Instrumental Program


One of the areas of a total church music ministry that is generally given little attention in most churches is that of the instrumental program. Although church music directors agree that the music of the church is and should be primarily vocal, there is a growing interest in church orchestras, bands, instrumental ensembles, and instrumental accompaniments for choral anthems. Because music, instrumental music in particular, is given greater emphasis in our public schools today than ever before in the history of public education, church music directors are finding more and more instrumentalists who wish to continue their amateur playing upon completion of school. A challenging question indeed is how to use this talent, experience and desire to serve the church music program most effectively. There is also the distinct possibility that some fine Christian young person will catch the inspiration of music from his public school training and in turn can be counseled and challenged regarding a life of Christian service in the field of sacred music.

It is not the intent of this chapter to discuss in detail the technical knowledge and problems of an instrumental program. Generally the church choral director, with some basic instrumental experience, will be capable of leading such a group provided his conducting techniques are sound. A basic instrumental background would include an understanding of transposition problems of various instruments, the clefs in which instruments normally play and the limitations, peculiarities and best playing ranges of each instrument.


A. Violins. A non-transposing instrument; plays from the Treble Clef; a good playing range is from G below Middle C to high C, although it is actually possible to play an octave higher than this. The four strings are tuned in fifths, beginning with G below Middle C. A mute (Sordine), which may be used with a violin, subdues the vibrations and creates a mournful, mysterious effect. This can be especially useful with obbligatos and soft accompaniments. Plucking the strings is known as “Pizzicato Playing.” A tremolo is produced by a fast shaking of the bow.

B. Violas. A non-transposing instrument; generally plays from the Alto Clef, which locates Middle C on the third line. This clef is best suited to the compass of the instrument, ledger lines being seldom required. For extremely high passages the Treble Clef is also employed. The range is from C below Middle C to high C or even the E above this high C. The viola’s longer and heavier strings are tuned a fifth lower than those of the violin.

C. Cellos. A non-transposing instrument; plays from the Bass Clef. The playing range is from low C below the Bass Clef to the above the Treble Staff. The cello’s four strings are tuned in fifths, one octave below the viola.

D. Bass. A transposing instrument since it sounds one octave lower than written. Plays from the Bass Clef. The four string bass is the instrument most commonly used and is tuned in fourths, starting with the E below the Bass Clef. The range of the bass is from this low E to second space A on the Treble Staff. (It will, of course, sound an octave lower than this.)


A. Flutes. A non-transposing instrument; is played by blowing across a hole in the side; the highest of all wind instruments with the exception of piccolos. The range is from Middle C to an octave above High C. Uses the Treble Clef.

B. Piccolos. A transposing instrument in that it sounds an octave higher than written. Uses the Treble Clef. The range is from D above Middle C to the Bb above High C. (Will sound one octave higher.) The playing technique is basically the same as that of the flute. Occasionally one encounters Db piccolos. These will sound a minor 9th higher than written. However, the C piccolo is gaining in popularity and is steadily replacing the Db instrument.

C. Oboes. A non-transposing instrument. Uses the Treble Clef. The best range is from Bb below Middle C to E above High C.

D. English Horns. A transposing instrument in that it sounds a Perfect 5th lower than its notation. Uses the Treble Clef. Has generally the same written range as the oboe. However, it will sound a 5th lower.

E. Clarinets. A transposing Bb instrument. Will sound one whole tone lower than written. Uses the Treble Clef. The written range is from E below Middle C to the C above High C.

F. Bassoons. A non-transposing instrument. Generally is played from the Bass Clef, although the Tenor or Treble Clefs are used when necessary. The range is from the Bb below the Bass Clef to the top space E on the Treble Clef. The parts can be interchanged with the cello.

G. Saxophones. Transposing instruments with the exception of the C Melody sax. Saxophones are made in the following sizes: Soprano Bb; Alto Eb; C Melody; Tenor Bb; Baritone Eb; Bass Bb. The written range for all is practically the same–Bb below Middle C to the D above High C. All use the Treble Clef. The fingering on all saxophones is the same so that it is comparatively easy for a person to transfer from one to another. The Soprano sax in Bb sounds a whole tone lower than written; the Alto sax is Eb, a Major 6th lower; the Tenor sax in Bb, a Major 9th lower; the Baritone sax in Eb, an octave and a Major 6th lower.


