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Arranging Music for NBC’s The Voice: Behind the Scenes with Composition Faculty Member Adi Yeshaya

To the 12 million people who tune in each week to NBC’s The Voice, the main focus is on the hit show’s abundance of vocal talent — from the contestants, to the pop star coaches, to the special celebrity guests. But what often goes unnoticed is the show’s music production team of highly talented musicians, arrangers and directors who collectively work behind the scenes to produce and perform hours of music for each episode.

McNally Smith Composition faculty member Adi Yeshaya has become a key member of this team, having arranged numerous string, brass and woodwind scores that have been performed on the program over the past two years. It can be challenging to meet the demands of a hit TV show that airs multiple days each week, but as Yeshaya explains, it’s all part of the life of a working professional arranger.

“The deadlines are the most challenging thing,” says Yeshaya, who has worked with some of the biggest names in music including Prince, Whitney Houston and Aretha Franklin. “It’s a lot of late nights and a lot of early mornings. With a show like this, I typically get anywhere between four to eight string arrangements on a Friday afternoon that have to be finished by Saturday morning. Thanks to the fact that the Twin Cites are two hours ahead of Los Angeles, I can get a couple more hours of work done the morning before I send the charts to the music team in LA.

As a long-distance collaborator, Yeshaya typically starts a new project by receiving an email containing an audio track (either a rehearsal track from the show’s live band or an original artist track edited to reflect an alternate arrangement for the singer) and detailed notes from the music coordinator or Paul Mirkovich, the show’s musical director. Sometimes they require orchestrated parts for music that band has already worked out. A recent example is the arrangement of Donny Hathaway’s “A Song For You,” performed on Season 7’s penultimate episode by 2014 finalist Damien. In this case Yeshaya orchestrated string and woodwind parts that had originally been written by the band’s keyboard players.

“Other times there’s more creative involvement on my end and they’ll want me to actually compose parts,” Yeshaya says, citing his work on “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas” — an undeniable highlight of the season finale that Yeshaya had been working on in the McNally Smith studio complex just the day before. “For that one, Paul composed the intro and suggested it should be orchestrated for strings. In his notes to me he requested a specific violin fill in bar 12, and he asked me to create the rest of the arrangement using my best judgment.”

Yeshaya relies on a variety of digital tools in his work, including MOTU’s Digital Performer, a digital audio workstation (DAW) that allows him to add his own MIDI instrumentation (strings, brass and woodwind sounds within the computer) to build arrangements on top of the existing audio tracks supplied by Mirkovich. Once Yeshaya is happy with the instrumental parts, he exports them as a MIDI file and imports this into Finale, a musical notation program that allows him to translate the MIDI parts into a properly notated score with accompanying instrumental parts for the musicians to read on set.

According to Yeshaya, it takes a specialized skillset to be successful as an arranger and orchestrator. “You need to be able to hear music in a very precise way — you need to know how to transcribe by ear and understand the nuances and limitations of different instruments so that the music can be translated for a wide variety of performers,” he says. “Creativity factors in when you receive a track that was done with one type of instrumentation and you need to recreate it in an effective way using different instruments — moving a song from one setting to another, say, from a 5-piece rock band to an expanded ensemble with horns and strings. In a jazz setting, arrangers can take a familiar song and morph it into something so unbelievably creative — that’s one of the things that originally drew me into wanting to become an arranger and orchestrator.”

When he’s not working in his studio or recording with other artists, Yeshaya can be found on campus at McNally Smith, teaching future generations of music makers and helping prepare them for the dynamic opportunities that exist in music. “I always try to impress on students that they might find work through any number of connections, and you need to be prepared to say ‘yes’ when an opportunity presents itself, so it’s important to network and develop a strong foundation in music and technology. That’s what the industry expects, and that’s what’s going to help them have a successful music career.”