Posts Tagged 'Instruments'

How to Prevent Church Music Disasters

Organ PictureA few days ago, while I was browsing through some recordings of church services, I came across a very peculiar incident.  The song leader had spontaneously chosen a rather contemporary hymn for the congregation to sing.  To the congregation, the song was completely new; the pianist, struggling to find the right notes and rhythms, had obviously never heard it before either; and, most unfortunate of all, the leader himself was unable to hold the tune.  The result was a comic disaster.

When I had given up on trying to decide whether to laugh or cry, I began to wonder if there might be a few things we could learn from this incident.  Perhaps an obvious reaction would be to complain that song leaders shouldn’t pick psalms or hymns the congregation doesn’t know.  For my part, I believe this response is both oversimplified and misguided—after all, if only familiar songs are to be sung, how can someone learn anything new?  No, I concluded; dumbing down our churches’ repertoire will only be detrimental.

As a church musician, I found myself instead focusing more intently on the role of the accompanist in such a situation.  Let’s be honest: if you’ve played an instrument in worship services for any period of time, you know that if the unexpected can happen, it will happen.  Bulletins will come out late.  Pastors will make last-minute changes.  You’ll have to adapt to instruments that need repair.  And at some point, you’ll probably be put in a position similar to this poor pianist’s, faced with the responsibility of spontaneously sight-reading a completely new piece of music.

However, I believe there is a remedy (if not a complete cure) for this kind of dilemma.  It’s a simple solution that any church musician can follow, and in my own all-too-short experience, it has proven itself immensely helpful.  This program comes in two parts:

1.  Listen.

Listen often and again to good recordings of church music, specifically the kind you’ll be playing most often in our Reformed churches (congregational psalms and hymns).  This has a huge variety of benefits: it’ll familiarize you with the styles and nuances of church music; it’ll expose you to a wide range of interpretations, tempos, embellishments, and the like; and it’ll help you develop your own well-rounded approach for your own congregation.  These aspects go far beyond mere technical difficulty; that’s why we try to collect links to real recordings from the Psalter Hymnal (not computerized renditions) here on URC Psalmody, especially on our Psalter Hymnal Albums page.

2.  Play.

Play—a lot.  As you listen to other church musicians, try to evaluate their styles and decisions; then try to emulate the best of these in your own playing.  As a personal example, listening to recordings from other URC churches has prompted me to turn my tempo down a notch and support the congregational singing rather than dominate it.  Also, it might be beneficial to aim to familiarize yourself with every number in your church’s primary songbook, whether that be the Psalter Hymnal or another collection.  (This may seem like an overambitious goal, but just think: if you play just two songs from the Psalter Hymnal every day, you’ll be finished with the book in well under a year.  And you’ll never again be caught by surprise when playing from this songbook!)

Certainly it is the pastor’s or song leader’s responsibility to pick good, solid psalms and hymns that are suitable for congregational singing.  And certainly some of the responsibility rests with the congregation, to sing actively and enthusiastically rather than absently mumbling.  But we, the church musicians, must bear in mind that it is our responsibility to be familiar with all the songs in our church’s collection, even before they’re picked for a service.  This is necessary not so that we can give solo performances during worship, but so that we can properly support worship’s primary instrument: the congregation.

(Side note for a cappella worship traditions: In this case, the leader and the congregation both bear a much heavier responsibility.  Not only is the congregation the primary instrument, it is the only instrument, and as such, it needs to have a much greater awareness of and connection to its music.  With greater challenges, however, come greater benefits.)

So if you ever find yourself in the midst of a musical “train wreck” during a worship service, don’t despair.  Surely it’s happened to all of us at one time or another.  Rather, press onward to further improve your own technique and better support the congregation.  And take comfort in remembering that, regardless of what songs are selected, your role as a good church musician should never change.


