Thursday, April 23, 2009

Philosophy of Orchestration (Part 4)

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

1. Does the song need an orchestration? (dealt with in part 1)

2. Should everyone play? (dealt with in part 2)

3. Does the orchestration support the lyric? (dealt with in part 3)

4. Is your orchestration accessible to your players?

I once heard a conference speaker make a statement that went something like this: "Your church musicians should be better musically right now than they were a year ago."

When we as church music directors put our "music educator" hat on, we would hope that yes, eventually everyone will become better the longer they are under our direction. Though there are issues in practice related to just how far musicians under our tutelage can advance (see Maxwell's Law of the Lid), we always want to see areas of weaknesses progress to strength, tentativeness turn to confidence, and technical sloppiness woodshed to crisp dexterity.

If we worked with a static ensemble, in which no member quit and no new members joined, the goal of constant musical growth might be attainable. This could be achieved if everyone did their homework, almost daily individual practice occurred, an omniscient director provided appropriate challenge for each member, and everyone showed up to rehearsal.

The closest I've ever seen to this scenario was a college ensemble. Even professional ensembles do not have the idyllic luxuries given above. What church ensemble of "weekend warriors" could ever muster that ideal?

Our volunteers have lives. They like to play and sing. They see it as ministry and service. They may even see your rehearsal as a place of musical growth, but you have turnover. People get sick. Their kids get sick. They can't make rehearsals. They have a job that keeps them from the first 30 minutes of rehearsal, they have finals to study for. On and on it goes.

On top of that, people leave the ministry and volunteer to work in the (ever-needy) children's program. They move away, they leave the church. Enthusiastic 8th graders want to play. The 70-something clarinetist wants to dust off his case again and join the ensemble.

These are perfectly legitimate and realistic circumstances for people coming and going in a church music ministry. Building consistency and growth is an ongoing challenge involving constant reminders and seeking out teaching moments in the music to help your ensemble grow and improve. Sometimes it's two steps forward and a step back. Sometimes it doesn't feel like you're moving at all!

How does one orchestrate for and prepare an ensemble with such turnover? Here are a few ideas, please offer more if you have any!

  1. Orchestrate to your strengths but challenge the weaker sections. This is easier said than done, of course, but it's something that needs to be kept in mind. I once had a clarinet and oboe player beg for me to write something in an orchestration that really challenged them. I kept everything around them pretty "vanilla" and give them interacting lines. They paid me with a bag of Doritos.
  2. Remember that your strong section may not always be strong and your weak section may dramatically improve! Over a seven or eight year cycle, I've seen a church orchestra with a strong cello section, FOUR oboe players and a fairly week horn section change to an "average" cello section, NO oboe players and a ripping horn section. Your writing needs to adjust to those needs, and you need to not always assume that your sting section will be missing a viola.
  3. Pair an experienced player with a beginning player. This will succeed if your seasoned player is brought in on your plan from the beginning. They must know that their role is not to play all the solos, encourage the newer player(s), and impart whatever wisdom about their instrument they can without being condescending. This works only with the right personalities.
  4. Allow beginning players to be a part of rehearsals only, until they are clearly contributing to the whole ensemble. This is a great way to bring rhythm players along who are not used to following chord charts. It's also a great way to get a violinist into the orchestra. Help give them confidence in their playing by surrounding them with other experienced players.
  5. Write for the middle. I'm thinking skill level here, again realizing that the trumpet section may not always be your strong section, for example. "Writing for the middle" should still including some challenging passages to keep everyone on their toes.
One of the best ways to illustrate "writing to the middle" is with the following illustration.

This represents three different ways a similar idea could be written for trumpets in this cadential passage. (1) is the most challenging passage. The rhythms are tricky, there are accidentals scattered around, and the line is angular. This could be played by moderately good players, but it may not be as easily read by moderate players. This is the lick that will bring your rehearsal to a screeching halt!

You can see that the second example simplifies some of the rhythms, removes the high note, thereby reducing the angular nature of the line. Everyone has a different way of coming up with these lines. I usually sit quietly at my work station, play the melody or sing the song in my head and imagine what I would think a cool horn section line would be, then I try to peck it out on the keyboard. In the midst of this process, it may be a good idea to determine what the most fundamental elements of your lick are. Strip away some of the ornamentation (yes, in a Schenkerian sense) and see what you can do to "say" something similar to your original intent, but with a little less complexity (such as example 2)

Example 3 eliminates the opening syncopation all together. The line emphasizes the same basic notes as the first example, and in essence says the same thing, just in a simpler way. If we think of music in terms of a language, then example one was spoken by an articulate college professor and the third example conveyed the same thought through the vocabulary of your average high school student.

