Praise Band: the new choir – a response

by vernsanders on January 25, 2011

January is “read and comment” month, and I’ve got to comment on one which says a lot of things I wish I was smart enough to have said first. Here’s an excerpt from the original, written by Travis Beck at the Old Worship New blog:

It seems to me that the “praise band” is little more than the late 20th century equivalent of the choir/organ approach. The instrumentalists, like the organ, are capable of leading the congregation’s music alone…[snip]

The vocalists function like the choir: they are musicians who have been set apart for rehearsing for worship and helping to lead the congregation in its role of prayer, praise, and thanksgiving to God. They are responsible for supporting congregational song, embellishing congregational song (harmonies, descants), and singing other liturgically and thematically appropriate music that would be outside the ability of the congregation as a whole.

However, like the choir/organ, this new ensemble can also be guilty of sins against the congregation’s music. It can rehearse large, virtuosic works that overshadow or supplant the congregation’s singing; it can lead too loudly, too poorly, or in any number of other ways that silence the congregation; and it can easily think of itself as primarily a performance ensemble rather than primarily worship leadership and support.

But it is difficult for those who oversee the leadership of worship to combat these ancient but newly manifested challenges without coming across as being a so-called “traditionalist” or being otherwise against all things contempo[r]ary. If we tell our guitarists, percussionists, keyboardists, and vocalists (or choirs or organists, for that matter) that they are too loud, we’re charged with “stifling their creativity” or “hurting their feelings.” If we try to move them from center stage to avoid perceptions of performance and entertainment, we’re accused of not valuing their work, or distancing them from the congregation. But if these issues are not addressed, we risk allowing the erosion of good congregational singing and the deterioration of the health of worship in the long-term. [You can read the post in its entirety here]

Where do I start?

OK…how about the third paragraph…

When was the last time you heard a praise band do a “large, virtuosic” work? I’ll give you virtuosic, in terms of individual solos within the band context, and even when a really good band has rehearsed something  that is the worship equivalent to Phil Spector’s wall of sound, or the Eagles’ ability to write a good hook…but large? Long, maybe, as in, “let’s repeat the chorus because it feels so good (or so that I can start to layer licks over the top like Layla)”…but large?

Now lest you think I’m just going to complain, I think Beck has it nailed in the fourth paragraph…except that when was the last time you had to deal with moving the choir from the center of the “stage”? Now admittedly, in a “traditional” worship space, the choir generally has an area all to itself…but still…

Here’s what I think he means to say…

Many praise bands function as a collection of individuals because the leadership of those ensembles has never had training in how to lead an ensemble. Too many praise bands (and vocalists in those bands) concentrate on their individual parts without listening to the whole…and the leader is often too preoccupied with their own part to listen to the whole. Because everybody is preoccupied with their own parts, nobody is even thinking about listening to the congregation. The end result leaves the “leadership” to the sound person…

Perhaps your experience is different. Please leave a comment and let me know what you think: is your band a group of individuals, or an ensemble? Is your choir sensitive if you tell them they sing too loud? Does your band do large, virtuosic works? Do you understand how a musical group can be “guilty of sins AGAINST (my emphasis) a congregation’s music”? Any other thoughts?

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