Featured Recording: RP Psalm 100

Last summer, my co-author Jim Oord wrote an article introducing our readers to a denomination with which the United Reformed Churches in North America enjoy Phase 2 ecumenical relations: the Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America.  (In layman’s terms, this simply means that our doctrines, practices, and worship styles are very compatible.)  The RPCNA is a notable denomination for many reasons, not least their practice of exclusive psalmody.  Reformed Presbyterians sing only the Psalms in public worship (from an excellent modern psalter, The Book of Psalms for Worship), and they do so without any instrumental accompaniment.

Needless to say, Jim’s post generated plenty of comments and not a little controversy.  However, the point we wanted to convey most of all was not that one denomination is better than the other, but that the RPCNA has an incredible commitment to learning, singing, and loving the psalms which we might do well to emulate.  Hymns or no hymns, the Reformed Presbyterians’ ability to sing the psalms in full four-part harmony, often from memory, is downright incredible.

Today’s Featured Recording on URC Psalmody is an example of such excellent psalmody.  During the 180th synod of the RPCNA, the delegates gathered on the stage of the Indiana Wesleyan University auditorium and belted out Psalm 100, “All People That on Earth Do Dwell” (a similar version can be found in the blue Psalter Hymnal, number 195).  Just listen to the heartfelt singing and glorious harmonies:

Indeed, whether or not we agree with our Reformed Presbyterian brethren on the exclusive use of the psalms in worship, this recording ought to inspire us to recommit to a manner of worship that prioritizes the Psalter as the songbook given by God directly to his people.  It’s the most important worship music decision we’ll ever make.

For more Reformed Presbyterian psalm-singing resources, check the links on our page on The Book of Psalms for Worship.


(Click here for last week’s Featured Recording)

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.


Contemplating the Covenanters

A personal reflection on the RPCNA

The Reformed Presbyterian Churches of North America (RPCNA) have an absolutely incredible history of God’s faithfulness to His people.  Arising from the Covenanter movement in 16th century Scotland, the first American RP Church was founded in Pennsylvania in 1743, with the first presbytery (similar to the URCNA’s classis) being organized in 1774.  Although there have been some rough passages in their history since then, the RPCNA has remained almost unbelievably faithful to their principles and roots.

The RPCNA is a confessional Reformed denomination, faithfully holding to the Westminster Standards and upholding the infallibility and inerrancy of Scripture.  True to their Covenanter roots, they are identified by their well-known “For Christ’s Crown and Covenant” banner, which is also the origin of the name of their publishing house, Crown and Covenant Publications.  The RPCNA has a wonderful college, an excellent seminary, and very effective missions.

More Germaine to this blog is their consistent singing of the 150 biblical psalms.  The RPCNA is an exclusive psalmist denomination, believing that the correct application of the regulative principle of worship is that the church’s “musical praise employs God’s Word only, thus making use of the divinely inspired Book of Psalms.”  Also notable is their practice of singing the psalms a capella, without musical accompaniment.  They maintain this practice in order to encourage “keeping with the New Testament Church’s directive for heart worship,” that is, to remove any distraction from “singing and making melody to the Lord with all your heart” (Ephesians 5:19).

In light of the URCNA’s Synod 2012’s recent discussion of entering “phase 2” of fraternal relations with the RPCNA, Michael asked me to take a few moments to reflect on my relationship with the RPCNA.  There are many nuances to Synod’s discussion which I do not intend to delve into.  This blog is about Psalmody, after all, so that is where we’ll stay.

We’ve discussed exclusive psalmody on this blog before (and can discuss it further in the future), but today, I’d just like to focus on the richness of the RPCNA’s heritage of singing the psalms.

To be honest, I never knew of the RPCNA’s existence until I went to college.  There, I became intimately familiar with the denomination; in fact, most of my best friends were (and are) members of the RPCNA.  Through my friends, and the experiences I had worshiping at various RPCNA churches, I came to love and appreciate that denomination.

