Threads. Connections. Themes. Messages you hear often enough in your life that you start thinking “I get it!”
Lately I’m finding that many times when I read Scripture, or read a book, or an online article, or rethink conversations I’ve had with friends, there’s one of those messages coming through. It’s a simple message. It shows up in lots of variations. In fact, I heard “Do your job” during the recent Super Bowl when the Eagles played the Patriots. I Googled an article about this phrase. It’s become a mantra for the Patriots’ coaches and players. One of them summarized what the phrase means to the team as: “I like to think of it like our team is kind of like a car. Some guys might be the motor. Some guys might be the windshield wipers, the lights, steering wheel… No matter what it is, you’ve got to do your job.”
What a great restatement of 1 Corinthians 12:12-21, where we read that the body is not made of one part but many. Varied functions. One body. Perfect analogy for the worship teams you and I regularly play on. Many instruments, one purpose, presenting music that creates an atmosphere where the gathered people of God can offer their worship to the Living God.
Yep. The theme that keeps coming my way so consistently these days is that I have an important job to do. It’s true in my relationship with my wife, with my children, and with the musicians on my worship team. It’s true as I relate to every person I encounter on my commute to work. It’s true as I connect with that person who helped me check out at Home Depot today. It’s pointless and frustrating when I try to be anything else but who God made me to be.
It’s no stretch to relate this to what you and I do in our worship teams. More than ever before, keyboard players are able to contribute a huge variety of sounds from our instruments. String sounds, oboe lines, horn melodies, electric piano comps. If you don’t have a modern keyboard but are limited to playing a piano at your church, this point is still true. A piano can make a huge variety of sounds over the range of the instrument. Fast activity, sparkling high notes, aggressive low notes. You can play any keyboard loudly or softly. Any instrument you’re playing can play repeated patterns, driving rhythms, and conspicuous melodic figures. The thing you and I have to determine is not what could I be doing at any point in each song, but what should I be doing.
There are a number of questions you can ask yourself throughout a song to determine what your job is, and what you should be doing.
1. What are the other instruments in the band doing?
Often there’s one instrument that is driving the song and providing the most conspicuous activity. In modern worship recordings, this is often an acoustic or electric guitar. It’s often an acoustic piano sound, too, though. Let your ear and your musical sensibilities tell you which instrument best drives the song. Many of us let well-known recordings of the song settle this for us, but you have the freedom to arrange the song differently if you choose.
The bottom line is that you’ll either be driving the song or supporting the instrument that is. Do your job. Know which role you have.
2. What are the vocalists doing?
Have you ever been involved in a conversation with several friends where two people were talking at the same time? Uh huh. Me too. Drives you nuts, right? Me too. We want to focus on one person at a time in conversations.
Our musical arrangements can be thought of as conversations. When the song’s melody is being sung, respect that as much as you do when someone else is talking. Make room for that melody to be heard. Don’t be playing lots of melodic activity on your instrument. This is important for keyboard players, guitarists, drummers, bass players, and for everyone in the band.
We should showcase the melody in the same way that a great lighting director on Broadway can make every eye in a theatre turn to a specific spot on the stage. Melody wins.
3. What options do I have?
Always remember that your contributions to the arrangement can be influenced by several factors: repetition, range, and resolution.
- Are you playing a repetitive figure? Be careful that it’s not competing with the vocal melody and that it’s not walking over an essential part another instrument is playing. If yours is the essential part, resolve the conflict with the other player. Do your job.
- What range of the instrument are you using? Is it a low register? If, for example, you’re playing a pad sound, you generally want to avoid very low notes, especially when a bass player is involved. Your low pad notes can very much muddy the band’s sound. Try instead to play in the middle register of your instrument.
- What resolution of note is predominant in your part? Whole note? Quarter note? Sixteenth? Again, factor in what rhythms other instrumentalists are playing. Is there a lot of activity from drums and guitars already? Playing whole notes with a pad sound can be a great complement to those parts. Choosing an acoustic or electric piano sound can do the same.
I never was much of an athlete. For sure. But I’ve enjoyed watching various sports through the years. I know that part of an athlete’s development involves watching film, studying their performance in past games, as well as watching film of great athletes. Consider listening to recordings of your worship services as the equivalent of an athlete watching film. Evaluate what went well from your perspective. Evaluate spots where the arrangement felt cluttered or too empty.
You may discover a thread, a theme, or a connection in what you observe. Be willing to listen well and to do your job. Your worship team will benefit, your church will benefit and, as this willingness to be who God made you spills over into your everyday waking and sleeping life, the world will benefit. Do your job.