Weekly Worship Thought – Top 5 Tips for Keyboard

The keyboard (both piano and organ varieties) ruled the worship music landscape for a long time. It still does in many places. However, over the last 50 years, the guitar has made itself at home in many churches, replacing keyboards as the lead instrument. Where does that leave the keyboard? Here are my top 5 tips for playing the keyboard in a worship band ensemble:

  1. Keep it simple. Do you notice the trend? The same rule applies to every instrument: less is more. When things get too busy there is no room for the song to develop. This is a chronic problem I notice from keyboard players. I guess having that many notes at your fingertips is tempting. Resist the urge to play busy parts. Occasionally force yourself to play with only one hand. Instead of playing chords all the time, try playing a simple counter-melody.
  2. Share the lead. Keyboardists are used to taking the lead. As a pianist or organist, they are used to setting the tempo, giving the downbeat, and helping the assembly sing together. Some of these skills are counterintuitive when playing as a member of a worship band ensemble. Sometimes the guitar or drums needs to push the song in order for it to sound right. This requires the keyboard to relinquish control over the tempo, feel, and sometimes even the tonal structure of the song.
  3. Explore the tones. If you’re playing a piano, I guess you’re stuck. But if you have an electronic keyboard or synth, don’t just stay on the piano sound. Try everything. There are virtually unlimited amounts of patches online. Make a list of the tones you think could have an application.
  4. Study B3. Every church keyboardist should know how to make the Hammond B3 organ sound good. It is the quintessential sound for many churches, and also the glue that holds together a lot of rock, blues, and jazz music. Get on YouTube and figure out how to make it work. Get a lesson from someone who knows.
  5. Deviate from the page. Rarely will you be able to play exactly what is written out for your keyboard part. If it is fully composed, you will probably have to simplify what you play to some extent (following tip 1 and 2). Or if all you have is a chord chart you can’t just play the changes on whole notes. Don’t be afraid to leave the page and create your own part.

Weekly Worship Thought – Top 5 Tips for Drums

Several years ago I fulfilled the dream of every musician. I bought a drum kit. Because every musician wishes they were as cool as the drummer.

I’ve had the chance to play with some amazing drummers in my musical journey. While I may not be the most proficient on drums, I can suggest a few things that make them sound better. Here are my top 5 tips for playing drums in worship:

  1. Keep it simple. Like I said, this really does apply to every instrument in the ensemble. If everyone dials back what they play there is room for the vocals (and thus the spiritual content of the song) to breathe. For drummers this primarily means simplifying the kick drum patterns. Less kick is more. You’d be surprised how often playing the kick on two and four is all a section of a song needs.
  2. Careful with the fills. Fills are tricky. You can’t leave them out. Fills occupy the transitional spaces of a song. They need to carry a song from section to section. On the other hand, fills can be overdone. A redundant fill is the worst. Too many fills are overkill. I suggest thoughtfully mapping out where fills will be used in a song. Think about how the fill helps with the transition during the song. Is it shifting down into a softer section? Is it heading to the beginning of a building section? The fill can set this up. Please – no tom rolls.
  3. Vary the cymbals. Change which cymbal you hit when you move to a different section of the song. If you’re playing high hat on the verse, don’t continue playing high hat (the same way) on the chorus. Switch to ride or open the high hat. Explore all the different ways that the cymbals can be used.
  4. Hit the drum. To get the best tone out of a drum, you have to hit it. A soft touch produces a wimpy tone. The drum doesn’t even have a chance to sound correct. Much depends on the room and how microphones are being used, which is why you have to…
  5. Use sensitivity. Hitting the drum properly to produce a good tone will cause problems. That is why they lock drummers in fish bowls. You have to know when to sacrifice tone for the greater good. That requires sensitivity (and a dose of humility). A good drummer notices all the sound levels. They know how loud the mains are, how loud the monitors are, and how the drums will need to be complimentary to all.

Weekly Worship Thought – Top 5 Tips for Bass Guitar

_dsc6429-800x533You might not know it, but when I first started leading worship in high school I played bass guitar. It is still my favorite instrument in a lot of ways. I enjoy every chance I get to play bass with a group. Here are my top 5 tips for playing the bass guitar in worship:

  1. Keep it simple. If you’ve ever played in a band with me, you’ve probably heard me say this many times. My critique is often that instruments play too much and play rhythms that are too complex. This is true of any instrument, but is especially true for the bass guitar. It doesn’t have to be complicated. There is no shame in staying on the root of the chord and letting the note sustain. The bass guitar is rarely the focus. Make room for the other instruments.
  2. Color the drums. The bass guitar is the harmonic foundation of the band. It does this work in tandem with the drums or percussion. I like to think of the bass guitar being the tonal coloring of the drums. So when the drummer plays the kick drum, giving the band a rhythmic foundation to build on, the bass guitar is providing the tonal color for the kick drum so that the rhythmic foundation now has pitch.
  3. Stand near the drummer. Because drums and bass guitar work in tandem, creating a hybrid harmonic/rhythmic foundation for the band, it makes sense that they should be in proximity to each other. But I often see them separated. Being close enough to visually cue each other is essential. Being close enough to “feel” the groove from each other is better.
  4. Use the middle of the neck. All the tone and sustain comes from the middle of the neck on the bass guitar. So instead of playing the note “A” using the open string, play it on the fifth fret of the E string.
  5. Finesse the notes. Every little detail matters. Give attention to how the notes are started and stopped. Plucking the string doesn’t have to be done so harshly. Let the amplification do the work – not your fingers. Do your notes buzz or sound rough? Make sure your finger is placed right against the fret of the note you’re playing. Work to smoothly transition from note to note, with no gaps between the pitches.

