Check out this free, comprehensive guide to big band arranging
Updated: Aug 16, 2021
Orchestrator Evan Rogers will teach you how to make your big band video game music a reality.
You could make the argument that some of the most adept musical minds amongst us fall into one of two categories: those who are fluent in a myriad of musical languages and those for whom they have complete mastery of one. In the case of London-based orchestrator, arranger, and conductor Evan Rogers, it is apparently obvious that he has mastered at least one musical language.
Last week, Evan Rogers dropped a massive, 55,000+ word guide on big band arranging for composers, orchestrators, and arrangers. It's broken up into 21 separate articles that cover everything from broader topics such as instrumentation and analysis to more form specific topics such as the shout chorus and solos and backgrounds. The guide features recorded as well as visual examples of the topic material. If big band arranging isn't your bread and butter, I have no doubt that this guide will be an invaluable resource.
To me, this guide feels like a field manual; the sort of thing you study to prepare yourself but keep in your back pocket for when you realize you're in over your head. This sentiment of mine may not be wholly original either, as, in his introduction, Rogers describes a real-world situation gone awry as his inspiration for this guide:
"Late Autumn, a few years back, in a world-famous London studio, I got the gig of a lifetime. The band were booked, 17 top jazz session players in the London scene, chatting, tuning and talking about their mortgages, while I, the arranger, at the tender age of 21, was with the composer in the booth. The red light came on, ProTools was rolling and 8 free clicks later came the downbeat.
It was a mess.
Every composer, orchestrator and arranger knows the heart-in-mouth feeling of your music hitting a player’s stand and their hand going up. There were that many questions from the players I might as well have been playing Jeopardy. It was one of those situations where you just knew it came up in the pub later with awkward laughs and downward glances."
Part of me hopes that this blog series becomes so popular that there is no choice but to produce a run of tiny print copies. For now, we all have access to it online. Before you click on the link to Roger's guide (if you haven't already), let me leave you with a short interview I did with him discussing this guide and his thoughts about it:
In your introduction, you mention a cringe-worthy session as one of the main impetuses for creating this series of blog posts. Did you have any other major drives for creating this resource?
I had been collecting my thoughts on orchestrating, arranging, and writing for a variety of ensembles during my studio work for a while. When I was starting out there were some blogs that that really helped me and I admired (check out Debreved by orchestrator Tim Davies). When I looked for big band content there seemed to just be a big void for well-structured, practical advice.
The other driving factor is a bit romantic (or lame depending on your point of view). I love the orchestra and I love big bands. It's the main reason I'm an orchestrator, not a composer. I love learning about the orchestra as a medium, it's history, it's instrumentation, the craft of writing truly authentic orchestral music. That extends to big band too. In my spare time, I'm constantly reading books and articles on the craft, history, formation. instrumentation and science of orchestration and arranging. So that's a big reason why I wanted to create a resource that reflected that.
Was there any big reason for releasing this information freely online, in blog format, as opposed to, say, publishing a book or a course?
Unfortunately, the answer to this isn't as entirely altruistic or benevolent as I'd like to think. The series started out way smaller - maybe just 3 articles on articulations and phrasing. And it just grew and grew as I had more ideas while writing. By the time I'd jotted down all the ideas in my head, it needed formally organising. It then came out at over 55'000 words by the time I finished. I never thought to change the format because it started at a series of blog posts and I'm glad it ended up that way too. It's easily updateable (unlike an ebook), I can include audio examples more easily (unlike a physical book) and a course just seemed antithetical to the whole reason of me doing it in the first place. There are quite a few paid-for courses for this kind of thing, often endorsed by big established companies and universities - that's exactly what I was trying to get away from.
As for why it's free, I make my living as an orchestrator and arranger, not really an educational content provider. Sure, it took a bit of time to create the examples and write it up, but I'd been collecting the thoughts and ideas for a while so it just felt like organising them. If I create more content in the future and it takes up more of my potential orchestrating/arranging time, I'd probably keep it free but move to a pay-what-you-can kind of model to keep it sustainable. This series is really comprehensive (as you mentioned over 55,000 words). In all of that, are there any big picture takeaways you hope are imparted upon your readers?
I hope people finish reading and think two things:
1) Is that it? It's not that complicated. What's the big deal?
Of course, the skills take time to develop, but the fundamental concepts for big band arranging are simple and easily digestible. If people suddenly think it's an accessible medium and/or that they'd be comfortable accepting a jazz gig because of it, then I'm happy.
2) Attention to detail matters.
I don't explicitly say this in the series but you can see I take to time to thoroughly unpack things like music fonts, score layout, phrasing, articulation markings, etc. It's not just 'use these voicings and you're good.' It's all the other stuff that makes you come across as pro and composing, orchestrating and arranging are just thousands of tiny decisions that all add up to one whole. Making sure these micro-decisions are precise and accurate makes a big difference in how an arranger comes across to the players.
I hear from my session-playing friends all the time of dodgy charts, bad phrasing, wrong notes, etc. We would never expect this from a session player who's been paid to do their job, so why don't we hold arrangers up to this standard? Well, I don't think it's always the arranger's fault - there's no great info on phrasing or jazz articulations that's easily accessible so how could they know? Hopefully reading this series makes the situation better for arrangers and players! What would you say to somebody who has read all the way through your blog series and is hungry to dive deeper into the subject?
Transcribe, transcribe, transcribe. Look to the music, not more resources. Inputting just 5 big band charts into a DAW or your notation software program will make you a markedly better arranger than reading another book on how to voice a 4-part chord. After the blog, you should know what you're looking for when you're transcribing and should be able to spot tropes and voicings, and start to figure out your own palette/what you like. Of course, you then write your own music and apply it - copying great arrangements at first and then developing your own sound. The old masters of our craft would copy scores by the hundreds. It's a tried-and-tested method of getting really good. Don't let the modern pursuit of 'originality' stop you from going through this important learning process. Focus on that later.
Finally, Evan, what do you have coming up that people should keep their eye out for?
I'm back to the usual at the moment, slinking back into the shadows of the behind-the-scenes studio industry, working with some great composers and their music, recording in Budapest, Bulgaria, and London when things resemble normality.
As for more upcoming content, there are a couple of articles that didn't make the final cut for my big band arranging blog which I'll revise and release soon, as well as plans for livestreams by popular demand to do with arranging, orchestration and music preparation with a focus on answering questions/reviewing viewer's arrangements and orchestrations, etc.
I'm also soon to be on the podcasts ComposerCast and Creative Cuppa so check them out if you want to hear a dude with a sultry British accent get a bit too excited about the orchestra.
Big Band Arranging for Composers, Orchestrators, and Arrangers