Dave Arch on Strictly Come Dancing

21st January 2020

Dave (or David) Arch is a British pianist, conductor, arranger and composer who has enjoyed a prolific career covering a broad spectrum of the music business including albums, films and commercials, live and television work. Though undoubtedly best known for his current role as Musical Director and arranger for BBC Television’s BAFTA winning Strictly Come Dancing, in 2016 Dave realised a long held ambition with the release of his own debut album Coming Home. A collection of original compositions featuring around 80 of the UK’s finest musicians, the album includes the track ‘Time To Remember’ with vocals by Tommy Blaize that featured at The Royal British Legion’s Remembrance Day concert in Trafalgar Square.

Dave has been active in the recording studio for his whole career. As a keyboardist he has worked on over 200 motion pictures including 1917, The Imitation Game, Interstellar, The Grand Budapest Hotel, Gravity, The Danish Girl and five of the films from the Harry Potter series. He has also recorded with/for a wide range of artists including Joni Mitchell, Diana Ross, Paul McCartney, Tina Turner, Elton John and Robbie Williams.

Dave’s early career saw him playing the piano in the National Youth Jazz Orchestra and he plays at Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Club with vocalist Madeline Bell. He is often to be heard with various line-ups and members of his Strictly band in jazz clubs and other venues around the London area. Other notable career highlights: Musical Director for ITV for the last nine Royal Variety Performances, including its Hundredth Anniversary at the Albert Hall, and for it’s series Stepping Out, All Star Musicals and Pop Star to Opera Star. He was also Chairperson of the British Jury panel for the 2015 Eurovision Song Contest held in Vienna, Austria.

Well! Of all the conductors I’ve spoken to, I think you must be the most versatile.

That’s very kind of you.

I still think I’m just a jobbing musician really. I’m very lucky. It’s a complete accident I ended up doing this job.

You’ve spoken before in interviews about what your role in Strictly Come Dancing involves. Do you still just get the one-day rehearsal?

Well, it used to be just the show day, but I’ve now managed to procure a three-hour rehearsal on the Friday night, which is with the singers and the rhythm section (a small version of the band). That’s the way it’s worked in the last five or six years. The show got more and more complicated – it was almost impossible to do on the day.

Most of my work is actually the arranging. The conducting side of it is – in a way – the easy bit! Musically the show has grown and grown; I’ve been doing it fourteen years now. We used to have an hour’s rehearsal and then play directly with the dancers for their rehearsals. We did two run throughs and a dress run and then we were on live telly. That’s what it used to be like.

So you’re spoilt now.

I know yes, exactly! Luxury – a whole rehearsal. So I do that on the Friday night and then the brass players and blowers come in on Saturday morning and basically sight-read.

You said most of your work is the arranging, is it still the case that you get the dances for the next weekend on the Sunday?

Yep – pretty much. Not even all of them. (laughs)

!!

Yes, that’s the really hard work.

What about the other performances, like Carlos Acosta’s guest appearance when he danced to music from Carmen.[1] Is that still arranged by you for the musicians?

Yes. The only things we don’t play for are the pop acts that come in. For instance, when Bocelli came in he just sang to a track. We play everything else.

Do you get a lot of arranging to do before the Strictly season starts?

Well in the last few years what they call the ‘group dances’ (the ones the professionals do for the openings of the shows) are increasingly planned earlier, a few weeks before the series starts during August. They’re the big scale numbers – longer pieces of music. Most of that is thought about before the season starts so I can get on with some of it, to a certain extent. But having said that, I found out about Carmen a week and a half before. (laughs)

That is crazy. You went to Guildhall School of Music, didn’t you?

Yes.

So did you study conducting and arranging?

Actually I trained as a classical pianist at the Guildhall, a long time ago! They very kindly gave me a fellowship in November last year [2019]. That was a great honour.

I started joint first study with the violin, but that’s the last time I played it. I did a year of that.

And you thought ‘that’s enough of that’?

Well everyone was far better than me!

