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The Sixteen Commandments

How To Make Peace With Your Church Musician

Thou Shall Give Thy Musician Space

Sunday morning, before service, is the most critical time in a musician's day. No amount of preparation the night before can mitigate the importance of getting in place, getting warmed up, troubleshooting, praying, and otherwise preparing to support the day's activities at church. But the church often throws up roadblocks and is aggressively hostile toward their musicians, making, typically, no allowances for what the musician needs to do in the morning. Joy explains it this way, “Regardless of how much preparation I put into Sunday's service during the week or the day before, come Sunday morning I still need to play in the room I will be ministering  in on the instrument I will be using. I arrive at the church a half hour earlier than I need to be there specifically for that purpose. Even so, there will be the early comers who want to wander over and talk or ask me questions or discuss things. This time is important to me. Please don't come over asking me things. It's as if the pastor were praying at the altar, and you just come over and strike up a conversation. It's exactly the same thing.”

Most every church I've been in, of any denomination or ethnic group, has some configuration of Sunday School class in the sanctuary. And, for reasons I will never understand, they nearly always arrange these classes so they are virtually right on top of the instruments or otherwise very near where the musician is set up (or needs to set up). I've been asked to please stop setting up while Sunday School was in progress, or to arrive at the crack of dawn so I can be out of their way, when the Sunday School class has the entirety of the sanctuary to conduct its class, but nevertheless chooses to congregate in the immediate vicinity of where the instruments and musicians need to be. This was a church that was worshipping in a borrowed space, so the instruments had to go up and down every week.

As a result, I'd just wait for Sunday school to finish. Sunday School superintendents need to be aware of the chaos they cause when they allow Sunday School to run over. This church's Sunday School ran over regularly, dismissing within minutes, sometimes seconds, of the 11 AM service start time, which meant that, during devotion or announcements at the start of service, the musicians were busying themselves, in distracting fashion, trying to get settled in.

Churches: please move your Sunday School classes away from the instruments. As vital as it is for a pastor to have time in his study on Sunday Morning, that's how vital it is for the music director or minister to have access to his instruments and his team. Just as the pastor is obliged to prepare during the week and the night before, he still requires time on Sunday morning to prepare himself and still needs armor bearers to minimize the traffic and distractions around him. I am begging you: please move your Sunday School class away from the instruments. Please be patient and allow the musicians to quietly go about their business in the morning.

Thou Shall Get Out of The Way

If musicians need to load equipment in and out of the sanctuary, please assign an usher to them. The usher should be able to go before them, asking folks to clear the aisle and watch their backs. I have kneecapped many a saint (accidentally, of course) because Church Folk love to stand in the aisle, blocking the doors, and talk. Once I was leaving a church with my bass in one hand, my very heavy amplifier in the other hand, my gig back slung over my shoulder, and my bible. I was walking down the long, grand steps in the front of the church, when a minister stopped me to chat me up about something. The minister became offended when I kind of blew him off, asking him to call me later. The amp weighed about 80 pounds. I was laden down with equipment and my back was strained from having to slooowwwly inch my way through the throng of fellowshipping worshippers. Please assign me an usher. That's what they are there for, to clear the way and open the door and fend off people who haven't got the sense to not chat me up when I'm walking down a long flight of steps carrying over 150 pounds' worth of equipment by myself.

Thou Shall Not Be Selfish

Please bless your musicians. Most churches have a musician on staff and a number of volunteer musicians. These volunteers are the backbone of the church, and they frequently go without so much as a thank-you. Most times that I play, I tend not to charge churches. I am of a mind that we are obliged to tithe our gifts the way we tithe our money, so playing occasionally as a volunteer seems my reasonable service. But, just because a musician doesn't charge you does not release you from your obligation to bless them. A card with a few bucks in it. Dinner after service. Gift certificates to a music store (every musician's favorite). If you can't afford to pay your musician, you can certainly give him a line of credit at a music store so when the drummer needs sticks or the guitar player needs strings, he shouldn't EVER have to go into his pocket. If I'm playing for you for free, all of my expenses should be graciously and gladly covered by a grateful congregation. But, more often than not, I am ignored, unappreciated, and the church, in large portion, seems indifferent to whether I play or not.

Your paid staff need to be paid. These are people who do full and part-time jobs for the church and are your front line of defense. Often, getting a musician's check ready for him on Sunday seems to be low priority, a kind of , “well, if we get to it,” mentality, sometimes based on personality issues— if they like the musician personally, the check is ready. If they don't, “Well, if we get to it.” Not paying your paid staff is simply wrong. Not being diligent about it is simply not Christ-like. We can't purport to follow Christ and then treat each other badly. “The fact is, for your paid staff, Sunday is the end of their work week, not the beginning,” the Reverend Darryl Cherry, Creative Director of Covenant Music Ministry, told me. “Your musician has been to rehearsals and meetings and has prepared and studied and taught and traveled to and fro. He's put in a week's work, and just like you he has financial obligations to meet.” But, come Sunday, on top of everything else a musician has to deal with, there's this knot in his stomach: will they pay me or won't they? Then he has to all but grovel and wait around and pursue the office staff for his check, only to be told he has to come back late Monday. How many of us would tolerate this on our jobs?

