Musicianship Development: Keyboard Skills

As we continue to perform a self-evaluation of our skills as musicians, consider your ability at the keyboard.  Can you play a simple melody to teach a song or vocal part?  Do you have the skills to play a vocal reduction or a standard hymn setting with both hands?  If necessary, could you provide adequate accompaniment for a service?

Each question reveals varying levels of piano proficiency.  It is essential that all worship leaders be able to at least play a simple melody on the keyboard.  It is not unreasonable to expect that they can play a four-part hymn or a basic vocal reduction that you would find in the majority of the choral anthems of the church.

The ability to play for a service may not be necessary in all situations.  If you are guitarist, you can probably get through an acoustic set and not inhibit the service at all.  Accapella music can be beautiful, but it is not always an option for a congregation that does not practice this type of singing on a regular basis.  If you are a vocalist leading worship, I feel as though you should be able to provide a simple chordal accompaniment at least.  I’m not suggesting that you must be able to play a beautiful solo on the instrument.  I am simply suggesting that when you receive the inevitable phone call on Sunday morning that your pianist is ill that you have a basic skill set to get through the morning if a replacement is not available on such short notice.

How do I develop these skills?  All of you reading have already realized that piano lessons are one avenue to accomplish this goal.  As a pianist, I am a huge proponent of this approach, but I also realize that it is a tremendous commitment and may not be the best option for your circumstance.  There is another method to consider.  Rather than enrolling in traditional lessons, seek out someone who can teach you to play “by ear.”  A thorough knowledge of chord progressions and the various ways you can play chords can give you a head start on getting yourself through a service, especially if you want to hear more than the notes that are printed in the hymnal.  Many students find that instruction in “playing by ear” allows them to progress more quickly and begin playing pleasing arrangements right away.  The best situation, in my opinion, is to have a teacher that can provide instruction in both methods — chords and reading — and learn to marry the two over time.

I hate to tell you, but there is no quick fix to this developmental issue.  It takes time, commitment, and practice to develop skills at the keyboard.  Rather than focusing on the negative aspect, see the potential that this practice time can have;  you will see connections right away between what you are learning and your primary instrument.  Hopefully you will find that the study of the piano is also promoting growth in this other area.  Above all else, ask God to help you as you pursue this new skill so that you might bring Him more glory through your music.

Developing the Next Generation

As leaders, we are responsible for the ministry of today.  We are also called to begin developing the skills of those who will come behind us, the children and teens who are displaying interest and skill in worship ministry.  If we are not comfortable working with these students, this can be a daunting task.  Here are a few ideas of how you can provide valuable experience and training to these developing worshipers while allowing them to be an asset to your current ministry.

Add them to your praise team! We have used children and teens in our praise teams during services with a youth emphasis for many years.  Why not include them the remainder of the year?  The purity of their sound can provide a nice contrast to the adults they are paired with.  More importantly, the best way that we can develop worshippers is by putting them in worship opportunities on a regular basis.  Allow them to become comfortable from an early age with expressing their worship in front of a congregation; it will be an aid to them as they grow and it will speak volumes to the members of your congregation.

Provide them training! Knowledge is power!  Training can take place in several ways.  These students may enroll in organized lessons; introductory classes in music reading and sight singing can be a fun way to make them a part of the ministry.  It can be very simple, too.  Take a few minutes from your weekly rehearsal to talk about mic technique or how to handle difficult singing passages.  This short commentary in the middle of your rehearsal gives them some insight into the process and is a great reminder for your established team members.

Mentorships!  Musicians love to share their knowledge with younger performers, so take advantage of this.  Pair your students with established members of your team.  The adults can answer questions during rehearsal, provide encouragement and feedback in a trusted relationship, and serve as a prayer partner and spiritual mentor as well!

Let me share a bit of my personal testimony in this area.  I had planned to write this post yesterday afternoon, but time got away from me.  Since this has been on my heart for a while, I had begun to take the steps to add 3 teen singers to my local worship team.  What I saw in rehearsal was so encouraging.  The students enjoyed themselves and the adult singers stepped up and began mentoring and encouraging those students.  What a positive first rehearsal for these young ladies.

