Praise the Lord with Strings and Flute

Resources for the Church Instrumental Ensemble

Whether you know it or not, your church likely has the potential for creating an orchestra or instrumental ensemble among your own congregation. Why should you consider doing so? As the psalmist so exuberantly proclaims in Psalm 150, because tambourine and trumpet, strings and flute—even loud crashing cymbals—offer fitting praise to our Lord! You’ll find that using the talents of church members is an excellent way to add variety and interest to hymn accompaniments and other music, as well as involving more people in the ministry of the church.

Getting Started

The first step in forming a church orchestra is finding musicians. Although your congregations may have at least a few people who remain active performers, there will likely be several former members of the school band and orchestra willing to join if you provide enough encouragement and a safe environment. Placing a notice in the church bulletin or newsletter is a good way of identifying potential musicians, though a personal note or phone call will be a more effective means of recruiting players.

You’ll want to make a decision regarding the minimum age for musicians accepted into the group prior to soliciting membership. Otherwise, many elementary or middle school students who have not yet developed beyond the beginning level may ask to join the ensemble. This decision should be made based on the age most students in the community begin instrumental music, the ability level of the young musicians in your congregation, and the difficulty of repertoire the ensemble will be expected to play.

There may be some people willing to participate in the orchestra who no longer have an instrument; if so, members of the congregation may be willing to loan or donate instruments that are no longer in use. Be prepared to send these instruments to the local music store for inspection and possible repair. Larger instruments such as euphonium, tuba, and bass drum may be borrowed from a local school, provided the church agrees to take responsibility for their care. When borrowing instruments from a school, the congregation should accept financial responsibility for maintenance and be prepared to return the instruments if they are suddenly needed.

Rehearsal

Once musicians and instruments have been secured, it is time to schedule rehearsals and prepare for participation in worship. In addition to avoiding conflicts with other programs in the church, consider a schedule that meets periodically throughout the year since some musicians may be more willing to participate if the schedule does not require a weekly commitment. For example, you could schedule weekly rehearsals over one or two months with a few performances interspersed throughout this period. The group could then be inactive for a month or two before resuming activities.

The sanctuary is probably the best place for rehearsal since this is where the group will perform.

If that’s not possible, find a space that allows plenty of room for instruments, stands, and chairs. It is also important that the rehearsal space be large enough for the ensemble and director to adequately hear each part—and thus avoid the tendency for musicians to overplay when they are unable to hear themselves within the group.

Ensemble seating will vary depending on the performance area, size, and instrumentation of the group. In general, place instruments with identical or similar parts close to one another to provide confidence to inexperienced players and allow players on the same part to tune, balance, and blend with the rest of the ensemble. In a group that only includes winds and percussion, flutes, clarinets, and oboes should sit in the first couple of rows with brass and saxophones placed towards the rear. Avoid placing saxophones and brass behind flutes because this will make it difficult for flutists to hear their own sound. Percussion should be centered behind the back row to keep them from overpowering the group.

For ensembles with strings, seat violins to the left of the conductor, violas in the center, and cellos to the right. Basses should be placed behind the cellos since both often play the same part in octaves. An alternative for groups with few cellos and basses is to place these instruments in the center to allow their sound to project directly to the congregation. Woodwinds can then be seated in the middle of the group behind the strings with brass behind and perhaps to the side of the woodwinds. This seating arrangement, although standard for most symphony orchestras, may be ineffective for church ensembles that are much smaller and not as well balanced. Directors should experiment to find the best arrangement for their particular ensemble.

Provide enough music stands so that no more than two people have to share. Although musicians playing the same parts should share music stands in order to save space in the rehearsal and performance areas, individuals playing their own part or a larger instrument such as tuba or percussion should have their own. You’ll also want to supply pencils for marking fingerings and missed accidentals and a folder for each musician for home practice.

Begin rehearsals with easy material such as scales on sustained pitches or simple chorale harmonizations. This will allow the group time to warm up embouchures and bow arms, and to develop a well-balanced ensemble sound. Encourage players to blend into the ensemble and match pitches with those around them. Musicians who have not played for some time will appreciate the opportunity to review fundamentals and become reacquainted with the instrument.

Repertoire

The most basic way to use your instrumental ensemble in worship is to accompany hymns along with organ or piano. Some hymnal supplements include parts transposed for standard band and orchestra instruments. These arrangements usually offer several options for assigning parts, depending on the instrumentation of the group. Care should be taken to double parts assigned to softer instruments such as viola or bassoon. Small, inexperienced ensembles will generally sound best when most parts are assigned to instruments in their middle register. Flutes should expand the melody (soprano) by playing this line one octave higher while the tuba and string bass should be assigned the bass part one octave lower.