Ah so I imagine you played in orchestras as well, which helped your arranging etc.

I had done, yes.

You’re also a regular at Ronnie Scott’s…

Well sometimes, I actually did four days there last week. I don’t really separate the different styles of music. I’ve always grown up with it all and tried to play it all.

That’s great. What about copyright? I imagine you never have to worry about any of that, but does that all have to be sorted out very quickly?

Well the BBC has vehicles for this. They have a music department that sorts copyrights out, and they have fast tracks to publishers I imagine.

That’s never been part of my remit. When stuff comes to me it’s already been cleared. There are sometimes funny little things that need to be dealt with – like if there’s a rude word in a song (or what’s perceived as a rude word).

Sometimes you have to cut down the songs a lot – the intro is suddenly half the length, or they miss out a couple of lines from the verse and then it goes straight into the final chorus… etc.

Ugh.

Who decides how that’s done? Is it you or the professional dancer?

Well, there’s a music producer on the show as well who has been there for the last few years. It’s decided between all of us. We edit records and then we add little bits to them (like accents that dancers and choreographers want) and I try to make the result work for a live band. The dancers often have requests (they’ll want a certain bit of a song) but it’s also got to work. I usually come in when they vaguely have some form of structure, because as you know you can’t just cut things up willy nilly!

Yeah, sure. It’s like watching one of those adverts when they chop up a song you know.

Oh yeah you wince! That has happened on Strictly but the ultimate decision is with the production. I just give my point of view but that can be overridden occasionally.

OK say no more!

There are sometimes sections when you improvise, do dancers ask you to do that?

Yes sometimes, but within quite strict parameters – it’s not like you’d do at a concert. It has to be done within a certain time frame otherwise it’s not fair. So there are all of those rules, but we do try to bring a bit of personality to it where we can!

Yeah I’d say so! Are there any genres that are particularly tricky to pull off in the environment you’re working in and with the band you’ve got?

Yes, in short. The band I have is basically like a glorified big band with a large rhythm section, so your traditional Frank Sinatra song (or something like that) is fairly straightforward. But modern pop music, as you know, has often been created with no real instruments at all. It’s then very hard to make that work with a live band. I’ve got little tricks: I get the drummer to play electric drums and things like that, but sonically it can be very difficult. The other big part of my job (as with all conductors) is rehearsing and tailoring the music to make it sound right.

When it comes to big filmic music and things like Carmen, unfortunately the sounds have all got to come out of keyboards when there isn’t a real orchestra. I’m lucky enough to work with orchestras a lot (I love that) but in a television environment the band consists of fifteen musicians, four singers and me. That’s big in television! Usually the hardest things to make work are those that are outside of what such a band would usually play. That’s the main problem, but I always attempt to make things as authentic as I can, whatever the style.

What about the Latin-American music?

Yeah the Latin stuff can be very difficult because the real deal can have up to five percussionists on it. We’ve got one! I usually end up trying to play something myself – I’ve got to find ways of making it work.

I’ll be looking out for you with your maracas now.

It’s not an uncommon sight! Tambourines and shakers and things like that.

You just mentioned the film music being tricky. Anton and Emma did an Austin Powers Salsa this last series [2019].[2] Did you still have to arrange all of that by ear?

Oh yes the Quincy Jones – Soul Bossa Nova. Yes, I do all of it by ear.

That is incredible. I wasn’t sure whether you’d be able to contact specific bands/orchestras and get the parts from them.

No, only if it’s a common domain work unfortunately. I played a bit of Gymnopedie one week.[3] I’ve got the music at home so I didn’t have to do anything for that one. It was very nerve wracking playing it – but that’s a different matter!

Actually I was going to ask you about that dance. I’ve spoken a lot to conductors of ballet, and whenever they talk about the pas de deux, they’ve always gone into such detail in the rehearsal room.

In Strictly, almost everything you accompany is a pas de deux.

Yes.

