Collaborating with instrumental ensembles
The art of sacred choral music has been a major focus for most of the significant composers in the Western music tradition, and many of them have written their most profound works to sacred or spiritual texts, for choir with instruments. Collaborating with an orchestra or other instrumental ensemble to present a cantata or mass setting is a priceless gift to the congregation and community. It is a tremendous learning experience musically, and can be a real highlight of the musical life of the choir and cantor. It can also be a wonderful collaboration with other churches.
Vocal music is a hybrid art form where literary and musical elements complement each other, each benefiting as well as making sacrifices. In collaboration between instruments and singers, there is almost no musical imperative which is allowed to override “understanding the words.” However, collaborative music is wonderful because it is different from choir alone or with keyboard. The meaning can be understood even if not every single word is immediately apprehended, indeed even when the text is in a foreign language. Balances need to include the instruments in all their divinely-inspired, Psalm 150 glory; let them play!
- The perception of balance between instrument(s) and voices depends largely on the intelligibility of text. For sensitive a capella choristers used to a near-spoken language level of articulation, the level of energy required for effective, expressive diction in instrumental collaborations can feel grotesque and unmusical. The attempt to anticipate the beat, placing consonants before the beat, can increase the audibility of the all-important initial sounds. Start exaggerating the diction in rehearsal one.
- The standard setup of choir behind instrumentalists is sensible visually and logistically but it has built-in problems for both balance and fine ensemble. When ensemble falters, remind the choir to follow with their eyes rather than ears, anticipate the beat with consonants, and allow the tempo to feel different from keyboard rehearsal. Then try to conduct more simply and precisely.
- Colla parte scoring, that is, continuous vocal-part doubling by instruments in cantatas and oratorio has the strong tendency to mask diction and cover. Reduce numbers of section players for carefully chosen spots (for solo movements in a cantata, eg.) with prepared markings of concertino and ripieno.
- First trombone parts in 17th through 19th century concerted music were often written for alto trombones doubling alto singers. On the modern tenor trombone these (originally) alto clef parts can be very difficult to play, let alone balance with choir altos. Individual notes can be omitted or transposed, or the entire part can be transposed for French horn, or fluegelhorn. Generally the part would be too bright on trumpet, but Bb fluegelhorns, though a little less flexible than trumpets, are commonly found in school jazz bands. For a performance of the 1725 version of JS Bach’s Christ lag in Todesbanden with cornett and three trombones, we used an alto trombone, but also purchased black towels for the stands to give the brass players the ability to manage their volume more easily in the tricky passagework.
- On the other hand, be careful not to allow the instrumental parts to lose definition in the mix (live or in recording), as the music will lose rhythmic life and color. Avoid the overuse of left-hand “shushing”, or it won’t work when you really need it. If balance is not working, re-mark dynamics, or reduce number of instruments down to solo players or keyboard only for a passage, if necessary.
- When working with professional instrumentalists for a short cantata, a meticulously-planned thirty-minute preparation rehearsal to set tempi and practice transitions before the singers join will often be adequate to insure a productive rehearsal. A trusted concertmaster to mark parts, and perhaps serve as contractor is worth her/his weight in gold. S/he should be identified and retained well in advance, and trusted. Professional musicians will, almost without exception, want the performance to go well. Hiring the right people several months in advance, and getting marked parts to them a month in advance will guarantee that they will be the least of your worries. For those of us who work with amateurs and students most of the time, the flexibility and musicianship of most professional players is quite exhilarating. Working with them will elevate the choir’s musicality, and that of the conductor.
- When working with amateur and student musicians who need to be rehearsed in order to be able to perform successfully, determine whether you or someone else should do the preparation. An experienced instrumental conductor, or professional concertmaster can again be crucial to success.
- In preparatory rehearsals, an ensemble of non-professional musicians will often need to rehearse at a dynamic where they can control their instruments comfortably (f - p), but which is too loud for working with the choir (mf - pppp). After solving style, ensemble, intonation, blend, and technique issues at the comfortable dynamic, take a few minutes with each movement to rehearse at a collaborating dynamic, which may be well below the comfort range. This also applies to pit orchestras
- Bring amateur solo singers into the instrumental rehearsals earlier rather than later. Orchestras do not give the same metric information as working with a solo pianist or tape, so rhythmic problems may ensue. Eventually, however, the life of the essentially sustaining nature of the strings and winds can provide a more “singing” accompaniment, and motivate singers to a more musical performance.
Experienced keyboard accompanist/collaborators will often instinctively follow a solo singer directly, perhaps differently than you would as conductor. In recitative and arias, a professional, or well-trained amateur orchestra will often be more flexible and responsive to the stick than a keyboardist who has to play all of the parts in reduction.