First, let me say that I love church music. While I was in grad school, I worked part time as the orchestra director at First Baptist Church in Tuscaloosa, AL. Also, I love playing church gigs. Besides providing a little extra cash, these performances can be musically rewarding and spiritually satisfying. We get to play in some of the most beautiful buildings in town, and the audience is always tremendously appreciative.
Church gigs can also present some unique challenges. Sometimes rehearsal time is very limited, and the physical space we're assigned is even more limited. We are often asked to make last minute changes or additions to what we're playing. And many times, we are combining forces with amateur musicians that play at that church regularly.
If the music director does what they can to make the experience a positive one for the instrumentalists, then they can be assured of getting the best talent to fill their needs in the future. These are just a few things that I think even experienced music directors might overlook:
- Scheduling - Be organized and prompt. Be sure you know what the freelancers are used to. Around here, the pros are used to having rehearsals that last 2.5 hours with a 15-minute break. Don't start early, and definitely don't go too long (even if you started late).
- Last minute changes - It's usually not a big deal to throw in a simple hymn accompaniment late in the game, or to make cuts in a longer drama or program. Just be absolutely clear about the details, such as exactly which measures are cut? what kind of intro is there? how many verses do we play? who plays which verses? The best way to communicate this to the musicians is in writing. If it's too late to get it to them ahead of the first rehearsal, have a print-out on the stand when they arrive at the rehearsal or performance.
- Warm-up / storage space - Please provide a place where the musicians can warm up before each rehearsal/service/performance. Brass and woodwind players will start arriving between 30-60 minutes before the start time. If the choir is rehearsing in the sanctuary already, or if things need to remain quiet before the service, make sure the instrumentalists know where they can go to warm up. Also, please provide a secure place to store cases and other belongings during services.
These last two are maybe the most critical:
- Dynamics - One of the most challenging things about church gigs can be having to play uncomfortable soft, so we don't cover up the singers. Brass instruments, especially, can only play so soft before the performance quality is going to suffer. If you have hired a large orchestra to accompany a medium-sized choir, please find a way to mic the singers so that the balance is not such a problem.
- Conducting - Instrumentalists need different things from the podium than singers. The most helpful thing is a clear ictus and a regular pattern. I've heard many music directors chide the orchestra for playing late or not playing together, when it's because we're not sure when to play! One thing that is particularly harmful and unfortunately common is when the conductor slows down as s/he approaches the downbeat of an entrance. This happens mostly before the soft, final note of a beautiful song. I think you can get away with this when leading a choir, but for instrumentalists, it just leaves us guessing where to place the note, and it's sure to lead to a ragged entrance that will spoil the moment.
Please comment below if there are other helpful tips that I've left off. And if you're a church music director who reads this and finds it useful, please let me know!