So when you played Gymnopedie, how much did you have to consider the choreography for the waltz with rubato etc.?

Well with that one I clocked what they were rehearsing to. It was a commercial recording and they had got used to that…

Ah so you mimic it?

Well to a certain extent I try to. But I don’t get enough rehearsal time with them to learn what they’re doing unless the professional dancer comes and asks me about something specific.

So they do sometimes make requests? Do you mean taking cues from them, that kind of thing?

Yes occasionally – it’s always the professional dancer because the celebrities don’t always do the same thing twice. (laughs)

(laughs) I’m laughing as if I could do any better.

Likewise!

With things like jumps and lifts, or going into the splits – do you take note of how long the dancers are taking?

Well ‘sometimes’ is the answer to that. In the ballet world I think they’re rehearsing with a pianist most of the time, and that rehearsal pianist might be the conductor, or being conducted. They’re very much getting used to the routine together. But the turnaround of this show is so fast, it’s a ridiculous schedule for everybody, so essentially the way it’s done is that we get a recorded track that everyone is happy with and then the dancers practice with that. Then I try and learn the timings. On the whole that’s how it works, but then on show day things can change and they’ll come and request that it’s a bit faster here or that it needs more of a pulse there. It can be hard interpreting dance language into musical language, because at times they’re different things.  

Quite often, instead of writing a pause I will count it in my head and physically write the timing out e.g. ‘add an extra 2/4 bar’ (or something like that) by way of a pause so I know roughly what they’re getting used to. That’s just how I remember it, it’s one of my little tricks. Otherwise if I just write a pause, I come back to it and can’t remember how long it’s meant to be!

Yes, conductors of dance have spoken to me about manufactured ritardandos. Stravinsky did it,[4] he would just write out longer notes rather than put in rall. or rit. so it was exactly how he wanted it.

Is the Argentine Tango a difficult one to do?

It can be. For instance Piazolla is sometimes very technically difficult, so I quite often need to get in specialist players for that (a violin or bandoneon, depending on what the track is). Those can be very tricky.

Tempi are always the thorny issue with dance. Do you ever feel like the wrong tempo is ruining the musical performance?

Yes, yes that has happened (laughs). Once in a while they’re a bit uncomfortable. As it’s Saturday night entertainment, sometimes a song is picked for its words (for instance, they are appropriate to a celebrity) or maybe it’s a popular song. It’s not really a tango or a Paso or whatever, and we have to go through this process of trying to fit a round peg in to a square hole. Tempo is often an issue with things like that. We do our best but…!

Is it usually the dancers that get priority?

Well they’ve got to dance to it so ultimately that’s the most important thing – if they’re doing a Pasodoble it’s got to be within a certain tempo range. What’s being picked isn’t always comfortable in that range but that’s one of those things. On the whole we get away with it I hope.

So I suppose you can’t ever really say ‘no, this will not work’.

Well, I’ll say that in advance in the week if I see something that’s down for an inappropriate dance style. When you’re doing shows that are rolling weekly you just have to jump on any problems as soon as possible, everybody does that. I’ll listen to everything as soon as I can and am listening for things that could present potential problems – whether that means a different line-up, I need different instruments or whether there’s an issue with tempos. I can’t really refuse, but I can put up robust reasons why.

Orchestral/opera conductors usually have assistants helping them out in various ways. Do you have anyone like that?

No, I don’t but work in tandem with the music producer for the show. Also there’s a great sound team and on show days I’m very involved with them. It’s not really part of my job but because I want the music to sound as good as possible it’s become it, every break I go and listen to the rehearsal recordings. The mixing desk is in a full on studio and has computer snap shots so you can recall a certain song. I’m able to listen to the rehearsal, and we mix that and although it’s being played live the settings on the mixing desk can be roughly right. I do all that myself.

Well, you’re clever.

Oh I’m not!

It’s so varied, all the skills you have. I think you’d be pretty hard to replace.

Well, that’s for others to say but I care about it I suppose. Everything I do, I really care about – for it to sound as good as it possibly can within the parameters we have.

