All Things Strings

I was at music rehearsal last night at church and during the run-through, the leader decided to upbraid the choir for not having their parts memorized. It felt like when someone else is getting a scolding at school - or a spanking - but it's not you. There's the sense of you could be next.

Now we don't work off scores - or very rarely do. Most of the time we get lyrics with chords written above them and are expected to "pick it up" from recordings. I might be naive, but I don't think you can expect too much from that. Especially vocal parts.

I'm the bass player - one of a few - and have invested thousands of $$$$ and hours of time to learn and study and buy my instrument. But I'm eternally frustrated with this situation. The band is expected to have a professional quality to it but we are not given professional leadership. The leader is a singer, and has had choir training, but she must have forgotten the staff and dots that were used in her training. You know, music?

I haven't confronted her about the situation, because I'm not sure she will hear it. It's one thing if every avenue has been utilized to make sure people have what they need to learn - like music, audio files of their parts, and practice time. It's something else - something abusive - to expect people to know without being taught. That's not right.

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Comment by David Byrd on March 12, 2009 at 9:46am
Thanks for the post. The relationship with our leadership is improving, but we still have some problems coming from higher up. We have started using, which helps at least find the sheet music and the mp3s. That helps. I am slowly learning more of the repertoire, which also helps. But rehearsals are still mostly run-throughs, and we often don't spend much time actually analyzing the music and learning what to do.

I have an internal struggle with the situation. Periodically I have watched the Smithsonian jazz masters orchestra rehearse. They are all top notch players - something I aspire to be, but am still learning. So when they come to rehearsal, they know the charts and can play them well. But they also are under the leadership of an equally talented conductor. And he (or she) definitely knows how it's supposed to sound.

The group in which I play is volunteers - not professionals. And we have a variety of music skill levels. I have heard that under stress you go to the lowest level of your training, and I think that applies here. When we get stressed (by performance anxiety) we fall back on what we know. But what our group lacks is a real musician that could teach the parts to the singers and the band and then to work off that plan. The Jazz Masters all have the same music in front of them - they know what's coming next. But we're improvising it at best.

But getting more money to invest in charts or sheet music or hiring a professional to conduct rehearsals just isn't in the cards. The leadership of the church doesn't believe in paying the musicians. They pay the worship leader, but everyone else is a volunteer. So it feels like we're being taken for granted. Even the worship leader agrees, that people invest time, money, gas, etc in helping the church, but they barely even get a thank you for it. Sometimes there is acknowledgment of the work, but most of the time it's just assumed it will be good. But being good costs. I personally have spent thousands of dollars on equipment and training, not to mention the commuting costs for rehearsals and performance. But the worship leader says every time she brings it up, the pastoral leadership shoots it down. Next thing? We're going to four services on Sundays. And they want us to park in the boondocks and the church will shuttle us to our cars and back.

I don't believe taking people for granted is biblical. And a BBQ every 6 mos or so is a small reward for the amount of work it takes to perform to the expected standard musically and vocally.
Comment by Jonathan Toner on March 12, 2009 at 7:47am
Just started reading this string and I have a couple of comments and suggestions. First you have my sympathies and understanding, I tried to get involved in a church group a while back, but it was so un-musical, the guitarist would fly off bunch of ill-timed notes at all the wrong times and at least 2 out 5 were wrong notes. The bassists confessed to me that he never practices until Sunday morning. e-gads! "Really?, I was have never guessed", I said (sarcasm intended). My wife and I eventually stopped coming to the church for the music portion it was so bad. We finally left the church, and I was invited to play cello in a community church Orchestra, which I absolutely LOVE. The Music Director is a true professional, and all the musicians are top notch, its an honor to play with them. We always have printed music we have rehearsals that are fun but quality-oriented, the Music Director NEVER berates anyone. He is a well trained musician, piano & viola player and singer. So there are exceptions to the church music theory that its all amateurish. That's not always true.

Suggestions: If your having issues I think you have two choices, talk to the other key band member an set up a meeting with the music director and discuss your grievances AND your goals, that you want to play well..but you need tools. Second, if you don't want to confront her, find out what the music will be and you and other bad members go find the music on-line and either purchase it..or download it so you have it. If you need something don't wait on your director, do it yourself and basically become the de-facto band/musicians leader! If all else fails leave the band..and chill for awhile, or find another church that meets your needs. Take a leadership role..and solve the problem.
Comment by Dave Light on March 7, 2009 at 10:30am
I toiled away for many a year, David, without so much as a set of guitar strings for my efforts! Only the organist (usually doubling as the choir director) was paid, and hardly a living wage! When, after 15 years, I was finally hired on by a large urban parish as "Music director", with several choirs, a youth ministry, and an organist under my sway, as well as responsibility for rehearsals, hiring ad hoc instrumentalists, writing and transcribing choral arrangements, and generating overhead transparencies of hymn lyrics, I began start to receive weekly monetary recompense. As a composer and recording artist with a modest stable of recordings and printed collections of songs, I also got to do regional workshops and even national conferences, some of which involved teaching.

In subsequent years, at other urban parishes, I was paid on a "by the service" basis. By that time, however, I'd been at it, non stop, for over 30 years, and I'd sacrificed a great deal of "quality time" with my kids and my (ex) wife. I felt it was time to let the "younger bucks" take over and to pursue some other, less stressful musical fiddling!!! So long as you "aspire to be such a person", that is, one willing to put in the time and make the necessary sacrifices to realize a truly successful music ministry, you'll be a very valuable and highly marketable musician. Shop it around, though; even the Lord took it "on the road"! Best of luck!
Comment by David Byrd on March 6, 2009 at 8:06am
Gotta love the use of the word WANKERS! My experience has been that in charismatic or pentecostal churches, sight-reading, theory, ear-training, etc., are NOT emphasized. People often just want to "play for the LORD." But scattered among us there are usually a few true musicians - people who have actually had serious training. Unfortunately, these people are often treated like the "outsiders" or are taken for granted that they will be able to "wing it."

