In many ways, music is music…and the considerations between Sunday morning vs. any other gig are similar (things like having functional gear, arriving on time, playing in tune, etc., come to mind). But over the decades of playing bass in the worship context, I’ve found there are certain factors that are particular to being a worship bassist, and keeping them in focus has been super helpful.
Homework is a Spiritual Thing
It’s tempting to put things into neat little boxes, where studying the scriptures and prayer are spiritual considerations, while woodshedding and preparing to play on Sunday morning are the practical. I encourage you to challenge that mindset: if you are called to worship ministry, then I would submit to you that shedding and being ready to play the worship set well and effectively are fundamentally spiritual endeavors, as well.
I’d humbly suggest that Bible study and prayer can also be highly practical, but that’s a different article!
Playing for the Tune & Context
It can be a really healthy reminder and “perspective aligner” to regularly take note of the fact that it truly isn’t about me. Sunday morning isn’t my musical outlet. I’m there to serve and bring my utmost to help direct the eyes of the church to Him. When I’m embracing that fact, it’s quite easy to play for the song. By that, I mean serving the tune in a way that’s in context with the musical style, without feeling it necessary to throw jazz licks into a Coldplay-esque rock song. Or slap on a Bethel ballad.
On a related note, I highly encourage musicians to not let the worship service be their sole context for musical expression—even if it’s just spending 20 minutes midweek jamming with a drum loop or favorite recording, it’s invaluable to have other opportunities to musically explore.
Some define groove as the element of music that makes the listener want to dance. I agree, although I think it goes deeper than that, as a groove-oriented approach can be employed while playing tied whole-notes or rests. I define groove as “a feeling of consistent/predictable/reliable forward motion in the music.” Playing with rhythmic solidity—having groove sensibility and awareness— is arguably the most important musical element we can bring. If you don’t have a passion for the groove, I encourage you to pursue it. It’s what everyone you play with wants of you!
Being the Foundation
It’s well established that the bass and drums serve as the foundation for the rhythm section. I believe that effective bass players are often driving from the backseat. For instance, by setting up transitions (building into choruses, or a few well-placed, upper register whole-notes telegraphing a breakdown section, etc.), the bassist compels the drummer to similarly build or drop down, which allows the rest of the team to know where they’re headed with absolute certainty. This covert bandleading is often well below the radar, but its absence is often indicated by musical trainwrecks!
Dynamics: When I Can’t Possibly Play Any Louder
I couldn’t resist the reference to my favorite drummer joke (exasperated drummer responds to the producer: “What do you mean ‘play with dynamics?’ I’m hitting as hard as I can!”). Letting a song build up or drop down is one of the essential ways to make the music say something on an emotional level (more on that in the next point). Dynamic variation can also be accomplished through layering; particularly on a big rock feel where it might sound odd to have an instrument play less energetically. It can serve a similar function to simply have a section be just vocals with drums and bass playing big, then add synth pads on the prechorus, then the wall of guitars on the chorus. Or on the other end of the spectrum, perhaps lay out on the bass until the 2nd chorus when playing a longer ballad?
I view my role in the worship band as one of musically conveying what is happening lyrically and spiritually. If the song is a rafter-shaking praise fest, I’m striving to convey that. If it’s a heart cry from the depths, I’m trying to express that. It’s important to note that I’m not talking about emotional manipulation—rather, I’m trying to avoid a musically schizophrenic statement where there’s a disconnect between the music and lyric. Music isn’t just math or physics. There is an emotional, heart component to it (isn’t that why we love it?). God created us as emotional beings, too. Emote the tune!
Keeping the Main Thing the Main Thing
The pace of life can sometimes be challenging, and it’s easy to find ourselves going through the motions from time to time. I find the best thing I can do to defibrillate my heart is get personal worship times where it’s just me, God, and my blasting car stereo (hopefully) drowning out my belting tunes above my vocal range! As I pour out my heart and really soak in the lyrics I’m singing, perspective is restored.
God bless you abundantly as you faithfully serve Him!