Whenever I attend professional development conferences full of choir directors who are put in small groups and compelled to describe their groups, their programs, etc etc to the other members of the small group … I kinda have to tone it down a bit.
Because nobody wants to hear “I have lots of church choir members and our congregation is swimming in instrumentalists and we do this and that and have so much fun blah blah blah” when their choir is lucky to hit double-digits and they don't even really get on with their pastor all that well.
So, I have to come here and let it all out.
Specifically, I'm thinking of the first Sunday of each month, when, during our worship services, we assemble any or all of the ten or eleven brass players who are church members, and have them play parts while we're singing hymns.
Right around the beginning of the month, I'll get the “bulletin forecast” from our pastor, lining out the probable themes, activities and hymn choices for that first Sunday of the month, and I'll set to work throwing together some quick and painless brass arrangements.
Figuring that we only get a few minutes early on that Sunday (before the choir piles in) to rehearse anything, my goal is always to create arrangements that can basically be perfected in one shot. If that means changing the key from a brass-scary sharp key to a brass-happy flat key, so be it. And if there are four verses, the first and last for the brass are tutti block chords and exactly the same, for economy in rehearsal. The second and third verses are for high brass and low brass, respectively. Must preserve the chops.
The instrumentation is of the variety that no church musician should ever expect to have, nor should s/he take it for granted: if everyone's in, we're looking at three trumpets, French horn, four trombones (one of whom would take everything down two octaves if she were allowed!), euphonium and tuba.
This past spring, at Easter time, we gathered those forces for hymns AND the Hallelujah Chorus, and afterward I gleefully posted to social media that we'd essentially had a little drum corps in there.
When I go to write the charts, sometimes I'm not exactly sure exactly who's in and who's not … some folks eMail, and others just arrive that morning. And it's all okay … but I've developed a tactic for writing in such a way that it won't sound odd if the instrumentation is non-standard. (And the pipe organ plays all the chord tones, anyway.)
I will write two trumpet parts that look like trumpet parts; recently, at the urging of one of our trumpeters who likes a challenge, I've begun writing a part called “Trumpet 3*”, which is a doubling of a French horn part, in case there's no horn that week. I'll write three trombone parts: one in the 'bone 1 range, one called “trombone 2/euph”, in case our euphonium guy is back from college; and one that has lots of optional down-the-octave notes, for our subterranean sackbut. And of course a tuba part.
Usually, I'll take the SATB arrangement and distribute the soprano melody to the high trumpet, the alto part to the low trumpet and horn, the tenor part to the trombones and the bass part to the euph and tuba. Not terribly mysterious, here. But I've discovered that merely-four-part brass arrangements lack a certain I-don't-know-what, if you're lucky enough to have more than four players. So I regularly give in to the urge to, um, thicken the low brass chords wherever possible (while making sure that if suddenly we only have one trombone, it's playing the right chord tones … uhhhh, not that second and third trombones are unimportant, or superfluous, of course … low brass folks aren't usually touchy but we would like them to want to come back again! …). Just building in some contingency plans. Must be prepared for a duet OR a duodectet (look it up).
It's a self-imposed tightrope-y balancing act sometimes. … And it's just fine.
Tomorrow, though? I go and break one of those rules – the one about straightforward and easily sight-readable. For lo, the closing hymn is “Sing With All the Saints in Glory”, a text set to the melody of Beethoven's mighty “Ode to Joy”. And we'll have a decent subset of our brass contingent on board, plus a gentleman (a friend of a choir member) who visits us periodically with his ridiculous mad trumpet skillz – to whom I sent an eMail saying, “since you're coming to us on a Brass Sunday, does this mean I get to write totally absurd hymn arrangements?” and from whom I got this staccato eMail reply: “Absolutely!”
So, um, I kinda went a little overboard.
We'll see what kind of fireworks we can create tomorrow.