As scary as it may seem when you begin to think about it, I encourage you to take the step and add teens and children to your regular praise team.  There will certainly be obstacles (the very nature of working with children and teens), but the benefits to the local ministry and the students’ lives are well worth the effort.

Music Review: Down From His Glory

Down From His Glory

August has finally arrived.  It’s currently 87° outside.  Before the end of the day, the high should reach 100° with a heat index of 115°.  While most of us are sick of this insane heat, it’s time to do the only sensible thing:  crank up the AC and begin listening to Christmas music.  Rehearsals for Christmas are scheduled to begin in mid-October, so I need to do some listening and make a few decisions.  Here are my thoughts on the first musical I’m considering — Down From His Glory by Mike Speck (orchestrated by Lari Goss).

This cantata is definitely a possibility for my situation for a couple of reasons.  I love that it includes both adult and children’s choirs and has plenty of opportunities to feature soloists.  The range is great for most church choirs — the sopranos rarely sing above the staff — and many of those notes are either optional or are doubled in another voice.  The orchestration is richly textured without being overly schmaltzy.

The song choices provide something for everyone.  Classic Christmas songs are featured — including an effective arrangement of O Holy Night without the high Bb in the middle of a carol medley –as well as standard hymns.  For the Southern gospel lover, Light of the Stable and It’s the Messiah are sure to please while He Loved Us More and The Story That Never Grows Old will fit the bill for the main-stream.  Personally, I am most excited about the inclusion of simplified arrangements of classical works associated with the holiday.  Who can resist the charm of Pat-a-Pan and the majesty of Handel’s For Unto Us a Child is Born?

So no one thinks I have found the perfect option immediately, I must point out some of my concerns.  The first issue you encounter is the overture.  Quite plainly….IT’S LONG!!!!  50 measures to be exact before the choir’s initial entrance.  Without a sanctuary orchestra, this demands that some type of pageantry accompany it.  That’s just something else that has be fit into an already crazy rehearsal schedule.

When the choir finally sings, they introduce the title song of the cantata.  While I love the words and music of the hymn, Down From His Glory is not quite the attention-grabbing opening that I hope for.  After all, this is the centerpiece performance of the year for many church choirs.  I need something to get my singers energized to sing early on Sunday morning and to keep my audience engaged.

On the whole, the cantata feels just a little too long.  At nearly 51 minutes, I am already looking for things to cut.  The narration becomes a bit labored at times.  It tells a beautiful story though, so I’m not sure that’s the place to cut.  When I start looking at the music, the weakest piece in my opinion is the opening song.  As expected, the hymn reappears in the finale, so cutting the first number seems very awkward.  What to do?  What to do?

All things considered, the cantata earns 4 out of 5 stars in my book.  The music is wonderfully arranged, it just feels a little long and as though it doesn’t quite build to a satisfying climax as I wish it did.  Guess that means I’m heading back to the listening station to continue my search. Down From His Glory is definitely not out of the running for this year’s Christmas celebration, but there is certainly space for another work to take its place.

Lessons from Kenaniah

In I Chronicles 15, we read of Israel making preparations to move the Ark of the Covenant to the temple.  I believe verse 22 of that chapter provides some important insight for us as worship leaders.  The writer informs us that “Kenaniah, the head Levite, was chosen as the choir leader because of his skill.”  Let’s take a few minutes together and explore this verse and mine for its treasures.

First, we notice that Kenaniah is named as a Levite.  The Law of Moses teaches us that Levites were priests, responsible for service to the nation of Israel.  They were the ones who led the people in responses of repentance, praise, and consecration to the Lord.  On a regular basis, the Levites would interact with the most holy items of the temple and intentionally come into the presence of Jehovah.  As worship leaders, it is crucial that we remember that our role in the congregation is much more than just a job or assignment; we are performing a solemn responsibility of assisting our community to respond to a Holy God!  Let’s ever be mindful of the task we have and the necessity of spending personal time in the presence of the Lord in order to prepare for corporate worship.

