Working with other church musicians

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At the moment, I am flying home from an intense weekend at a church in Indianapolis.  I worked with the church musicians for about eight hours on Saturday and then did a concert on Sunday.

The church is a larger one with many musicians.  Their music style is blended and they typically use piano, keyboard, organ, acoustic guitars, bass guitar, and some woodwinds.  When I started asking questions at the beginning of the day, it became obvious that the musicians were frustrated because they felt that they were being asked to do things that they were not very familiar with. For example, as more instruments were added, no one knew what role they should play.  There was also confusion over which instruments should lead and who should play melody.  And they were especially concerned because they were being asked to play lead sheets and charts which forced them to improvise much more.

Getting a dozen musicians to spend an entire Saturday practicing at church is a big deal.  And on top of that, they were very enthusiastic, eager to learn and (gasp!) open to criticism.  They are good already and I think we made a lot of progress during the day.  It was an honor to work with them.

This church situation is a familiar one for many of you so I want to talk about how I handled it.  Here are the three areas I focused on:

1)    Seeing music as chords rather than individual notes.  I taught them how to identify what chords need to be used, how to form those chords and different styles of playing them.
2)    Rhythm and tempo.  While they are already good musicians, they suffered from the most common problem of musicians-inaccurate counting.  A group of musicians cannot sound good together unless they ARE together.
3)    Roles.  I wanted to help them start separating the instruments into different tasks so that rather than many of them playing the same thing, they were playing complementary things.

An example situation that I had them work through involved a bass player playing a very simple line while a keyboardist played a melody line.  I then had pianists playing simple patterns with a bit of syncopation off a lead sheet. It highlighted the fact that basic counting and rhythm is something that we all constantly need to work on.

While working on music for Sunday, they played a modern song that has sort of a Jewish feel to it (can’t remember the name).  When they played it through the first time, I noticed a few things.  First, the organ was overpowering everyone and the light rhythmic effect they were going for was lost.  Secondly, organ, keyboard and piano were all playing essentially the same thing (the typical hymnplaying stride).  Thirdly, there was timing problems that were especially obvious because everyone was playing the syncopated melody.  Even studio musicians would have struggled to try to make that work.

The bass player was playing a simple and correct rhythm so I left her and the guitar player alone (they sounded great and were not trying to play melody). I then had the organist back way off in volume and asked the pianist to play the introduction instead so that we could establish the light feel from the beginning.

To get the pianist and keyboardist playing different things from the organ, I asked the pianist to play nothing but the melody line in octaves.  I had the keyboardist play nothing but chords on beats 2 and 4 in both hands.

The result was pretty dramatic.  Rather than the sound of a lot of instruments competing against each other, you heard instruments working with each other and creating real music.  It sounded great and was the highlight of my weekend.

I think there were a few reasons why this worked.  First, the instrumentalists were willing to learn and they picked up things quickly.  Second, they were all willing to step back and simplify.  Notice that I did not ask anyone to play more stuff.  Rather, I spent much of the day encouraging most of them to play much less.

 I have to admit that as a pianist, I would not be thrilled if my role was relegated to just playing the melody as an octave, but that is the kind of thing that often needs to happen.  Ideally, the roles of each musician shift from song to song so no one gets too bored.  But everyone cannot be front and center if you want the entire group to sound good.

At the end of the day, here was my final advice.  See yourself as a cog in the wheel that is producing music.  Relish that.  Listen more, enjoy what you hear and play less.  And what you do play should fit into the big picture.