The rise and fall of the church musician

I spent two hours at church last night, after the Thursday service, and another three hours Friday morning, setting up the sound system for the Sunday service.   And I will be back at it again, tomorrow, until I am ready for the Sunday service.  It seems that Thursday night’s service did not go over so well.  This was supposed to be a praise service, a la the praise band and the choir, and soloists, and special music for the congregation.  Indeed, it was all in there.  And the church musicians tried their best.  But, alas, the whole thing came off with a decided limp.  You see, there were a lot of technical difficulties which left the whole thing feeling a little chaotic and not very worshipful.

It seems that church musicians have lost a little stature in the church.  Used to be, the organist cranked out all the music by him or herself, led all the congregational singing, and never left the bench.  Meanwhile, the choir director had the organist ready to accompany the choir if it was not singing a Capella.  So, basically, two musicians ran the show, which was quite low-tech.  Often, organist and choir director were one person, so the only coordination required was cuing the choir to stand and blowing the starting pitch.

Today, we want something else.  What that is, we are not quite sure.  But, artists are falling by the wayside, being pushed aside for a bevy of amateur music makers.  And all the artists are now asked to take a back seat to the engineers.  The new most important person in the church, next to the pastor (or sometimes over and above), is the audio technician, along with his trusty sidekick the video technician.

Since I studied both applied piano and composition in school and also minored in sound system engineering, I have often found myself wearing too many hats at church.  Over the last couple of years, though, I have had to step away from all of that in favor of other personal duties.  Recently, I have been coaxed into coming back into the choir and playing with the band.  But, suddenly, I realize that this is not where my talents are really needed.  While I’m busy helping stoke the musical fire, the technical wheels have come completely off the track.

I should have known this from previous experience:  musicians all think they know exactly what should be done, when, in reality, most of them don’t have a clue.  I’m not saying this to be mean, since I, too, am a musician.  But, with very few exceptions, it’s the truth.  Fact is, I myself made some critical technical errors Thursday night.  And it led me to understand that the technical end of things is much, much more important than the old days.

I also realized that musicians don’t function well wearing two or more hats.  However, when they show their ineptitude for planning a “good show”, is it really fair to blame them?  In this era of church rock bands (might as well call them what they are), there are a lot of band musicians who have spent time on the road and know how to stage things.  But, as we keep trending toward increasing use of church rock bands,  especially in average-size and smaller churches, it becomes more likely that less skilled players are stepping in.  For these players, the church gig is their voluntary service.  Many times, it’s all they can do just to show up for church and be half-way prepared to play.  On top of this, though, they are often being asked to be part of the sound crew.  And here is where the problems really start.

When you have a choir, the choir director usually picks the music, sets the rehearsal schedule and runs the rehearsals.  In a band, though, there is a tendency for group think.  Since everyone in the church band is a Christian, everyone wants to be charitable and weigh the input of each member equally.  As a result, sound levels increase as each person thinks his part should be just a little louder.  Of course, this isn’t made any easier by the drummer who feels that he is playing as soft as he can and doesn’t want to use brushes instead of sticks.  (Word to the wise: digital drum kit.   Sorry, drummers.)

Another unfortunate occurrence is that there is a tendency to use keyboard music and try to adapt it to an ensemble.    Usually this takes the form of everyone receiving piano sheet music, from which they are each enjoined to “work out your own part.”  Sometimes, especially with more professional players, this works out well.  But, often, we are left with praise music that is quite bleak and doesn’t blend well.

I have been trying to train someone to run the sound system.  But, I made the mistake of thinking that knowing what all the knobs and buttons do equates to knowing how to run the sound.  Boy, was I struck in the face with the fallacy of that idea.  Case in point is the bass guitar. (I’m not a bassist, but somebody has to play it, so a play one in church.)  For weeks, I have been turning up the bass, only to have it be completely impossible for me to hear.  Half of that was because we were not using a monitor for the band–a huge mistake in itself.  But the other half of the problem was that my sound protege didn’t have the first clue as to how to EQ the bass into the system.  Bass EQ is not a problem in a rock venue.  But, in a smaller church, the low frequencies sap all the power out of the amp and kill the sound.  They also make the music quite uncomfortable.  I can’t teach these kinds of things to a newbie under fire, especially when she also is in the choir.

I have thought long and hard about what is happening to church music.  Twenty years ago, I was one of those pushing for a bigger and better “show”.  But, I’ve come to the realization that the average congregation is not well-served by all the bells and whistles.  First of all, there are a lot of good musicians out there who have spent a lifetime learning to be great worship leaders by playing the old standards of good Christian music, but who don’t have a clue about “contemporary” music.  There are also a lot of good singers who can harmonize quite well and keep a solid beat, but who struggle mightily with the back beats and syncopation that fills contemporary music.  I believe that a lot of dedicated church musicians are feeling hard-pressed to continue.

Also, the addition of syncopation and the frequent use of walking harmonies and deceptive cadences has caused the people in our churches to stop singing.  This has gone hand in hand with the assent of the praise bands, who do the singing for the congregation.  It has also led to mantra-style selections that fill a lot of space that used to be used for the liturgy or the sermon.  We are slowly depriving our members of the chance to lift songs of worship to God without fear of being inept.

Of course, there is also the insidious thing that happens when the praise bands take over.  They try to incorporate “cool” praise songs that they heard into their own  repertoire.  This might be alright once in awhile.  If the musicians can handle it musically, it might still add to the worship.  But, most of praise music has no doctrinal applications to the Word that is being preached or read.  Designing a worship theme around the praise music takes away the focus from the sermon theme, and the central theme of the day’s readings.

Finally, there is a certain thing that I have always liked about church, and it is the fact that, after a week in the helter-skelter life of this world, it’s nice to come to a place where I can find some spiritual peace.  To me, it seems like we want to remove this peaceful moment in our chaotic lives and fill it with more chaos.   The idea is that we don’t want church goers to get too comfortable.  We want to keep them on edge, so that they really participate.   So, we shake up the liturgy, and we have the people read a lot of responsive prayers, have children’s sermons to pull families apart for a little moment, allegedly to make the children feel that there is a special part of the “corporate” worship that is “just for them.”  And on and on it goes, so that people aren’t really allowed to relax until they get out into the fellowship hall after church.  Or, conversely, we make the church service atmosphere seem so much like the irreverent atmosphere of daily life, that people begin to treat church more like a coffee house than a sanctuary.

Well, all this movement and business requires something a little out of the skill set of many musicians, especially the part-time ones.  This really requires handlers, managers, engineers.  So it is that the function of worship becomes more dependent upon men and less dependent on the Spirit.

I think it’s time for every congregation to evaluate what kind of worship service they have, and just how well it is working.  Certainly, as Jesus once said, you don’t build a building without first counting the cost.  The same should be true for worship.  I’m not here to say that having contemporary worship or having a variety in worship is wrong.  But I do think that people should be very careful not to burn out their worship leaders, pastor included.  And I think that people should be very slow to judge the quality and professionalism of the service without understanding the huge commitments that go into doing such things consistently well.

I think we finally learned our lesson at my church.  I have said from the beginning that, more important than what you do is how well you do it.  We have created a monster of expectation.  Now we are beginning to understand how hard it is to live up to expectations.  And we see the danger in trying to wing our way through and hope that nobody notices.  They notice.  I love our musicians.  So, for now, I will be standing behind them, at the board, instead of standing in front of them.

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1 Comment

Filed under Meditations

One response to “The rise and fall of the church musician

  1. E. Richards

    Incredibly insightful post. I wish this had much broader exposure. I found it by accident.

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