Tapping Instrumental Talent

How to recruit and encourage volunteers

Picture this. The minister has just read Psalm 150, a wonderful, inspiring psalm of praise that mentions many of the brass, woodwind, string, and percussion instruments we can use to praise God. "Let everything that has breath, praise the Lord," he concludes, "Praise the Lord." For a moment you can imagine it—the front of your church filled with musicians praising the Lord. But then you remember how difficult it is to find even one or two members of your congregation who are willing to play their instruments in a worship service. Your enthusiasm begins to fade.

What you are left with are the same questions that music directors and worship committees in thousands of other churches struggle with: How do we get our church members to use their instrumental talents? How can we remove the dust that covers the case of a once well-used trumpet?

Let me share the story of Ross Nykamp, a thirty-year-old church member at Christ Memorial Church in Holland, Michigan—a man with a beautiful smile and love for Jesus Christ.

For our Christmas service I wanted a brass quartet. From an Instrumental Talent Survey (see box on page 32), I discovered that Ross had played cornet in junior and senior high school but not since that time. However, he was more than willing to try playing second trumpet to accompany an anthem ("While By My Sheep" by Linda Spevacek, Jenson Publications, Inc. #437-23024, SATB Two Trumpets, Two Trombones).

Practicing well in advance of the December 24th services, Ross did a fantastic job of bringing to life his past skills. Afterward he sent a note to me, expressing how much he enjoyed using his talent for Christ's glorification. The experience, he said, had given his Christmas celebration new meaning.

Well, around Easter I called on Ross again. This time I asked him to serve as the middle member in a difficult trumpet trio entitled "Fanfare and Chorus" (by Dietrich Buxtehude, Robert King Music Company #513, three trumpets and organ). Again he agreed, and on Easter morning the trumpets led us in a wonderful celebration of praise to the living Christ.

Men and women like Ross—hidden musicians—are part of nearly every congregation—they just need to be discovered and encouraged to reclaim their instruments from the attic.

Use of Beginning Instrumentalists

Another source of instrumental talent in most of our congregations is the young muscians who are often passed over because they're "not quite good enough to play in church."

I believe that no service should become so "professional" musically that freshness, spontaneity, and spiritual enthusiasm are not fostered or allowed to happen. I enjoy and see a need for a family of God to use an eclectic approach to music in worship.

Allow me to suggest an exciting way to use budding ministers of music. Our evening services begin at 6:00 P.M. with organ, piano, or both as a prelude. By attending local school concerts and recitals or by talking to parents and music teachers, you can become aware of many pianists and instrumentalists who have learned selections appropriate for worship. Schedule them to play as a featured prelude or for the offertory.

In my opinion, there is no better supportive, nurturing, loving, or sympathetic community than the body of Christ. At Christ Memorial Church our young people find fertile soil in which to take root to grow musically, spiritually, and enthusiastically. If mistakes are made or memory lapses occur, our young people must learn and know that the unconditional love of Christ is practiced and not just preached at Christ Memorial. Recently a young instrumentalist had a problem with her double reed and her nerves; because a few of her notes were not audible, this girl felt like a failure. Even though I assured her that the two selections sounded fine to our ears, she didn't feel good about sharing her music—not until a man who played a similar instrument wrote to her, encouraging her with descriptions of his own frustrating performances when he was younger. Instead of being just nice "special music," this music became a ministry to this man and girl, plus a real boost to another girl who said, "If she can play in church, then so can I."

How do we develop an instrumental music ministry? By encouraging our young people to use their talents now, not when they've become "perfect." God can and does use all the talents in any size church.


I may have a master's degree in music education, teaching experience, and the ability to play and sing myself, but it is my spiritual gift of enthusiasm that allows me to get others excited about music ministry. It is this gift of enthusiasm that Christ uses to arouse new and latent talent in young and old.

Allow me to quote Lyle Schaller from The Parish Paper (Napierville, IL, February 1989): "Every good training program for volunteers has two critical ingredients. One is to help improve the level of competence of every participant. A second is to enhance the self-confidence of every volunteer."

