-known artists and Producers, with bigger budgets and more prestige. The musical know-how and industry connections that will help one prosper as an Arranger take time to build. Of growing your career prospects while also growing in knowledge, Marsh advises, “You can’t expect it to just happen overnight because it’s a deep and wide system and it’s cumulative. The best Orchestrators and Arrangers really come into their own after about twenty years. Of course, there are exceptions but not very often. So you have to be ready to learn how to fall and pick yourself up again as you accumulate the knowledge you’ll need for the vocation. By the same token, once you reach that point there’s a sense of job security. But to get to that level you have to go through the passage of accumulating that knowledge.”
Education & Training
While Marsh believes the musical education and networking possibilities provided by a college education can be extremely useful for aspiring Arrangers, he notes that becoming well-versed in the fundamentals of music is the main thing necessary for success. Initially, he says, “I had no training in arranging or orchestrating. I was a bassoonist in the classical world and I was a Session Guitarist and a Session Keyboard Player. The most important thing to do is immerse yourself in music: listening and analyzing music. It doesn’t hurt at all to take orchestration or composition courses in college, but where you’re really going to get your valuable training is first of all by listening, then by applying what you’ve learned to your writing. That’s it in a nutshell. The more you listen you realize what’s possible. It’s an enlightening process.”
What skills do you need to be an Arranger?
As has been noted, attaining the experience and skills necessary to become a skilled Arranger is a process that takes place over the course of many years. Marsh says, “They would have to know the basics (at least) of every instrument out there and if they don’t know the basics they need to know where to get the information quickly. For instance, if you’ve never played a sitar before, you need to know exactly who to call to ask them how to play it and what’s possible on it. It certainly helps to have a working knowledge of as many instruments as possible and a very specific knowledge of as many of them as possible. Of course, you have to be able to read music fluently and systems of music (i.e. scores) because you’ll be dealing with scores for orchestras and bands. Also, be able to understand the different genres and what gives them their peculiar sounds. Indie pop bands, for instance: you have to understand what makes them sound like indie pop bands and how to put that together. You have to understand how to make an orchestra sound like Schubert. So you can see how you can’t just accumulate all this stuff overnight.”
Arrangers must be organized, as well as creative. Marsh describes the type of personality who can figure out which instruments in the musical ensemble will play which parts, by saying “you have to be the type of person who likes to organize large systems because you’re dealing with quite a few questions. I’m dealing with maybe a seventy piece orchestra and how do I decide who’s playing what? It’s the same with a band or a classical music genre. It takes quite a bit of background to listen and understand what those things are about. If a prospective Arranger has that sort of sensibility they’ll do well, [especially] if they’re very meticulous and put a lot of attention into detail and organizing what can be a really large system before them.”
He adds, “It really is for someone who has a vision for their life and what they’re going to do over a long period of time. It’s not something where you can say, ‘Well, this week I’m going to learn this job and start looking’ [for work]. It’s the type of job where you have to have a long-term vision for yourself and you have to take on a long-term commitment when you take on the job. But those who have the vision and the commitment don’t seem to have a problem with that.”
“It’s not a job for everybody in the sense that the social aspects are limited,” Marsh says, describing the work lifestyle of Arrangers and Orchestrators. “You’re working in kind of solitary confinement for most of the time so you have to make sure when you get out, you really go for it in terms of networking and being social are concerned. You don’t see other colleagues that often. There are pluses and minuses, but it is a very rewarding job creatively.”
Work hours vary, based on the project, who the Arranger is working with, and any deadlines involved. Marsh says, “In my dreams I would love to hold regular office hours! It’s a double-sided problem [because] chances are, as an Arranger/Orchestrator you’re going to be a very curious person and when you’re creating you’re going to take the extra time to delve into something to learn more about it. So every job takes longer than you estimate, but it fulfills you creatively. The other side of the coin is that when you’re dealing with Producers and artists you’re aligning with creative people and you can’t really spell out a real time table effectively. If you say ‘I have x number of days to work out this arrangement,’ halfway through the artist says ‘I’ve just had an inspiration! Let’s change everything!’ So sometimes you end up working long hours with deadlines and that can be challenging. You have to be the type of person who can be loose about their schedule and can allow things to flow and can realize the value in letting those things flow. You’re not only going to be satisfying your clients but you’ll be raising the ante to another level of creativity. You just have to have that philosophy and that outlook.”
In a field that’s so much about who you know, how can an aspiring Arranger land his or her first arranging gig? Marsh suggests “the way you do it is you try and put yourself in the situation where you’re around other people who might at some point in time need an Arranger. When hopefully one of them eventually turns to you and says ‘We need an Arranger for this. You can arrange right?’ you say yes. (You never say no.) Then you learn how to do it, quickly.
The job is just too wide and varied; you can’t just start out having all the skills clients need. When I started, I was in a rock band and we had a recording contract with CBS Records. The Producer turned to me after one of the sessions and said, ‘We need some strings. You’re in music school; you can write a string arrangement, right?’ I said yes. I didn’t have a clue. I started talking to all my friends who were string players and had some intense conversations for two weeks and I pulled it off. It was the beginning of my career as an orchestra writer. You have to have enough faith in yourself to just say yes and jump and let the net appear.”
How Much Does an Arranger make?
