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)