The Cheesecake Theory

Kahlua cocoa coffee cheesecake

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.

Sorry to anyone misled by the title of this article. For recipe ideas please try Triple chocolate cheesecake or New York cheesecake or Strawberry cheesecake.

SNC Music Review 2007

Mozarteum grosser saal buehne mit orchester

There were a lot of distractions and hardships at Toongabbie Anglican Church in 2007. Early in the year all our full time staff departed for other pastures and while church changed slightly, Sunday Night Church soldiered on, praising our God and learning from His word. Unfortunately the year contained too many personal tragedies and too few joys, but God remains sovereign and we remain his servants.

This year it was great to see more new musicians join the SNC music team. Renee started singing with the band, James joined us playing piano, Emma helped out with her flute and David got back into his drumming after about a 10 year break. All of these new guys showed great improvement by the end of the year, if not technically on their instruments, certainly at playing in ensemble, which is a skill all of it’s own.

I would like to thank all the musicians who contribute to music at SNC, the service wouldn’t be the same without everybody’s hard work and we do a great job encouraging the congregation in singing together, praising our God and exhorting each other to continue in faithful obedience.

Another change required this year was a rotating group of guys running the sound desk. This was a big help to the musicians and helped the service run smoother. There were a few teething problems learning the gear, partly due to it being a new skill and partly due to the equipment having a personality. Thanks to Craig, Eddie and Graham for showing up to church early each week for little reward – the musicians certainly appreciated your efforts.

New music introduced to SNC in 2007:

This was a lot less new songs that we have done in previous years as we only had two New Music Days and only did one musical item (at Easter) all year. The plan is to have a NMD each school term, though the October/November one often gets wiped out by Christmas preparations. This year, we also missed doing one in April/May due to the changes we were going through at Church and an unusually busy and stressful time at work.

Looking forwards to the new year I have been considering the leadership structure of music at SNC, how much time I can commit to it and how best to choose and prepare songs and musicians. One idea is stepping back from leadership completely, but I’m not sure how much help that would be. Another is to have regular meetings, say on the 2nd Sunday of every month to pick songs for the upcoming month. This way whoever would like to contribute to song choice could and we would always be 2-6 weeks in advance. The musician roster could also be chosen at that time, or previously, possibly as far in advance as 3 months. Or we could just continue on as is, if people are happy and I can cope with the workload.

Hopefully the musician roster will be relatively stable, although we start the year short on singers again. I look forward to another year serving God with grace, humility and enthusiasm, hoping that the Lord will bless our church with a congregation keen to serve Him and to sing loudly.

Previous annual music reviews: 2006 SNC music review 2005 SNC music review

Reason Music

Simon sent me a link the other day to Reason Music. Their blurb: Reason is a group of Sydney-based musicians producing worship songs and training resources for church musicians.

They have some excellent articles for church musicians to read. The best so far is Putting together a simple arrangement in Church. It is part of a much larger series called Leading music is a small church.

As a church musician, it’s easy to feel limited by a lack of resources. You’d love to have a big church band, but all you’ve got is a couple of piano players, a violin, and a guitarist who first picked up the instrument three months ago. There’s a constant shortage of people to fill the rosters, and you struggle to get through all the songs in your limited rehearsal time each week. Especially when the musos arrive half an hour late.
Then there are the tech issues. Your sound system dates from the 1970s, and the person operating it – let’s face it – he hasn’t got much of an idea. Someone keeps misplacing the overheads, and even when you check they’re all there before the service, when the congregation stands to sing it’s either the wrong song, or there are typos all over the place.
And the congregation is a musical brick wall! You’re sure that if you could only raise the standard of music at church – then they’d get into it. But not only do most people at church seem utterly indifferent towards the music (your attempt to get some clapping going results in a momentary smattering of hands for about 10 seconds) but some of them actually complain – either they don’t like the song selection, or the style of music, or it’s too loud, or too soft… you even heard one person say they dislike the music so much that they wonder why we bother singing at church at all!

So basically the writers have a very good idea of what it’s like to be in a non-mega church in Australia today. Their arrangement tips are good – piano players need to let everyone else play their role, and everyone else needs to actually fulfill the role set down for them – and they address the structure of the songs we play, when to be up and down, when to build, when to pause.

I’d encourage anyone involved in church music, whether a large band or small, to have a read through the articles at Reason Music – especially those coming to our new music day this week.

Your average church band?

More music theology discussion

Bass guitar pickup

While preparing for music tonight at church I came across a page over on the Garage Hymnal website: Papers on Church music

They put a link on their front page to these papers as a thought out response to the articles in the Briefing and ensuing debate about whether evangelical churches should play Hillsong music.

I must say it is a better and more thought out article than the one I struggled to write and encourage you to read it. Another good article is Andy Judd’s Case study of questionable lyrics in which the author explains what to look for when evaluating a new song. One of the good points for me is where he reflects on “Shout to the Lord”:

That said, I think there are reasons why you might not sing the song every week. The final example is the statement that “Forever I’ll love you, forever I’ll stand”. Carmichael identifies this as an Arminian view, a “personal guarantee” to Jesus that we’ll be there for him. This is interesting, because it could just as easily be read as a Calvinist affirmation of the perseverance of the saints (perhaps echoing 2 Peter 1:10 or something). Forever I will love Jesus – because I am one of the elect! Church songs are, after all, to be sung by the saints. But to be honest I doubt anyone sings that line either with particularly Arminian or Calvinistic thoughts in mind. We don’t think about it. It’s just a wishy washy line of good intentioned sentimental feeling, and so for me the second half of the chorus is a little too vague to be helpful. It’s not so much wrong as disappointing.

Also the conclusions at the end of “Why church playing is important” PDF link are encouraging.


