Who to Ask

I was recently playing a piece that was composed by one of the members of the ensemble. When we weren’t sure about something written in our music or needed to make a musical decision we obviously turned to the composer for his authoritative help. After all, the piece was what he imagined hearing, what he envisioned. Many musicologists explore this kind of firsthand input from the urtext (original score) of great works of music penned by composers of the past.

Psalm 124:8 says, “Our help is in the name of the Lord, who made heaven and earth.” Like the composer of a piece music, God is the one we can turn to for help in all of life. While life often feels noisy (especially with four kids in my house!), somehow the God of all creation hears all of it. He continues to orchestrate all things for the good of those who love him–He’s Intentional.  Not sure what part you are to play in life today?  We know who to ask.

Band and Orchestra Kids Go To Church (Part 3)

Tips for Adding Band and Orchestra Kids to the Worship Team

Believe it or not, there are excellent ways to engage a variety of instruments in a contemporary style ensemble. But if you don’t have any experience with band or orchestra instruments, this can be be daunting, and making it accessible for young musicians can be even more challenging. What follows are some general guidelines and places to begin:

  1. Provide the right written tools. As I mentioned in the first post, we must be mindful of a young (or old) instrumentalist’s proficiency in reading written music or lead sheets. The most common challenge (and one that often stops band kids from even trying this) is transposition or clefs. For example, a clarinetist typically reads music transposed up a step and a violist typically reads alto clef. You may have to do a little bit of homework with the help of Google, a local music teacher, or music notation software.
  2. Ask them to do something within their ability. An acoustic wind or string instrument adds color unlike anything else in the typical worship band. For that reason, what they play does not need to be anything super technical. A simple lick adds a lot to the texture and prevents the student from becoming overwhelmed.
  3. Reimagine electric guitar, pads, or other lines. Oftentimes, these are simple and repetitive lines of music that can be easily played by a wind or string instrument. Also, a string instrument’s line on a recording might work for a different wind instrument. For example, a violin layer could work well on flute, or a cello pad could be covered by a good euphonium player.
  4. Find the jazz band kids. Once a jazz band student has learned the basics of improvisation with chord charts, a typical church leadsheet will be well within their ability.
  5. Don’t play all the time. My biggest pet peeve (and the reason string and wind instruments often sound bad when used in contemporary worship) is that they play too much. Use the colors of these instruments sparingly. Add the instruments just like any other layer and perhaps on only one or a few songs in a given Sunday morning. It’s okay if they don’t play a lot of notes. After all, it’s about serving the church not playing lot of notes, right?
  6. Add an instrumental verse. Many contemporary songs have very simple melodies. Be sure to select the key and range appropriately. And unless a student is accustomed to playing by ear, give them music written in their key to read at first.

A final word of caution: Avoid making much of the young people themselves in the worship service. Don’t stand up and say something like, “Aww, wasn’t that sweet?” Sure, before and after the service you can affirm their contribution to the worshipping community. But make it less about them and more about their giving of God’s gift back to Him and the congregation.

Involving more people and young people in whatever we are used to doing in our worship services can be hugely time consuming. But I believe it is worth it, not only for the students involved, but as a model for the entire congregation and an investment in the future of our churches.

Band and Orchestra Kids Go To Church (Part 2)

Practical Ways to Use Band and Orchestra Instruments in Church

For many churches, a real challenge to engaging band and orchestra instrumentalists is the contemporary style. How do we find a place for string and wind players in services that most often only include guitars, keys, and drums? Whether or not this is the style of music in your church, here are a few great ways to engage young instrumentalists:

  1. Prelude, postlude, or offertory. Instrumental music is perfect for these reflective or celebratory moments. These may or may not be part of your typical Sunday morning worship, but why not try something different every once in a while?
  2. Special seasons. Advent or Christmas are particularly good times to involve band and orchestra kids for several reasons: 1) The traditional, hymn-like genre is typically more accessible to traditionally trained musicians, 2) The music is super familiar to even the kids, 3) They love to practice these familiar songs, and 4) They might even be working on something in school that fits your service perfectly. Try taking a break from the usual worship band-led service and sing carols with instruments. The congregation will love the richness and variety this brings to their singing.
  3. Hymn services. Whatever time of year it is, go retro and sing a service or part of a service with classic hymns. Choose familiar ones, but also find hymns that are easily sung that are rich in theology and particularly fitting for the service.
  4. Youth services. Rather than just having the youth group band lead the service, why not also involve the band and orchestra kids? In fact, if you have a youth group band it would be great to develop worship leading skills of students who play band or orchestra instruments alongside the other instrumentalists and vocalists.
  5. In the worship band. Band and orchestra instruments add amazing color to contemporary worship ensembles—and I’m not just talking about a violin or cello that is often heard in some worship recordings. In the next post, I’ll discuss ways to help young instrumentalists add to the contemporary worship ensemble.

