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Building a Band: Putting together people, players, and parts

Some years ago, I was leading a Master Class workshop at a local church with some of the LOFT gang. We arrived to discover that the church’s “band” was a rather odd assemblage of musical talent. Accompanying the vocalists was an electronic keyboard. And a piano. And an organ. I listened to a couple songs, and then asked, “Are you all playing the same music, the same notes?” When they responded affirmatively, I blurted out, “Well, stop it! Don’t do that any more! You’re stepping all over each other’s sonic toes!”

It wasn’t my most articulate moment of the night. I wish I could have said something more helpful. (Or at least more gentle!) Churches try to make do with the talent they have, and the Beatles-esque classic rock ensemble—two guitars, a bass and a drum set—isn’t right for every church. But some configurations really don’t work well for worship. Why is this? And which ones do?

Since that encounter, I’ve begun asking others these questions and collecting their wisdom. Of course there aren’t any federal or ecclesiastical laws governing such things. But I have gathered a small group of do’s and don’ts based on those conversations and on my own experience at LOFT. What follows is by no means exhaustive (for instance, it doesn’t even touch on personality issues), but it does highlight a few principles I hope will be helpful to the fledgling worship band.

Do’s and Don’ts

Don’t be too big. Neither the band as a whole or any individual in it (drummers and vocalists, pay attention) should play or sing so imposingly that the congregation’s participation is superfluous.

Do calibrate the band to the situation. Consider the size of the sanctuary, the congregation, and the liturgical purpose of the song you’re leading. One common response to a shy congregation is to add another guitar or turn up the band. But the counterintuitive answer is more often the right one: turn it down. For example, many sanctuaries are too small to properly accommodate a full drum set. The congregation is easily overwhelmed. Instead, explore the percussive possibilities of piano, guitar, or hand percussion (start with a djembe, claves, and an egg shaker; for more on percussion instruments see RW 69, p. 37). After all, the band’s primary purpose is to invite and support the congregation’s participation, and then to step back.

  • The principle here is hospitality.

Don’t add instruments to the band just because you can. A willing volunteer or an instrument’s fashionability (“It isn’t a real band without a resonator guitar/deck/drum set/my favorite musical gizmo”) isn’t a good basis for worshipful music-making.

Do create a core band that consistently provides the basics. Musically, the three things a congregation needs most to sing well are a discernable melody, a steady tempo, and a clear bass line. A well-played piano does all three quite easily. An acoustic guitar, on the other hand, offers only rhythm and harmony. However, let the guitarist sing (or add another soprano instrument on melody), and plug in the crucially important bass guitar, and you’re all set. To be fair, an accomplished guitarist can attend to a moving bass line. Still, it could be better to have an autoharp, a trombone, and lone organ voice than to present the congregation with a leaderless and bass-less band with a drum set and four acoustic guitars all played in first position. When you supplement the core band additional instruments, do so for purposes of texture and color, not mass and volume. Get your band into the habit of thinking “less is more.” No one is getting paid by the note.

  • The principles here are clarity, consistency, and simplicity.

Don’t try to do everything. Each member of the band is just one part of a larger effort.

Do listen carefully to what else is going on and then have players create only one piece of the overall sound. This is an especially difficult lesson to learn for folk guitarists and organists who are used to providing all the musical leadership, and using all ten fingers (and toes!). They need to play more simply—or sometimes not at all. As John Milton wrote, “they also serve who only stand and wait.” It’s possible for three players on keyboard, piano, and organ to put together a decent band—but one of them will be playing a single line, and another playing with just one hand, in under-used registers.

  • The principle here is community. This principle holds on larger scales, too: the band offers their musical gifts as part of the larger congregation’s weekly worship. It’s not a show or a competition. We each do our part. Likewise, each congregation —as a part of the body of Christ—offers its praise and lament to God as a single part of that great worship offered by the whole world throughout all time.