Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Music in Church (1) Thoughts for Band Leaders

The other day I was asked to give a few thoughts to the other guys who lead chapel bands here at college, and here is some of the more widely applicable stuff that I came up with...

1: Background
The band are serving God, so as band leaders, we are leading people in their service of God. We are, in fact, leading people who are serving God, who are leading people. So band leaders are leading a group of servants, or even serving a group of servants.

2: Foci for Band Leaders
There are two priorities, after which we can worry about all the fun & technical things we musicians like to play around with.

1 - Style
This covers both volume and speed, and the key with each is that it be appropriate to the words being sung, in the context within which they're being sung. Thus there is no one right speed or volume for a song, though there will be upper and lower boundaries. Rather the same song will demand a different tempo and dynamic if placed at a different point in a service. Consider singing 'God of Grace I Turn my Face' before or after confession. Obviously confession achieves something, so we would sing it much more confidently afterwards, celebrating what's just happened, whereas beforehand we might sing it penitently. Examples multiply, and it is the band leader's job to discern where we are in the service, and thus what is appropriate. Remember the speed called musicians' speed - at which the song is great fun to play and really hard to sing! Avoid it! Getting the speed & volume right is our first priority, since it best serves the needs of the congregation we're serving.

2 - Clarity
This covers introductions, entries and repeats, and the key is that it is easy for the congregation to follow what's being done with the song. First, the introduction must introduce, so that everyone knows the speed and comes in together; however fun anything else is, it isn't serving the needs of the people we're serving! The same thing applies in miniature to the gaps between verses, or after choruses, or wherever... And I'm all in favour of repeats - they seem a pretty biblical thing, particularly in songs (as even the briefest glance through the Psalter will vindicate) but they must be dictated by the words and/or consideration of where we are in the service, and have to be clearly led. Whatever's being done with the songs must be clear and easy to follow, so that the congregation are able to focus on Jesus, not on the musicians!

It is worth just highlighting one thing that binds these two observations together: the music must be subject to the words. We have the psalms' words, not scores, and (as I have said earlier, here) the music is a vehicle for the words, and as band leaders we have to be sensitive to this. the words define the speed, volume, and shape of a song (repeats etc...). Personally I think certain songs demand repeated sections. the most obvious to me is 'In Christ Alone' where the song can end very abruptly, and we can, as singers, miss the resolution we make. So I often repeat the second half of the last verse so that we can sing it again; during the last two lines that time through, the music will gently fade, as the congregation get to hear each other's declaration almost unaccompanied: 'here in the power of Christ I'll stand'. I think that works, I think it is what the words require... Again, examples multiply!

3: Practical Tips
What do I do in practice? These are some things I aim for:

1 - During the Practise
  • pray at the precise time you said the practice starts; that way you never drift into lateness (and our job's too important for that anyway) and never have to tell someone they're late - they know, because you've started!
  • try to be focussed; it isn't a jamming session, fun as that might be.
  • don't need to cover everything; this keeps the band on their toes!
  • work very hard at them watching you, getting them to check regularly throughout songs, and especially before repeats, new verses, etc...
  • don't worry about being directive: you are leading; obviously listen carefully, but the band is not a committee!
2 - Before the service
  • play for a few minutes before the service starts; no chatting at this point, no messing, nothing distracting - just set the tone a bit.
  • this is a good time to play a new song through, getting the tune into people's heads.
  • it might also be a good time to remind the congregation why they're there; pick a song to play that focuses on that.
3 - In the service
  • always be ready for the next song; set the music up after each ready for the next; this is service of the congregation, who might be distracted by long pauses (which are unnecessary anyway!).
  • if you have to stay up during other things, obviously be as un-distracting as possible.
4 - At the End
  • play something that fits the sermon / theme of the service / end-point; it is good to plan what you'll play, but often the preacher surprises me, and I have to change. People remember the last tune they hear, so this pick is pretty vital!
  • sometimes I'll play a new song here (that we've just learnt) if it fits the above, because then people remember it better.
  • thank the band, obviously.
4) Band Generalisations!
It seems to me generally true that the following characteristics hold. Apologies to those who consider this slander, but you'll probably recognise someone if not yourself...
  • Keys: we try to do it all; we don't need to! Listen to the rest of the band and get out of the way when you're not needed!
  • Drums: tend to be too loud, and tend not to be very good at setting speeds (though often great at keeping speeds once they're set).
  • Guitars: mix with keys is important; you're both playing at the same pitch, so need to coordinate carefully.
  • Bass: again, coordinate with keys; pianists often need to stick their left-hand in their pocket if they've got a good bass player!
  • Tune / solo instruments: don't all play at once (band leader needs to be directive here) and please please please don't play the tune - there's 100 people singing that already! Unless it is a new song, keep away from that, and play harmonies and fill the gaps when there's no singing - the ends of bars, the rests between verses, into choruses, and the like.
  • Vox: make sure you're particular focus is on leading in at the start of verses, choruses and especially repeats; this needs eye-contact with the congregation if at all possible: memorise the first few words, and look up! This might also mean good eye-contact with the band leader to check / confirm repeats and other things - but look to them early, otherwise you can't lead the congregation confidently.
5) And Finally
If you manage all that, you're doing a lot better than my average effort!

But failure hurts, and (particularly as musicians) we can feel it very keenly. This is where remembering the gospel is vital: we are saved by grace through faith, and our worth is defined at Calvary, where Christ decided to pay the price of his own blood to purchase us for eternity. No fluffed repeat or dodgy tempo can change that!


Blogger rach said...

Thanks Andrew, its really helpful to be able to read all this in the same place at the same time and be able to think it over as a whole.

12:29 pm, September 20, 2006  
Blogger james said...

Very helpful indeed - thanks Towner.

4:16 pm, September 22, 2006  

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