Being Scottish in background, the RPCNA uses Psalters that are rich in the heritage of Scottish Psalmody.  From the historical roots of the Scottish Psalter (1564, revised by the Westminster Assembly in 1646 and approved for use by the Church of Scotland in 1650), the RPCNA enjoys a rich tradition of excellent Psalters.  The Scottish Psalter went through a few reprints and was completely overhauled into The Book of Psalms for Singing in 1973 and most recently The Book of Psalms for Worship in 2009.  All of these Psalters are rich and faithful to the biblical Psalms.  Although these Psalters are from a Scottish, rather than continental, background, readers familiar with the Blue Psalter Hymnal and its family tree would probably recognize many of the tunes and phrasings, as the Scottish Psalter was one of the sources for the Christian Reformed Psalter and Psalter Hymnal.  I personally found the English and Scottish tunes to be easy to learn, robust and rousing.

Although I found the a capella singing to be a bit unusual and surprising at first, I have never been to an RPCNA congregation that doesn’t sing (I mean really sing!).  These churches take their psalm-singing seriously, and some of the most musically beautiful and heartfelt praise I’ve ever been a part of has taken place in RPCNA churches.  From young to old, each member belts out the words of Scripture in time-honored harmonies.  Whether singing in a service or around a campfire, it’s clear that each member of the RPCNA is brought up to cherish and love the biblical psalms.  It was from RP church members that I really learned afresh to love the psalms and the singing thereof.

I’ll never forget a Sunday afternoon I spent with a handful of my Covenanter friends.  I was asked to close the meal with a Bible reading, and I chose to read a psalm.  For whatever reason, I neglected to announce which psalm I was reading.  But immediately following the reading, several of my friends chimed in with the reference.  Thinking it was a fluke and that I could stump my Scottish brethren, I started a little game.  I would read what I thought was an obscure passage from the psalms and make them guess from which psalm it came.  With alarming accuracy, my RP brothers and sisters nailed the psalm references.

Now I’ll lay my cards on the table: I enjoy singing hymns.  I think they are an appropriate and glorious way to express Christian joy, even within the worship service.  But seeing what such a solid tradition of church psalmody can do really impressed on me the importance, the crucial necessity, of singing the psalms in worship.  We’ve listed so many reasons to sing the biblical psalms on this blog.  Another reason (among many) that I learned from the RPCNA was that we must sing the psalms in order to foster a love of the psalms, in order to memorize the psalms, in order to think in the language of the psalms, as I’ve seen demonstrated time and again by my RP friends.

I benefited (and continue to benefit) so much from my acquaintance with the RPCNA.  If that benefit on a small, personal scale can be reflected on a federational scale (in whatever stage of fraternal relations) with the URCNA, then praise God!

Don’t get me wrong, the Dutch Reformed background of the URCNA contains its own rich heritage of psalm-singing.  But if we can catch the zeal and exuberance that the RPCNA has for the psalms, we will be richer for it.  I learned to love Christ more passionately through the psalms from my friends in the RPCNA.  Let’s be clear – the URCNA and the RPCNA are not identical twins.  But at least in the area of psalmody, let us celebrate and enjoy our fellowship with this rich and historic denomination, for they have much to teach us.


Behind the Scenes of Church Music

Grace Reformed Church, where the URC plant meets

Grace Reformed Church, where the URC plant meets

Over the past weekend, I had the opportunity to visit a number of friends and family in the Maryland/Virginia area.  All of the visits were greatly enjoyable, and a few were very musical as well!  On Sunday we worshiped with Dr. Brian Lee’s congregation at Christ Reformed Church in Washington, DC.  Dr. Lee was gracious enough to extend the offer for me to play the organ during their service.  This was an incredible treat, as well as a great learning experience in organ performance.  Here’s a short video of my practice time before the service, to give you an idea of the beautiful sound of this 1931 Möller.

