Saxophone in the Sanctuary

When we think of the instruments most commonly associated with a traditional United Reformed worship service, organ and piano are usually at the top.  Smaller congregations might sometimes use an acoustic guitar.  And on special occasions, these accompanying instruments might possibly be joined by a trumpet, flute, or violin.  How about a saxophone?

For many of us, the mere mention of using a sax in worship makes our hair stand on end.  That’s because the genres of music inevitably associated with the saxophone are blues, jazz, and rock and roll.

If the instrument were only capable of playing those styles, traditional churches would have every reason to avoid utilizing it in worship.  But think again: Is it possible to play the saxophone beautifully and reverently, in a way that is entirely appropriate for the corporate worship of our God?  I submit to you that the answer to this question is a confident “Yes!”

In pop music, the saxophone is most renowned for its “wailing solos,” adding an often excessive level of virtuosity to the instrument’s remarkable resemblance to the timbre of the human voice.  But it’s that same unique similarity to the voice that enables the sax to play a psalm or hymn tune with emotion, depth, and beauty.  If you are so fortunate as to know someone who knows the saxophone, have them play a selection from the Psalter Hymnal one day; chances are you’ll be amazed at the sound you hear.  In stark contrast to its jazzy stereotype, a properly-played saxophone can add an extraordinarily unique color to the music of the church.

If you’re still not convinced, I’d like to recommend to you an album of hymns performed by an excellent saxophonist, James Steele, with the same title as this article: “Saxophone in the Sanctuary.”  When I first listened to the recording, I couldn’t believe I was actually hearing a sax.  Its rich, mellow tones gave each melody an exquisite quality possibly unparalleled by any other instrument.  Once you hear it yourself, you’ll know what I mean.

You might ask, “Why bother adding another instrument into our worship?”  Well, depending on the customs of your particular church, you might not have the opportunity (or the desire) for anything beyond simple piano or organ accompaniment.  However, numerous churches make regular use of solo instruments to accompany their congregational singing, for a variety of reasons.  Following are some primary rationales for this practice, along with Scriptural support:

  1. The Bible bursts with exhortations to praise God using a variety of instruments (Psalm 150).
  2. Many congregations possess members who are willing and able to serve the church through their gift of music (Romans 12:6); they are skilled enough to contribute to a worship service, and their instruments are capable of producing beautiful and God-glorifying music.  However, opportunities in the church are usually few and far between for musicians who play solo instruments like the sax.
  3. Utilizing the saxophone to accompany congregational singing provides a practical alternative to the idea of separate “special music” in worship, as the instrumentalist can assist the congregation in praise without drawing undue attention to himself or excluding his fellow worshipers (I Corinthians 14:26).

Practically, though, how can you introduce good saxophone music into your church?  First, of course, you have to find a saxophone player.  Just to ensure that this musician can handle the task, consider having a quick informal “audition” with him or her involving three or four easy hymn tunes.  Also find out what kind of saxophone your instrumentalist plays: there are several members in the family, including soprano, alto (the most common), tenor, and baritone sax.  And last but certainly not least, you’ll need to get approval from the leadership of your congregation.

Once you have established these important points, there are several possibilities for your first piece.  Below are a few of the approaches we’ve successfully used here at West Sayville Reformed Bible Church.

