Two’s Company

This article was first published in the Different Voices magazine.

DSC02886If your church praise band is looking to broaden its musical horizons, take the advice of Robin Hill and get out a little more.

There is much to be said for gifted praise bands. They add a new dimension to our worship of God. They encourage young people both musically and in terms of congregational involvement. And – let’s not forget it – they are just a whole lot of fun.

One problem faced by some bands, however, is the scourge of the familiar. Is there nothing new under the sun when it comes to leading praise that is innovative or inventive?

Solutions to this problem lie in the imagination of ministers, worship leaders, church musicians and band members. But, if your music group is still struggling to overcome the over-familiar, why not branch out and see how other congregations handle their weekly diet of hymns? In my experience, the investment of a little time, effort and risk can pay real dividends in terms of fresh ideas and new possibilities in worship.

Several years ago, while a probationer at Queensferry Parish Church, I greatly enjoyed working with the congregation’s long-standing and very talented praise band. This comprised a loose affiliation of amplified guitars, electric keyboards, and a smattering of strings and brass. A fun-loving bunch of ad hoc buskers, they kept us ministers on our toes week by week: skilled musicians who were passionate in their commitment, professional in their performance and – more often than not – a wee bit heavy on the volume.

On being ordained to the East Lothian charge of Gladsmuir and Longniddry, I found to my delight that one of the congregations had a band of its own. Interestingly, however, the Longniddry line-up was markedly different from the Queensferry experience, with lots of clarinets, several flutes, saxes and recorders, a couple of classical guitars, one piano and a drum kit. This gifted grouping was heavily dependent on sheet music and showed the kind of musical deference often found among school-trained musicians. Nevertheless, the largely unison sound they produced week by week was very, very sweet.

What, I wondered, would it be like to combine these disparate groups? The Queensferriers could be counted on to provide the body and soul of the harmonies, while the Longniddrionians could overlay that foundation with a pretty effective melody line. The combinations seemed limitless, but would it all work well in the context of worship? That was a question which could only be answered through experience.

Thankfully, both congregations were quick to take up the challenge. Group co-ordinators and ministers made initial email contact to discuss dates and set a venue for our first praise night. Then, all band members were given details of the service at our East Lothian building. Finally, each church put in four bids for hymns or songs which they had found to be special, successful or just plain enjoyable in worship.

Once the easy bit had been settled, the hard work began, with organists and musical directors in the two churches having to learn the other’s choices in no time flat, transcribing music and arranging it for C, B-flat and E-flat instruments (no mean feat!).

A variety of hymn books was used for the programme of songs, and it proved quite enlightening to discover the favourites of each set of musicians. Some little-sung and long-forgotten numbers were unearthed, while newer items, imported from across the Atlantic, were incorporated in fear and trembling.

Longniddry’s practice nights leading up to the big day were fascinating, as we tried our best to come to terms with some Queensferry choices which were totally new to us. Were we playing as they would play? Were we too slow? Too fast? Too loud? Too soft? Could this strange selection possibly be alright on the night?

At our one and only joint rehearsal before that Sunday evening’s service, we were all struck by the size of the group which struggled to find space on the chancel. This was less a praise band and more an orchestral experiment, swathed in flexes and cables, interspersed with wobbly music stands and half-drunk water bottles.

Understandably, everyone was a little nervous about getting under way, yet when we heard for the first time our unlikely combination of instruments and voices, it was clear that we had stumbled upon something special. Yes, there was volume, and plenty of it, but we also found a surprisingly subtle balance, in which each musician could afford to relax, enjoying the part they were playing along with those of the others.

On the night, the addition of a congregation in good voice completed the musical picture. Equipped with PowerPoint projection of hymns, everyone was able to sing up and sing out very effectively. And as a band we were making a joyful noise, helping, we hoped, the assembled worshippers to enjoy their praise of God.

So much for the home leg. When it came to the return match some six months later, the roles were reversed, with Queensferry playing host to Longniddry, and a new selection of songs being called upon.

Once again, we found an afternoon run-through of the order of the service was about enough to get us in the mood for playing (as well as being in the mood for the considerable buffet prepared for us by our pals).

It was good to see so many old friends in the congregation that night, gathering for a service which promised to be a little different. Our songs were interspersed with readings and reflections, plus the occasional witty aside from this band member or that minister. The atmosphere may have been light, but a profound sense of worship was never far away. By the end of the evening, all agreed that they had been part of a service which had worked on several levels: in terms of music; in terms of organisation; but, most of all, in terms of praise.

What have we learned from this venture into the world of the ecclesiastical big band? At least one important lesson has come out of our joint services: for us, working together achieves so much more than making music on our own. I am sure that our to-ing and fro-ing along the Firth of Forth, between the bridges and the mouth of the river, has taught us that there is always room for us to be inspired by what others are doing in their divine worship.

And as for the praise nights, they will certainly become a regular fixture in the congregational calendar!

Some more thoughts to consider:

How do you team up with other church bands?

Find a band member with friends in another group: if you want to branch out, hopefully they will too.

Check out the compatibility of your instruments: 43 electric guitars and a euphonium may not be the ideal combination!

Give yourself plenty of time, both at the planning stages and on the day: there’s no point rushing into it.

Be adventurous in your music choices: make that special service really special by pushing the musical boat out a bit.

Soon after the event, make sure you set a date for your next joint venture: don’t dare lose that momentum.

This is the worship of God, so just enjoy the whole experience.

Robin Hill is minister of Gladsmuir linked with Longniddry in the Presbytery of Lothian. He is a member of the Church of Scotland’s Music Group.