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.