  • Play a simple, familiar psalm or hymn tune from the Psalter Hymnal with solo saxophone and simple accompaniment (preferably piano).  This is often harder for the pianist than the sax player, in fact; it’s especially important to keep the rhythm steady, provide a full but not overpowering accompaniment, and fill in the gaps between stanzas.  Since the tuning of saxophones is unusual (the C of an alto saxophone is our E-flat), your instrumentalist will probably need their melody line transposed.  You can do this yourself if your computer has music notation software like Sibelius or Finale, or you can purchase pre-transposed hymn arrangements designed specifically for woodwind players.  The finished piece could probably be best utilized as a special offertory.
  • Accompany a vocal piece or congregational singing with the sax.  If your saxophonist excels at solo pieces, he or she may be ready to tackle the additional nuances involved in accompanying vocalists.  The above comments apply here as well.  I would suggest assigning the sax a descant or other “accenting” part rather than burying it amidst the complex vocal harmonies.
  • Include saxophone in a larger instrumental ensemble.  At West Sayville, this has proved to be the most effective way to involve a large number of musicians in worship.  Just as in the case of a soloist, we select an easy, familiar psalm/hymn tune and create a basic system of piano and organ accompaniment.  We proceed to divide the instrumentalists into their various ranges (soprano: flute and trumpet; alto: clarinet and trumpet 2; tenor: saxophone; bass: piano).  Then we simply write out parts for each of the instrumentalists from the four-part harmony in the hymnbook, transposing keys if necessary.  There’s no more arranging involved; the ensemble just practices for a few weeks, and all its members are soon ready to play their piece as a prelude, offertory, or other instance of service music.

Due to its cultural associations, the saxophone as an instrument is often both misunderstood and underappreciated.  So long as the sax is separated from the secular style to which it is typically attached, I would heartily encourage you to consider the possibility of utilizing it in corporate worship.  If you are still dissuaded by well-grounded objections, please don’t hesitate to share them.  But I’m inclined to believe that once you fully explore this instrument’s tonal capabilities, you will come to discover that there is indeed a place—a beautiful, reverential, God-glorifying place—for saxophone in the sanctuary.


8 Responses to “Saxophone in the Sanctuary”

  1. 1 Larry Bump August 24, 2012 at 7:24 pm

    I am very confused by this post, especially the first sentence.

    Larry Bump, RPCNA

    • 2 Michael Kearney August 24, 2012 at 7:50 pm

      Mr. Bump,

      Your confusion is very understandable. Looking back I realize that a bit of clarification is in order. It would have been much more accurate if the first sentence had read instead, “When we think of the instruments most commonly associated with a traditional URCNA worship service, organ and piano are usually at the top.” Operating from the standpoint of a member of a federation which by and large uses instruments freely in worship, I suppose I committed a kind of “part-and-the-whole” fallacy.

      That said, I believe that if the URCNA’s standpoint on instruments in worship is taken into consideration, the rest of the article flows fairly logically from there. But I am open to correction here as well.

      In any case, I will certainly change that first sentence to avoid further confusion. Thanks very much for pointing it out.


      • 3 Larry Bump August 24, 2012 at 7:59 pm

        Thanks; I appreciate it. My main point, of course, is that traditional Reformed worship in it’s earlier days was a Capella, which means “in the style of the chapel”.

  2. 4 David Lewis September 6, 2014 at 9:11 pm

    Hello Michael
    A very refreshing article, one which i hope to quote from in my up coming proposal to our music committee.
    Currently my son plays saxophone to accompany the singing in our church, Free Reformed Church Baldivis. This is well received by the congregation and i am going to propose an ensemble rather than just a solo saxophone. I’m wondering if you have any music you may be able to share or even point us in the right direction to purchase our own.
    Dave Lewis

    • 5 Michael Kearney September 8, 2014 at 1:56 pm

      Mr. Lewis,

      Thanks for this comment. The music we’ve arranged at my home church is very limited and is only written for a few instruments (usually piano, organ, flute, clarinet, sax, and violin). There are many, many resources for instrumentation in worship, but two come to my mind first:

      Linda McKechnie (website here)

      Or, in a more Reformed worship context, Dale Grotenhuis (much of his music is currently unavailable, but check this helpful comment thread)

      I hope those resources help!


      Michael Kearney
      West Sayville URC
      Long Island, New York

  3. 6 louis marino May 25, 2015 at 3:50 pm

    It was an honor to meet you and hear you speak at the OPC Franklin Square Church on Sunday May 24 ,,,,, You are much wiser than your years.
    Your parents must be proud …

  4. 8 Doug kinzer June 7, 2016 at 11:58 am

    Im doug kinzer I have been playing tenor sax in baptist churches for over 20 years,for offerings. Also for funerals, and as long as it is played reverently, there is a place for it.

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