“There’s no industry standard” in regards to earnings and fee structures per project. Marsh says, “It all has to do with knowing what your client wants and what they can afford. So it’s tricky, at first, to set your price when you have a Producer come to you and say, ‘I need you to write some arrangements for me. Be fluid and find out how much they have in their budget. The amount will vary depending on the profile of the Producer you’re working with. If you’re working with a very high profile Producer, obviously that Producer will be dealing with projects that are very well-funded so you can afford to charge a little more on those projects. On the other end of the scale, if you’re dealing with an independent Producer with very small projects you have to make sure you’re making thing affordable. The Producers understand that, too. You just have to learn how to set your price.
Typically there is an Arrangers’ scale with the Musicians Union, and most Arrangers belong to the Musicians Union because they are musicians. It’s propitious that you get to work on the same jobs that you get to arrange. That happens fairly often.” Yet, Marsh notes “quite a lot of Arrangers do not work through the union, so typically it’s like service for hire. You send the Producer an invoice and they pay you. Occasionally, not very often anymore, you can get into a royalty situation, but that’s less than 5% of the time. You get paid your check when you hand in your notes.”
Unions, Groups & Associations
Although there is no union for Arrangers, as has been noted, many Arrangers belong to the American Federation of Musicians. Marsh believes college is one of the best places to make connections that can benefit your musical career. He says, “If you’re in college, it helps to be around Commercial Music majors; people who might end up needing some kind of arrangement at some point in time. That’s a decent springboard for getting to exercise your arranging chops early on. It also helps to go to a college that’s close to a thriving music community. In Nashville there’s a college called Belmont College that has a fabulous Commercial Music program and music school. Because all the professors work in recording and work on Music Row, when they see a prospective standout student, they focus on that person so it becomes easier for that person to work their way into the industry. That’s actually one really good way of doing it. Otherwise it’s difficult.
There are no real organizations for young people to network and get into arranging. NARAS (The National Academy for Recording Arts and Sciences) can be expensive. You have to go to lots of concerts that are of the type of music you want to arrange, introduce yourself and network with those people. Find a way to slide backstage and introduce yourself and give out cards; that’s about the only way if they don’t go the college route.”
- “Go on the internet and find out who the great Arrangers have been in the past. Go hear examples of what they’ve arranged and go see why they say these guys are the greatest. Limit yourself to five of these people and listen, listen, listen. Start to get the idea. That’s really the best way to approach it.
- Hone your music reading skills and learn how to read scores. Learn orchestration. Orchestration can be self-taught, although it makes it easier if you have professors to teach you in a college course.
- Familiarize yourself with a program like Logic or Pro Tools where you can learn how to write your arrangements on the computer.”
What is the single biggest suggestion you would give to someone wanting to get into this career?
“Listen to the best Arrangers that have been out there for the past seventy-five years and study the scores of the best classical Composers. It’s all about getting the information that people before you had and that’s what you’re trying to learn.”
What’s the #1 mistake people make when trying to get into this career?
“You have to make plenty of mistakes along the way. I think the biggest mistake is to just throw in the towel and say ‘I can’t do this. I’m not moving at the rate I want to.’ You have to stay in the game. I’ve seen people start out and become kind of dismayed that there’s not immediate gratification, when all they needed to do is keeping plugging away at it, being assiduous about it and having faith in themselves that things will happen, because they don’t happen very quickly at first. As I say it, this sounds like it’s an impossible field to get into but it’s not. Like anything worthwhile it’s tricky, but if it wasn’t, everyone would be trying it.”
What is the question people should ask about this career but rarely do?
“‘What are the challenges of working with artists and Producers?’
Some people expect the job to be a paint-by-the-numbers job, the sort of [job where you say] ‘I think I’m going to invent a widget today. This is how you do it; you put the two parts together.’ It’s not like that. You start out with a part [for your widget] then someone gives you an old shoe and says ‘Put that in your widget.’ And someone gives you an ice cream cone and asks you to add that, too. You just have to figure out how to creatively flow [to work with others to create music]. If you want it to have a description it’s going to defy you. You just have to roll with that.”
What is one thing I should have asked which I didn’t?
“I’d say, it’s a fun job inasmuch that you get to travel a lot with somebody else paying for your expenses. So if you like to travel that can be really fun. It’s an interesting job. You meet a lot of really interesting people and once you get to a certain level, you get to make a lot of really great music and it’s a pretty nice scenario one you get to that certain point.”
If you could describe in one word what makes you successful, what would it be?
Extra Credit: The Beatles or Rolling Stones?
“This is really difficult for me. I appreciate the adventuresome aspect of the Beatles and George Martin and his mentality. The orchestra side of me makes me really love that. I just adore some of those things. On the other side, I come from Memphis and my background is rhythm and blues so the Stones, of course, I feel are the greatest rock band in history. Good grief, those guys are incredible! I have equal admiration for them both. There’s a side of me that appreciates real raw, visceral music and another side of me that appreciates very complex high art music. I’m just kind of all over the map in that respect.”
Carl Marsh is a Grammy-nominated Arranger, Composer, Orchestrator and Conductor. Early in his career he performed as a classical bassoonist and as a vocalist in a band signed by Clive Davis. Over the course of his three decades in the music business, Marsh has written arrangements for Big Star, John Prine, Millie Jackson, The Bar-Kays, Etta James, Trisha Yearwood, Emmylou Harris, Shania Twain, Keith Urban, Garth Brooks, Art Garfunkel, Amy Grant, Kelly Rowland and many others.