On Saturday we had a Music Ministry Training Day at church. This was our name for the Twist Conference that a team from St.Ebbe's Oxford runs every so often. We had about 40 attend from several churches around town. It was led by Philip Percival (pictured) who is Director of Music at St.Ebbe's.We spent a little time looking at the few New Testament references to singing in the church:

  • 1 Co 14.26
  • Col 3.16-17 - deals with both the "up, down and across" of singing: between us and God, and to each other too. I also liked Phil's line that "singing gives emotional training to be thankful"
  • Eph 5.18-20 - the Holy Spirit as well is driving our singing and 'embedding' the truths of it into our lives

Philip also noted that songs often appear in the Bible that explain what's going to happen. Importantly songs fuse theology (what God is doing in the world) and human emotional response.We then had a "band masterclass" which to me was the most fascinating part of the day. Philip based this on his view that you can break all music down to these four layers:

  • Bass - not just string bass or electric bass, but a drum kit's kick drum too
  • Melody - flutes, violins etc. plus the less obvious cello
  • Rhythm - normally drums and guitars
  • Harmony - guitars, pianos and other instruments that play chords

(We immediately see that pianos and keyboards are going to need some thought, as they can provide any or all of these. We'll come back to that thought ...) We also (mostly) concluded that the single best 'instrument' to lead a congregation is a voice -- not a piano or keyboard.After lunch we split into 3 workshops - either rhythm+bass, keyboards or leading singing.In the rhythm + bass one, we did some practical work on building up the bass and rhythm and guitar harmony parts. This was a good exercise in starting simple. There we decided the second-most important instrument to add is still not a piano or keyboard, but the bass, which gives the root, and by implication some of the rest of the harmony. Some particular thoughts I took away were:

  • Traditional hymns when played by bands need less harmonic progression (ie, fewer chord changes per bar).
  • Playing in 3/4 time is particularly difficult for drummers. The simplest dum-cha-cha rhythm just sounds cheesy; instead they suggest playing 6/8 half speed. Or variants on dum-cha-dum. These can also be good for guitars.
  • Some suggest 'I'-based songs are bad; Phil suggested that these can be OK. But we should be avoiding ones which go for the this-is-what-I'm-going-to-do-for-You-God line. It's better if they start from God's perspective, or a whole congregational one.
  • In Phil's view, the most important thing we can do when teaching a new song to the congregation is to have the band fully practised and confident. Makes entire sense.
  • If a congregation isn't 'getting' a syncopated rhythm don't force it. It could be a sign that the songs aren't very suitable.

If we'd had more time I'd have liked to have discussed one of Philip's throw-away lines in rather more detail. He noted that too much of our worship material can actually reflect too much of the Old or First Covenant -- ie, the temple worship of old Israel.Overall, this was the best training day for church musicians I've attended (and I've been to quite a few). More than the others it had a good mix of the theological, the practical and the musical. It's just a shame a few more musicians from St.Matts and other churches in the town didn't attend.It was also very encouraging to me personally, as I don't think they suggested anything different to the things I do when leading my band, or aim to do with them in the future. But it was very good to see more experienced people demonstrate some of the principles, and that lots of people all saw it together. This should make it easier to improve our instrumentation more quickly than otherwise.For my benefit, and the others of us who were there, I've done a list of the new songs they covered, and links to recordings, videos or sheet music.

AuthorJonathan Clark