Book Review: A Cappella Arranging by Deke Sharon and Dylan Bell

CD Reviews

In fall 2012, Deke Sharon and Dylan Bell published A Cappella Arranging. Most readers will know of Sharon—or at least his work—as the founder of the Contemporary A Cappella Society (CASA), and a major force in starting and pushing the International Championships of Collegiate (ICCA), besides being a major player in every season of The Sing-Off and the music in the Pitch Perfect film. Bell may be a bit less of a household name for a cappella fans, but boasts an impressive resume of his own as an award-winning a cappella arranger, producer, and performer whose resume includes work with Cadence and The Nylons.

Purportedly, the book came about when Bell recognized the absence of a definitive text about arranging a cappella, and, before he undertook the project of creating one himself, asked around among luminaries in the a cappella business. Sharon got back to him to report that he had had ideas for just such a book, and suggested the two of them work together.

The result is a book that is nothing if not comprehensive. Sharon and Bell systematically move through everything from creative philosophy, to best practices, to the mechanics of how to arrange a cappella music in a volume packed with all of the information of a college textbook, that mostly reads like more of a blog—friendly, unpretentious, and profoundly human.

The book is not necessarily geared toward complete novices or casual fans of a cappella. It’s far more about getting your hands dirty and actively arranging than about appreciating art that’s already there. Moreover, as the book openly cedes, the authors assumed a foundation of basic music theory for readers to follow what they were writing. That said, for readers who have any basis, the text is profoundly usable, including generous samplings of sheet music to illustrate their points and allow readers to follow along, in addition to a glossary of the terms newer arrangers and less expert musical scholars may not recognize.

Moreover, A Cappella Arranging contains plenty of fodder for anyone in an artistic field. I’m far less a musician than I am a writer, but recognized significant overlap between the more philosophical segments of this text and articles I’ve read about writing—for example, a chapter and recurring references to the Jungian creative archetypes of the dreamer, editor, and critic.

The book succeeds in communicating about nuts and bolts, which is exceedingly valuable for novice arrangers, getting into the mechanics of how, when, and to what degree to notate vocal percussion, different approaches to arranging and developing textures through background vocals, and how to keep a bass part both aurally interesting and engaging for the performers.

One of the qualities that makes this book an appealing purchase is how contemporary it feels. Yes, as I referenced earlier, the writing is anything but stodgy, but moreover the content skews toward a consciously contemporary style of arranging. For example, perhaps foreseeing that Pitch Perfect would take a cappella medleys, and more so mashups from an a cappella novelty to a legitimate staple, the book includes a chapter dedicated to the topic. Better yet, the authors show tremendous humility and consciousness in recognizing that they haven’t covered everything, and that the a cappella form will continue to evolve, and thus tie in the book with the A Cappella Arranging website, which appears to have gone underutilized since its inception, but nonetheless provides an infrastructure for conversations and lessons about a cappella arranging to continue ad infinitum.

I’ll close, though, with the piece of wisdom I found most satisfying and beautiful from the book, which, again, transcends the a cappella form and speaks meaningfully to anyone striving to achieve something meaningful through art. Sharon and Bell close a chapter about the myths of music making by writing:

If you believe music is, above all, a language (and we do), then consider this: don’t spend all your time as a linguist, studying and worrying about grammar, syntax, and spelling, or even about what makes a great linguist. Spend your time learning how to express “I love you,” and then make sure you tell someone every day.