Next, we see that Kenaniah was chosen as the leader.  If you are like me, this may be one of the most difficult parts of music ministry.  As musicians, we often struggle with our personal issues of self-esteem and feelings that others are constantly evaluating our performances against some undefined standard.  We also know that musicians can be cruel, disguising biting comments as constructive criticism.  The fact remains, however, that in order to have a choir, orchestra, or any other type of team there must be a leader — someone given the authority to make tough decisions.  Will everyone agree with the decisions you make?  No!  Are there multiple ways to do the job?  Of course.  Regardless of how you feel about your skills as a leader, recognize that you have been placed in your current ministry position by God Himself and not by man.  Take comfort in realizing that our God specializes in making something great out of nothing.  Just as Christ fed a multitude with a boy’s simple lunch, we trust that He will feed His children spiritually through our offerings….no matter how meager they may seem.

Lastly, notice that Kenaniah was placed in a position of leadership because of his skill.  In a constantly changing musical world, it is imperative that we continually pursue excellence.  Never allow yourself to buy into the lie that the status quo is good enough.  As ministers, we must constantly evaluate ourselves for spiritual maturity, musical growth, and leadership development.  We are human, so there will always be a need to improve in all of these areas.  Ask the Heavenly Father today to point out the area that He wants to begin developing in you and follow His direction.  You may find that you need to spend more time in prayer and study.  At another point, you may feel an urge to align yourself with a fellow musician in the area, to read books (or blogs like this one), or to enroll in a class of some sort.  Whatever the personal call in your pursuit of excellence, know that the investment of your time will ultimately bring great reward to your ministry, yourself, and those you lead.

Music minister, walk this week in the confidence that you have been called by God Himself to lead His people in worship.  He did not choose you to mold you into the image of another leader, so stop comparing yourself to others around you.  Seek His face and allow Him to point out areas that need attention and development as He also delights in you as His favored creation and the apple of His eye.

Musicianship Development: Reading Musical Notation

As we finalize our plans for worship this weekend, let’s take a few moments and think about our personal development as musicians.  It is crucial that we constantly become more adept in our craft in order to effective lead, challenge, and direct other musicians.  If I had to name the one skill that is most essential for a music minister, I would say it is the ability to read musical notation.

I’m not sure if this is a Southern issue or something that is most common in evangelical circles, but I encounter many music directors who cannot read music at all.  To me, this is a drastic oversight!  Would one ever contemplate discussing literature if they did not possess the ability to read?  Would you hire a sound technician who couldn’t hear?  I definitely won’t allow a mechanic to work on my car that wants to attach the thing-a-ma-gig to the hose that looks like a pig’s tail!  The inability to speak intelligently (and clearly) about our music does not inspire confidence.  It hampers our abilities to run rehearsals effectively and efficiently.  It suggests that we simply don’t respect the language of the music.

I am not talking about being able to play an instrument proficiently at this point. (I do think this is a valid expectation for a music minister, but I’ll get to that in a later post.)  At this point, I am talking about simply looking at a musical staff and knowing that a C moves up to an A in the alto line.   This skill allows us to instruct our team immediately of the SPECIFIC point of their difficulty in learning a score rather than having to sing the correct pitches for them.  Have you ever tried to “sing” a part to a guitarist?  It simply does not work.

Understanding musical notation also allows us to move our ministry to the next level of excellence.  Ultimately, the skill will allow you to notate the arrangements you create for your team and communicate with them effectively.  As our skills increase, we pass that knowledge on to those we serve, challenging them to serve the Lord with excellence in all they do.

Now that I recognize the need to read music, what steps do I take to obtain the skill?  There are actually several options available to you. The first option would be to enroll in private lessons.  I immediately suggest studying piano or voice; if you choose to study guitar, make sure from the beginning that the instruction will include reading both notation and chord charts.

A similar solution that will give you the skills quickly without the practical application is to take a course in music theory or basic musicianship.  Many community colleges offer these courses at a reasonable rate and you benefit from the support of being among other students with a similar skill level.  If a formal course is not available, speak with the piano teacher in your area.  He will have the ability to teach what you are looking for and will generally be glad to teach you the material at a fairly reasonable price.  Some teachers may also entertain the idea of teaching a group class at your church.  For a nominal fee, you can train everyone on your team (including yourself) at the same time.  You would provide the space; the teacher provides the knowledge.  The cost can either be covered by the music budget (a worthy investment for your team) or it can be split among the class participants.  If individuals are contributing, you might consider inviting members of neighboring church teams to join you.  Now you’re fulfilling a musical need for your team while developing relationships with other musicians!  Get creative and see how this solution might work for you.