Another musical element that should be taken into consideration is the key you arrange in. This will be discussed in the next part.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

No Smoking, Please

As a parent of a ten year old I make a conscious effort to evaluate the world as a ten year old might. More specifically how I remember evaluating the world when I was a ten year old.

I spent most of my childhood years in a small Swiss-decedent town of Berne, Indiana. Like many small towns, it was full of charms that invoke the "good old days" sentiment, but really, had I stayed there all my life, I know my view of the world would be much different than it has become. For better or worse.

One of the things about being a kid in this little town is that you owned it if you had a bike. Riding my bike within a radius of about 1.5 miles from my home would pretty much cover the entire "town" section of Berne. I loved it. As I became 11 or 12 years old my freedoms increased and my parents granted permission for me to ride across town to the park, to the swimming pool, and even to get my hair cut.

I mention the hair cut because I have specific memories of going to get my "hairs" cut. My dad always took me to McKean's Barbershop. Bill, I think was his first name--though I was never allowed do address him as such--was a "sponsor" of one of my little league baseball teams. I think that meant he paid to have his shop's name mentioned with the team name, i.e., the McKean's Barbershop Rangers, and maybe he paid for the team t-shirts we wore.

Anyway, I have distinct memories of his shop. He was always very friendly to me. I had a booster seat I sat in. His shop had that hair spray-aftershave-shaving cream smell There was always the hair on the floor, AND when kids were done with their hair cut, we were awarded one of those Bazooka Joe bubble gum pieces with "1 cent" printed on the front. There was this ridiculous piece of gum, which lost its flavor after exactly five chews, and a Bazooka Joe comic inside that was never funny.

When I finally came "of age" to ride my bike to his shop by myself, carry the $3.00 he charged for a kids cut with me, and declare I wanted a "tapered" cut--even though I had no idea what that was, I felt I had arrived. I was grown up. I even locked my bike up on his little bike rack he had out in front--like some one would actually try to steal MY five-speed bike.

I went into the shop and waited my turn. I don't remember much of who was there that day, except for one man. I remember him because he was a large man. With a beard. It was probably his motorcycle out front too. He seemed friendly, but he looked mean. And most significantly, to my sheltered mind, he smoked.

I don't mean I thought he smoked because I was close enough to smell it on his clothes or in his breath. I mean he was sitting there in this little room smoking.

Did he know that was bad for him? Did he know it was probably--no--it WAS a sin? Who's gonna tell him he really shouldn't be sucking on that cigarette? I wanted to be offended by the smoke, but it was kinda cool the way it streamed out of his mouth--and nose. It intrigued me that the smoke could come out of his nose as well as his mouth. On TV, I had only seen it come out of people's mouths. This was new information. Could he achieve the "inhale" portion of the cycle by sticking the cigarette in one of his nostrils? I didn't know,

It was my turn to get my hair cut. I sat facing him, at least as long as Mr. McKean pivoted my chair in his direction.

It was building up inside me. I had to say something. He has to be told the truth about his habit. But he's not going to listen to me. A kid. A kid who just rode to get his hair cut on a bicycle. I have to be funny. I have to be direct. But I have to sound convincing, authoritative, and maybe intelligent. Maybe I'll shame him into quitting his habit right here. I'll say something so pithy, I'll put it in such a way that he's never thought of or imagined before thereby prompting him to squash out his smoke stick and vow to never take it up again.

So this was my chance. I thought long and hard about what should be said. So I mustered up the courage. I watched as he sucked in the smoke and exhaled through his nose.

"Has anyone ever told you that you look like a fire-breathing dragon when you do that?"

What followed can hardly be described as a chuckle. Not even a laugh. Maybe more of a guffaw. Not just from him, but from the others waiting for their hair cut.

"No," he said. "I don't think anyone has ever told me that."

I did my duty. Judgment had been handed down. He'll have some things to think about now.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Philosophy of Orchestration (Part 3)

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

1. Does the song need an orchestration? (dealt with in part 1)

2. Should everyone play? (dealt with in part 2)

3. Does the orchestration support the lyric?

Early church fathers (i.e., those leaders immediately following the apostolic era) debated the use of song in the church. Some were against it for reasons of association. The Graeco-Roman practices of worshiping the gods involved instrumental music accompanying singing. The usage of instruments added a sensual and emotive component that worshipers allowed themselves to be caught up in. The church fathers denounced the parallel practice of using instruments in the church for the music's intertwining role in wrapping emotion with theology. The music, they felt, poisoned the rational understanding of the Psalm's teaching.

