5 Essentials of Arranging for High School A Cappella with J.D. Frizzell

Happy 2018! We decided to begin the new year by talking to J.D. Frizzell about high school a cappella. J.D. is the president of the AEA and, among many other accolades, director of the award-winning group OneVoice at Briarcrest Christian High School. As an arranger, composer, and educator, J.D. shares what every high school a cappella group should know when it comes to crafting their sound.

1. Don’t limit yourselves.

Just because your group is made up of high schoolers doesn’t mean that you cannot achieve incredible sound. “I think high school groups have proven that they can hang with the best in terms of emotional capacity, energy, intonation, and musicality,” says J.D. There is no barrier between your group and your definition of success except the time and energy that you put in.

Exhibit A.

2. Establish your identity.

Arrangements play a huge role in shaping your group’s identity, as “the harmonic language, chord voicing, textures, syllables, and form” that you choose are what sets you apart from everyone else. First, find the music that resonates with you and your group members – don’t just do Top 40 hits because everyone else is. Then, use arrangements that consistently lend themselves to the style you want. By using “similar arrangers or arrangements from year to year”, you can define WHO your group is over time.

3. Focus on your strengths.

Do you have a strong group of soloists? A killer rhythm section with VP and basses? Sopranos in the stratosphere? Wherever your group shines, use those strengths to lift up the group by letting your arrangements showcase the best your group has to offer.

4. Always be ready to learn…

…especially for arranging purposes. When group members take charge of the arranging process, even just for one song, it’s going to resonate with them more strongly. If you have students who want to learn, give them guidance and space to do so! J.D. gives two tips for aspiring arrangers here:

Start by studying arrangements of others. Explore the harmony, textures, and forms used. See what seems the most effective in them. And then just do it. You’ll learn the most from arranging something and then tweaking it a bunch. It can’t (and won’t) be perfect the first time, but doing is the best way to learn.”

Music theory knowledge is always helpful, but anyone can start arranging by just using GarageBand or a loop machine! As J.D. says, “Just sing what sounds good!” If you don’t want to spend a couple hundred dollars on a physical loop machine, you can get an app like Loopy or Jam Looper or VoiceJam or Loopr (which I found with 2 minutes on Google, so there are definitely a lot more out there). Every minute you spend trying and failing and learning and growing is another minute of valuable experience on your way to arranging better music.

Just because an arrangement is finished doesn’t mean it’s bulletproof! Feedback from others can make a big difference, especially coming from an unbiased source. J.D. had a cappella arranger/whiz Robert Dietz work directly with OneVoice for a week, demonstrating his arranging process and working with the group on a few of their pieces. If an established arranger and director like J.D. is looking for outside expertise, then it can definitely benefit you as well.

(P.S. Next month on the AEA blog: Robert Dietz.)

5. Work together.

That’s a pretty bland statement, but let’s apply it directly to the arranging process with your high school group. J.D. recommends a group exercise like this:

Teach them the elements of an arrangement and have them build it up in layers.  Start with the solo chorus, then loop it.  Add a bass line, then add some homophonic harmonies, then pads, then countermelodies and/or rhythmic syllables.”

This improvisational exercise and others like it can spark creativity and encourage ideas from your students. Don’t be afraid of doing it “wrong” – it’s a learning experience. Try it out!

We finished up by asking J.D. what he wants to see in the a cappella world in 2018. His response? “I want to see more original ideas and less imitation. Original music is ideal, but if you are going to cover something, make it unique.”

As a musician, those are words to live by.


Coming soon – Pentatonix and Sing-Off arranger Ben Bram brings his arranging insights to the table for high schoolers!

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