Finally, there are numerous websites that teach the essentials of music theory.  Many of these sites offer their services for free.  I suggest using these as your last resort.  While the benefits include the price and the convenience of fitting study into your schedule, remember that you get what you pay for!  Rarely is there interaction with a professional to correct any misperceptions and to formulate a plan of study that best fits your needs.

Whatever solution fits your situation best at this point, the challenge is clear:  take the iniative and improve your skills in communicating with your team and other musicians!  One place to start is in learning how to read music.

Let me know as you accept the challenge to develop your skills.  If I can be of help in any way – providing referrals for a teacher in your area or answering questions myself via the Internet – please contact me.  I look forward to hearing your success stories as you accept the challenge to take your musical skills to the next level.

Introducing New Songs

Now that Wednesday is here, I am preparing to meet with members of my praise team tonight to begin working on a new song to introduce to the congregation in the coming weeks. This can often be a challenging rehearsal (especially if you’re not sure who is going to show up). I’m working things out a little differently this time.

I have decided to run with Matt Redman’s Where Would We Be and hope to at least introduce the song this Sunday morning as part of the worship set. I found a link on Redman’s page at myspace.com that I sent to the core vocalists on my team as well as a lyric sheet. (I had not yet discovered the pdf files mentioned in yesterday’s post or I would have sent that instead.) I told them that there was no sheet music available to us at the moment and that we need to find harmonies that will work. The four of us will pull this together around the piano and see where we are – making sure the alto and tenor are confident in their individual parts.

The plan is to grab my keyboardist, drummer, and guitarist separately and give them a look at the lead sheet. Here’s where things get tricky. I think I know what key we will end up in, but there is some flexibility. The song has extremes in the verse and chorus, so we may have to change the key by a ½ step either way. This means that instrumentalists will be learning the song in one key, knowing that they may see it in a different key on Sunday morning.

Once the key is set on Wednesday night, I plan to finalize the lead sheets and send it to the instrumentalists as a pdf in case they need to double check chords or fingerings. If everything goes according to plan (and I’m really hoping it does), I’ll also send an audio file in the correct key to the vocalists.

Now things get really scary. Most of my musicians do not live near the church. I probably have the longest commute – nearly 45 minutes one way. Because of this fact and everyone’s incredibly busy lives, we try to hold rehearsals as needed at the end of our Wednesday evening service. The full band and praise team will put the new song together on Sunday morning. That means if rehearsal goes well on Wednesday night, I have two versions of the worship set ready for the weekend: one that includes the new song, the other without it. I’ll make the final decision when I run through it with the singers that morning.

As you can tell, rehearsals are tough in these parts. We see the necessity of having them (obviously), but we struggle to find a time where we can all get together at once. This fact is leading me to explore technological options to bring virtual rehearsals into practice for my local team.

What do you do when you need to introduce a new song to your team? What does your process look like? Has anyone already tried using technology in your rehearsal process? How did it work for you? I’m definitely looking for ideas on this one.

Hope you all have a great midweek rehearsal for your choirs, praise team, and other ensembles tonight.

Music Review: 10,000 Reasons – Matt Redman

Personally, I struggle staying on top of the latest trends in praise and worship music. It seems as though there are tons of new albums released each month and new worship leaders are getting introduced all the time. I go to the bookstore and quickly become overwhelmed. Should I listen to someone I’m already familiar with or do I take a chance on something new? I’m all for being adventurous, but purchasing all of that music can get expensive. I don’t have that kind of budget to risk on music that I may not be able to use. Shopping on the internet can be even more daunting when I am faced with so many choices. I need input from trusted sources to help guide me to new music.

I have a sneaky feeling that I am not alone in this either. That’s one way I hope that our community of worship leaders can help each other out. From time to time, I’ll share with you what I’m listening to and what I think about it. I’d appreciate your suggestions on music I should check out in return. I know that I always feel a little more comfortable exploring new bands and worship leaders when I’ve at least heard a recommendation from a colleague.