There was even debate among in the early church as to whether singing should be allowed at all. An interesting passage from St Augustine, in his Confessions hints at a tolerance, though with some reservation, for the use of melody:

Sometimes too, from over-anxiety to avoid this particular trap [being fascinated by the pleasures of sound] I make the mistake of being too strict. When this happens, I have no wish but to exclude from my ears, and from the ears of the Church as well, all the melody of those lovely chants to which the Psalms of David are habitually sung; and it seems safer to me to follow the precepts which I remember often having heard ascribed to Athanasius, bishop of Alexandria, who used to oblige the lectors to recite the psalms with such slight modulation of the voice that they seemed to be speaking rather than chanting. But when I remember the tears that I shed on hear the songs of the Church in the early days, soon after I had recovered my faith, and when I realize that nowadays it is not the singing that moves me but the meaning of the words when they are sung in a clear voice to the most appropriate tune, I again acknowledge the great value of this practice. So I waver between the danger that lies in gratifying the senses and the benefits which, as I know from experience, can accrue from singing. Without committing myself to an irrevocable opinion, I am inclined to approve of the custom of singing in the church, in order that by indulging the ears weaker spirits may be inspired with feelings of devotion. Yet when I find the singing itself more moving that the truth which it conveys, I confess that this is a grievous sin, and at those times I would prefer not to hear the singer.

The words have always carried the most significant importance in song in the church--as they should, since it is by the words we teach and admonish one another. To the early church, however, the idea of having instrumental music exist only for the sake of the music would have been rejected outright. The melody always serves the text. The singing always serves the melody (even to the point where having too good of a voice is a distraction). The instruments always serve the music, and so on. Here we have a heirarchical order given that looks something like this: text->melody(chant)->singing->instrumental accompaniment.

Not until the Renaissance did the idea of instrumental music apart from singing begin to surface. So foreign was this notion to the church that instrumental music began to develop on a path outside of purely religious contexts. Art music has followed an interesting historical cycle where it first serves a non-musical function, usually that of ceremonial pomp or aristocratic dance, for example, but later evolves into an art form too complex to simply be precessed to or danced to and progresses to art that must be listened to in order to be fully grasped.

Fast-forward to the 21st century church where the text of a song now has to compete to be heard among modern rock-style bands or in other contexts large-scale instrumental ensembles. The art of music has changed so much since the early church, but centrality of scripture, at least in evangelical churches has remained. This text of scripture must be carried along attentively by the instruments so that the communication of the lyrics are not compromised.

Modern day churches have issues to deal with that the early church could not have dreamed of. We have a worship leader, sometimes a "team" of additional singers, and other times, maybe even a whole choir of people to help proclaim the text as clearly as possible. If this isn't enough, we are fitted with words projected onto a screen, or at least words printed on paper or in a book. We have amplifiers and loudspeakers. We can buy recordings of the songs sung in churches to help us learn them. We can hear these same songs on the radio from time to time, giving us all the more opportunity to become complacent about the text!

How do we use an orchestra to enhance the text being sung?

One way to enhance the sung text of a song through orchestration is to not use an orchestra at all. This was discussed at length in part 1, but for the sake of clarity, the fundamental question of if a song needs an orchestration should be revisited. Even if a song should have an orchestration, it does not have to begin at measure 1 and continue without rests to the very end! Surprise everyone and have the players play through the verse, then drop out at the chorus, the place the orchestra is usually added. Use spacing wisely to keep from distracting from text that it sung only once. Build up the orchestral accompaniment where text is often repeated and well-known, like the chorus sections.

If you struggle in an acoustic environment where the use of certain instruments overtakes everything else going on musically, use these instruments in interludal sections. Strophic form often used in church music lends itself well to this and as the arranger, you are free to make these interludes longer than a standard end-of-phrase turn around. Extended introductions or "outros" (classical "codas") can also serve this function for your players.

Appropriate melodic doublings can be used to enhance the text, particularly in quiet parts of the song by solo instruments. I have found that this works particularly well when the instrument is scored at least on octave away from the vocal line. An oboe line playing a melodically reduced line (in the Schenkerian sense!) about a male solo, a French horn playing a reduced line beneath a soprano line, three-octave strings (Violin I, Violin II, and Viola) locked in octaves accompanying a large and dynamic choral section are just a few examples of how this technique could be used. Scoring in octaves also forces the other instruments to be used cautiously as you want the octave line to "cut," so you must be careful to build light accompanying lines around it.

