The Concert Band in Church

by Jeff Doebler

Part Two: Hymns

As discussed in part one of this article, the concert band can be a wonderful aspect of worship services, either regularly or for special occasions. Once the basic issues have been addressed—placement, instrumentation, volume level, equipment, and for what elements of the service the band will play—then it is critical to select appropriate repertoire.

In part two, we will focus on the role of the concert band in the accompaniment of hymns.

Creating hymn arrangements, with and without organ

My suggestions here are for hymns that are in the public domain. More recent hymns may need special permission to create arrangements.

I try to create hymn arrangements that give the greatest amount of flexibility. I like for them to have the ability to be used with the organ, without the organ, brass alone, woodwinds alone, and full band. (If I have enough percussionists, and access to sufficient mallet percussion instruments, I might even arrange for percussion alone.)

I usually do this in a very simple manner. First, I make a list of the instruments in the concert band. Next, I assign each to the soprano, alto, tenor, or bass part in the music, making sure that each of the hymn’s parts is covered well. Then I transpose the parts for each instrument. Although this is a very basic formula, I always have to consider the specific ensemble. In other words, are there lots of one instrument and very few of another? Will there be enough instruments on each part to sound balanced? Can the performers play the highest and lowest notes in the part to which I am assigning them? Is the tessitura for each part appropriate, or will they sound strained, fatigued, out of tune, too loud or too soft because the part is generally too high or too low?

If the questions in the preceding paragraph don’t make sense, I suggest acquiring or accessing a text about arranging. You might use one of these keywords for your search: arranging, scoring, orchestration, transcribing, composing. My three current favorite authors on this subject are Alfred Blatter, Kent Kennan, and Frank Erickson. In the absence of a text, I suggest this rule of thumb: If you cannot remember the range of a particular instrument, write the part within the appropriate clef—usually treble or bass—in other words, no ledger lines. This rule doesn’t work for everything, but your players will be able to navigate fairly well, and they will be able to adjust octaves as needed. They will also be able to make suggestions for your next arrangement.

The text will also help you with transposition. If you are using music notation software to create the parts (e.g., Finale, Sibelius), transposition and appropriate clefs will not be a problem. If not, the text can remind you, for example, that all saxophones and clarinets are written in treble clef, that the alto saxophone sounds down a major sixth, so it must be transposed up a major sixth, etc.

Writing descants

Descants can be a wonderful way to add excitement to your hymn arrangements, and they can be created for any instrument or combination of instruments in the band.

One of the easiest procedures to create a descant is to make up a simply melody using only notes and rhythms that are printed in each chord of the hymn. Once you feel comfortable doing this, you might change some rhythms, alter some octaves, and add some passing tones and other ornamentation. Keep in mind that you want the descant to add an exciting element to the hymn, and not cause the congregation to be confused with a crazy new melody, harmony, or rhythm.

Other favorite descant creation procedures of mine include adding a melody from another hymn, or creating a melody out of some of the suspensions found in the music.

Leading the congregation

I find it especially exciting to accompany hymns with band alone, and with band and organ. Because the local organist knows the expectations of his or her church best, I usually ask the organist to set the tempo by playing the introduction. Using the tempo established by the organist, I then lead the band, organist, and congregation. This leadership role could just as easily belong to the organist, with me following the organist and leading the band. Either method works fine, but the decision on who is leading obviously must be determined before the service.


One of the important skills possessed by an excellent church organist is the ability to lead the congregation. The concert band conductor’s best resource in this regard is the organist. When I am conducting the band and leading the congregation on a hymn, here are my strategies:

  1. Maintain tempo
    Congregations often drag the tempo, so my job is to maintain the appropriate tempo of the hymn.
  2. Phrasing and breaths
    Most hymns have clear phrasing, including places for breaths, that are determined by the text and/or music. Although I might not add time at the end of a phrase, if I sing the text in my head, I can show the appropriate phrasing as I conduct.
  3. The breath before the next verse
    It is important for the congregation to feel comfortable starting the each verse. I try to maintain the duration of the last note in the music, then use the release as a beat of preparation for the next verse. This gives the congregation one count, in rhythm, to take a breath.
  4. Conducting the congregation
    In some situations—either for overall precision, or to add excitement to the hymn—I will turn to conduct the congregation. When a congregation is singing with a band for the first time, it may be necessary to at least turn and cue the congregation when they must enter. If not, congregation members might mistake the band’s music as something extra, and not the hymn accompaniment.
  5. Appropriate volume to hear the music and for the nature of the text
    The local organist knows the appropriate volume to use, both in general and when the text dictates louder or softer accompaniment. The band must do the same thing. In a smaller church, it is especially easy for a larger band to sound much too loud. On the other hand, the band must play loud enough that that congregation can hear. Playing too softy, especially for more than one verse, can cause the congregation to lose tempo, confidence, and pitch.

I welcome your suggestions and questions about the concert band in church, especially when accompanying hymns. The concert band can almost always be an important part of the worship experience, as long as the conductor and performers are sensitive to the needs of the service.

Posted on Dec 31, 2012 10:33:41 AM
Filed Under: Instruments and Ensembles, Filed Under: review-prelude,

Jeff Doebler

Written by Jeff Doebler

Jeff Doebler serves as professor of music and director of music education and bands at Valparaiso University. He is also conductor of the concert band and handbell choirs for Lutheran Summer Music. Jeff has been a church musician since sixth grade, and has served professionally as a church music director, brass soloist, and conductor of church ensembles, including: choir, handbell choir, concert band, Dixieland band, brass choir, and woodwind choir. Dr. Doebler earned three degrees in music education: B.A.-Luther College, M.M.-Valparaiso University, and Ph.D.-University of Minnesota. Before coming to Valparaiso University, he served as a school music teacher and church musician in Emmetsburg, Iowa, and Shakopee, Minnesota. Dr. Doebler is president-elect of the Indiana Bandmasters Association, and state editor and former president of the Indiana Music Educators Association.