Conducting Instrumentalists (for Choral Conductors)

June 25, 2015

Are you totally comfortable conducting your choir, but a little intimidated conducting instrumentalists? Here are some practicle tips on how to better relate to instrumentalists in your rehearsals:

 

Vocalists and instrumentalists are different, but have many things in common:

  • Music is Music – you can fix rhythm and pitch mistakes, just like you do with your singers. If you hear a problem with a particular instrument, but are not sure what exactly it is, ask them to play their part for you, just like you would isolate a voice part. This allows you to hear it more clearly, and have a better chance of fixing it.

  • Posture is important for both singers and instrumentalists (bad posture = bad sound).

  • Singers and wind players both use their air to sing, and therefore need to have good diaphragmatic support. Challenge your wind players to support their sound. Challenge all your musicians, choral and instrumental, to play and sing confidently!

  • Phrasing is also important for all musicians. Have all your musicians think in musical sentences, and be careful where they breathe (or with string players, when they stop their bow).

  • Just like your singers, all your instrumentalists need a good sight line to you, as the conductor. Do not block their view of you, and do not make them sit too far away from you. Too much distance between the outer edges of the ensemble will result in phasing issues. Make sure all your instrumentalists can hear the piano and rhythm section, either by placing them in a central location, or using floor monitors.

  • Instrumentalists need cues for entrances, just like singers. Study the score ahead of time to make sure you understand who may need a cue, and make sure and mark those cues in your score. Examples include: entrances after many measures of rest, or when a particular instrument may have the melody line, or an exposed solo part.

  • Both singers and instrumentalists need time to find their place in the music. Give clear instructions about where you are starting, and give them time to find their place, before starting again.

  • Vocalists and instrumentalists both need to be challenged spiritually and reminded of their motivation for playing in worship. Direct any devotional thoughts in rehearsal to both the singers and the players. Making sure that all the musicians are clear about the message of any particular song is essential. Keep in mind that the instrumentalists do not have the words on their music!

Here are some things that are different for instrumentalists, as opposed to vocalists:

  • Before even playing the first note in a rehearsal, instrumentalists need to tune, preferably to your piano. Tune them in three groups: string players need an A, woodwinds and horns can also tune to an A, and the rest of the brass section would prefer a Bb.

  • Instead of depending on your pianist to start a piece and set the tempo, you as the conductor need to do that. Make sure you give everyone a good preparatory beat that reflects the tempo you want. Note: it is also okay to give them a whole measure, as a prep, but make sure you verbalize exactly what you are doing to them. Important: any preliminary preparatory beats need to be much smaller than your final preparatory beat and downbeat.

  • Vocalists can sing almost immediately, without much preparation, since their instruments are their voices, but instrumentalists need time to bring their instruments up before playing. Please allow time between telling them where to start and starting the music.

  • When starting in the middle of a piece, use measure numbers for the instrumentalists, not page numbers. You can also reference page numbers for your choir; just don’t forget that that means nothing to your instrumentalists!

  • Make sure you conduct through any instrumental interlude or ending of a piece, including a very clear cut-off at the end. Your instrumentalists are depending on you to be able to play precisely together!

  • Be very careful, in sections where you may be using your conducting gesture to shape the vocal line, that your instrumentalists still know where the beat is and have some idea of the tempo. This is especially needed in instances of tempo and meter changes. Creativity in shaping the vocal line should not compromise the precision of the ensemble.

  • Instrumentalists cannot sit as close together as vocalists. They need room for their instruments, some more than others. Most instrumentalists’ chairs need to be at least a foot apart. Instruments that need more room include all string players, especially cellists and string basses, harp and tuba. Trombone players need more room in front of them for their slides.

  • Please keep in mind that brass players will need a place to empty their spit valves. A good idea is to put a piece of carpeting underneath them, or ask if they can each bring a towel to place at their feet. If you don’t do this, don’t get upset if they dampen the wood floor in your sanctuary!

  • Another good thing to remember is that most instrumentalists, especially brass players, need regular breaks in playing to rest their embouchures. Your pianist can play an entire rehearsal, but if you are rehearsing congregational music, and you have your brass playing on every stanza of every hymn, your expectations are unrealistic. A good rule of thumb is to have the brass players play every other stanza, or only the first and the last of any particular hymn.

  • It is extremely frustrating for instrumentalists to be told they are playing too loud when they are playing as soft as they can, but their placement in your worship environment doesn’t help them at all. Instrumentalists, especially brass and percussion players, should be as far away from the choir microphones as possible. Brass players should face in towards the center, rather than out towards the congregation. Try putting thick carpet under your percussion and brass players to absorb sound (and spit), as well as sound absorption panels in front of them. If you still have balance issues with your choir, tell your players to cut back to one on a part, if their parts are doubled. Don’t do this too often, though, because your players are there to play, and they may lose their joy in serving. Set up all your musicians to succeed by creating an environment of praise and encouragement, for the glory of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ!

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