Everyone wants to write great horn lines, maybe something like what you might hear here. But even if you had the chops to write something like that, it is unlikely you'd have players with the chops to play something like that, and if you had that magic convergence of talent and skill, the congregation would have no idea what to do with it. Especially if they're trying to sing along! I have found (the hard way) that some of the best horn lines are not complex. They never compete with the melody of the song, they are attainable by your players, and they almost always work best at the end of phrases or when the vocal line is resting. File this suggestion under "less is more." A great example of spares horn lines can be heard in Stevie Wonder's Sign Sealed Delivered, I'm Yours. Even in the 30 second sample you can hear how simple the horn lines are. In the gospel world, We Worship You from Israel Houghton has some complexity in the horn lines, but most are fairly simple. This is also a great example of how using the orchestration at the octave can enhance the melody. In this case, the trumpets are in octaves.

These horn line examples bring up another issue that church arrangers are often faced with: Individual player skill level. Stay tuned for part 4.

Saturday, April 04, 2009

Twitter Spam update

Here is an update from my adventures described in this post.

Today I got an email from a service I use that tells me when people stop following me on Twitter, called Qwitter.

Here's what it said:

Hi, BrianMegilligan.

Oh! Nuts (OhNuts) stopped following you on Twitter after you posted this tweet:

is studying laundry room ventilation.

Check out OhNuts's profile here:


It's nice when the spammers "unfriend" you.

Friday, April 03, 2009

Philosophy of Orchestration (Part 2)

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

1. Does the song need an orchestration? (dealt with in part 1)

2. Should everyone play?

After considering the issues and weighing the options from the first question, and the conclusion is made that an orchestration would both serve the congregation and the volunteers well (and not just for this one time, but potentially in an ongoing manner over repeated uses of the song), the question of who should play needs to be addressed next.

In some cases, this is an easy answer. If your ensemble is small, it would not make much sense to exclude the lone violinist, for example, because you don't want to "write this one for strings."

If you have the benefit of a fuller ensemble, however, it makes more sense to think in terms of sections.

We tend to think of orchestral sections in terms of style. For example, we often think of the string section accompanying the ballads, with unison or multi-octave lines in the big sections, and warm "pad" voicings in the smaller sections. We may also think of using only the horn section (and by horn section we usually include the saxes while excluding the French horns and tubas), only on the "cookin'" songs.

Here are some oft-overlooked combinations that may be useful as well.

On the ballads, consider adding French horns or certain solo woodwind lines, particularly clarinet or oboe.

Consider how well-voiced brass can strengthen what the string section already brings to the table. Particularly in circumstances when the string section is small, a well-placed and well-voiced brass ensemble sound in key spots of the arrangement can add a great deal of depth in a given passage.

The percussion section is often overlooked. If your church is fortunate to have timpani, and a timpani player, a well-placed roll (or rolls) can add great drama to a song. Along with the timpani, the more affordable suspended cymbal can have a similar effect, as well as the still more affordable wind chimes or mark tree.

Sometimes beginning orchestrators avoid using these instruments because they are unsure how to notate their parts. This would be like leaving the lights off the Christmas tree because you don't know how to replace a bulb on the line. Neither is hard to do, and just a little research can bring about great results.

Something that could stretch both you as an orchestrator and director is to use sections in unexpected ways. For example, treat a ballad only with brass, or write some grooving string lines for an upbeat tune. In addition to pushing your own creativity, it will force your players into being used in ways they may not be used to, which will ultimately only enhance their musicianship.

Consider arranging only for the woodwinds. Plenty of songs will support this, we just rarely think of the woodwind section in this way. Listen to some good woodwind ensemble writing to remind yourself of how to maximize the timbers. Include the French horn as well. If you have a skilled cellist or euphonium player, you may be able to substitute those voices for the bassoon.

Many times, it is a strong musical decision to include the whole orchestra. This addresses the "worth it" factor discussed previously and it usually forces the arranger to think in broader terms about a particular hymn or chorus.

In the case of a large hymn arrangement, built for the full fanfare forces of choir, organ, and congregation, find ways to include the whole ensemble, for sure.

Issues that need to be considered include those of repetition vs through-composition, determining the climactic moment of an arrangement, and writing to the strengths of your sections.

The answers to issues concerning orchestration style and more on instrumentation are answered in the next question, given in part 3. (stay tuned)

Thursday, April 02, 2009

The Socialist Solution to the Crisis

An interesting Op-Ed appearing in the Wall Street Journal today from
POUL NYRUP RASMUSSEN, the former prime minister of Denmark (1993-2001). We could be much closer to global socialism and a one world government than we think:

The simplistic dictum of more markets and less government -- championed by Reagan, Thatcher and their ideological heirs -- has failed on a momentous scale. In the White House, President Hope has replaced President Tax Cuts for the Rich. As we go into the G-20 meeting in London, even European conservatives such as Nicolas Sarkozy and Angela Merkel are calling for a new global financial architecture, better financial regulation and a crackdown on tax havens. The previously unimaginable idea of a "Global New Deal" is suddenly on many people's lips.