A few years ago I was at a Christian music conference which was aimed at helping church musicians play better at church. There was a service on Friday night, some instrument specific tutorials on the Saturday and a couple of all-in group sessions during Saturday day. At the instrument specific sessions, particularly the one for guitar, we were taught a technique for keeping out of the way of the other instruments. This was to play only the DGB strings and generate all the chords (major, minor and suspended chords all only include 3 notes) by using only 3 chords shapes in the 3 major positions on the neck. I found this pretty interesting and subsequent usage has shown that it works, it just requires a bit of planning and practice time.
The main highlight of the conference was the combined worship workshops. At these they introduced us to “The Cheesecake Theory” or building up a band sound. It goes like this:
- The biscuit base – made up of the drums and bass guitar, this gives the music it’s starting point, everything develops from the basic rhythm and feel coming from the beat (kick drum and bass guitar) and counterpoint (snare). Bass players were told to only play when the kick drum is hit.
- The cheesy middle – the chordal instruments, piano/keyboard/organ and guitar. Basically these two spend all day getting in each others way, as the guitar can play 6 notes at a time and the piano can do even more! Piano players in particular can be a whole band all to themselves so it is often hard for them not to play only a part of a song. The method they taught us is for one instrument (say the piano) to play longs chords, one to a bar, and the other (guitar in this example) to play short notes, say staccato strum on beats 2 and 4 (often the same beat as the snare). These roles are very reversible, the guitar can do long strums and the piano sharper chords.
- The topping – be it strawberries and cream or chocolate drizzled over, the main thing to remember with the topping is moderation. In the band it means the single line instruments, violin, flute, trumpet, saxophone etc. They advised us that for most effect to keep these instruments back and allow space. They are best played in introductions and when the song needs a lift, such as in the chorus or bridge, or perhaps in a later verse. Another good time to put them in is in the space between lines, so long as no one else is trying to improvise in that space.
They ran through a couple of examples of playing songs this correct way (everyone being disciplined and playing their role) and playing a song badly. When they played the song badly (I think it was Shout to the Lord) the song was a horrible mess. Everyone was trying to be the star and play over each other, the singer was showing just what she had learned at singing lessons that week, the guitar was doing a magnificent solo, the bass was playing a cracking riff, the piano was being frilly and thumping down low as well, the flute was just playing and playing and playing and the drummer was putting in fills and crashing cymbals with abandon. The meaning of the song was completely lost and I doubt God was glorified, despite the musicians trying their very best and playing quite well individually.
That’s what the conference was about – putting the group above the individual and making sure the words are front and centre, being built up by the music being played, not being overwhelmed by it. One of the other attendees asked what you do when some of the instruments aren’t available, such as at her church there was no drummer or guitarist. So the band took out those instruments and demonstrated how you can still have a good sound so long as you still can keep the 3 parts of the cheesecake – base, middle and topping.
You do have to change how you play a song, however. You often can not have as driving a feeling without drums, not as flowery an intro without piano, but you will be able to get by on most songs. Having a good piano player is able to cover up a multitude of missing parts, they can play the melody or harmony if you have no single-line instrument, they can play chords if you have no guitar, they can play a bass beat with their left hand if you are missing a bass guitar or drums.
While you can get by without an instrument, it is often much better for them to be there. For instance, would you go watch a rock band like U2 or KISS if the drummer was absent? No, the music would be missing a vital ingredient and less than it could be. You could go an watch an orchestra but if it was missing the string section it would be missing some of the magic.
A band works best when it’s members are working together and for a common purpose. In our case at church that purpose it is to glorify God and encourage our congregation to worship Him. Giving your all may mean being restrained and disciplined while you play, but this in itself is showing deference and humility and to be encouraged, not disparaged.