Is it true you handwrite everything in pencil?

Yes.

I mean, actually… what?!

I write scores, I have a copyist that then puts it into Sibelius. I use Sibelius sometimes but I’m slower on that than I am with a pencil. So ultimately that’s all I care about when I’ve got such a vast amount to do. But with other things I write I do use Sibelius.

For single line instruments such as trumpet parts it’s fine, but for rhythm parts, drum parts, guitar chords and things like that I can’t work on the computer as fast as I can with a pencil. I’m sure there are people that can fly on it, but when doing Strictly I just scan my pencil scores and send them to a copyist. Then he brings in all the parts on the day.

Ah right. So what’s your role on the tour?

I set it up, basically. I do all the arranging for it and I then rehearse the band. The band for this is a bit smaller than the TV show so sometimes I have to prelay some music, make click tracks and run extra missing parts – things like that.

So there are live musicians but less of them. You scale it all down.

Yes, it’s a ten-piece band.

You don’t go on tour with them?

No. I was up in Birmingham last week – I go to the first couple of days of the production rehearsals up there and mostly tweak the sound.

So who does your job then? You’re often at the piano.

In the main Strictly band there are two pianists, and I play quite often so then there’s three. On the tour there’s two, and a guitar, bass, drums, percussion and four brass, hence having to prelay some bits.

Ah right I see how that could work.

Yeah it works until they want the large-scale music that I struggled to make even work with the main band. (laughs)

They don’t ask for much from you, do they?

Yes – you know the six French horns in the corner that I could really be doing with…

Some of that comes out of keyboards and synthesisers and some of it I just have to figure out ways around. The BBC is creatively involved with the tour, so the wardrobe, me, the producers – we all sort of set it up, and then it’s all run by an independent company. Phil McIntyre run the tour.

Do you select the musicians yourself? Some have been there from the start, haven’t they?

Well Tommy Blaize (one of the singers) has, but yes I do select them.

So basically you need very versatile musicians who can work without much rehearsal.

Yes in a nutshell! And put up with me.

Do you have many Guildhall buddies in there?

Not really in this case. I was also in the NYJO [National Youth Jazz Orchestra] whilst I was at Guildhall so a lot of session players (especially the brass players) have all come through that. The rest of the band are just people I’ve known over the years who are versatile and fantastic players. Most of the people I work with are people I’ve known for a long time, but not always.

Regarding the tempi: obviously not only do you have to agree the right tempo (as we mentioned before) but often there are tempo changes within the songs – especially when you’re doing medleys.

Oh yes.

They can be quite choppy – I noticed that when you performed ‘Shout’ for Kelvin and Oti’s dance.[5] Can it take quite a long time to get on top of that?

Yes it can do. I’ve always got a metronome there for reference and I’ve previously clocked what the tempo needs to be, but when you’ve rehearsed it a couple of times [it’s usually fine]. With that particular tune (I remember that because we performed it recently and it’s also on the tour) there are three tempos. It starts at normal speed, then goes into a slower bluesy section, and then fast at the end. The first two tempos are fairly natural. My metronome’s got flashing lights so once I’ve got it in my head that’s alright. The last tempo was quite hard because it was required to be faster than it should have been for dance reasons. Therefore it’s a little unnatural. Oh well, hopefully we got near it!

Dancers talk about muscle memory a lot. I also spoke to soprano Danielle de Niese about that once and what she said stuck in my mind. ‘It seemed to be held in everyone’s muscle memory. It’s like hearing a pop song on the radio – you are unlikely to remember it at a different speed’.[6]

Yes music usually has a natural pace, it’s when it’s outside that natural pace that it becomes hard.

I imagine if it doesn’t feel right there’s a real danger of speeding up or slowing down.

Well, that’s when great musicians, especially rhythm players (drummers and percussionists) are worth their weight in gold. That’s what they’re all good at. You’ll set the tempo with them and they’ll hold it there, even when it’s not that comfortable.

