Friday, March 27, 2009

Philosophy of Orchestration (part 1)

I had a lot of fun gearing up a for a little presentation I did today at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary's orchestration class. The professor, Joshua Waggener, asked me to give some perspectives of "real world" church orchestration and techniques for writing for rhythm sections.

I blew it all out in a matter of fifty minutes. So much to say, so little time. Those poor students.

The following represents the beginning of some things we discussed related to orchestration and your orchestra. The context was specifically church orchestration since that is generally the orientation of the music program at SEBTS.

The first question to ask yourself when considering orchestrating a hymn, chorus, or other song for your church orchestra:

Does the song need an orchestration?

Here I could write almost an entire blog post in response to this question. (in fact, it turned into one!) As music staff we probably don't wrestle with a bigger question: just because the orchestra is sitting there, does that mean they should play? Or asked another way: What is a reasonable amount of material to expect an orchestra to play on?

The tension here lies in the "worth it" factor. If you have three services in the morning, as we do at Providence, is it wise to ask your orchestra volunteers to come and make themselves available for all three services in order to accompany one anthem and a hymn? As servants, we would say, yes, they should be happy to come in and play only the refrain of just one hymn and be glad they got a chance to serve.

A steady diet of this, however would strongly affect their morale and before long, there would be very little orchestra left for whom to orchestrate!

The flip side of this coin, and frankly the side we error on more than the other, is to make a programming decision based on the fact that the orchestra is scheduled to play. An observer might perceive this as the tail wagging the dog. Honestly, this is sometimes the case as we occasionally are forced to change what we felt was an already strong service plan in terms of flow in order to satisfy the "worth it" factor for the orchestra volunteers.

Being forced to make decisions like the one above is wrought by everything from bad planning on our part to an overall lack of quality arrangements available to us. Sometimes, however we are blindsided by another factor: partial orchestrations.

On a day in which the entire orchestra is scheduled, we may plan a service and congratulate ourselves on how frequently we managed to involve the orchestra. Upon closer examination, however, we realize that on song A, B, and D, only the strings play, while on songs C, and E, only the brass play, and on song F, the lone orchestrated hymn selection, the woodwinds get to play.

Planning well requires answering the original question: Does the song NEED an orchestration? If it is decided a song could be enhanced by an orchestration (another subjective decision), the project needs to be set into motion weeks in advance of the service, not only for the sake of the arranger, but for the sake of rehearsal.

But let me just be clear about this one thing: Some songs in the pop world, Christian or secular or not bettered by the finest orchestration. Some band-led songs often need to stay that way. Any attempted horn lick or string line can diminish the pathos of the song in it's original state and derail the emotive qualities of a song. Again, a subjective call, perhaps, but would we really want to try to add to All the Saints Join In, or This is Who I Am? Great skill would be required both by the arranger and by the performer!

Upon answering the question in the affirmative regarding the need for an orchestration, we have several more to answer. (Stay tuned)