The difference in the levels of difficulty of the music Ross played on Christmas and on Easter was enormous. But, thanks to his Christmas success, Ross had more confidence in himself as a musician. He was able to tackle and perform the difficult Easter piece. In early June we assembled twenty-one brass players, ranging from age twelve to forty-five, for our annual Stadium Service. Playing outdoors isn't easy, and since my training is in vocal music, I had many apprehensions about conducting such a large group of instrumentalists.

Six weeks before the event, I mailed five hymn tunes and a cover letter to twenty-three possible brass players. We contacted them the following week by telephone for their response. Twenty-one musicians agreed to meet on Sunday afternoon one week before the Stadium Service for an hour.

Some neat things happened at that rehearsal. A sixth-grade saxophone player was struggling with a difficult part. He was seated next to Thorn, a band and French Horn instructor. Thorn noticed the struggle, quietly asked for score paper, and wrote out an easier part. That made my day! God really answers prayer in strange ways. Thorn also helped by designing an excellent seating plan for the Stadium Brass and volunteered to bring his tuner to tune each instrument.

Imagine the joy I felt as the Stadium Brass lifted their instruments in praise to Almighty God on that beautiful June Sunday. Tremendous!

Admittedly, I serve a large church and have uncovered more talent than you might find in many small churches. But the size of a church doesn't necessarily reflect the extent of its talent. Both small and large churches have members who have attended or are attending schools with band programs and are willing to participate. Small churches may have to go into the community more often to supplement their congregational talent, but that brings about its own blessings and opportunities.

Actually, the more difficult question concerns the music leader. I am employed by the church and encouraged to minister in the congregation and community by means of instrumental music. A volunteer music leader may find that some of the procedures I've suggested are too time-consuming. If so, I'd encourage you to adapt them to your own situation. But do begin to uncover some of the talent that is going unnoticed in your congregation.

The following scenarios will give you an idea of how I plan and prepare with volunteer instrumentalists in our church.

Scenario A

Putting together a brass quartet (two trumpets or cornets and two trombones, or substitute a French horn for one trombone)

  • Problem: You know only one good trumpet player and one good trombone player.
  • Solution: Find one trumpet and trombone player from the community to complement your two church members and pay them for their practice and performance. Pay varies from community to community so ask the musicians at the onset for their fee, or set an honorarium that your budget can afford.
  • Question: Do you pay church member instrumentalists?
  • Answer: No.
  • Explanation: Again, let me quote Lyle Schaller from The Parish Paper, February 1989 (The Parish Paper, 530 North Brainard Street, Naperville, IL 60540):

    "The good staff person recognizes the need for a more complex and redundant reward system for volunteers. These rewards include words of affirmation, the sense of satisfaction that comes with completion of this task, perhaps a hug, recognition in the church newsletter or from the pulpit, learning a new skill, meeting and making new friends, laughter, fatigue, the sense of making a significant effort to help advance a worthy cause, a response to God's love and the call to reflect that love by serving one's neighbor, the satisfaction that is produced by feeling needed and useful, a desire to express one's faith through words, self-fulfillment, greater acceptance in that community (salvation is by faith, but assimilation often is by works), fulfill-ment of a sense of duty or obligation, and occasionally, just plain fun."

    I always try to follow up the completed performance with a handwritten personal note to each of the instrumentalists, thanking him or her for sacrificing time and talent— for being willing to serve and praise through music.

  • Problem: Putting ensembles like this together requires much organization and lead time.
  • Example: Give the music to the instrumentalists three months in advance. Everyone's time is limited, so usually one rehearsal of thirty to forty-five minutes for semi-professional, competent musicians is adequate. Reminder: Brass players' embouchures tire quickly so don't overdo the rehearsal. I have found that practicing for thirty minutes prior to choir rehearsal and then fifteen minutes at the beginning of that rehearsal is sufficient.

    Pay close attention to the difficulty level of anthems and hymns. Choose an anthem in which the brass act as an interlude or even play an entire section by themselves rather than accompanying, and possibly drowning out, the choir. I want instruments to enhance, not obliterate, the musical message.

