Make the Most of What You’ve Got (or how to do worship with 3 flutes and a ukulele)

IMG_20150507_203239443Suzanne Butler looks at some unlikely praise band and instrumental combinations.

Many of you will have an instinctive awareness and appreciation of how spirituality, music and the business of living are intertwined. Even in secular society there is no shortage of mugs and fridge magnets featuring such gems as:

Music expresses that which cannot be said and on which it is impossible to be silent. (Victor Hugo)

Country music is three chords and the truth. (Harlan Howard)

And thank goodness for the leavening brought by a sense of humour:

[An intellectual] is someone who can listen to the William Tell Overture without thinking of the Lone Ranger. (John Chesson)

Sadly, I failed to find a pithy Google quote to kick-start our topic this issue, despite its relevance to our wider life experience: working with what you have, rather than what you’d like to have! Just how do you work effectively with the instruments you have available in your church, as opposed to your mental ‘dream team’ (whether that be a classic rock combo or a chamber orchestra)? From recent personal experience, I’d say that finding a way to combine bassoon, descant recorder and djembe drum in worship at my own church could substitute for any number of initiative tests, team building exercises and fervent times of prayer for unity that I’ve been subjected to in my life thus far!

(For the curious, the instrumental combination above had a decidedly medieval flavour which worked really well for ‘Jesus Christ is waiting’ from Common Ground, but didn’t quite gel on a Graham Kendrick song – discreet chuckles were heard from the congregation…)

As ever, I don’t claim to be all-knowing on this topic and so have drawn on the wisdom of Rev Dr Robin Hill of Gladsmuir linked with Longniddry Churches in East Lothian. A keen musician himself, he encourages players of all ages and abilities to contribute to worship. Here are a couple of good tips from him!

  • Simple is best. If you have a number of melody instruments there is no harm in having several people playing the tune, as unison melody sounds good with different timbres of sound such as clarinet, violin and flute. As long as you have a pianist or guitarist providing some harmony this works fine. It is actually quite a lot of work for someone even to transpose melody for instruments that don’t play in C, so writing out lots of harmonies is not always practical. [That said, purchasing a music notation package for your computer will make it much, much easier to do new things. Why not branch out and use alto, tenor and bass lines across appropriate instruments, or else experiment with your own counter-melodies, fills and decant lines? It may seem tricky at first, but it is really worth the effort to become more adventurous. Nothing ventured, nothing gained! – Ed]
  • Play to people’s strengths. If your players are mostly formally/classically trained, they may be most comfortable playing arranged pieces and hymns with ‘proper’ music. If you have musicians who play by ear on more modern instruments, they will shine on contemporary songs. You don’t have to use your players for everything – let them do what they’re best at and maybe have the organist play hymns or a good solo guitarist do choruses.

If a neighbouring church has a different kind of band to you, get together for a praise night where everyone can learn from, and be inspired by, each other’s different sounds. [See Robin Hill’s blog from 12 October which was originally published in the second issue (Martinmas 2008) of Different Voices magazine – Ed]

Backing up what Robin said from my own experience, it’s possible to produce surprisingly pleasing results with rather sparse or odd instrumental forces provided you follow a few simple rules:

1. Match the style of the music chosen to the instruments you have

Assuming you have some ‘say’ over what music is chosen week by week, think broadly about the sound your combination of instrument makes and what genre or style it evokes. If you have a competent pianist or guitarist you are well placed whatever else is there, as these instruments act as a kind of sonic ‘glue’ that can hold quite diverse tones together. Here are some examples:

Acoustic guitar, 2 flutes, clarinet. Suits classic choruses and hymns (make sure the guitarist has useable chords written out for hymns), and reflective songs – especially if the guitarist can finger-pick as well as strum. This combination can also produce a ‘folky’ rhythmic sound with Eastern European overtones if the players have good rhythm and are perhaps able to improvise a bit (e.g. ‘You shall go out with joy’). They may struggle with rock-style praise songs (e.g. ‘Lord, I lift your Name on high’) if the guitarist is not a confident and rhythmic leader, but perhaps one of the woodwind players could play hand percussion instead to provide more rhythm. A simple shaker can work wonders here!