Were I K-I-N-G of the J-U-N-G-L-E, people who want to serve would be trained - trained - by the ministry itself. Those who have had serious training - classical or otherwise - would be paid to teach those who volunteer how to do basic musicianship (I do not differentiate between musicians and singers; that's another story). But my experience has been that people are expected to be "good" - or God forbid "excellent" - without any investment on the part of the church.

What if churches made an investment in their singers and musicians - like helped pay for their music lessons or trained them as part of being involved? Right now, it often feels as if you are expected to know without being taught - which of course sets you up for failure and is a classic symptom of a shamed-based organization. But training people and leading them would take time and sacrifice. I aspire to be such a person, but my sight reading and ear skills are still "in process." So I work as hard as I can to learn and make a contribution; perhaps someday it will get better. I hope so.
Comment by Dave Light on March 6, 2009 at 6:46am
I've been out of "the game" for five years or so, but up to that point I'd been a choir director, choir member, worship guitarist, and liturgical composer for some 30 years. I can appreciate, to start with, that some denominations of the Christian family place greater emphases on "performance" than do others. Some worship ministries audition potential members pretty rigourously; I was accepted into a semi-professional worship choir 10 years ago after a pretty detailed audition, including some extensive sight reading. Still others are strictly volunteer outfits that accept pretty much any warm body who happens to be a church member. The problems can start when a music minister (regardless of training or ability) tries to do both. Getting volunteers who also happen to be flawless sight readers, beautiful singers, and/or accomplished instrumentalists is all but impossible in most worship settings of my experience. Willing participants can (and indeed should) be trained by an empathetic but highly skilled music director, a position (by the way) that should be a well-paid one! Bottom line, however, is for all concerned to remember the fundamental role of the music ministry: to aid in fostering a meaningful worship (prayer as well as praise) experience for everyone present at the service ( congregation and clergy, alike). Forget that, and you're nothing more than frustrated wankers who quickly come to resent the people in the pews as well as one another! Here endeth today's lesson!
Comment by David Byrd on February 22, 2009 at 10:18am

Thanks for the comments. I don't really think our leader is a "tyrant" but there's an expectation that we "should do our best for God." I'm not sure I agree with that. It almost seems like there's an expectation that we should be professional quality, but again I'm not sure. I'm not sure how much our leader reads music. I know she works with the choir to do arrangements. But as far as notes on pages, nah. Very rare. Anyway, as a Christian I need to give grace and space for growth. I hope that happens.
Comment by Jeff Morrison on February 22, 2009 at 8:17am

It's ironic to hear about a worship leader being a 'tyrant'. In the worship bands I've played with over the years it's usually the exact opposite. The 'leader' I play for now, for instance, barely knows how to play in two keys, uses the same tempo and rythm for every song (no matter how many times we practice at a different tempo), and his eyes glaze over any time he hears someone use the correct musical terminology when discussing a song arrangement. :)

Your bass teacher is right on the money when he says not to expect professionalism in a church band. The typical excuse for it is "we don't want to be professionals, we're just doing this for Jesus!" (as if Jesus doesn't deserve any effort at learing a little musicality or even practicing outside of rehearsal).

It sounds like your worship leader may have forgotten why she got involved with church music to begin with. It's silly to have grand expectations of a band without leading from the front. I've done quite a few music arrangements for people who didn't read music, but it takes a lot of patients and communiciation. In one church group I played with we split the rehearsals into two sectionals... one for the band (led by the piano player) and the other for the vocals (led by the music director) and then we put them together at the last half of rehearsal. That way the director didn't feel overwhelmed by having to do too much at once. Unfortunately, your director doesn't sound like the type of person who would be willing to give up that much control of the situation, but it might be worth suggesting if you think it would help.

Jeff M.
Comment by David Byrd on February 21, 2009 at 8:21am
Dear reader,

Everybody is trying hard on this church team. I do wish we could relax a little from the performance-based acceptance. Yes, we're "leaders" but we're also broken people. This thing we do called music is something we value, something precious, something that we would do for the love. I hope to be able to help people understand that God loves us regardless of our performance; it's people who get upset when they hear or make mistakes. But we're not perfect, we're busted. And even the best musicians (or singers) make mistakes. My brother - the professional organist in Boston - told me to play for the JOY it brings, and not to try to prove something. I think the boy is on to something there.
Comment by David Byrd on February 21, 2009 at 5:18am
Thanks for the kind words. My bass teacher keeps telling me not to expect professionalism - or even a hint of it - in the church. He left church because people were screwing him around and he plays in VICTOR WOOTEN'S BAND! Unreal. It should have been telling when I said to our "leader" one day that even the NSO has music stands. She said "well this isn't the National Symphony Orchestra." I looked at her and said "No, it's not." I don't think she heard the irony in my voice. But we'll see. Still praying about whether to confront this or not.
Comment by Cheryl Ann on February 21, 2009 at 4:37am
Hey Byrdman. :) You know I know how you feel. I hate this is happening (again??). I don't get it either. You know my experience, and I've been invited to play in another church orchestra, and I am SO hesitating to even think about it! MSO is so very different.....if we don't know our parts, our conductor has no problem with us just not playing it. We don't have to be perfect! And if a community orchestra can be like that, then a church band can! Sorry I can't be of much help other than to let you know I'm with ya. :)




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