Trumpet Clarinet

Orchestral Instruments and Modern Worship

I recently received this email:

Do you think brass and woodwinds can effectively be used in a modern worship setting? I sometimes I feel there is a big disconnect in what the style should sound like because of the brass.

Because of the complexities of today’s contemporary worship the answer isn’t an easy “yes” or “no” but rather, “it depends.”

No, brass and woodwinds are not heard in modern worship, or modern pop music for that matter (strings are another story – a good pop string arrangement can fit almost any modern worship song.) I can remember ten years ago when the local Willow Creek clone was paying a full brass section every week (can you imagine managing the charts for that!) I was joking with a friend that he should expect brass in worship again since you hear it in Justin Timberlake’s current hit (if the brass trend picks up it’ll probably take a year to trickle down to the Church.)

If your church wants a pure pop sound true to the style of the original recording and you’re production driven, don’t use brass or woodwinds. A jazzy brass lick doesn’t really fit into a Hillsong United guitar driven worship tune, does it?

Some churches are more interested in seeing people of various instrumental talents participate than they are with the resulting sound. However, understand that the typical modern ear of the average person in your congregation will, unfortunately for orchestra players, be more tuned to electric guitars and drums.

There’s a church in town that has quite a nice, folksy praise set with fairly contemporary songs utilizing just piano, acoustic guitar, flute, cello, violin and a few other instruments here and there. I like most styles of music and enjoyed the service. I asked a friend of mine if he had ever considered attending this church. He, being that typical congregation demographic, replied “I liked the preaching but the worship just didn’t do it for me. They had flutes and stuff.” This surprised me – my friend was brought up conservatively and even he wanted to hear some guitar riffs.

If you’re in a ministry where you want to use orchestral instruments (or are required to) yet still want the feel of contemporary worship, here are a few ideas.

The arrangement must fit the style of the song. The brass and woodwinds shouldn’t dominate – otherwise you risk sounding like a high school band concert. Instead, allow your praise band to carry the arrangement and let the orchestral instruments provide color – a line here and there that can cut through the mix. Heavily orchestrated Camp Kirkland-type arrangements are more suited to a First Baptist-type church and muddy the mix in a praise band setting.

In my HymnCharts arrangements I often double the strings with other instruments to add more punch to a melodic line. A violin by itself might not even be heard over a praise band, but doubling it with a flute or clarinet gives the line added strength. Modern worship is linear – I don’t want a bunch of intricate instrumental parts complicating the band groove.

The instruments themselves must fit the style of the song. In medium to smaller churches you run into the problem of a mishmash of random instruments. Don’t attempt to include wildly different instruments like a tuba and flute into your praise set. If possible, use instruments that complement each other – flute/violin, trumpet/clarinet, etc., and let the other instruments take a break that week (frankly, I don’t think I could ever find a place for a tuba on a Chris Tomlin song!)

In the olden days orchestral instruments in church were a weekly feature. In our more contemporary, praise band-driven world orchestral players usually provide occasional sonic icing to the electrified sound.

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