In the studio with films and albums it’s very commonplace to play to a click or a pre-laid track. The live arena is when it’s sometimes harder.

Some orchestras have a click track in the films-with-orchestra performances…

Yes, very much so as they need to play in sync with the picture. Playing together is all a question of musicians listening to each other. If a drummer is setting a tempo, especially in dance music of any kind, then that is what everybody’s got to lock to. Really!

When I studied the Rite of Spring, I came across an article with a table comparing performance tempi of the piece by different conductors (Fink 1999:356). The ones that were closest to Stravinsky’s metronome markings were those that conducted dance – so I can imagine that skill with tempo applies to you too.

Do you have much to do with the other Music Directors from Dancing with the Stars, in the US or elsewhere?

No, I don’t have anything to do with Ray Chew [Music Director of the U.S. show] or Harold Wheeler before that although I think we might have exchanged a score or two in the past. Somebody who had been on the US show came over and did a special dance performance once, but that’s all the contact I’ve had.

Right, so you don’t phone each other up and compare notes?

No. The shows are a completely separate thing. Other productions sometimes come and watch us because it’s franchised all over the world and the BBC version is the original. I’ve met a couple of people that come and watch the show and they’ve asked me questions (probably because of shows they were about to set up). In the American show I don’t think the band’s very big anymore, I think it was scaled down when the new chap started.

Yeah, conducting can be quite a lonely profession.

Yes, and also that business of learning a whole score is very different. That takes a lot of work, doing that.

Opera conductors that I’ve spoken to will often spend three years learning a score; just slowly assimilating it over time.

That’s amazing.

Perhaps you’d get bored of the piece after all that time!

But you get your reward in front of the orchestra. I mean, whatever the music is that’s such a buzz. To have a band or an orchestra playing music back to you – that’s a wonderful thing.

Yes that must be great feeling for you to hear the band play something back that you’ve arranged.

I’m usually relieved it works!

… and I suppose a bit nerve-wracking when there are just a few million people watching.

It certainly is! There was talk of doing a red button for direct music feed because obviously all the audience are clapping along with us in all sorts of places – but that didn’t happen. I think it was a cost thing.

That’s the other great distraction sometimes. You’ve got to completely ignore an audience clapping.

Oh of course! They’re all whooping and wooing as well.

Yes, and clapping roughly in the right places and sometimes not. And then of course when you’ve got to change tempo the audience carry on clapping in the old tempo for a bit.

Oh that’s difficult.

It can be, yes!

Finally, if you were mentoring a student that was interested in your kind of work, what skills/practice would you really encourage?

Well, I think diversity more than anything else – you have to be involved with as much of a variety of music as possible. You have to work in some really bad situations to gain experience – you can’t just go in at the top end. But as I said earlier, my whole attitude to music is that whatever the style it’s all valid music. I encounter a lot of musicians, whatever the style, that aren’t open to other styles. I don’t dismiss anything – I might not like a bit of music but by arranging it I’ll try to get inside it and understand it. I might not always enjoy it as much as something that I like more but I’m not closed to it. So I think that’s probably the advice I’d give.

Yes I feel the same about variety, and I’m sure you’ve discovered lots of songs and music via Strictly that you wouldn’t have otherwise come across.

Oh very much so, and learned a lot from listening to things. That’s the other skill – listening to everything that’s around you.

Well this has been fantastic, thanks so much for fitting me in!

It’s been interesting! Nice talking to you.

Bibliography

Fink, R. ‘‘The Rite of Spring’ and the Forging of a Modernist Performing Style’ Journal of  the American Musicological Society, (Summer 1999) 52 (2), 299-362


[1] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eryYeVDvlNs

[2] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ypf2p0KRwgE

[3] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q3Uavzt6qVo

[4] See the end of the Apotheose in Apollo.

[5] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XFf6eBR9kc0

[6] Danielle de Niese on her working relationship with conductors Issue 1 July 2017. Read the full interview here.