A. French Horns. A transposing instrument. When written in the Treble Clef sounds a Perfect 5th lower, in the Bass Clef, a Perfect 4th higher than written. Both Treble and Bass Clefs are used for notation. The written range of the French horn is from low C below the Bass Clef to a high C above the Treble Clef. A challenging instrument, especially difficult for one to begin on. Prospects for this instrument should be carefully selected.

B. Trumpets or Cornets. Transposing Bb instruments. Use the Treble Clef. Will sound one whole step lower than written. The written range is from G below Middle C to a High C. May be muted by means of a pear-shaped device set in the bell.

C. Baritones or Euphoniums. Transposing Bb instruments when played from the Treble Clef. Are pitched an octave below the trumpet and use practically the same techniques as do the trumpets. When read from the Bass Clef they are a non-transposing instrument.

D. Trombones. A Bb, non-transposing instrument when played from the Bass Clef. Most published music written in the Bass Clef. The range is from the E below the Bass Clef to a G above Middle C, with even the possibility of a Bb above Middle C by experienced players.

E. Tubas. Non-transposing instruments even though they are made in several different keys–F,Eb,C and Bb. The majority of tubas, however, are pitched in Eb and Bb. The range is from 4th line B below the Bass Clef to the F above Middle C. Uses the Bass Clef. Can be used interchangeably with the string bass parts. The Eb tuba in Bass Clef fingers the same as a cornet in Treble Clef with a key signature adjustment. This makes it possible to switch cornet players (who are usually too plentiful) to tuba when this is necessary for the sake of balance.


This category includes pianos, celestas, drums, chimes, cymbals, gongs, triangles, xylophones, marimbas, vibraphones, castanets, tambourines. etc.

Any instrument which is set into vibration through being struck, either with a specially designed hammer, stick or piece of metal or through coming into contact with their like or with the hand is called a percussion instrument. These are further classified as either tuned percussion or untuned percussion. Tuned percussion, those which are capable of producing sounds of definite and intended pitch, include: piano, kettledrums, bells (tubular and orchestra), celesta, xylophone, marimba. Untuned percussion, those which are intended for giving off rhythmical and accelerating sounds, include: snare drum, bass drum, tambourine, triangle, cymbals, gong, castanets.


A church music director should be acquainted with the various terms and expressions used by instrumentalists. Some of these expressions include: “Cue Notes”–notes that are notated in small fashion in certain parts so that these instruments can play these notes if necessary–that is, when the instruments for which these notes are intended are either lacking or limited. “Slurred” or “Tongued Notes”–when tones are played either in a smooth, connected manner or with individual distinctiveness. “Concert Key”–to play in the same key as that used for the piano part “Score”–music.


A church music director can begin an instrumental program in one of several ways. For example, a general invitation and public announcement can be made for all those who play instruments to play during the congregational singing at the evening services. This type of accompaniment for the singing adds a great deal of inspiration for these services. There is, of course, the problem of transposition for a number of these instrumentalists. Though many will be able to transpose as they play, it often is troublesome for the younger players. It is surprising, however, how quickly young players can learn transposition. It is also possible to buy hymnals that contain most of the songs orchestrated for various instruments. For example, the following hynmals now have accompanying orchestrated books:

Crowning Glory Hymnal. Published by Zondervan.
Great Hymns of the Faith. Published by Singspiration.
Hymns for the Instrumental Ensemble by McCoy. Published by Broadman Press.
Praise and Worship Hymnal by Stringfield-Johnson. Published by Lillenas.
Worship in Song by Lane. Published by Lillenas.
Orchestral Favorite Hymns of Praise. Published by Hope Publishing Company.

For congregational singing, the four parts of a hymn can be distributed as follows:

1st violins–melody and melody one octave higher
2nd violins–alto
Cellos or bassoons–tenor or bass
String bass or tuba–bass
Flutes–melody or alto an octave higher than written
1st clarinets–melody
2nd clarinets–alto
1st trumpet–melody
2nd trumpet–alto
French horn–alto
1st trombone–tenor
2nd trombone–bass

Gradually a music director should try to develop this group of volunteer instrumentalists into a better organized group. This can be done by having special practice sessions to prepare for specific occasions. When the interest is then “ripe,” this group can be encouraged to have regular weekly rehearsals. It might be that in the early stages of development this group would do well to content itself with merely playing hymns. Well-played hymns with slight variations can prove satisfactory for preludes, special numbers and offertory performances.