“What do you say to a musician who has done a really good job?” someone asked me recently. You don’t want to build their ego’s. But encouragement is a great blessing in a church. Personally, what I’d find most encouraging after spending hours battling to get everyone in tune and in time is “thanks, I found singing together tonight really encouraging”.


If you are not starting your band practices with a time of prayer and sharing you need to. I know music teams who spend 30 mins together talking about their lives and praying for the service every week. Not a second of that is wasted.

Singing along

I remember playing in a band at KCC recently and having Willow (the sound guru) come up to us and thank us for singing along while we played. Apparently everyone found it encouraging. We didn’t notice, because we were so caught up in the words which we’d played a thousand times but never sang past verse 2 until then. Try it! (flautist are excused, reluctantly).

Take some time off

Everyone should have at least one week off every month. Our church barely has enough musos to make a full band (let alone two or three), so we just have heaps scaled back music on the fourth Sunday of every month. I’m prepared to have no singing (or use backing tracks/organ) if it means giving the musos a break.

Word vs Worship

Briefing cover January 2007

January’s issue of the briefing had an in-depth look at the 2006 Hillsong conference and another couple of articles which discuss how different church movements use music in their services. This discussion comes at an interesting time for me as I consider in what direction I should be pushing music at the Toongabbie Anglican church Sunday night service.

My criteria for selecting songs in the past has been, in no particular order:

  • Singable for the congregation
  • Interesting for the musicians
  • Theologically accurate

I’ve struggled in the past with songs that are overly repetitive, are boring to play, that the congregation just don’t participate in or just don’t fit the ‘mood’ of our services. Also songs that are just slabs of bible text or essays on Christianity can be painful to try to play and sing.

I want to be careful in what I write here as I have close friends and family involved at Hillsong and similar churches and I don’t want to be perceived as attacking them or their style. I am merely trying to discover the best and most faithful way I can lead the music team at TAC without endorsing or opposing the opinions held by others.

The articles in The Briefing try to express the attitude that the modern pentecostal and/or charismatic style churches have when they engage in ‘praise and worship’. It is very experiential – by working hard we can create the appropriate environment for God to be present so people can feel His presence. As a result the better the music the closer we are to God and the more impact He can have in our lives.

I may have just butchered that explanation so I may revise it later.

On the other hand, classic evangelical music has been focused on the Word and so the quality of the music being played is less important than being correct in the worshipers attitude and content. Indeed it is my experience that many evangelicals feel music is imposed and artificial and distracts them from focusing on God.

I like music. I like music in church. I like music that talks about God and makes me think about Him, how wonderful He is and the wonderful things He does. I like music in church that helps me remember basic doctrines and passages from the bible.

But I don’t believe we discover God through song. I don’t believe God reveals himself to me more if I am singing than if I am serving Him, or reading His word. I believe God reveals Himself in whatever manner he desires, whatever I happen to be doing at the time is up to Him.

I think there must be a middle position. We sing to encourage each other and to speak out loud how great our God is. I believe we can do that in a way that motivates and encourages the singers, without being either too focussed on the words, or on the experience, instead on the nature of our God and in the company of our Christian family.

I’m not sure if I’ve really declared anything clearly or succinctly or definitively in this post, but I hope I’ve raised some issues and encouraged anyone who might read it to contemplate what they look for or enjoy in music at church. I wrote most of this post over 2 months ago but couldn’t decide if I was happy with it or if it said what I really thought. In the end I guess it is better that it is out there so other people can think about this stuff, even if it isn’t perfect. Then again, until that day comes, which of us is?

Church music

Bass pickup

Lots of church music kind of stuff going on at the moment. We had our New Music Day at church yesterday at which we learned 4 new songs and everybody got a bit of a run through how our PA system works.

The 4 new songs we did were:

  • Awesome God – EMU
  • Before the throne of God – Traditional
  • Take my life – Garage Hymnal
  • The voice of the Lord – EMU

Thanks to God’s providence I’ve also come into possession of the latest “Soul Survivor Songbook” this one is number 4. I look forwards to going through that over the next couple of months.

This week on Sydney Anglicans there is a fair bit of discussion and articles on music in church and musicians and congregations attitudes towards church music.

Music sounds mission alarm Why church musos are brassed off

A different but insightful article about how we might refocus and make our services more relevant: Do you love your church?

I hope everyone is having a good week.

SNC Music Review 2005

Toongabbie Anglican Logo

This blog has a wide readership. I’d say 90% or more of you know me personally, but I am popular around the world, particularly Germany, China, South Korea and Taiwan. Don’t get me wrong, I’m no David Hasselhoff, but you explain my Indian readership.

As I’m sure all my regular readers know, I help administer the band and music at the Sunday Night service at Toongabbie Anglican Church, in the western suburbs Sydney, Australia. If you aren’t one of the people who knew this, welcome to my beer blog, where I keep track of my home brewing adventures, and occasionally write about other stuff.

I’ve helped lead the band for 12 months now. Prior to that we were under the guidance of musician extraordinaire and all round good guy Tim Neal. He left our church after marrying the lovely Jamie, to start afresh together at Macquarie Chapel. So since then, Luke and myself have led the band, but now Luke is hoping to step back a bit. But this article isn’t meant to be about me.

At the start of 2005 we had a bit of a personnel problem. We had 2 bands, each doing 2 weeks playing, 2 weeks being a part of the congregation. One band had drums, bass, piano and a singer, while the other had drums, bass, guitar and a singer. Okay, but a real hassle when someone was away, or sick, for a weekend. Plus we weren’t really doing as much as we could with the songs, just going through the motions to a certain extent. Continue reading “SNC Music Review 2005”