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.