For hymns without an instrumental supplement, writing parts for the church orchestra is a simple matter, provided each line is transposed accurately (see Table 26). Remember to write the part in the opposite direction the instrument sounds. For example, the Eb alto saxophone sounds a major sixth lower than written. Therefore, the part must be written up a major sixth from the actual (also referred to as concert) pitch. Key signatures will be altered in the same manner. A part originally in the key of Bb major, for example, will be written in the key of G major (up a major sixth) for the alto saxophone. Also, you’ll want to double check to make sure the instrument is written in the correct clef. Keep in mind that the viola is usually written in alto clef, and that the euphonium (also known as baritone horn) can be played in bass clef as written, or in treble clef transposed up a M9. Consult the player to determine which system is preferred.

Playing the alto or tenor part one octave higher or composing solo lines based on the chords of the original tune are easy ways to create instrumental descants for trumpet, flute, clarinet, oboe, or violin. The instrument used should depend on the style and accompanying forces of the hymn. A trumpet descant works especially well on majestic songs accompanied by organ, while flute or violin with piano is most effective with quiet, reflective hymns. Combining repeated pitches into sustained tones and occasionally filling wide intervals with eighth- or sixteenth-note runs are ways to add interest to descants created from vocal lines within the hymn. Collections of prearranged descants are acceptable, provided the part is in the same key and is based on the chord progressions of the harmonization. Whenever a descant is used, make sure other instruments adequately cover the melody.

Accompanying hymns is always most effective when the instrumentation is varied on each stanza. Here are just a few ways of using instruments during congregational singing:

  • Ensemble plays introduction with or without organ
  • Instruments play on alternating stanzas only
  • Ensemble plays parts without organ or piano
  • Trumpet plays descant on final stanza
  • Solo or small group plays with piano alone
  • Group plays the melody in unison

Once the instrumental ensemble is playing with good fundamentals, selections featuring the group can be programmed into the worship service as prelude, postlude, or offertory. Choosing appropriate repertoire for this function is probably the single most important factor for insuring a successful performance. Select music that is at a reasonable difficulty level and that allows all parts to be covered by the instrumentation available.

Several publishers have produced sacred instrumental music playable with very small, unbalanced ensembles (see Table 2, pp. 26-27). These arrangements usually include an introduction, a familiar melody, counterpoint, textual variety, modulations, and a satisfying ending. Often scored for flexible instrumentation, these selections provide a variety of options for assigning parts depending on the size, instrumentation, and playing ability of the group. Although directors will have to determine the best combination for their ensemble, the following guidelines will help insure a successful performance.

  • Make sure the melody is adequately covered.
  • Assign strong players to the same part as less experienced musicians.
  • Choose arrangements that allow all parts to be covered by the ensemble.
  • If balance between upper woodwinds and brass is a concern, assign flutes, oboes, and clarinets in pairs on the same part.

With capable leadership and appropriate music, even churches with limited resources can have a successful instrumental ensemble—one that provides an opportunity for instrumentalists to use their talents for the glory and service of the Lord and enhances worship for the entire congregation.

Table 1: Instrument Transpositions and Best Hymn Part Assignments

Instrument Clef Hymn Part(s) Transposition
Piccolo treble soprano, descant Sounds 8va higher than written
Flute treble soprano, descant Sounds as written
Oboe treble soprano Sounds as written
Bassoon bass bass/tenor Sounds as written
Bb Clarinet treble soprano, alto, tenor Sounds M2 lower than written
Bb Bass Clarinet treble bass Sounds M9 lower than written
Bb Soprano Saxophone treble soprano Sounds M2 lower than written
Eb Alto Saxophone treble soprano, alto Sounds M6 lower than written
Bb Tenor Saxophone treble tenor Sounds M9 lower than written
Eb Baritone Saxophone treble bass Sounds octave and M6 lower than written
Bb Piccolo Trumpet treble soprano, descant Sounds m7 higher than written
Bb Trumpet treble soprano, alto, descant Sounds M2 lower than written
F Horn treble alto, tenor Sounds P5 lower than written
Bb Trombone bass bass, tenor Sounds as written
Bb Euphonium (baritone horn) bass bass, tenor Sounds as written
Bb Euphonium treble bass, tenor Sounds M9 lower than written
Tuba bass bass Sounds as written
Violin treble soprano, alto Sounds as written
Viola alto alto, tenor Sounds as written
Cello bass bass, tenor Sounds as written
Double Bass bass bass Sounds 8vb lower than written
Xylophone treble soprano Sounds 8va higher than written
Orchestra Bells treble soprano Sounds two 8va higher than written
Timpani bass play dominant, subdominant, and tonic chord roots at appropriate cadence points Sounds as written

Table 2: Church Instrumental Ensemble Repertoire

Julie Barrier, Jim Hansford, & Mark Johnson. The Instrumental Resource for Church and School. Church Street Press. This in-depth study of methods and materials will prove to be invaluable for persons involved in church and school instrumental music. Featured are a biblical perspective on instruments in worship; practical applications for increasing the size of your program; beginning a Fine Arts Academy; instrumental methods, maintenance, and materials; and arranging music to suit your needs.

Stephen Bulla. Jubilee Play-Along Spirituals. Hal Leonard Corp. Easy and fun set of familiar spirituals playable with any combination of woodwind and brass instruments.