The logistics involved in coordinating accompaniment for worship, especially when visiting an unfamiliar church, can be pretty complicated.  That got me thinking: What is the best way to coordinate music in a Reformed church both efficiently and effectively?  To help answer this question, here are a few of the general steps involved in providing the music at my home congregation, West Sayville Reformed Bible Church.  It’s a look behind the scenes, if you will, at the logistics of church music.

Keep in mind that I’ve included every possible step in the outline below.  While this is the way I would like an ideal week of preparation to roll out, oftentimes my plan is just that—an unrealistic ideal.  With that disclaimer out of the way, here are the steps.

  1. As soon as possible, I find out what our pastor’s sermon topic is, read through the Scripture texts, and begin looking at possible choices for service music (using mainly the topical index in the front of the hymnbook).  Since my preludes and offertories are usually built on simple medleys of Psalter Hymnal tunes, I try to find selections that blend well with each other.  If I am coordinating my playing with another musician, we share ideas and form tentative plans for our choices.
  2. Pastor picks the congregational songs, usually on Friday.  I run through his selections on the piano or organ at home, and let him know if anything seems like an unwise choice for our congregation.  Often the correction can be as simple as an alternate psalm setting or a tune change.
  3. After the congregational songs are picked, I finalize the service music.  Then I create a bulletin insert with the lyrics to the music (more on this beneficial practice in a future post).  I send this to the church secretary before the bulletin deadline, hopefully by Friday night.
  4. I practice the congregational hymns at home, and if possible, at church.  I evaluate the tunes as to tempo, phrasing, difficult spots, and so on.  I also comb through the lyrics to find any phrases that might need some special emphasis in the accompaniment.
  5. I also practice my service music and, if it’s my own improvisation, I work on the arrangement.  If I get a chance to practice on the church organ, I work out which registrations I’ll be using.
  6. On Sunday morning, I try to get to church a bit earlier than usual and set up the organ—preparing my sheet music, finalizing the registrations, and so on.  Having estimated the length of the prelude at home, I work backwards to figure out when I should start it during the service.  Usually I berate myself for forgetting to bring a watch, but in a pinch, my cell phone will do (provided the ringer is off).
  7. I play for the service.  During each song I try to keep one ear on the congregational singing to decide whether I need to play faster or slower, be louder or softer, &c.  This constant attention to the sound of the congregation is more important than it might seem!
  8. Our sound technician generously records the music from the service for me, so I take the CDs home and copy the music from them.  I add these recordings to a growing collection at home.  Why?  Well, it’s not because they’re always particularly pleasant for listening, but because I want a record of the arrangements and registrations I used, the nuances of the congregational singing, and so on.  All of these factors will play into what I’ll choose for the next service.

Is this list obsessive?  Maybe it’s more than an average musician can fit into an already busy week.  But like I mentioned above, this is an ideal scenario—one we can always aim for, even if we usually miss.  That said, this system is still weak in a few areas:

  • I happen to live a fairly significant distance from the church, so the travel time is prohibitive when it comes to practicing on the organ during the week.  Although I’m incredibly blessed to have an organ here at home, there’s no replacement for the stops and sounds of the actual church instrument.
  • In order for this schedule to work, the pastor has to pick the hymns unusually early, and the secretary has to print the bulletin unusually late.  I regret having to impose on the schedules of the church staff in this way.
  • Any of these carefully-laid plans could change at a moment’s notice.  Whether it’s a sudden change in worship order, a copier malfunction, or an organ breakdown, anything can happen at any time during the week.  My humorous but often-true rule of thumb is that at least three unexpected things will happen on any given Sunday morning.  Thus, while the planning stages are important, I try not to devote an excessive amount of time to meticulous details.

Now, fellow church musicians: What are your preferred methods for planning and coordinating the music in a worship service?  Do you use something like the system described above, or have you found a better method?  Do you have any comments or suggestions for improvement?  I look forward to hearing from you.

To God be the glory,


URC Psalmody on YouTube

Geneva College Benefit Concert

With this feature, just enter your email address and you'll receive notifications of new posts on URC Psalmody by email!

Join 234 other followers