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Praising God with a Synthesizer

I saw a cartoon the other day that most church musicians would find amusing. It was a two-paneled drawing depicting the gateways into the afterlife. In the first, an angel greeted the new arrivals with "Welcome to heaven. Here's your harp." In the second, a devil carried out similar duties by saying, "Welcome to hell. Here's your accordian." That cartoon reflects what most musicians know—that opinions on what constitutes appropriate music and appropriate instrumentation for church music are highly charged.

The latest entry into this ongoing debate is the synthesizer, an amazing instrument that does what its name suggests: synthesizes sound. Have you ever tried to imagine what the psalmist had in mind when he called for praise to Yahweh with cymbals and high-sounding cymbals? Have you wondered about the sounds that came from David's lute or lyre and soothed the savage spirit of Saul? A synthesizer can make those sounds. How about a trumpet introit or a bell-and-chimes response? All of these sounds and more are available from the keyboard of a synthesizer.

In spite of the instrument's amazing potential, however, many church leaders remain skeptical about using a synthesizer in worship. I would imagine that's because most of us were introduced to synthesized music by "Switched On Bach" or "The Well-Tempered Synthesizer." And I would guess that many of us think that while the synthesizer presents an exciting oddity in musical possibilities, it is, by and large, simply a curiosity.

Whether we are aware of it or not, however, we are bombarded with synthesized sounds daily. Most of the music and sound we hear in advertising is not produced by a full, lush orchestra and a master sound-effects technician. These sounds come from synthesizers. So does the music of many soundtracks. And the contemporary music our young people listen to is overwhelmingly synthesizer-based. Rather than being a curiosity piece, it seems, the synthesizer has captured a place in the contemporary orchestrator's repertory—and deserves a place in many of our churches as well.

A "Gimmick" with Merit

Why should a church invest between five hundred and five thousand dollars in a keyboard that synthesizes sounds? Because synthesizers have a growing and permanent place in the music ministry of the church. The issue might better be stated like this: when presented with an instrument of such powerful potential, how should we respond? The answer of those in the Reformed tradition, it seems to me, must be, "Use this technology to the glory of God."

I understand that Soli Deo Gloria is often an overused phrase, a little expression that we pull out of the hat tojustify whatever ends we are interested in achieving. But I have faith in the judgment of those who live and respond out of a vital perspective that is semper reformanda. And I believe that we need to be far more intentional and aggressive in seeking to reclaim all the territory to which Christ Jesus has already laid claim. Why should Madison Avenue and the rock and rollers set the pace?

The second reason churches in our tradition should seriously consider synthesizers is a corollary to the first and a transition to practical considerations: a synthesizer enhances worship. I am grateful that the congregation for which I lead worship sings with great zeal. And I'm convinced that when we use the synthesizer, we sing even more enthusiastically. In many of our congregations, singing still represents the primary avenue of congregational response within the dialogue of worship. By enabling better singing, worship leaders are doing what they ought to be doing: enhancing the quality of worship in our congregations.

Practical reasons for using the synthesizer in worship include the following:

Reason 1. Any sanctuary that is graced with an organ that is not a pipe organ is in fact already using some sort of synthesizer. Electric and electronic organs are primitive versions of the synthesizer. Why not employ better technology with better results? Many of the pipe organ patches on my Yamaha DX7 are vastly superior to those on our electric sanctuary organ.

Reason 2 . Young people love the sound of a synthesizer. Keyboards are part of the milieu in which musically astute younger people operate.

Reason 3. The synthesizer is an effective "gimmick." Purists may insist that they never resort to gimmicks, but I confess I do. Many of my sermon illustrations are "gimmicks" that help drive home a point. When I first got a computer, I wrote programs that test my catechumens at the end of each quarter. It may be a gimmick, but the students still line up to sit at the keyboard and take their tests two or three times over. So I'm thankful for the gimmick, for a device that creates interest and enthusiasm.

Of course, the gimmick angle is far less apparent in employing a synthesizer, but the instrument does present possibilities for recruiting and training budding keyboardists to lead in the music ministry of worship. Furthermore, it could help Sunday evening attendance. If a time for praise is part of the evening liturgy, and the synthesizer will be used during that time, some people will make a point of attending simply to praise God with a synthesizer.

The Church and the Synthesizer

The synthesizer can play a valuable role both in worship and in other church activities. In worship, it can be used instead of, or in addition to, a piano, organ, or other instruments. Some churches employ the synthesizer for obbligato parts accompanying the organ. Those who know the hymn 'Tift High the Cross" as it is performed by Calvin College's choir on the album by that title have heard a brass ensemble play both an introduction and an obbligato part during the stanzas. For congregations who enjoy such a sound but do not have a brass ensemble waiting in the wings, a synthesizer may be the answer. Again, the emphasis is on enriching the congregational response of singing in the dialogue of worship. Since the use of obbligatos will greatly enhance worship, and since the synthesizer can play these parts, many congregations should seriously consider employing this instrument in worship.

