When I arrived at my current church 5 1/2 years ago, I was tasked with developing an orchestra for our church. At the time, there were about 7-8 players (all but two were not adults) and they had met a few times of the fall prior to my arrival with the goal of playing for the Christmas season of 2012. Prior to that, the church used piano, organ, and a drummer to accompany congregational song. Needless to say, I had to come up with a plan to utilize these willing players so they felt confident and ready to lead in worship. This task was already tricky since we were utilizing not only varying generations, but varying skill levels as well. After some trial and error and now several years reflecting on how we got to almost 35 players in our orchestra in about 5 years, I’ve come up with some points that helped us along the way. Perhaps you’ll find them helpful if you’re starting an orchestra:
- Pray, Pray, Pray. I literally cried out to God to send us players with servant hearts, musical skill, and commitment to be in rehearsals and services. From the beginning there were some critical instruments/people we needed to move forward and I know God’s hand of provision is why we are where we are today. I’m still crying out to God today even though we literally are out of space AND we’ve already extended our platform once!
- Use your current players as scouts for new players. Those first players were so excited to be playing in our church and regularly looked and listened for others in our fellowship who had played before to invite to our team. Within the first six months of my time here, we had added at least 4-5 players. In fact that’s about how many have been added each year since I’ve arrived. MANY of these players come because someone in the orchestra found out they played and invited them to check us out.
- Rehearse them to confidence and fluency. After I arrived, the orchestra played every week. We had long rehearsals where I was very detailed in my instructions of the “road map” of the song. We played things multiple times so the fluency was there. It was tedious but necessary. Basically, we spent 75 minutes a week on 4 tunes for the congregation. Aiming to forgo distractions in the worship service was my number one musical goall. We started with easy congregational songs (even familiar hymns) to build confidence. That confidence resulted in better playing. Better playing resulted in higher quality offerings to God in worship. As soon as our quality started getting better, we needed fewer “scouts” because people just started inquiring about playing. Excellence breeds excellence!
- Challenge them but don’t overwhelm them. We use a variety of charts from various publishers with a varying degree of difficulty. In the beginning I aimed to balance out more complicated with simple orchestrations. Likewise, we didn’t even attempt to accompany the choir until about 18 months after I arrived because I wanted to make sure they had learned/rehearsed/played/led the roughly 125 tunes in our congregational song corpus. Even that first anthem we played for, the Word publication of the tune By Our Love, was chosen specifically because the orchestration is relatively simple. Today, we can handle most anything the church music publishers write. It’s fun to think back at the evolution.
- Feature them. After we started playing regularly for the congregation AND choir, we started playing stand-alone orchestra preludes/features, etc. It’s giving them a place to “shine” and greater ownership of the orchestra ministry.
- Use all your generations. At this moment, four generations in our church play in our orchestra. Ten of those players are under the age of 20; all my string players (7) are students. The students who play for us are excellent players and the sight-reading they get to do for me helps them in their school bands and orchestra. Without using all our generations, we wouldn’t be an orchestra…we’d be a band…we’d be smaller, less effective, and have less color/timbre. Teach them to serve for life. Invest in your students.
- Love your orchestra family. Make sure you love on these players as much as you would your choir members. They have at least as much to learn as the choir each week and are just as important to the music ministry team. Be involved in their lives. If you use care group leaders, as I do for all my groups, make sure you USE them to help you do care ministry for these players.
In my next blog I want to talk about some of the actual literature we used (congregational song mostly) as we moved forward. Our church has ALWAYS been intergenerational so they’ve never been through a musical style split. They embraced changes in music even before I got there. However, when the “sound” of the songs, arrangements, number of players, etc. began changing, some finesse was necessary. Even with our varied musical styles, there has always been the push to be more traditional or more contemporary from some. So, I will talk about how we embraced our intergenerational context to be who WE ARE, not any other church. I’m still a student of who we are…partly because who we are is constantly evolving; we are double the size we were when I arrived. Stay tuned!