For many worship leaders the thought of incorporating a string section into their worship band presents a tantalising opportunity that ticks many boxes. As we know, strings provide depth, sensitivity, dynamics, and beauty and if you are just used to a contemporary rock band setup, a change from the norm. Using strings gives a role in the team to the classical musician, engages age groups in the congregation who may find drums and electric guitars a challenge, and on the whole can be made to blend well sonically with most contemporary worship songs.
Unfortunately strings can also sound over-busy if not well orchestrated, can struggle for space and volume when trying to meld with an insensitive and loud band, and, if classically trained, musicians can be so scared by the thought of playing without the score that they would rather boil their own heads than improvise in public! So how do you as a worship leader include strings without the mess? Much of the difficulty centres on arrangements verses improvisation. So here are a few ideas to get the best of both without having to produce full scores yourself.
If your musicians are able to improvise, the basic lead instrument rules apply that we’ve discussed in previous issues regardless of how many are in the section. I.e. only play the melody line at selective points where you want it to cause impact, and if possible using an octave above or below. Vary the dynamics by starting and stopping at song junctions rather than drifting in and out at random. Try to blend your sound with other harmonies and match each others’ volumes. Make a statement by playing in the gaps but again pick your moments wisely; you’ll make far more of an impact by not playing all the time.
If your musicians simply can’t cope without the music then get them a copy of the Musicademy DVD “Improvisation Skills in Worship”. It’s currently half price and will give them all the tools they need, and the confidence boost, to help them manage without the dots.
And if they want to go even further, take a look at the Playing By Ear DVD – this will help unpack all the necessary theory knowledge in a really practical way that unlocks the secrets of playing by ear. This really is a useful purchase for your guitar, keys, bass and other musicians too.
If you have multiple instruments focus on blending together as a team just as BV’s would. So listen intensely to each other, start and stop phrases as one unit, stick to your range and don’t cut across each others’ harmonies. At every point one player probably needs to take a lead and the others blend in. This is easier if the instruments aren’t duplicated so using a violin, viola and cello will naturally help them find their own range to play in and stick to it.
Rather than busy melodic lines think about creating pads or rhythms. Two simple ideas are legato lines and arpeggios for slower songs, or 1/8th staccato notes for faster songs. Again be really careful that it complements the groove of the other instruments. Double stops that use the root and 5th can be effective too but again make sure that the overall sound doesn’t clutter the arrangement. The key again is to listen more than you play and fit in.
But practically speaking, many classical string players aren’t used to improvisation so if you can find scored arrangements then all the better. However most modern worship scores are designed for piano which only has treble and bass clef parts. Violins use the treble clef but violas use alto clef and whilst cellos can use bass they mainly use tenor.
One solution I’ve found is CCLI’s Song Select. It allows you to download a full score and select the Soprano, Alto, Treble or Bass parts. Many popular songs are covered but even with a score it’s important to give your string section time to work together before unleashing them on an unsuspecting congregation. Perhaps try getting them to commit to working as a unit for say one service a month and place your most competent musicians with them.
Also when they do play it’s very important that you find a stage space where they can hear themselves and each other without having to compete with guitar amps or drum kits. Think too about the overall band and how much space they give the strings. It’s pointless trying to shoehorn strings into a band that leaves no space so the existing team must make room for them. Guitarists and keyboards may well need to leave a bit more space to let the parts shine through or even modify their own lines to work with the string parts. Or even better occasionally go unplugged to fit around the strings.
Free video lesson for orchestral instruments – playing sensitively in worship
Video clip – ideas for using orchestral instruments in worship
Practical ideas for improvisation – video clip from live seminar