During the decade I was a worship pastor I had a number of different instrumentations available to me. Along with the standard four piece band I had percussion, violin, flute, clarinet, trumpet, trombone, and several other instruments on my team at different times.
However, the most interesting season was when a teenage girl auditioned to play harp on the team. You might immediately assume that there is no way a harp could fit in a contemporary worship band, but we figured out not only how to make it work with the rest of the players, but also add significantly to our sound. And it was especially good to have around the Christmas season.
Many worship teams have orchestral instrumentalists as part of their instrumentation. Here are 5 tips for those players on how to add value to their teams.
1.) Ditch the Sheet Music
The biggest barrier I found to integrating orchestral instruments on a worship team was teaching the instrumentalists how to play without sheet music. Because of the flexible nature of worship song arrangements, using the sheet music format of a traditional concert band or orchestra was too restrictive for our purposes on a Sunday morning. Instead I gave them lead sheets, which are sheets that have the melody line with chords on top.
For many of my instrumentalists making this change was very challenging. They were so used to reading sheet music, note by note, measure by measure, that moving to a more free form style of arrangement was extremely uncomfortable. The thing is, though, all of them were good enough musicians to make that switch. With a little practice (and a lot of reassurance) they became very effective players without traditional sheet music.
If you play an orchestral instrument, the hardest change you’ll have to make is the mental change of leaving behind traditional sheet music. Getting up the courage to play without fully written out music take some effort and encouragement, but once you’ve settled on doing it, you’ll find it’s far easier to play well than you expect. And it will open up a whole new dimension to your musicianship.
2.) Start with Long Tones
In my experience, when musicians switch from classical playing to contemporary styles most respond by overplaying to cover up their insecurity. But more notes rarely equals better playing. Fortunately you don’t have to have lightning fast fingers to add value to a worship team.
One of the most effective uses of an orchestral instrument in worship is through playing long tones. A long tone is simply a single note held for at least one measure (think whole note or breve). Since modern music relies on common tones to create its unique chord qualities and textures long tones often serve as a musical thread that holds the song together.
If you’re not sure what long tones to play, start with the name of the chord the band is playing (i.e. play a G over a G chord). This will often double the bass, but in your register it won’t get in the way. From there you can add passing tones between chords (for instance adding A and B notes between a G and C chord), which will then help you figure out your own lines and melodies to add.
It’s always better to start simple and be successful than to try and do something complicated and struggle.
3.) Practice Your Pentatonic Scales
This is similar advice I gave to Electric Guitar players, but it is even more important for orchestral players. Once you’ve gotten comfortable with long tones and adding passing notes, the next step is to up your improvisation game by playing with the pentatonic scale.
The pentatonic scale is a 5 note scale (hence the “pent” in “pentatonic”) that consists of the 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 5th, and 6th notes of the major scale. We focus on this scale because every note will always sound good no matter what chord is being played underneath.
Where orchestral instrumentalists have the biggest advantage is that most of you have spent a lot of time learning scales on their instruments, so you already have the necessary building clocks to utilize pentatonic scales as part of your playing. Simply get used to playing 1,2,3,5,6 in each key you know and you can very quickly add amazing lines and melodies to whatever song the band is playing.
This should take most of the fear out of improvisation. I promise it’s easier than you think!
4.) Rests Are Notes Too
I’ve written elsewhere about the need for all instruments on a worship team to have times where they do not play anything at all in each song. This is especially true for orchestral instruments. In fact there are probably long stretches of any given song where the orchestral instruments should sit out completely (multiple verses, a whole bridge, etc.). This creates the dynamic contrast that makes the music interesting and engaging.
However, very often I’ve found orchestral instrumentalists have the hardest time feeling comfortable with not playing in a song. Maybe it’s because they’re hunting for space for themselves in the music, or maybe they’re insecure about their role on the team that they’re overcompensating. Whatever it is, you should absolutely feel ok with going for long stretches of time without playing anything. Or to put it like a woodwind playing friend of mine once did, rests are notes too.
So what should you be doing during those times you’re not playing? Worship! Sing along and enter into the music being created by the rest of the team. Just because you’re not playing doesn’t mean you can’t still be a leader.
5.) Keep the Beat
This last one may sound pretty obvious as a musician, but I can’t stress how fundamental it is to playing worship music. Keep the beat. Don’t deviate from it at all. The tighter you hold to the beat of the song the better your playing will sound on the team and the more effective your parts will be in the arrangement.
Again this probably sounds self-evident, but this tip actually reflects one of the biggest differences between classical and contemporary forms of music. In many classical styles (especially more romantic forms) there is a lot of variation in the tempo of a piece. There are ritardandos, accelerandos, and often the conductor has a lot of leeway with how to interpret the tempos in the music. Contemporary music, on the other hand, has a much more rigid beat structure. Most often worship songs have a single tempo that doesn’t change at all. These tempos are so strict that many worship teams play to a click or metronome in their ears to help them stay together rhythmically.
The point is that to play effectively in a contemporary worship setting you have to keep up with that strict beat. Many classical musicians who are used to more flexible tempos often find the rigidity of contemporary beats difficult to play to. Practicing with a metronome is an easy way to adapt your playing style to fit the contemporary sound.
Those are my five tips for orchestral instruments. What would you add? What doesn’t make sense? Leave a comment below.