Before, during and what about AFTER?
Crossing the finish line with a euphoric Gsus4, you dream of handing your instrument to a roadie to dutifully pack up for you, but the reality is very different. Once a church musician plays their last note, that is just the beginning. Whilst you pack up cables and music stands everyone else relaxes over coffee – a minefield of potential resentment. As a musician you navigate through congregation members who have strong opinions that they are all too willing to share – a minefield of potential hurt.
To use an ‘Andrew Peterson’ lyric, ‘lets go dancing in the minefields’! Once again lets approach this from 3 perspectives:
Ourselves – looking at what is going on in our heads and hearts.
Our skills – thinking about our musical gifts.
Our influence -recognising that how we do things as ‘leaders’ matters.
I hope and pray this is helpful for musicians, but also all congregation members as they seek to love and support the musicians in their own church.
As a church musician you will know what its like after a service, some will comment with praise, some with the harshest criticism and responding to both can be exhausting. Avoidance is one option, by leaving immediately via a side door. Option 2 – speak only to those who will be kind and positive, avoiding all criticism, which may result in falling into the treacherous waters of praise.
Before we consider more healthy forms of review and feedback, firstly lets think about ourselves and how we respond to both praise and criticism. *disclaimer – I am so terrible at this!
Firstly lets think about praise…
Somebody once told John Bunyan that he had preached a delightful sermon. Bunyan responded saying, “You are too late, the devil told me that before I left the pulpit.” I don’t know if that comment by Bunyan is hagiographic / exaggerated over time, the point is – praise is dangerous even for the most godly heart. Bob Kauflin in his book ‘Worship Matters’ has a couple of pages on this that are well worth reading (p.220ff), with some brilliant practical tips on how to receive and respond to encouragement and praise. They are summarised in a post here.
Receiving praise is hard. Many of us will struggle to acknowledge ourselves as worthy of any praise, others respond to praise with unhelpfully inflated egos. Pride lingers at the root of both responses, so working out good godly responses for our lips and our hearts would be time well spent. Ask a close friend to help you.
Be careful of praise that leaches into flattery, it is the deceitful ‘kiss of an enemy’ (Proverbs 27:6) who praises to control you or get something from you. The same verse makes the comparison to show that better are ‘the wounds of a friend’. Beware of flattering words and be especially aware of the one who flatters!
What about criticism?! None of us like it, but we are all sinners, we all make mistakes, we all can improve and there is always something about us and how we use the gifts that God has given us, that is subject to loving, careful critique. Everyone of us, at every single moment, whatever our training, ability or position, ought to seek improvement.
Make sure you aren’t the uncorrectable one, the one who can’t say sorry, the one who thinks they are always right. Also be very very wary of such people.
Praise and criticism rely on relationship. A friend can wound, because the one wounded knows they have been wounded in love. Critiquing someone you don’t know and someone who doesn’t know and feel your love, isn’t your job, so please keep your mouths shut!
Over the last 20 years I don’t think I have been to a conference without someone coming up to me saying something like, “You aren’t very good! Why are you doing this and not me!” My prepared answer is “I know I’m not a very good musician, but isn’t God all the more amazing that he would use someone so average as me!” I won’t tell you my internal monologue because its often not that godly, but responding to harsh unsolicited criticism by pointing people to the sovereignty and sufficiency of God is a good start, but it is only the beginning of a long work of forgiveness and seeking comfort in the salvation we know in Christ.
After a service its great when musicians get stuck into church life alongside everyone else; but later that day do you ever review how you played or sung?
Where could you improve? Did you get any musical note / chord wrong? Were you able to get your head out of the music and focus on Jesus?
If you are an accomplished musician you most likely played everything perfectly, because lets be honest church music isn’t very challenging. If that is you, thank you for serving and using the gifts God has given you, but don’t think for a moment that you have nothing to review. How did you as an accomplished musician lead the other less accomplished musicians and the congregation? Were you humble? Were you kind, as you shared your wisdom and expertise? Or were you arrogant and patronising?
If you are not so accomplished and some tricky chord or key change flummoxed you, why not review what you need to practice, or analyse how you could make playing that song easier. Don’t get to the same song again and make the same mistake. We are called to play skilfully (Psalm 33:3), with the gifts God has given, but skills are always developing, being refined and reviewed, so that we can best serve in the context God places us. You may not be a virtuoso, but don’t stop developing – review your skills with the following ultimate aim, ’…whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.’ (Colossians 3:17).
A common mistake in congregational singing that is worth reviewing is……………..……timing! Many church musicians in search of expression slow down an element of a song and then struggle to speed up again, particularly if in a band situation. Recently I sat at the back of church tapping out the tempo to each verse of a song (yes, I am that pedantic and I have a guitar app that has a tempo meter). The band lost 5bpm per verse, of a 4 verse song and by the end of what should have been an upbeat, joyful song, it felt like we were walking through treacle.
Review your tempo changes by asking a musician in the congregation to record each verse and make notes; it might be sobering to see what happened! Why is tempo so important and worth reviewing? Because tempo is one of the easiest wins to keep a congregation confident in signing – perhaps that gargantuan claim is worthy of a blog itself?!
Are you as a musician, first and foremost are you part of a church family, or music group / musician clique? Playing upfront is a privilege, leading others to sing God’s praise is such a joy laden pursuit. I’ll never tire of looking into the eyes of a friend as they sing their hearts out, when I know that they are struggling with a besetting sin, or battling to preserve their marriage or facing sorrow after sorrow. Seeing their eyes well up with tears as they, despite their struggles, burst into Christ exulting, Christ dependent song; is one of the most privileged things to behold. Musicians – we are so privileged to see that, to be part of that. That God would use wretched sinners like us to lead brothers and sisters in such a God filled pursuit, should humble us each week. I say all of the above because its important to recognise that we are privileged and although being a musician can be exhausting, it is also important to recognise that others view our role as privileged. Acknowledge that in your own head and heart, because when you do, it will humble you and help you see how others view you. Don’t be the musician that people envy in your musical clique. Don’t be the musicians that congregation members don’t feel they can’t ask to help with anything else.
What do I do to combat the temptation? If I have played at a conference, I have on many occasions run off the stage at a break and gone to serve coffee. Why? 1. To avoid acerbic criticism of musicians who think they can do better! 2. Because the non-verbal act of serving brothers and sisters coffee, speaks far more than me sitting on the stage with my beautiful guitar trying to give advice on how to play the 4 chords I know and how to use a capo (I am a capo virtuoso – if that is a thing?!)
In summary AFTER – don’t pack up and go home. Accept praise and point people to God’s provision. Accept gentle criticism, but only from those who love you. Review your skills and improve. Remember that you are a member of a church family, so lovingly serve them in every way you can being vulnerable before them and teachable. Soli Deo Gloria (SDG) – for the glory of God alone.