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? (dealt with in part 4)
5. What are key considerations for orchestrations?
Finally, we consider key.
On the surface, key may seem to be of incidental importance. However, consider the following scenarios:
- In general, string players prefer sharp keys while brass and woodwind players prefer flat keys.
- Guitar players prefer sharp keys while keyboard players often prefer flat keys.
Initial key selection
Deciding on key starts with the melody of the song. Regardless of whether a song will be orchestrated, a song for congregational singing should be set so that the majority of the melody falls between a Bb-D range (a 10th, not a 3rd). Some would argue that C-E is acceptable, but I would not spend a lot of time in the high D-E-F range song after song or you will wear out your congregation.
Key is almost always an issue of planning. Besides the establishing the primary key of a song discussed above, consider how small changes can have a large affect in the overall sound.
For example, suppose we have a song that sits well melodically in E. The guitar players love it because it's a nice open sound on their instrument, and the chord changes are accessible. The bass player likes it because E sets nicely as the tonic and the lowest note on a four-stringed instrument. For five-string players, they can drive the dominant strongly on their low B string.
But suppose we take the same song and move it down just a half step. Now we've effectively cut off the ability of the bass player to dig some nice low notes on his instrument. The lowest tonic he can play is almost an octave higher than it was a minute ago. This is also true for the dominant. The guitar players will no longer get that nice open sound out of their instrument. Acoustic players will likely play with a capo in a more familiar key, like G, but the chord sounds will come out differently because of the resulting change in register and voicing. (I would love for guitarist to chime in here and comment about their experience in this area).
Experienced players understand that alternate keys are part of the church music world and are flexible enough to make transpositions in their head when capo-ing, and finding the right notes at the low end of the bass through chord inversions. It is important, however for the orchestrator (and/or band leader) to anticipate a different sound from the rhythm section by altering the key, even by such slight amounts.
Key changes within a song
An example of key setting dilemma on the orchestral side of the coin comes from Darlene Zschech's "Shout to the Lord." This is an interesting song melodically because it spans an 11th from verse to chorus. This automatically limits the key choices for the arranger. Set the key too low and no one will be able to sing the second phrase of the verse: "...my savior..." Set the key too high and everyone will be screaching through the chorus: "....power and majesty, praise to the king...." So your choices are somewhat limited from MAYBE Ab to as high as C.
The original arrangement features a dramatic key change midway through the chorus so this adds more planning on the part of the arranger. The original recording of this song begins in A with a move to B. This isn't a problem for the players on the album--there was no orchestral arrangement on that original either--just a band! However, attempting to orchestrate this song for church orchestra throws some challenges for some players playing in A. As if that weren't bad enough, moving to B can cause even more clams as players forget to sharp the A's!
This problem is easily solved by moving the song up to Bb. Now the second-phrase low note is rased to an A, and the orchestra has two easy keys to play in as the song moves from Bb to C.
The catch? Now the tenors are reaching for an A in the final chorus!
Orchestrate to the keys you may someday play the song in
If you are introducing a new chorus, complete with orchestration, one of the least anticipated issues is that "someday" we may want to do this arrangement again, but in the context and flow of the future service, the song will need to be transposed down (or up) a step.
There are two approaches you can take here. The first is the "plan-ahead" approach, leaving room for your instrumental voicing to work just fine either up or down a step from your first key. This means that your brass players have been given parts that have margin on the high end. It means that your sax and string parts aren't already reading notes written at the very bottom of their instruments' capabilities.
The second approach is to orchestrate it in a key that you're likely to sing or play the song in and orchestrate to that key. Then, when it's time to do the song again in a different key, you take the time to re-do the orchestration in spots that take your instrumentalists out of their range.
I have been forced into the second approach by not taking the time needed to plan in the first approach! This takes practice and experience.
Pick any new song you'd like to introduce. Put it in a median key, then orchestra with the intent that the song may be used a 2nd or minor 3rd in either direction. This will save you so much time down the road. Assuming you use modern notation software such as Finale, transposing the music is a very simple mouse click or two.
Here is an example of bad planning.
This orchestration works nicely in C. But can you find the trouble spots if I were to take this down just a half step to Db? Violin II of m 30, beat 4 would be out of range, and the viola in m 31, of beat 4 would also be out of range. Moving the song up a step might prove challenging for an inexperienced bass player in m 31 on the high notes.
It is dangerous to spend so much time at the low end of an instrument--especially a whole section of instruments if you think there is a chance the song may someday move to another key! In this case, I would be forced to redo the Violin II, Viola, and Cello lines in this passage to make it all work.
One final consideration related to key that is worth noting is how the notes of a resulting transposition fall on an instrument. For example, the original trumpet line below
would probably be more attainable for your players in concert F than in concert E:
In this case, I would probably bump the key down one more half-step to concert Eb so that this crazy line falls easier on the horn and the player doesn't have to fight such a crazy key. (I would also probably put the 2nd example in Gb rather than F# if I had to leave it!)
Orchestrating for church orchestra is a craft. It requires knowledge of strengths and weaknesses of your individual sections, understanding timbres in varying ranges of instruments, likely doublings, good key selection and more. Each church orchestra is as unique as the people and personalities of which it is comprised. Hopefully the principles given in these posts will be useful and transferable to your setting.