Harold E. Burgmayer & Dana F. Everson. Hymnsemble, Vol. I, II, III, IV. David E. Smith Publications. Hymnsembles are scored in four or five parts and are designed to serve ensembles with nontraditional or incomplete instrumentation. Each selection is a compact but complete arrangement featuring introduction, well-known melody, contrapuntal interest, textural variety, harmonic freshness and/or modulations, expressive contrast, and a satisfying ending. Groups with limited instrumentation may use the cues to balance and customize the arrangement as needed. The conductor score is a reduction of all the instrumental parts while the keyboard may play either the piano fill or duplicate/support the instrumental parts.

James Curnow, editor. American Instrumental Ensemble Series. Salvation Army Music Publications. This series is scored in four parts with an optional fifth part and optional percussion. The addition of a condensed keyboard score is valuable when a part is missing in the ensemble. Playable with any combinations of woodwinds, brass, or strings, each arrangement includes a well-known hymn tune or gospel song that is clearly presented. Each of the 300+ titles is carefully graded from level 1 (very easy) to 4 (advanced).

Four or More Series. Soundforth Publishing. Each piece is a four-part arrangement without piano accompaniment that can be played by a group of four or more. Each part is included in several keys so you can decide which instruments will play which part. Permission to copy parts as needed is granted with purchase. Titles are available at the easy, intermediate, and advanced levels.

Robert Frost. Sacred Settings. Neil A. Kjos Publishing. Twenty-four traditionally harmonized settings at the easy to medium-easy level. Flexibly scored to work with just about any combination of instruments.

Glory to His Name. Soundforth Publishing. These eight intermediate arrangements are playable by brass quartet, string quartet, band, orchestra, or any group of four or more instruments.

Wesly Hanson. Easy Ensemble Music. Hope Publishing. Easy patriotic and seasonal selections, hymns, gospel songs, and choruses scored in five parts but playable with only four. Parts available for all brass and woodwind instruments.

Wesly Hanson. Ensemble Music for Church and School. Hope Publishing. Medium-easy sacred hymns, songs, and other selections scored in six parts but playable with five. Parts available for all brass and woodwind instruments.

Hal Hopson. Creative Use of Instruments in Worship. Hope Publishing. Part One contains a mini-course in arranging hymn tunes for various instruments. Part Two offers a wealth of easy to moderate material for any combination of instrumentalists, from one player to a full ensemble, including almost 300 hymn tunes. The parts may be reproduced for your instrumentalists.

Mark Kellner. Praise Him with Instruments. Hope Publishing. Ten medium-advanced praise and worship standards arranged for nearly any combination of instruments. Each book includes a melody line along with orchestral parts. Although designed with the average church orchestra in mind, these selections will work well with small ensembles of similar or different instruments, or as a solo with piano or rhythm section accompaniment.

Camp Kirkland, editor. Exaltation Series, Vol. I, II, III, IV. Genevox Publishing. Flexible in concept—playable by a minimum of four instruments plus optional piano and percussion, up to full orchestra. Appropriate for small to mid-sized groups. Each volume contains ten arrangements.

Stan Pethel. Sounds of Worship. Hal Leonard Corp. A soloist accompanied by piano or fully orchestrated accompaniment track, or two, three, or four players, or a full orchestra can play this flexible collection of hymns. Each book includes a solo line and an ensemble line.

William Ryden. Sacred Quartets for All. Warner Brothers. Thirteen hymns, spirituals, classical, and liturgical sacred music arranged for complete flexibility. Each book includes all four parts and is available for all standard band and string instruments. Any number or combination of instruments can play each selection together in harmony. Alternate musical passages and octaves are provided for some of the selections to allow the player more choices when needed. Each selection is also carefully graded from Level 1 to Level 4.

William Ryden. Sacred Trios for All. Warner Brothers. Trios of virtually any combination can play from this collection of seventeen hymns, spirituals, classical, and liturgical sacred music. Arranged in thee same manner as Sacred Quartets for All by the same arranger.

Keith Snell. Favorite Hymns. Warner Brothers. Flexible medium-easy arrangements playable as solos, duets, or trios in any combination of flute, clarinet, alto sax, or trumpet, with or without piano accompaniment.

George E. Strombeck. Hymns for Multiple Instruments, Vol. I, II. David E. Smith Publications. These hymns are constructed in three stave systems to make available melody, harmony, obbligato, and countermelody lines. The melody, alto, tenor, or bass lines are graded at the level 1.5, while the optional obbligato and countermelody parts are graded between 2.0 and 2.5. These arrangements of well-known hymns can be adapted for band, orchestra, woodwind, choir, brass choir, or string ensemble. As few as three parts will make a viable trio, and trios will sound complete with the melody, obbligato, and countermelody, with or without keyboard accompaniment.

Phillip M. Hash (pmh3@calvin.edu) teaches music education at Calvin College, Grand Rapids, Michigan.