Weekly Worship Thought – Missing Something

4b2husoh_m0-zachrie-friesenI attended a funeral last week. It was not someone I knew, and it was held at a church I had not attended before. So, for better or worse, I entered the space with my worship detective hat on. I always like to see what other churches are up to and how they arrange their spaces for worship.

This was a modern church. Sometimes they get called “big box” churches (after the mega retail stores that look exactly the same everywhere). The building was a recent construction. All of the furnishings were new and up to date. On their website they say that you can expect:

  • a casual atmosphere
  • friendly people who’ll help you find your way around
  • today’s music and high-impact media
  • messages relevant to your daily life
  • clean, bright facility and kid’s classes

I guess those things are innocent enough. I can’t say that casual atmosphere and friendly people ever hurt anyone. I know all about these motives for ministry. The hurdle is set low for people who don’t understand church or don’t have a helpful experience of church. It is an easy facility to walk into and feel comfortable. It is disarming.

But that wasn’t exactly the experience I had at this funeral. Upon walking in the front door of the entryway I noticed the nice tile, updated signage telling me where things were, and heard familiar worship songs from everyone’s favorite Australian church gently cascading through the air. My spidey-church-sense was activated.

I peeked through the door into main worship space. And immediately I knew something was off. Something internally was not sitting right with me. I saw rows of chairs, a platform, drums and a keyboard, and very expensive lighting gear (motion lights and LED panels). The lighting was dimmed. There were 2 large screens at the front of the room (nothing being displayed on them). I turned back into the lobby area and tried to make sense of the uneasy feeling I had. What was missing?

After a few moments it hit me. The table. And then I identified the feeling. I had felt it before. It is this subconscious tug I feel every time I enter a space for worship and there is no table for God’s meal. Not only was the table missing, but also a cross, and a visible, accessible font. I realize there are different types of churches for different types of people. But my heart was heavy. And not because of the funeral. It was what was missing from the funeral.

How can we be comforted by God’s love without tasting the food that unites all people across time and space – the foretaste of the feast to come? In the desire to have an authentic experience in worship we can easily lose the most powerful signs and symbols we have of God’s presence.

Weekly Worship Thought – Breaking Down for Lent

breakingLent begins this year on March 1 with Ash Wednesday. I have begun to think about all the possibilities of our music and space for worship during the upcoming season. Lent is a time to reflect, to pause, to weigh the costs of discipleship, and to prayerfully prepare for marking time with Jesus’ death and resurrection.

In particular I am thinking about the music for worship in our gathered assemblies. What can be done musically to carry across the layers of meaning we find during the Lenten season? One idea I am exploring is breaking things down. In a musical sense, this means simplifying things. The simplicity of our instruments and ensembles can bring out the themes of Lent.

An article at WorshipLeader.com makes some suggestions for improving congregational singing that I think are helpful: I did not have my band play on every verse and chorus. Musical accompaniment has one major purpose: supporting congregational singing! The most important sound on Sunday morning is that of your congregation. Have the band stop playing occasionally and let the people hear each other. I promise they will sing louder and more heartily in response!” Breaking things down instrumentally and providing simplicity can help the assembly sing – a worthy goal regardless of the liturgical season!

Scott Weidler shared a tip for Lent in a recent ALCM email regarding unaccompanied singing: “Lenten simplifying may well mean singing some music without instrumental accompaniment. If this is new (and, perhaps, terrifying) to your congregation, Lent may be an appropriate time to introduce it. The human voice is the primary instrument given to us by God. Let’s find ways to amplify its centrality. Many settings of psalms, Lenten verses sung as the Gospel Acclamation, Sanctus, Lamb of God, and other music may appropriately be sung without accompaniment. If eliminating accompaniments completely is unrealistic, try to imagine how to minimize the instrumental leadership in order to maximize primacy of the human voice.”

Breaking things down can be done in many ways. It could be using acoustic instruments instead of electric instruments, hand percussion instead of full drum kit, or just using piano or unaccompanied singing. Try one of these ideas in your context.

Weekly Worship Thought – Cultivating Discipleship

rgypr4aysma-zbysiu-rodakBrothers and sisters, I could not speak to you as spiritual people, but rather as people of the flesh, as infants in Christ. I fed you with milk, not solid food, for you were not ready for solid food. Even now you are still not ready, for you are still of the flesh. For as long as there is jealousy and quarreling among you, are you not of the flesh, and behaving according to human inclinations? For when one says, “I belong to Paul,” and another, “I belong to Apollos,” are you not merely human?