Another possible way to start the instrumental program is for the director to survey the instrumental talent in the church by first distributing a mimeographed questionnaire. This questionnnaire should supply the answers to these questions: name of instrument played, experience, whether instrument is available for use, ability to read music, willingness to attend periodic rehearsals and services, and whether any extra instruments are available for others to use. After these results have been tabulated, the music director can send a letter of invitation to interested members who will make the most well balanced group. In this type of group the music director should try to have the musical standards as high as possible so that individual members develop a pride in belonging to such a group.

A well-balanced orchestra should be built primarily around the strings. A good balance for a medium-sized church orchestra would be as follows:

6-1st violins
3 – 2nd violins 1-viola
2–cellos or bassoons
1–string bass or tuba
2 or 3�1st cornets or trumpets
2 or 3 – 2nd cornets or trumpets
1 or 2–French horns
3–1st clarinets
2 – 2nd clarinets
approximately 25-30 pieces

This type of balance is difficult to achieve, especially in the early stages of the orchestra’s development. Usually there is an over-abundance of brass players rather than strings and woodwinds. If it is necessary to use a large number of brasses, one of the first considerations is to have each of the voice parts–soprano, alto, tenor, bass–represented by one or more of the brass instruments. In this way a brass choir is formed, independent of what other instruments are available. Such a group is complete as an ensemble, or it may provide a nucleus around which almost any combination of other instruments may be used. Cornets or trumpets are best fitted for the soprano and alto parts; trombones and baritones can play either tenor or bass parts; French horns or mellophones prefer alto parts; tubas are best suited to the bass part. If this group with its excessive power completely over-powers the other instruments, it may be necessary to have some of the brasses muted, although it must be cautioned that muting does affect the pitch of the instruments.


1. Though there should be a variety of flexibility within each rehearsal, a director will need to have a well-thought-out plan and structure in order to accomplish maximum results within the limited time possible. A typical one hour, pre-Sunday evening service rehearsal will generally include the following:

Prayer-Devotional Time

Warm-up and Tuning
(It is good to begin by playing a familiar hymn to get everyone together. This can then be followed by a brief initial tuning. )

Technique Drills–i.e. Scales, balanced choir progressions, etc. Whole tone scales are especially good for improving a group’s intonation.

Practice the congregational hymns to be played in the immediate service.

Rehearse and refine the special number to be performed in the service–prelude, offertory, etc.

Sight read one or more special numbers for future use.

Check the tunings one more time.

Review one last time the special number to be played in the service.
(Instrumentalists must always feel completely confident about any number for performance.)

2. Have all rehearsal preparations completed before the players arrive–i.e. chairs and stands in place, music in folders, the order of the numbers to be rehearsed prominently displayed, etc.

3. Do all possible to rehearse and perform in tune. (a basic problem for many instrumentalists.) Will need to do several tunings throughout the rehearsal, since wind instruments change and become sharper as they get warmer. Check the tunings again just before the start of the service. Once the service (prelude) begins, however, no more tunings or warm-ups.

4. Allow enough space for the rehearsal area–approximately four feet between rows and about 2 1/2 feet between chairs.

5. Experiment with different seating arrangements in order to achieve the most balanced sound with any particular group.

6. Provide a place for the players to store their instrument cases and belongings during the rehearsal and church service.

7. Allow a few minutes for a break between the rehearsal and the service–perhaps even light refreshments.


There are several other important considerations regarding the instrumental program that a director should know. These are listed briefly as follows:

1. In this, as well as in all of his endeavors, a director must have the complete cooperation and support of the pastor, music committee, and church board, with their full understanding this program will likely cost money to start. This initial expense will include orchestrated hymnals, a variety of special instrumental collections, folders, stands, etc.

2. When purchasing music for a newly organized church instrumental group, it is best to begin with, if possible, collections of music rather than individual copies.

3. A director should order enough music so that there is a minimum of one copy to a stand or a copy for every two players. For younger groups it is best to have a copy for every player so that they can practice at home.

4. The assistance of a faithful librarian is especially needful for an instrumental group. Since instrumental music is expensive, it must be carefully preserved.

5. The services of a competent pianist is needed–one who can read well and play confidently. (Just anyone will not do.)

6. The music director must be certain that the church piano is consistently tuned to 440 pitch.

7. As the instrumental program develops, it is good for a church to start laying plans for a junior orchestra/ensemble, composed of the beginning and younger players in the church.

8. As the instrumental program develops, it is a good idea to encourage the church to have a long range plan for purchasing church-owned instruments, especially the hard to carry instruments such as marimbas, string basses, etc.

