Solo thinking part 1

I’ve been asked to put down a few words about playing a solo instrument in a church band. I guess I ought to be qualified to do this, since I’ve been playing the fiddle for around quarter of a century now, in churches that have run the gamut from High Anglican to Low Charismatic to Conservative Evangelical, and whatever other terms you care to bandy around. But after a small amount of honest introspection I’ve come to realise that I’m still not doing it very well, so before I move on to some very basic practical tips, I’d like to propose a couple of rather painful tests, both of which I have consistently failed at.

Test Number One: Who are you serving?

As Bob Dylan puts it, “You’re gonna have to serve somebody”, and it’s very easy to choose poorly. Here are some of the options.

Serving yourself:
All of Christian life is marked by the constant battle against our self-serving nature, and it’s not always easy to tell whether we are winning or losing the battle. Warning signs that we might be serving ourselves:

We get stroppy over the leader’s choice of song.
There are good reasons to object to songs, of course – if the words are theologically unsound, say. But if I’m getting stroppy about a song because I hate the tune, then I’ve probably forgotten who I ought to be serving.

We sulk if our artistic freedom is curbed.
Words I hate hearing in a rehearsal: “Dave, can you sit out the first verse, then stick to the tune for verse two?” Pro that I am, of course, I smile and nod and comply, but in my head I’m thinking “But there are only three verses! That only leaves me one verse to play all the millions of fun notes there are available to me!”
When I think like that, it’s because I’m being asked to serve someone other than myself, and it grates.

We want to play in the first place.
It’s a warning sign. Not always, of course. But if we love playing, and we love attention, and we love feeling important, then “serving” in the band can be an excellent way to serve ourselves and look holy at the same time. Let’s face a painful truth: the church probably doesn’t really need a violinist. At least, ours doesn’t. It’s a luxury, not an essential. The church does need people to clean the toilets, empty the bins, print the service sheets. If we are hiding smugly behind our fiddles and saying “Oh, I can’t help unblock the drains, I’m serving the congregation with my music”, then maybe we deserve to find ourselves ankle deep in sewage.

Serving the music:
This is something noble that classically-trained musicians do. It’s basically the same as serving yourself, but with an added dangerous veneer of self-sacrifice. Hints that you may have started serving the music are:

“We must maintain the musical integrity of this phrase.” No. It’s a modern Christian worship song. It doesn’t have any musical integrity. Go play some Beethoven (but not in the church).

“This song makes much more musical sense when you play it in Db.” Great. Can the congregation still sing it? Can the band still play it? If not, put it down to C and stuff your musical pride.

“Let’s make the link between verses three times longer so that we can fit in this cool new riff I’ve just invented.” Good idea, the congregation can use that time to check Facebook on their smartphones.

“I’ve had this great, incredibly musical idea for an amazing new musical way of doing this thing, which is really musical, and will introduce a very sophisticated musical element that will elevate the musical content of this song from the mundane to the incredibly musical, which is important, because we want to give God the very best music we can, and God gave me this great musical talent, and God gave us music in the first place, and so I must do this very musical musicky music music music music muuuuuusic.”

Gutting truth: Church isn’t really the place for amazing music. Artistic excellence is not the priority. I’m still wrestling with this. Yes, music is a gift, and we should be trying our hardest to use our gifts as well as we can – but in service to the right master. And that might mean restricting ourselves to using only three percent of what we feel capable of doing. You may have spent four years at music college practising your up-bow spiccato fingered octave runs, but if you start throwing them around during “There Is A Day”, you will be serving the idolatrous god of music. You may feel like Rembrandt being asked to Dulux a living room: yes, you could craft a nice portrait instead, but the living room needs painting – who are you serving? If Jesus could forego his rights and privileges as God, to slum it out as a mortal human, then we can forego our noble artistic training and slum it out playing Fellingham.

Serving the congregation:
That’s what we’re really here for. Well, serving God is our ultimate aim, obviously – but in this context, serving God means serving the congregation. What are the congregation trying to do? Sing truth to one another.
What do they need to do this?
They need to be able to hear themselves. Don’t play too loud.
They need to be able to concentrate. No avant-garde reharmonisations, shocking jazz interjections, Paganini-esque displays of virtuosity, jumping up and down and setting fire to the piano. Signs you’ve got this wrong: when people come up to you and say “I LOVED your playing – I felt you elevated me right into heaven. I have no idea what words we were even singing, I was that carried away by the music.”
They need to know the tune. You may have to forego all your clever improvisations and just play it. For all seven verses.
They need to know when to start singing. If our introductions are exquisitely crafted musical vignettes that transcend the mediocrity of the source material and scale new heights of melodic invention, and then the congregation misses the first line because they had no chuffing clue when to start singing, then we’ve been serving the music, not the congregation. Stamp on the musical instinct, just play the first two lines so they know what the melody is, and have the drummer do a big signpost. Yes, you may end up doing the same thing for every song, and yes, your inner musical snob may be writhing in agony, but the congregation will be singing the truth to each other and that is more important.

That’s the serving test. Are we serving music / ourselves, or are we serving God / the congregation? I still fail this test, probably at least once per song. Maybe in ways I’ve not even spotted yet. Remember that God is gracious, so we can repent and ask for his help to get better. And getting better at serving the right master beats getting better at playing up-bow spiccato fingered-octave runs.

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