Instruments of Praise
by Mark Glaeser (May / June 2002 • Volume 18 • Number 3)
How we can use instruments in the praise of God, from soloists to orchestral ensembles
Let ev'ry instrument be tuned for praise;
Let all rejoice who have a voice to raise;
And may God give us faith to sing always:
Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia!
(Lutheran Book of Worship hymn 555)
These words from Fred Pratt Green's hymn paraphrase the familiar words and sentiment of one of David's psalms:
Praise the Lord. Praise him by blowing trumpets.
Praise him with harps and lyres. Praise him with tambourines and dancing. Praise him with stringed instruments and flutes.
Praise him with clashing cymbals.
Praise him with clanging cymbals.
Let everything that has breath praise the Lord.
As I consider the use of instruments in worship, I am struck by two words that are shared by the psalmist and the author of the hymn: "let" and "every." "Let" implies that we should allow instruments to be used in our praise. "Every" suggests that we should not play favorites.
The use of instruments in worship is certainly historic. There are nearly 100 references to instruments and their use in praise of God in the Bible. Certainly the oldest instruments mentioned are the harps, lyres, flutes, trumpets, tambourines, and drums.
The use of organs arrived more than 2,000 years later and were, in fact, resisted at first. Pianos gained in popularity in the 1800's and really spread with American expansion westward as a nation.
Without question, keyboard instruments have enjoyed a semi-monopoly as the instrument of choice in churches for the past several hundred years. In particular, the piano is used in more Protestant churches than the organ.
As Lutherans, however, the organ enjoys the dominant role, a role not altogether undeserved. The organ is supremely capable of accompanying the people's song. From its flutes and strings to its mixtures and reeds, the organ is able to control a dynamic range from quiet and intimate to powerful and nearly symphonic.
The organ is also extremely efficient. One person is able to command the resources of this versatile instrument, an economic reality appreciated by congregations worldwide.
Expanding Our View
Nevertheless, expanding our view to include the addition of other instruments will require expansion in several other areas as well. Many of us are used to our almost Lone Ranger-like role as organist, a role in which the control is closely guarded and maintained by one person. The addition of others requires a little more work and some loss of control.
Working with instrumentalists requires extra time for music selection, perhaps some transposing, as well as even more time to rehearse. The orchestral instruments are generally met with wide acceptance in most worship settings and would include instruments in the wind, brass, string, and some members of the percussion family.
An initial way to add instruments in a worship setting is to include a solo instrument for playing a melody or adding a descant on the accompaniment of a hymn or songs in the liturgy. Preludes, voluntaries, and postludes abound in printed form to enhance the service and amplify themes.
|Transformation of lives can transform a ministry. A transformed ministry can change the path of a congregation. A congregation in praise of its Creator is, indeed, a joyful noise!|
Instead of an organist or pianist, use an unaccompanied cello, violin, or French horn to introduce a Lenten hymn. The hollow quality of the lone sound can express the near despair of the author's hymn text often nearly as well as, and sometimes better than, the poetry itself.
The converse is also true. A solo flute, oboe, or trumpet can express joy and hope.
The underlying assumption is that the instrument is played artistically and musically. No instrumentalist should be asked to play beyond his or her ability or comfort zone, both for the sake of the liturgy as well as the players' sense of self esteem.
Groups of orchestral ensembles in duos, trios, quartets, and other combinations are great ways of adding to the accompaniment of music for worship. It is possible to accommodate a greater variety of skill levels in a larger ensemble. Players of lesser ability are able to play more confidently and with less risk of exposure on inner voice parts. Festival settings of the liturgy and hymn arrangements scored for various combinations of instruments are numerous. A listing of some of these arrangements and other resources are included at the end of this article.
In our congregation, I have also tried to carefully cultivate an intergenerational orchestra (see adjacent sidebar article, "Organizing an Orchestra," for further details). It has taken several years to develop but it has been worth the effort. It is intergenerational in order to open the opportunity for more people to attend and to increase the number and variety of instruments.
One by-product of good church music, frequently, is that it provides opportunities for evangelistic outreach. We now have several students and adults who are not members of the church attending regularly and playing in the church orchestra.
It is truly rewarding to see that they now come to church on Sundays when the brass group or the orchestra is not even playing. Still more rewarding is when they invite other non-churched friend to attend or join with them.
Another way of involving instrumentalists in worship is organizing a contemporary ensemble. This liturgical ensemble is responsible for leading the various functions of the entire liturgy for which the organ or piano would otherwise lead alone. The ensemble's effectiveness is limited or expanded by how well the members can truly work together and support one another.
Many of the instruments used in today's contemporary liturgical ensembles lie outside the comfort zone of the orchestral instruments normally associated with traditional worship.
(I have always been personally amused that people will assign human qualities and/or attributes to musical instruments. A violin or flute can be pure and reverent, whereas an electric guitar or a soprano saxophone is intrinsically sultry or ungodly.)
In the same way, sacred music is defined primarily by its text — not by its tune, musical style, or the instruments that accompany the piece. The fact remains, however, that all instruments should be played musically and artistically. The instrumentalists, the selections they play, and the way they play their instruments should enhance and never detract from the service or liturgy.
The contemporary ensemble that I work with in my congregation is comprised of an acoustic guitar, electric guitar, bass guitar, soprano saxophone, two synthesizers, percussion (tambourine, congas, bongos, claves, finger cymbals), drums, and a piano.
