Saturday, December 01, 2007

Four Ways Instrumentalists Can Raise the Bar

by Greg Howlett @

Music is a lightning rod for controversy on SharperIron, and I am hopeful that this article will lead to some thoughtful discussion and introspection. However, I have challenged myself to write about music in a way that is relevant to the average fundamentalist church while avoiding the normal debates about CCM and stylistic preferences.

PianoAs a church musician, arranger, and recording artist, I have been involved in church music for almost 30 years and have ministered in hundreds of fundamentalist churches. That track record hardly qualifies me as an expert, but I do have some strong opinions about what I perceive to be some of the weaknesses in our music.

This article is largely directed toward church instrumentalists though there are many applications for anyone else serving in music ministries. Specifically, I want to address four ways I believe instrumentalists can improve the music in their churches.

1. Beauty is a priority.

It is impossible to deny that God values beauty. Positive references to it are scattered throughout the Bible. We see incredible beauty in creation, and heaven is described to be a very beautiful place.

I do not believe that it is a stretch to say that beauty is a quality we should strive for in our music. However, church instrumentalists often sacrifice beauty for either technical impressiveness or stylistic contrast in an arrangement. Both of these are a lousy trade.

Brilliant technique affects the intellect, but beauty affects the heart. Technique draws attention to the performer, but beauty draws attention to God. Most church instrumentalists are simply not skilled enough to put both brilliant technique and beauty in their music. In those cases, they should play simpler music and focus on making it as beautiful as possible.

Stylistic contrast within arrangements is overrated, and it should never be introduced at the expense of the original beauty of the song. When arrangers start looking at arrangements as a theme and variations, unnatural things start happening (my personal pet peeve is inappropriate minor key variations). If you find yourself playing things that don’t sound good just for the sake of contrast, reconsider what you are doing. There are few exceptions to the principle that beauty should overrule stylistic contrast.

2. Humility is a necessity.

Interestingly enough, while there have been numerous discussions on SI over CCM and stylistic preferences, I have never read anything about what I consider to be the biggest problem we face in our church music—the sin of pride. Pride within the music ministry is one of those ugly secrets in our churches, and it shows itself in several different ways.

If you are a musician in your church, I challenge you to go to your music pastor and ask him if he thinks you are the right person to be playing that instrument. Let him know that you will step aside if he thinks the ministry would be served better without your playing. If he says he wants you to keep playing, ask him how you can do a better job and then implement his suggestions. Don’t be one of the many musicians in our churches who refuse to defer to the better musicians and in the process hold back the overall quality of the music.

Another way pride hinders the music ministry of a church is when musicians attempt to play music that is too hard for them just so they can show off their technical expertise. As I mentioned earlier, technical expertise can interfere with the beauty of the music and also curtails the ability of the music to communicate effectively. Many of us should choose to play simpler music than we do.

With the overly healthy egos most of us possess, it is a wonder God can use us at all. Realistically, we are not nearly as good as we think we are. I have been privileged to take occasional piano lessons from John Innes for the past few years. John Innes played for the Billy Graham crusades for many decades and is a remarkable musician. When I start thinking I am a pretty good pianist, I only need a lesson with John to be reminded of how far I have to go. When I really need a dose of reality, I need only listen to the brilliant secular pianists around today that put all of us to shame.

3. Inducing emotion is a noble goal.

Good music should make people feel something—hopefully more than just an admiration for the performer. A study of music in Psalms reveals that music should inspire and be inspired by passionate emotions of praise toward God. Performing church music without that goal in mind is aiming too low.

I once heard a well-known country musician tell a younger singer that it was not his job to impress people—it was his job to make them cry. If country music can inspire that level of emotion, our music should be even more powerful.

Our fear of the hyper emotion demonstrated by others in Christianity should not drive us toward music that is empty of emotion. Unfortunately, I think that is our tendency in many cases.

Obviously, your music should glorify God. But after that, what is your primary goal for the music you play publicly? In my opinion, it should not be to impress people or even to communicate with them. Your primary goal should be to affect them at a deep level and to nudge them toward a greater love and knowledge of God. Emotion is an important component of achieving that goal.

4. Staying current is not compromise.

While it may have been wise and even necessary, the church in general and fundamentalists in particular have paid a heavy price for their decision several decades ago to separate from popular genres of music such as jazz. In a nutshell, the quality of our music is now far behind other genres.

That is not to say that we are not improving. The music written both in fundamentalist circles and Christianity in general is far superior to what was being written fifty years ago (I am speaking about the musical form rather than the words). However, we still have a long way to go.

Our strategy of musical separation should consist of more than just trailing the world’s music by twenty or thirty years. It would be nice if the church was leading by example as it did in past centuries. If we are going to do that, we first need to catch up with the musical development of the last century. In particular, we need a harmonization facelift.

So if you are an instrumentalist, take time to study theory and make yourself current. There is a lot you can learn outside fundamentalist circles about music that you can apply to church music without any kind of compromise. Frankly, we need a lot of that exploration going on.

I am sensitive to the fact that people have different opinions about music, and I am in no way implying that my thoughts are biblical mandates. But I do think that regardless of our personal stylistic preferences, we instrumentalists can improve our music by a renewed focus on these four areas.

Greg HowlettGreg Howlett lives with his wife, Marla, and four children in Monroe, Georgia. He is a Christian recording artist and is involved in the music ministry at Grace Baptist Church in Dacula, Georgia.

You can hear his music at He also regularly posts free Christian piano lessons to help church pianists learn skills such as arranging, playing by ear, and altering chords.

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