Band and Orchestra Kids Go To Church (Part 1)

Photo by Ludwig Kwan on Pexels.com

Yes, of course they do! Sadly, though, when I ask many Christian band and orchestra students if they have ever played in church the answer is most often “no.” I see this as a huge missed opportunity for connecting what our kids do outside of church with what happens on Sunday morning. Plus, student instrumentalists can add so much musical variety to our gathered worship. This series offers some practical ideas for getting them involved while addressing the unique challenges that often discourage both worship leaders and students.

Beginning to Engage Young Instrumentalists in Worship

It is challenging and time consuming to find a place for amateur musicians to actually serve congregational worship. Students’ skills are modest, and worship leaders may not be comfortable navigating the complexities of various instruments. We want the best quality music in our services. Yet, if we genuinely want to nurture an intergenerational community that uses their gifts to serve one another, it is important to find ways to engage with these young musicians. Here are some great places to start and a few guiding principles:

  1. Start with ensembles. Young players are not likely to be ready to play a solo in church. Find others like them and create a group to make music at their level. It doesn’t need to be a full symphony orchestra. Perhaps it is just a brass ensemble or a string ensemble or a balanced variety of instruments. Strive to make sure there is more than one player on each part, especially for the newest players.
  2. Pair them up with adults. My wife and I grew up sitting next to adult musicians (both professionals and amateurs) in church ensembles. Occasionally in the ensembles I have led, parents and their own kids have even played together. What an amazing intergenerational opportunity!
  3. Be mindful of their literacy. By literacy, I mean not only how well they can read music, but how well they can play by ear or improvise (“aural literacy”). A young Suzuki-trained string player, for example, might come with amazing technique and ear playing skills, but has not yet developed their reading skills. On the other hand, a student from school band may have strong note-reading skills, but has never learned by listening to a recording and may never have seen a leadsheet. Being attentive to this will help guide you to the right tools for success (more on this later).
  4. Don’t start too early. Players within the first two years or so of playing an instrument are probably not ready to play in a church ensemble. This doesn’t have to be a point of discouragement. In fact, when older students lead the way, the younger ones can look forward to the time when they are ready to begin playing in church.
  5. Make it positive. The biggest reason not to start too early is that it is absolutely essential that kids have a positive first experience doing this. In the next post, we’ll look at a few ways to begin plugging instrumental students into the gathered worship service.

A Major & Minor Scale Routine

Once you’ve become familiar with all of your major and minor scales*, it’s a good idea to keep playing them often.  Here’s a plan that can help you do that.  Rather than going around the circle of fifths or chromatically, we’ll follow this sequence of scales:

Major scale → Relative minor: Natural → Harmonic → Melodic →

Parallel Major → Relative minor: Natural → Harmonic → Melodic →

Parallel Major → Relative minor: Natural → Harmonic → Melodic →

Parallel Major → Relative minor: Natural → Harmonic → Melodic

You’ll notice that if you continued you would be back to where you began.  It looks complicated at first but it’s actual quite logical and takes advantage of two important music theory concepts:

  1. The major scale and its relative minor scale in natural form share the same notes, just a different pitch center (aka “tonic” – the first and last note of the scale)
  2. The melodic minor and the parallel major scale share all of the same notes except for the third.

In all, there are three groups of these four major/minor scales.  Here is the sequence of the actual scales:

Remember, each minor scale should be played in three forms (natural, harmonic, and melodic).  For example, group 1 would be:

C Major → a natural → harmonic → melodic minor →

A Major → f♯ natural → harmonic → melodic minor →

F♯/G Major → d♯/e natural → harmonic → melodic minor →

E Major scale → c natural → harmonic → melodic minor

One of the nice things about this system is that it pairs scales that tend to be more familiar (like C or F) with those that are likely to be less familiar (like F♯ or C).   

Depending on your facility with all of these scales (and practice time available), you can fit them in a six day practice week routine by doing them all either once a week, twice a week, or every day.  Here are the three options in a schedule:

Tips:

  • Don’t forget to play these with a metronome.  Regardless of whether you can play them fast or slow, it will help you chart your progress and develop consistency.
  • Play each scale in one breath.  This forces you to maintain a steady tempo and develops consistency of approach.
  • Rather than starting scales from the bottom (up and back down again), try starting them from the top (down and back up again).  Why?  It develops a different kind of familiarity with the scales and increases your confidence in starting in the upper register.
  • Vary the articulation in every way imaginable, especially when you start knocking these all out every day.

*Use this handy Scale Journal to keep track of your progress learning your major and minor scales. It’s best to memorize your scales, but if you’re not there yet here are scale sheets for major scales and minor scales.