Piano, violin, drum kit, electric guitar. Quite versatile, as you have good rhythm and harmony potential plus a melody line from the violin. Most worship music from rock/pop style through to contemplative Taizé or ‘Celtic’ should be playable. For the latter, the guitarist should use a subtle, sustained tone and the drummer should drop the driving beats and give a simpler accompaniment of soft beaters on one cymbal, or switch to hand percussion. Hymns could be trickier, but not impossible if the guitarist can make the chords fit well with the piano line, and the drummer takes a more ‘orchestral’ approach! It slightly depends on how musically open-minded your congregation is…

Alto saxophone, 2 descant recorders, ‘cello. Aha, we like a challenge! Harmonically I’d treat this as almost a classical ‘quartet’ where the recorders take the melody line and possibly a descant (higher harmony part), the alto sax follows a lower harmony line and the ‘cello fills in a bass or tenor line. Style-wise I think this grouping could manage hymns and any other worship song where it is possible to divide the music into clear parts, perhaps following the different vocal harmonies. However, the leader would need to plan carefully so that each player had parts in ‘their’ key, as this would not be automatically available from most music books. I don’t think this combination would work that well for rhythm-dependent praise songs.

2. Try to ensure that melody, harmony and rhythmic elements are all included

It is quite common to have your balance in favour of instruments that are traditionally seen as ‘melody’ players, such as recorder, flute, violin etc. As Robin mentioned, there is no harm in having several people on the tune, but if some who play at concert pitch are able to follow vocal harmony lines from a song book, this is a quick way to get different parts on the go. Piano and/or guitar (whether acoustic, electric or bass) can fulfil the need for rhythm and ‘beat’ without a drummer. If these are not available invest in a small selection of hand percussion instruments, such as shakers and deeper-sounding hand drums. Run an informal workshop session to train up some of your players to take turns on this important, and easily achievable, element of a church music ensemble.

NB: Make sure you have a confident and clearly audible player on the melody line at all times – usually an instrument that plays in the ‘singing’ range such as violin, recorder or flute, or your pianist’s right hand. The congregation might be confused by trying to sing along with a bassoon on the tune, if the higher-sounding instruments are all blasting away on harmonies.

3. Make sure the players are confident in what they are doing, so as to give a secure ‘lead’

I have a feeling I’ve said this more than once before in previous articles… but this is such a key point. You really can get away with almost anything if it’s done with conviction, decent tuning and timing, and a degree of sensitivity. An unexpected combination of players can be a breath of fresh air in worship music, but an ‘unusual’ ensemble is going to have to devote a bit more time to planning and practising than a standard grouping like a string quartet, choir or rock band. This is because it won’t always be immediately obvious what parts to play/sing and who should take which roles.

A few no-brainers:

  • Always rehearse what the introduction to the song will be, and consider from the congregation’s viewpoint if you are giving a clear ‘lead’ into the song.
  • Make sure the instruments are balanced in volume. This may require use of amplification if you have quiet and loud instruments together, such as clarsach (harp) and trumpet.
  • There needs to be a music leader – they may be playing or not, but the main thing is that everyone looks to them to provide starts, endings, speed indications and any other instructions that might be required such as ‘one more time’ or ‘singers only’.
  • Don’t attempt the impossible. Driving rock-praise is never going to ‘fly’ if all you have is a penny whistle and a beginner guitarist. Try a song with a traditional tune instead. A sombre Scottish hymn will lack gravitas if attempted by banjo and harmonica (though ‘bluegrass’ praise music is another matter!)

If you have any further questions about training or resourcing worship leaders and teams, you can contact Phill Mellstrom who is the Worship Development Worker for the Church of Scotland.

Suzanne has been madly in love with music since she was old enough to remember. Early music training involved singing along with Mozart arias, Joni Mitchell and Queen from her parent’s collection (LP’s and cassettes – that dates her a bit), and recorder lessons aged 6 from a next door neighbour. Her early efforts playing violin in church were not only tolerated but encouraged by a kindly music leader, and this encouragement set her on a path towards a music degree from Edinburgh University, a wide range of professional music work including singing, fiddling, song writing and event leading, and a long-term career with Edinburgh music charity Fischy Music. She is a passionate believer in singing for emotional, social and spiritual health. She has two children, a husband and a whippet and lives in East Lothian.

This article was first posted on the Different Voices blog (link is external) on 21 October 2015.