9. A director should do all possible to encourage the more talented instrumentalists to keep up with their instruments by suggesting worthy sacred solos for them to practice and then by using them for special occasions. Smaller ensembles, such as brass trios, quartets or sextettes, string quartets, wood-wind ensembles, etc., should also be encouraged, helped with their choice of music, and used for appropriate occasions when ready to perform.

10. Since the services of a capable church organist are always difficult to obtain, a church music director should do all possible to get his church to have a long-range program for helping and encouraging worthy young pianists to study organ. This can be done by providing financial help with lessons, free practice facilities, performance opportunities, etc.


Instruments can be used in many interesting, creative ways in a church music program:

1. Preludes, mini-concerts, choir processionals and recessionals.
2. Offertory specials.
3. Congregational singing accompaniment.
4. Entire concert programs as well as individual special numbers.
5. Accompaniments for musical dramas, cantatas, choral anthems.
6. As a feature of the Sunday School assembly sessions.
7. As an outreach to services/opportunities outside of the church.

Further, the instrumental program is an excellent way of engaging individuals, both young and old, who might not otherwise be engaged in church life.


Although there are good sacred orchestral collections and individual numbers available as well as secular transcriptions of a devotional nature that are appropriate for church use, the problem of sacred instrumental materials is a much greater problem than it is for the church choral program. Especially is this true of hymn orchestrations that are easy to play yet attractively arranged for a church orchestra or band with average ability. The following is a suggested repertory of instrumental sacred music that can be used with a church orchestra.

A. Collections:

1. Choice Chorales and Hymns by Wienhorst. Published by Concordia.

2. Easy Ensemble Music by Hanson. Also, Ensemble Music for Church and School (more advanced). Published by Hope.

3. Holiday Hymn Tune Instrumentals by Yoder. Order directly from Dr. David Yoder, 9851 Sheldon Rd., Elk Grove, California 95624.

4. Hymns for Instrumental Ensembles. Volumes 1, 2. Published by Augsburg Publishing House.

5. Hymns in Harmony. Volumes 1, 2. Published by Rodeheaver. Hymn Tune Instrumentals by Yoder. Order directly from Dr. David Yoder. (see above address).

6. Instrumental Melodies. Volumes 1, 2. Gospel Publishing House, Springfield, Mo.

7. Rubank Sacred Orchestra Folio by DeLamater. Published by Rubank Co.

8. Sacred Selections for the Instrumental Choir by McCoy. Published by Broadman.

9. Sunday Symphony (10 titles). Arr. by Mayfield. Published by Singspiration.

Miscellaneous Materials:

1. Sacred Brass Quartets by Frank Garlock. Published by Musical Ministries.

2. For the Brass Ensemble (3 packets of two hymn arrangements each) by DeCou. Published by Singspiration.

3. Christmas in Brass by Uber. Published by G. Schirmer.

4. Easter Hymns for Brass by Smith. Published by Broadman.

5. Jerry Franks Dimensions in Brass, err. by Norris. Published by Volkwein Bros., Inc.

6. Devotional Melodies by Stringfield, err. by Whitman. Published by Lillenas. (15 solos arranged for nearly every instrument.)


1. Discuss ways of beginning and promoting an instrumental program in a church.

2. Discuss the problem of transposition as it applies to each instrument.

3. Write out the first verse of “My Jesus, I Love Thee” for a viola using the Alto Clef.

4. Write out the first verse of “My Jesus, I Love Thee” for a trumpet trio, keeping the piano part in the key of F.

5. Using the hymn, “My Jesus, I Love Thee,” show which voice part each instrument in a church orchestra would play. State also the key each instrument would play if playing this hymn for the congregational singing.


1. Brass Instruments in Church Services by Ode. Published by Augsburg Publishing House.

2. Instrumental Ensemble in the Church by Trobian. Published by Abingdon Press.

3. Instrumental Music and Christian Fellowship by Bixler. Published by Henry Printing Co., Eugene, Oregon.

4. Instrumental Music in the Church by Sims. Published by the Sunday School Board of the Southern Baptist Convention. Instruments of the Orchestra (a presentation kit for directors) by the J. W. Pepper Co., 4273 Wendell Dr., Atlanta, Georgia 30336.

6. Strings and Things by Posey. Published by Convention Press, Nashville, Tennessee.

7. The Technique of Orchestration by Kennan. Published by Prentice-Hall, Inc.