Raise your hand if you’ve encountered this problem:Our church is going to sing (insert latest worship chart-topper here), but as much as we’d like to re-create the energy of the recorded version of the song, we’re all too aware of the reality that our band doesn’t sound like their band.
These days, the worship music megaliths out there have a ton of aural firepower at their disposal, including armies of electric guitars, myriads of synths and loops, and drums and percussion that sound like a tower of cannons. Every person on stage is in the upper tier of their respective instrument’s field, and the production value (whether in studio or front-of-house) is as excellent as it can possibly be.
Conversely, the vast majority of church teams will consist of volunteers at every position, more streamlined instrumentation, and equipment that’s meant to “get the job done.” As leaders and musicians, were left to operate in the reality that playing the same songs as the CCLI giants is inevitable, but re-creating their mixes sound-for-sound, note-for-note is impossible. We’re tasked with finding a way to appropriate the sound of the songs we love that makes them fit with the sound of our church. This can seem daunting at first, but is ultimately achievable if we can keep a few things in mind:
Before we make any moves, it’s important to know the sound of our congregation as well as we possibly can. Ask yourself these questions:
• What makes up the typical instrumentation in our band?
o Typical instrumentation will be up to two electric guitars, an acoustic guitar, bass, drums, keys, and one to three vocalist.
• How competent are our musicians?
o Many teams will consist of members that represent all imaginable levels of talent, dedication, and experience, and knowing where each of our musicians are on their respective musical journeys will help us know where our team can stretch, and where to be more conservative.
• In which musical aesthetics is our band most comfortable?
o While most modern worship could be classified as a mixture of arena rock, post rock/shoegaze, and whatever Coldplay is, a good song can be played in any musical style. My church (Christ Community Church in Athens, Georgia) tends towards Americana, indie folk, and classic alternative sounds, and your congregation probably has a unique aesthetic footprint of its own!
The big question to ask when tackling a new song is often “How would we play this like us?” Often, the process will involve streamlining the ultra-polyphonic album arrangement to its most essential parts, or simplifying parts to fit our musicians. Here are a few ways I’ve tackled this process from recent memory:
• Bending to the peaks of the ascending line in the hook of “Like A Lion” for a more country feel.
• Voicing the descending hook in “Cornerstone” on a reverb-laden piano sound to work against an acoustic guitar backdrop.
• Using a bowed upright bass as the foundation for a stripped down, contemplative version of “O Come To The Altar”
While the appropriation process can look a variety of ways, but often, gauging success is as simple as reading the room. If our musicians (and more importantly, our congregation) are readily engaging and taking ownership of the song, we’ve probably made it work in our context. If things feel awkward, we simply take note, and either try the appropriation process again, or decide that the particular song might not work for our people, which is totally fine as well. Ultimately, our aim is to pastor our people through what we sing, and molding the songs to fit our congregation’s aesthetic is just part of the process. I hope it proves to be as rewarding for yours as it has been for mine.