Typically, contemporary ensembles are led either by a guitar or a piano as the guiding, foundational instrument. Both can be quite effective and each has its strengths. A piano is able to provide harmonic, rhythmic, and melodic leadership-all at the same time. A guitar can provide either harmonic and rhythmic leadership or melodic leadership, but not all three at one time.
|One by-product of good church music is that it provides opportunities for evangelistic outreach.|
Whoever leads the group must function as the conductor of a choir in worship, listening carefully to the "larger picture" and keeping everything together. If the guitars or drummer are not ready to begin for any reason, or are absent from that service, the leader begins and the others "layer" themselves in, or stagger their entrances.
The soprano saxophone (or you could substitute a trumpet, flute, violin, or oboe) functions much the same as the brighter strops on the organ (like the brighter 2' stops or mixtures). These instruments serve the function of outlining the melody for the congregation, usually playing the melody or descant material an octave or two above the actual pitches where the congregation is actually singing. In this way the congregation is clearly able to hear the melody as it is progressing its way through the hymn tune.
The guitars, percussion (tambourine, claves, bongos, and congas), drums, and piano form the rhythm section. Together they form a cohesive unit that lays the rhythmic foundation of the liturgy or hymns for the congregation. The synthesizers can either reinforce the middle of the sound spectrum with a string or "pad" sound, or they might replace a missing instrument (like bass, piano, or flute), or add a descant or melody-reinforcing function (like the saxophone or trumpet).
Where to Start
Does working with an instrumental ensemble sound like a lot of work? It is. Flying solo as a pianist or organist, alone, is far easier and more time-efficient. The solo organist knows what needs to be done and when it needs to be done.
While instrumentalists and their instruments can add much to a service, the corresponding work1oad for the minister of music dramatically increases. Preparation time for creating scores or "charts," transposing of any parts, searching for appropriate music, and allowing extra time for rehearsals will become part of the work load. When sound is reinforced with the addition of amplifiers, extra time will be spent working out issues about sound.
Where does a congregation with limited resources find such instrumentalists? A great place to start is with your junior high and high school students. A budding young flute or French horn player can play a prelude piece as well as reinforce a melody line or add a descant to the final verse of a hymn.
The friends of these same junior high and high school players are a second great source. Their parents, siblings, and even teachers are where I search next.
I am constantly making an appearance at all of our new member classes and asking for instrumentalists (Right now, I'm searching for a killer oboist!). Many adults have played an instrument earlier in their lives, while still others are willing to loan the church their instrument for someone else to play. Still more of them do not go to church at all or have fallen away from the church.
Whatever their story, they need someone to ask. Bit by bit, I have seen this kind of ministry grow and even become a tool for evangelism. The more often they play in worship, the more they attend worship. The more they attend worship, the more opportunity they have for the transforming seeds of God's word to be sown in their hearts.
Transformation of lives can transform a ministry. A transformed ministry can change the path of a congregation. A congregation in praise of its Creator is, indeed, a joyful noise!
For further information on the subject of using instruments in worship services, try the following resources:
- Robert Buckley-Farlee and Norma Aamodt-Nelson, eds., Leading the Church's Song (Augsburg Fortress, 1998).
- Robert Buckley Farlee, Great and Promised Feast (Augsburg Fortress, 2000).
- John Ferguson, Festival Setting of the Communion Liturgy (Concordia, 1991).
- Marty Haugen, Instrumentation and The Liturgical Ensemble, (G.I.A. Publications, Chicago, 1991).
- Richard Hillert, Festival Canticle: Worthy Is Christ (Concordia, 1976).
- Walter L. Pelz, Hymn Settings for Organ and Brass, Sets 1-4 (Augsburg Fortress, 1992).
Organizing an Orchestra
As mentioned above, it has taken several years to develop and organize an intergenerational orchestra. Here is how we are currently shaping our time together.
The overall rehearsal is an hour and a half in length. It begins at 5 p.m. I encourage people to attend "on their way home from work — and before dinner." Because I have found people less likely to come back to the church for a meeting or rehearsal after dinner, I try to catch them earlier.
Many parents also have allowed me to talk them into picking up their instruments again, often after a hiatus of 20 years or more. Others no longer have their trumpet or flute from high school band days and have consented to rent an instrument.
Still others in the congregation have responded to my "Want List" in our church newsletter. We ask them to loan their unused violin, French horn, or other instrument to our music ministry, and allow the church, in turn, to loan the instrument to another student or adult.
The orchestral rehearsal is divided into two halves. The first half is a sectional rehearsal where the strings, brass, and winds all meet separately to rehearse their own parts and/or any pieces that are just for their instrument group. I lead one of these groups. The other two are led by my associate and a volunteer who happens to be a professional musician.
However, a high school player has led one of these sectionals before. The sectional rehearsal allows the individual players more concentrated focus on tuning and the given notes in any individual part. Overall balance and blend within the section has also dramatically improved as a result; it is often difficult for an individual to hear as carefully and accurately in the larger ensemble.
The second half of the rehearsal is spent with the entire group together. At first, we set a goal of playing at Christmas Eve and Easter. Next, we added an extra choir concert. As the group grew in what they could accomplish, we added opportunities such as Reformation Sunday, and a Sunday in any given month. The main point is that we committed to a starting date with a very basic plan.
Mark Glaeser, an associate in ministry, is organist and director of music at Christ Lutheran Church, Charlotte, North Carolina.