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Assigning Parts

Kathy Farmer | December 2018

    Most flute choir directors dread the work of assigning parts. It is an amazing amount to work to satisfy everyone and make sure that the separate parts balance with the whole. With each new concert and its new parts assignments comes the barrage of comments, whether whispered or said out loud: 

    “I can’t believe she gave me 6th part on this piece. It is all in the low register.” 

    “Doesn’t she know I hate playing high notes?” 

    “I’m first chair in my school orchestra, so I should play first in flute choir too!” 

    “This part is boring. I think I’ll stay home for next week’s rehearsal”

    “I must not be valued in this group because all I have are inner parts.” 

    I imagine almost all directors have heard these or similar remarks. Some of us who play in flute choirs have probably had some of the same thoughts, whether voiced or not. 
    Within the last 30 years, flute choirs and flute orchestras have become a joyful creative outlet for flutists who love music and want to play, even while having jobs in other fields. Flute choirs provide musical growth, an opportunity to perform and wonderful friendships. 
    Community flute choirs tend to have players with a wide range of abilities, while college ensembles are more likely consist of flutists at similar proficiency levels. One of the other big differences between the two types of groups is time and motivation. Community choir members have to carve out practice time from a schedule that is not usually devoted to music. College students are at the point in their lives where music is their main focus, and they are practicing for maximum flute progress. Blended choirs of college students and community members make for even larger ranges of abilities. 
    Coming into flute choir for the first time, players will find it is a completely different experience from band or orchestra. In flute choir all of the parts are covered by players of the same instrument. Altos and basses are a subset of the ensemble, whether the group has players who love and only want to play big flutes or whether those part assignments are rotated.  
    When assigning parts many things should be addressed by the director. How many players does it take to play the piece? Is the music a reasonable fit for the ensemble as a whole? How much doubling of parts is reasonable? How can I as director make the music sound best? 
    That last question is at the heart of the issue with part assignments. Almost every choir has a few really strong players and some weaker ones. Directors have to consider how to take advantage of everyone’s strengths while being fair to all players so it is a good experience for everyone. 
    First, it is tremendously important to develop a mutual desire for excellence in the choir. The group should be a unit of cooperative musicians, rather than an ensemble of soloists. Members should be ready to use their skills for bringing out the best in the music. Most choir directors talk about this at the first rehearsal of the semester, but putting the principle into practice requires some care and thinking. Part assignments play a large role in getting the balance right. 
    Carol Kneibusch Noe was the first flute choir director I ever met and played for. She taught me to assign parts from the bottom. Noe put more players on the lower C flute parts and sometimes only put one player on the top C part. As a result, the sound of her choirs was rich and lush. Today’s choirs tend to have more basses and altos and even contrabasses of several sizes to help make the foundation of the choir strong. While doubling of low register parts is still a good idea, it is usually not an absolute necessity if the choir has big flutes. She also assigned each player in the group a different part for each piece, so everyone had a chance to shine (or sweat). In that way she kept all of the players interested. 
    Here are a few things that I have tried that have worked best for my groups although there are really no hard and fast rules. Each director has to decide what works for the choir and the players. 

The Strongest Players
    Many flute choirs are blessed with a few outstanding players who can play anything beautifully. Yes, some of them may have a bit of attitude, but their performance on any part will assure that the assigned music will be covered excellently. I do not put too many of those wonderful players on the same part because they can be overpowering. I try to give them parts that fit their strengths. One or two will have high singing lines, and perhaps in the same piece one or two will have the low, sonorous lines. I put a couple of the strongest players who have lots of rhythmic verve on the middle lines that tend to be mushy. They can really make a huge difference there. Occasionally, I will assign one player to a part alone so he or she can sing and play more soloistically. In rehearsals, it is a good idea to point out what those players with powerful low registers are doing for the overall sound. The first part may or may not be the big cheese. 

Players in the Middle
    Pay attention to the strengths of each person. Frequently, there are players who are very good in one area but not in another. For example, player A has a lovely tone, but she is technically limited. Player B has fantastic technique but his sound is not so great. Player C has great tone and technique, but her intonation is out the window. Those players require a great deal of thought when assigning parts. Most of the time, it is a good idea to put them where they are strongest. However, at least one or two pieces on each concert should be a stretch in their weaker area. This is a good way to help them improve their skills. 

Weaker Players
    In most community choirs there are also usually several players who are not particularly great, but they love to play. They are also often the ones who practice the most diligently. They should be paired with stronger players  so they can hear how the music should sound. These flutists often play decently, but their music reading is not up to par. Putting them on a part with a strong player allows them to learn the part faster and play better. When assigning parts to these players, be sure to study the score and determine which part is easiest. Because their low register is not as well developed, a middle part may be a better choice.  
    An excellent player who is assigned part six of six may be a little taken aback. Explain that the group needs beautiful sound and rhythmic integrity there for this piece, and that the assignment is essential for creating the overall sound. (It doesn’t hurt to give the player Flute 1 on the next piece.) 
    On three occasions, I have had flute choir members ask me why they were assigned lower parts. There were three different discussions, and two of them were successful. Player A sent an email asking why she was always playing the bottom parts. I let her know someone had told me she did not like to play high notes. When she assured me that was not the case, I apologized and assigned her a variety of parts. Player B had the same question. In her case it was an oversight. I apologized and remedied the situation immediately. Player C sent a letter claiming she was not receiving the two first parts per concert she was entitled to. Actually, she was not able to sustain notes above the second octave, and her technique was not well developed. I explained my method of tailoring the part assignments to the individual. Her response was that I should program easier music. Unfortunately, I was not able to satisfy her and she left the choir a short time later. 
    Sometimes it is easy for players to see why they are given certain parts. Sometimes they need to be told. Figuring out each situation is one of the challenges of directing a flute choir. When making part assignments, keep the focus on how to help every player perform and contribute their best and make the overall ensemble successful and fun.