What then is Apollos? What is Paul? Servants through whom you came to believe, as the Lord assigned to each. I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth. The one who plants and the one who waters have a common purpose, and each will receive wages according to the labor of each. For we are God’s servants, working together; you are God’s field, God’s building. (1 Corinthians 3:1-9)

Reflecting on the upcoming second reading for the Sixth Sunday after Epiphany, I think about the process of disciple making. The church in Corinth was getting a word of rebuke from brother Paul because of their lack of spiritual maturity. What was the sign of their immaturity? Dividing and separating themselves into factions. Not only were they splitting up based on which leader helped ignite their spiritual flame, they were also not treating each other with respect because of socio-economic differences (1 Corinthians 11:17-34). We might think we are so much farther down the path to maturity than the folks of Corinth were, but are we?

Then Paul gives this terrific agrarian image of what really happens in the process of discipleship. We are God’s field. Some people help plant us. Other people help water us. Some people make sure our soil is rich with fertilizer. Other people help prune us to ensure the best overall yield. Some people help us keep the pests away. God is everything else: the solar system, the earth, the seasons, the environment, and the atmosphere. Every bit of growth hinges on God. No growth is possible without God.

I cannot make a disciple. I can help cultivate discipleship in others.

I cannot be a disciple without others cultivating me.

Weekly Worship Thought – Counter-cultural Worship

You probably see the same things on social media that I see. Ever increasingly, when it comes time to compose the prayers of intercession for weekly worship, all I have to do is open Facebook to see what we should be lifting up in prayer. Disturbing posts like this have become all too common in my feed:

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According to Nairobi, one thing worship does is stand against the prevailing attitudes and assumptions of the culture when they don’t align with Jesus’ gospel.

14237698_10154491382356804_4811150322787948244_n“Worship calls us to alternative visions, questioning and critiquing culture. Praising God may be at odds with what the surrounding culture deems worthy of praise. Worship needs to challenge us to live into the freedom we receive in Christ, a freedom from all that defies God. The counter- cultural lens asks us to reflect upon what in worship does not look and sound like the cultures we take for granted.” (“Can We Talk?: Engaging Worship and Culture,” p. 3)

Worship at Faith this Sunday will be counter-cultural by having the assembly sing in 4 different languages (Shona, Arabic, Chinese, and English). Out of the 8 pieces of music that will be used in worship, only 1 was composed in the United States. The other 7 all come from different corners of the world.

God’s kingdom has no borders or official language, besides the language of love.

Weekly Worship Thought – Prayer for an Inauguration

GalileeLutheran_ELWAlmighty God, you have given us this good land as our heritage. Make us always remember your generosity and constantly do your will. Bless our land with honesty in the workplace, truth in education, and honor in daily life. Save us from violence, discord, and confusion; from pride and arrogance; and from every evil course of action. When times are prosperous, let our hearts be thankful; and, in troubled times, do not let our trust in you fail. We pray in the name of Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Evangelical Lutheran Worship, p. 77 (©2006 Augsburg Fortress)

Weekly Worship Thought – Silence

mv5bmjy3otk0nja2nv5bml5banbnxkftztgwntg3mjc2mdi-_v1_sy1000_cr006401000_al_I saw the film “Silence” last week. The new Martin Scorsese movie is getting a lot of buzz in the religious world. It raises many spiritual elements in a thought-provoking way: faith, doubt, iconography, apostasy, evangelism, and suffering to name a few.

I read the novel by Shusaku Endo (on which the movie is based) about five years ago. One of the most intriguing characters in the novel/movie is Kichijiro. He is the guide that the priests take back to Japan to show them the way. He ends up being the Judas-type character of the story. But the more I think about it, Kichijiro is like the church. As much as we whole-heartedly repent and turn to seek God, we just as earnestly jump back into our old ways. I’m reminded of the line from Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing: “Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it, prone to leave the God I love…”

This film has stuck with me. Most movies I see don’t leave much of an impact, but I find myself still reflecting on this one. I recommend it if you get the chance. This is not a popcorn and soda type of movie though. It is sobering and very artistically done.

Weekly Worship Thought – #LectioCast

lectiocastI stumbled across a new podcast this last week. LectioCast is part of the Homebrewed Christianity family and features commentary on the lectionary texts for each Sunday. The podcast is billed as a great tool for preachers that like to procrastinate!

The latest episodes that I caught included Danielle Shroyer, who I believe I heard speak at an emerging church event in Austin (probably a decade ago) in conjunction with the release of Robert Webber’s book “Listening to the Beliefs of Emerging Churches.

During a discussion of Jesus and the incarnational aspects of his life, one quote in particular stood out and I wanted to share: “Sin is the shallow answer. Solidarity is the deeper wisdom of what is happening on the cross.”