Saturday, December 8, 2007

The Instrumental Soloist as Worship Leader - Barry Wilson

When the Body of Christ comes together to worship there is usually one whose job it is to organize and lead corporate acts of praise, adoration and thanksgiving. Depending upon a church's tradition, one of the following types of leadership - or variation thereof - will probably be employed by the leader to organize and encourage the worshipers to worship into a unified whole.

In the liturgical tradition there is usually an organist, sometimes assisted by a choir, who leads congregational singing with only slight indications as to when singing will commence or end. Perhaps one organist will be of the "head bob" school while another will relay upon a member of the clergy or choir to provide visual cues.

Perhaps the most predominant method of leading corporate singing is the vocalist/conductor who may beat time or use conducting gestures. This style of leadership was born in the evangelistic meetings of the early portion of this century and enjoys wide use from the smallest fellowships, whose leaders may not have any type of accompaniment at all, to mega-churches where a leader may enjoy the accompaniment of not just piano and organ but handbells, brass or full orchestra.

Within the last 30 years. the vocalist/guitarist and the vocalist/ keyboardist have become preferred alternatives in many churches. In the early days, these leaders were effective in only small, intimate worship situations, but thanks to advances in sound reinforcement technology they can be effective in nearly any size setting.

The newest concept is the team approach where several vocalists stand before their congregation and sing in harmony, perhaps taking turns to speak, interposing non-congregational songs into "sets" of choruses and hymns. Sometimes a solo leader who coordinates the efforts of the team.

Throughout most of my twenty-two years as a leader of congregational singing I have been a vocalist/conductor. However, long before I know how to draw a common-time pattern in the air above an imaginary plane, I was a trumpet player. As a college freshman, working towards a degree that would have prepared me to be a high school or college band director, I dreamed of playing professionally someday. But when the Lord called me into vocational music ministry in 1974 I automatically assumed I would not need my trumpet so I became a voice major and sold my Bach Stradivarius to get money to buy my fiancée an engagement ring.

In 1980, I became aware that winds of change were blowing through the world of church music. More and more music was being published for both solo instruments and ensembles. Someone had even coined the term "churchestra." I began wondering if there might be some way I could integrate playing trumpet into my ministry. With the help of family members, I secured a new instrument, began practicing, joined a local community band, and began looking for trumpet music I could use in church. Sixteen years later I'm still scrounging for good solo literature that is within my technical abilities. However, I recently discovered a way to use my trumpet that both glorifies God and energizes the congregational worship of my church. In addition to singing and using conducting gestures, I now use the sound of the trumpet in a leadership role.

Using solo instruments to lead worship is not a new concept. In the early 18th century, Johann Sebastian Bach led worship at Weimar from the pipe organ. During the early part of the 20th century, Charles M. Alexander broke new ground in evangelical music with the inclusion of the improvisational piano styles of Robert Harkness and Henry Barraclough during his evangelistic meetings. At the same time, Alexander was sanctifying the piano for use in church, Billy Sunday's soloist/song leader, Homer Rodeheaver, was becoming famous playing his trombone during congregational singing.1 In his early years with Billy Graham, Cliff Barrows followed Rodeheaver's model on the trombone. In spite of these models, even worship leaders with strong instrumental skills tend to neglect the solo instrument as a worship leading tool.

Using instruments other than keyboards, guitars, and voices to lead worship presents a new set of problems. To begin with not all instruments lend themselves to "leadership". (For the life of my I can't imagine a bassoonist leading a congregation in "Majesty"). To provide good leadership an instrument should play in approximately the same range as the human voice. Trumpets and tenor saxophones play well in this range. Leaders who play instruments with normal ranges outside that of the voice should be careful to use the team approach.

Some instruments also face problems of transpositions. For example, a B-flat trumpet cannot play directly from a vocal score because it sounds a whole step lower than what is written. Sight transposing can be done, but that skill comes with much time and practice. Other solutions to the transposition problem include writing tunes out by hand or purchasing transposed instrumental music.

Most instruments require the use of both hands, therefore, it's difficult to give signals to accompanying musicians. Even when it is possible to play an instrument with one hand, like the trumpet, it's quite difficult to be that coordinated. Good planning is a must when leading with an instrument. One of the biggest problems I face is due to the fact that I am not skilled at improvisation. I need printed music for just about everything, so the instrumentalist who can play "by ear" has a distinct advantage. However, one should keep in mind that congregational singing is not the proper place for the Jazz-oriented musician to show off his creative improvisational skills. Unless you have a strong group of back-up singers, be careful not to embellish too much. In other words, don't stray very far from the melody.

Here a few suggestions designed to help instrumentalists use their instruments effectively.

1. Practice, practice, practice! If life and ministry make it impossible to practice regularly, avoid using your instrument in worship. The Psalmist put it well when he said, "I will not sacrifice to the Lord my God burnt offerings that cost me nothing." (II Samuel 24:24b NIV).

2. Use sparingly. Don't play every Sunday nor on every song on the days you do play. Use your instrument to bring variety to worship.

3. Form a team. Instrumental worship leading works best when there is a choir or team of strong vocalists reinforcing the words.

4. Control the volume. Some instruments, like the trumpet, may be offensively loud. On the other hand, if you are a flautist, you may need to invest in a good microphone.

5. Plan ahead. Since your hands and lips will be busy working with your instrument, plan keys, transitions, modulations and repetitions ahead of time. The Holy Spirit seems to guide me better during the planning process than in the "heat of battle."

6. Program solos. From time to time, instrumental solos are quite appropriate. Solos provide an opportunity to express musical ideas that might cause confusion if attempted during corporate singing. And they are good to introduce new melodies. For example: introduce a new song by playing it once or twice on your instrument, then have a soloist sing it once or twice. By this time, your congregation will be ready to attempt it.


Hymn: "All Hail the Power of Jesus' Name" (Key G; accompanied by piano and organ with worship leader singing and conducting)
Prayer: (pianist or organist should play softly and modulate to Eb)
Chorus: "There's Something About That Name" (Key Eb; trumpet plays on first repetition but drops out for second V7/V modulation.
Chorus: "His Name Is Wonderful" (Key F; trumpet joins on second repetition)
Chorus: "Praise the Name of Jesus" (A cappella)

Chorus: "Majesty" (Key Bb; first repetition, trumpet solo with accompaniment, second repetition, congregation)
Chorus: "How Majestic Is Your Name" (Key C; begin leading with voice then switch to trumpet on refrain)
Scripture: Psalm 19:1-4 from Psalms Now by Leslie Brandt (Concordia Press). (keyboard transition beneath reading)
Chorus: "Great Is the Lord" (Key C; no trumpet)
Solo: (select a trumpet or vocal solo to fit theme)
Scripture: Psalm 8 (from NIV or Brandt)
Chorus: "The Majesty and Glory of Your Name" (Key C)

Choral music by the same title and can be found in Songs For Praise and Worship (Word), an excellent resource, or The Baptist Hymnal (1991, Convention Press).

1. Hustad, Donald P. Jubilate! Church Music in the Evangelical Tradition. (Carol Stream, IL: Hope Publishing) 1981.

Barry Wilson is Pastor of Music and Education at First Baptist Church of Perrysburg, Oklahoma.

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