I often get asked what instruments are “needed” in a show choir band. While I certainly have opinions on the subject, that question misses the point—it’s not the instruments that are important, but how you use them. You don’t need complicated arrangements for your band to have a big impact—by approaching your music with the right mindset you can make your band of five sound like twenty!
Understanding How to Coach a Rhythm Section
The backbone of every show choir band I’ve ever seen is a rhythm section consisting of some combination of piano (or synth), electric guitar, electric bass, and drums (or percussion). For those with traditional conducting experience, leading one of these ensembles can be a confusing experience because much of the music is not written. In “show choir land” most arrangers write out piano and bass parts, but in the “real world” rhythm sections perform using only lead sheets or chord charts. Because these players are improvising their music on the spot, the guidance you give them on what to play is much more important than your conducting pattern.
Variety is Everything
For any show band, but especially for smaller ones, the name of the game is variety. To keep the audience engaged, you need to constantly be giving them something new to listen to. Whether or not your players are students or seasoned professionals, there are three easy ways you can add variety into your band’s performance:
1. Exaggerate Dynamics
The easiest way to add variety to a show is with dynamics. Of course, the smaller the band the harder it is to achieve dynamic contrast, but many small bands fail to use their most powerful weapon: volume knobs. In my mind there’s never an excuse for an electronic instrument to not have clear dynamics because moving a volume knob has absolutely nothing to do with your technical ability. For a consistent sound, decide in advance where the volume knob should be for each dynamic level.
(Side note: all show bands should use an electronic keyboard plugged into an amp rather than a piano provided by the venue. It’s always better to have control of your own sound, it’s easier to balance with drums, and you have more options for sounds.)
2. Change Sounds Constantly
Next to dynamics, the best thing you can do to add variety is by changing the sound palette as much as you can. Explore the full range of the sounds in your electronic instruments. Rather than use the same piano sound for the whole show, experiment with all the different variations of piano and electric piano available. Your synth player can similarly try lots of different sounds, even if they have a different name than what the arranger put in the score. Guitars (and to a lesser extent basses) have almost unlimited options for effects pedals. Your drummer can add extra cymbals or smaller percussion instruments like wind chimes, tambourine, or wood blocks to their kit.
3. Fill the “Sonic Space”
One of the important decisions you will need to make as you coach your rhythm section is what register they should play everything in. A good rule of thumb is you don’t want any of the rhythm section players competing for sonic space, especially in the low end. But the basic principle is that your piano, synth, guitar, and bass as a group are going to sound larger if everyone is playing in a different octave than if they were all playing in the same general range. Experiment with everybody playing in different octaves until you find the right sound.
Another basic rule is that unless you’re going for a particular effect your rhythm section players should be following different rhythmic patterns. For example, if the piano is playing quarter notes, your synth could be playing whole notes and your guitar could follow an eighth note pattern. You should also examine the vocal lines and make sure you are filling any “dead space” in between phrases.
Using Song Form as a Guide
The most natural way to coordinate these decisions between players is to go through each part of a song (intro, verse, chorus, dance break, etc.) and make decisions about what each player in the rhythm section is going to do for that section. Set dynamics, choose new sounds, find the right octave, explore new patterns, and make a plan! If a section repeats, make sure you’re doing something differently to make it interesting. This kind of approach will keep your band engaged in the whole show—not just dance breaks—and audiences will be more engaged too.