One of the most common problems I experience with many people on my worship teams over the years is that they often don’t know how to sing or play for the music. Instead of adapting to the style of the music being presented, they bring too much of their own tastes to the picture.
It would be akin to trying out for a heavy metal band as their new lead guitarist but bringing only an acoustic because you like acoustic guitar better. Or imagine bringing that heavy metal electric guitar, and 100 watt Mesa Boogie stack, to the traditional service to play along with the pipe organ instead of to that rock band audition. But Christ calls us to get ourselves out of the way…..
Don’t get me wrong. Bela Fleck is a well-known jazz banjo player. But jazz banjo is an innovative novelty that isn’t for everyone. Unless your church has called you to be extremely innovative and has decided to target a niche group of people, singing operatic on that Elevation Song is just going to sound out of place and out of touch. Playing flutes or oboes or tubas to Hillsong Young & Free just doesn’t fit the genre. If your church is trying to program Hillsong Y&F to reach young people, that is a sure way to fail in most cases.
When I visit a church that demonstrates being out of touch with music styles, I’m not so shallow as to head for the door because of music preferences in such a situation. Instead, I’m more likely to head to the door because this is a cue to me that their preaching and ministries will likely suffer the same problem coming from the same ‘roots’. I have found this correlation to be true in my personal observations time and time again.
This isn’t an indictment of any musical styles or instruments. This isn’t about what we might like. It’s about what best serves the style of the music. And the style of music should serve WHO you are trying to reach. At a deeper level, it’s about making ourselves smaller so that we can see, and in the sense of music and God’s word, HEAR clearly.
Have you ever noticed that if you walk into most sportsmen big box stores, they are probably playing country music? Have you ever Youtubed Monster Truck shows (our three year old grandson loves Monster Trucks so I have experience here) and noticed that they usually have hard rock/heavy metal music in the background to support the action? Have you noticed that the muzak played at a Starbucks is very much on the opposite spectrum and is more likely to be jazz, acoustic or perhaps world music?
Music is more than just tastes and preferences. While it can be reduced to that, and it is reduced to that when it is only used to entertain, music that supports providing the experience of shopping or tells the story of a movie or TV series, is chosen to communicate a message. And as worship leaders and worship musicians, we have the greatest message to carry!
I would encourage worship leaders and musicians to listen to ‘cultural cues’, and learn how to get themselves out of the way, to learn how to play for the music. If you have Pandora, Spotify or Youtube, play the latest contemporary worship music. If you listen closely, you should notice lots of shimmery, pad like sounds coming out of keyboards & electric guitars. You should notice that vibrato if used at all, is sung moderately. Dynamics are king. Certain instruments ‘shine’ in modern worship music like the synth, electric and acoustic guitars, bass and drums, while many many other great instruments are mostly absent.
Even the way the instruments are played and vocals are sung, drives and helps define the style. Vocalists enunciate syllables differently in contemporary than they do in classical. Harmonies are used in more moderation than when compared to barbershop or even country genres. Most the time, rock band instruments are playing more as if they are in an orchestra, with parts being small so that the whole can be bigger. Keyboards use a lot of shimmery pad sounds, pianos (sometimes layered with pads), organs (rock or blues), strings and analog synth sounds. Jazz electric pianos are rarely if ever used. Electric guitars go down the shimmer route to for clean tones by liberally using delays and reverbs. Dirt tones for electric guitars tend to use overdrive pedals to keep them warmer and away from the distortions found in heavy metal/hard rock territory.
I find that if someone struggles to take cues from musical genres, they most likely also struggle to do the same in other more important areas of life. Struggling to get themselves out of the way, they can lose the power to influence people for Christ, be at a higher risk for conflicts which produce drama in their lives and risk isolating themselves socially.
If one can learn how to ‘play for the song’ as a musician, one can also learn to ‘meet people where they are’ in the broader scheme of life and learn to better live according to their calling by capitalizing on their strengths and compensating for their weaknesses. Doing so transcends music, giving the ultimate purpose, allowing us not to simply make the music ‘better’ but live our lives for His kingdom.
Greg Jones is a musician, music teacher, worship leader and independent recording artist. On my site you find me sharing music instruction, with an emphasis on worship music and articles on worship leading.