  • Idea: Drew Kaptur of Hope Reformed Church, South Haven, Michigan, suggests softening the brass by asking the musicians to play directly into their stands.
Scenario B

Preparing "Jesus Child," a rapid-paced complete SATB setting of the Christmas story that demands superb diction (Oxford University Press; #84.244; John Rutter; SATB)

  • Idea: To enhance the rich harmonies and Spanish flavor of the rhythm, purchase the woodwind/percussion accompaniment by John Rutter. It's fun and not too demanding. Also survey the congregation (see box on following page) to find what instrumentation already exists. I chose this route since I had a friend who could orchestrate.

    From the instrumental surveys I discovered two sophomore high school flutists, two clarinetists (one a mom who hadn't played for many years), and two percussionists (one who could play an intricate clave pattern and one who could handle the maracas). I worked with the flutists alone (one rehearsal of forty-five minutes) and percussionists and clarinetists (forty-five minutes) in separate rehearsals. The next week all six musicians rehearsed with organ prior to the regular choir rehearsal.

  • Result: An excitement that God's children, both playing and singing, could be so blessed and become such a blessing to the congregation.
  • Problem: Finding space for these six musicians, the brass quartet, and eighty singers.
  • Solution: Set music stands without chairs in the aisles. Have the instrumentalists either enter the sanctuary only when they are to play or sit in reserved congregational pews.
Scenario C

Preparing "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" (Shawnee Press, Inc.; A-28; Roy Ringwald; SATB)

  • Idea: To use this stirring anthem on Memorial Sunday with instruments and organ. The music is printed for organ accompaniment, piano duet, or both. The full orchestral accompaniment is too much sound for our choir of eighty.
  • Solution: Order the string and percussion parts only and have the organ play from the solo organ score (Shawnee Press; Inc.; LB-25; Roy Ringwald; accompaniment transcribed for organ by Charles H. Webb, Jr.).
  • Recruitment: Holland Public and Christian Schools are blessed with wonderful instrumental instructors. Early in September I used a string quartet of sophomores and juniors, all Christ Memorial church members, to play the prelude and offertory. Wanting a fuller string orchestra, I checked orchestra rosters of the area high schools and local junior symphony, and went over the September instrumental talent survey response cards that I keep on file. In a large church it is easy to miss people. You must have an open ear to comments like, "Did you know so-and-so plays the violin?" and then follow up! I find it necessary to carry a date book all the time, jotting down names of suggested instrumentalists.

    Next, I sent music for the prelude ("I Love Thy Kingdom, Lord"; (Fred Bock Music Company; #BG50003; Betsy Read; Violin I, Violin II, Viola, Cello), "Battle Hymn" anthem (listed earlier), and opening hymn to all nineteen possible string players, and two bass drum/cymbal and snare drum percussionists. Enclosed with the music was a cover letter, saying I would be calling in one week's time to see if they could come to the three services on that particular Sunday. Small churches with only one morning service have a distinct advantage at this point. Although these smaller congregations may not have as many instrumentalists, they won't have to stretch the players quite as far. Only one rehearsal of sixty minutes prior to the choir rehearsal and another fifteen minutes combined with the choir was necessary as long as each player practiced in advance.

  • Results: 16 strings (10 violins, 2 violas, 4 cellos) and 2 percussionists! WOW! What excitement and blessing we all experienced being "one in the Spirit" at the three morning services.

Other Instrumental Resources

  • "Play a Song of Christmas"; Theodore Presser Company; Ruth L. Zimmerman; all orchestra and band instruments
  • Great Hymns of the Faith; Singspira-tion/Zondervan Corporation; Harold De Cou; all orchestra and band instruments.

Istrumental Talent Survey

Please fill in this survey card and place in the offering plate._______
School Grade_________Adult_________
Taking Lessons?Yes________no_______
How long have you been taking lessons?___________
How long have you been playing your instrument?____________

John S. Bright is minister of music at Christ Memorial Church in Holland, Michigan.


Reformed Worship 14 © December 1989 Worship Ministries of the Christian Reformed Church. Used by permission.