As I looked for a CD to discuss in this first music review, the choice was really easy to make. I walked into Family Christian Bookstore in Hot Springs, Arkansas while getting away for a few days and heard this great song playing on the house system. The lyrics said, “Where would we be without Your love? We’d still be lost in darkness. Where would we be without Your cross? You made a way to save us. Oh, Your love, oh Your love.” I knew right away that this was a song I needed to get my hands on. I marched to the front of the store and learned that it was a track from Matt Redman’s July 12, 2011 release 10,000 Reasons. Without a question, I picked up the CD and headed straight for my car. My hotel was only a few blocks away, but I found myself driving around town aimlessly because I couldn’t get enough of this album. I was immediately drawn into the presence of God and experienced a time of personal worship.

From beginning to end, the album is full of singable songs that most music ministries are going to be able to incorporate into their services right away. Many of the songs are guitar driven on the recording, but it is clear that a keyboard will be able to create a satisfying accompaniment as well. If you can’t get the full album right away, I recommend checking out four songs immediately: “Holy”, “10,000 Reasons”, “Endless Hallelujah” and “Where Would We Be”. I have a feeling you’ll get hooked right away and end up with the entire album.

While you’re checking out the new music, head to www.mattredman.com and take a look at the videos there. Matt has background information on several of the songs that allows us some insight that might prove helpful as you plan to add these songs to your future worship sets. While you’re there, notice the chord chart tab at the top of the page. These pdf files can be downloaded for free and are marked with both the actual chords as well as a capo progression that is friendlier for our guitarists. This is definitely an incredibly valuable resource for worship leaders everywhere. All eleven songs on 10,000 Reasons were available as of this posting. Matt Redman, thank you for helping us get these songs into the hearts and voices of churches in an economical way. (Worship leaders, don’t just print the lead sheets and learn the songs from internet postings; purchase the album!)

Once you’ve listened to the album, I would love to hear which songs spoke to your heart. Then tell me what you are listening to these days. It’s just about time for me to make another trip to the music store and pick up a new CD. I would much rather go in with one of your recommendations. Who knows…..I may even write a review here to share with everyone else.

Musical Prelude

Do you remember the first Sunday you stood before a congregation to lead them in worship? Perhaps your hands begin to sweat again merely at the thought of that first experience. Have you ever wished that you knew then the many lessons you have learned since about worship, leadership, and music? I certainly have! That wish is what brought about this blog.

I first became involved with worship and music ministries as a child of ten. I had taken piano lessons for several years and found myself thrust behind a console piano and told to play. I knew nothing about chord progressions or improvising. All of my training had been classical in nature – if the notes weren’t written on the page, I didn’t know what to do. Despite my protests, I found myself sitting behind the piano on a Sunday morning and was simply told to “follow” the guitar’s lead (whatever THAT was supposed to mean)! Soon I found myself given the responsibility of leading the music for the congregation. How I wished that there was a manual of some sort to help me navigate this overwhelming and incredibly important ministry of the church. Sadly, I have not found a book that adequately addresses the many multi-faceted issues a music minister will face weekly. When I commented on this absence with a dear colleague recently, she challenged me to begin writing the missing volume. My solution is “Music for the Master”.

This blog is not intended to be the final statement on all things related to music ministry. If you have served in this position for any length of time, you know that our challenges morph regularly with changing musical styles, congregations and worship settings. We deal not only with issues related to music making; we also have to address issues related to theology, leadership, evangelism, and finances on a regular basis. Although I have been serving as a worship leader in either a volunteer or paid position for over 21 years, I do not pretend to have learned all the lessons needed for this massive job. My hope is that “Music for the Master” will become an active dialogue among those who currently serve as music ministers as well as those who sing or play at a local congregation and those who are simply passionate about worship ministry in our churches. Although my background is with the Church of God of Prophecy, I believe that many of the issues we will be discussing together will be applicable across denominational lines as we all pursue a single purpose: to better equip ourselves and our team to more effectively make “music for the Master!”

Take a few minutes and leave a brief introduction in the comment section below. Where are you serving currently? Are you the minister of music or do you hold another position? What is an issue you would like to see us discuss in the weeks and months to come? I’m looking forward to lively discussions, knowing that “As iron sharpens iron, so one person sharpens another.” (Proverbs 27:17, NIV)

Kennith