Congregations who do not have an organ will quickly discover that it is also possible (and often desirable) to use the synthesizer alone. The sounds and combinations of sounds available on even an entry-level keyboard present options that simply aren't available on most organs. Two examples: The new Psalter Hymnal will include a new setting for "May the Grace of Christ Our Savior." The tune is based on an early American folk tune. To do justice to this setting I use a harpsichord patch layered over a rich string patch. The bass line of lines 1, 2, and 4 contain a sustained low G. The low strings that sustain the G serve as sort of a foundational, rich continuo over which the melody gets played and sung. The harpsichord provides a plucked, percussive sound that cuts through the rich texture of the strings and moves the melody along with a timbre that evokes the percussiveness of an early American banjo. These two sounds combine to present a fitting orchestration of both the words of the hymn and its American folk-musical roots.

The new genre of praise music seems to beg for synthesizer accompaniment. Our congregation has used "Glorify Thy Name," by Donna Adkins, as a response to the silent prayer. For this hymn of adoration I again use a layered sound—this time the strings with a Rhodes electric piano sound. Though it may sound contradictory, there is nothing more stirring, uplifting, and human than a pair of analogue oscillators producing a warm, lush string sound. The Rhodes patch again provides the percussiveness to cut through the thickness of the strings and to lead the congregation in moving the melody along.

These are just two examples of ways to use the synthesizer in worship. Many other possibilities exist. Sometimes we use it to provide chimes and bells at appropriate times in the liturgy, other times to enrich the offertory by playing one part of two-keyboard duet transcriptions of a classical piece. Oxford Press publishes such settings for many Bach and Handel pieces (e.g., we have done the "Horn Pipe" from Handel's Water Music and Bach's "Jesu").

The synthesizer has also proved useful in other church contexts. It provided thunder and lightning for our children's choir musical production of the Passion and Easter stories. And during our annual VBS program the synth provides sound effects and humor as background to the banter that goes on between our music director and our VBS leader. Trains, helicopters, growling villains and sweet-voiced heroines all make their appearance.

Finances

The technological advances that have lowered the price of computers have had a direct carryover into synthesizer technology. A good, serviceable synth— which is essentially a music computer —can be purchased for less than a thousand dollars. Two thousand dollars buys an uncompromising instrument with fuller sounds and advanced features.

Of course, the church must also consider the expense of the sound system needed to amplify the music of the synth. But, still, in comparison to even an electronic organ or a decent piano, the synthesizer is a bargain. If I were building a sanctuary from scratch, I would forego both a piano and an organ and purchase two synthesizers, pedals, and a quality sound system that includes a mixing board and microphones. This excellent system would provide both music and sound reinforcement for the pulpit area and could be purchased for less than six thousand dollars. I would advise church planters to seriously consider this flexible and economical option.

Technical Data

Just as one does not need to be a mechanic to drive a car, so it is not necessary to understand all the technology of a synthesizer in order to play one. Nevertheless, many church musicians are put off, or even intimidated, by technological considerations. I'm waiting for the manufacturer who will market a synth that is described and explained in terms familiar to church organists. But until that day comes, it may be helpful to become conversant with such terms as MIDI, sampling, analogue, digital, splits, layers, and patches.

I suggest three sources of information. First, check the local music store, For some strange reason it seems that traditional keyboard stores are less in tune with synthesizers than are dealers who cater to rock and rollers and professional musicians. So go to the latter. Don't be put off by the rock-and-roll atmosphere. Tell the salesperson what you have in mind and ask if he or she could set aside some time to introduce you to some products. If you are persistent enough, you will find someone who is sensitive to a church musician's needs. When you do, stick with that dealer and patronize him or her as much as possible. A good dealer will offer competitive prices and will serve as an invaluable, ongoing resource for information.

A second source for information is Keyboards, Computers, and Software magazine. This monthly periodical contains product reviews, technology updates, technique tips, and advertisements for books that provide introductions to synthesized music. Unfortunately, this source is also primarily rock-and-roll oriented, but patience will be rewarded.

A final source is the local charismatic superchurch. Many communities have such a phenomenon, and it's very probable that such a group uses synthesizers in worship. You'll discover that contact with this type of congregation is good for ecumenism—and you'll probably pick up a few pointers on praise in the process!

Through it all be patient, be persistent, and have fun. You'll discover that the synthesizer is a most worthy instrument—one that can help you and your congregation praise the Lord with music.