You know you have paid staff. You know that paid staff has to be paid on certain dates. There is no surprise. There really is no excuse for forcing your musician into contortions or make him plead or explain why he needs his check. You have made an agreement with this person. You need to honor it.

Thou Shall Deal With Thy Sound Engineer

The sound engineer needs to report to your musical director or music minister. There's a good reason for this. The music minister is responsible for the overall atmosphere of the service, and he or she needs to have dozens of voices be heard. If the musical director is butting heads with the sound man, if there's a turf war going on, that's no good for anybody. One church I play at occasionally has an electric piano, and they put the piano through the house PA system. Unless you have a reasonably sophisticated monitoring system and EQ system on the house, never, never, never put an electric piano through the house system. This particular church has no monitor system at all. Which means, when I'm playing piano, the only sound I hear is from the piano itself, from the speakers mounted under the keyboard, so I am frequently ducking down as I play, straining to hear from the tinny-sounding speakers built into the piano itself.. A singing choir quickly overwhelms those speakers, and then I cannot hear myself at all. With the sound routed through the house, the congregation can hear me clearly, but I cannot hear myself, which means I end up playing harder and turning the piano up to the maximum. The sound guy in back is typically inattentive (he does double-duty as a door usher— another major no-no), and the pastor soon dispatches a number of emissaries to me telling me to turn the piano down. The pastor's wife once took me out in the parking lot and literally scolded me for having the piano too loud.

Folks: the volume of the piano in the house is NOT THE MUSICIAN'S RESPONSIBILITY. If your piano is run through the house, the person you should address your concerns and complaints to is not the musician but the sound guy, a guy I have completely given up on trying to communicate with because he is inattentive and is selective in terms of who, in the pulpit, he will respond to. He is engaged in a turf war with the minister of music, and I frequently am caught in the crossfire, where this guy will either refuse to turn my microphone on or will cut it off, or will have the piano blaring in the house, so the little emissaries come along and make me turn the volume down on the piano. When I do that, I can't hear myself at all, and I may as well stop playing, which is exactly what I've ended up doing. I can't hear myself at all, so I go and sit down somewhere. 

Monitors, properly adjusted, would eliminate most of the problem here. A separate monitor system, run from a monitor guy— a guy whose only job is to run the monitor array down front, NOT the house from the back— the guy in the back can't possibly have any clue about what our needs up front are. Most churches are run by older people and older people want it quiet. Musicians want it loud. The real need is somewhere between: the music should have presence, should have dimension, but not be overwhelming. The best example I've experienced of this mid ground is the sound at Solid Rock Christian Church, which has a wonderful balance and presence to it without blasting you out of your mind. The worst example is likely Church For All Nations, which has an absolutely fabulous sound system and talented people to run it, but the church apparently insists that the sound design be so timid that it's as if there were no mics at all. Entire instruments vanish into the background, and the overall sound has no foundation or depth.

One Job: Pay attention.

Thou Shall Pay Attention

The two people most critical to your worship service are the sound engineer and the drummer. Yes, the drummer. I realize not every church allows drums, but those that do: please get a good drummer. James Gaulden, a musician at Colorado Springs Fellowship, put it this way, “A drummer's main job is to keep time. If he can't keep time, it doesn't matter how fancy his skills are, he's a menace to the service.” A sound engineer's job, Reverend Cherry says, “ to pay attention. That's all he's go tot do. If he just pays attention, that's half the battle right there.” And the chain of command should be clear: the sound guy should not be taking instructions from everybody and anybody, but he also should not be engaged in some turf war or power struggle. He should not be doubling as a greeter or handing out fans or running errands (one sound engineer I know of, routinely leaves to go drive the church van and pick people up). The sound engineer station is critical to the service.

Your church musician or minister of music, more often than not, knows more about sound systems than your sound person. This is not universally true as there are some properly trained sound people out there working in churches today, but the majority of my experience has been sound people who are parishioners trained to run the board. More often than not, these people are not sound engineers. They are trained in which buttons to push but they have no ears: no artistic sense of what is important to listen for. Actual sound men, pro sound men who work with professional bands, have trained ears. They know what they are listening to and what they should not be listening to. There is often a conflict between the sound person and the minister of music because many churches refuse to resolve the chain of command issues between the two, typically dismissing the conflicts as personality clashes or immaturity. They may be right, but even so, a clear chain of command must exist, or your ministry will suffer as the sound person, usually not a trained professional and thus perhaps incapable of hearing the same thing the music minister is hearing, braces against the music minister's direction. Most sound people I've met are extremely territorial and extremely dismissive of the music director. But, in my experience, the music director knows more about the sound person's job— not just the button pushing but, in most cases, what to listen for. This is why I conclude the minister of music is more qualified to pull the train, and so the sound person should, ideally, report to him.

Reverend Cherry says, “The sound person should think of the sound system as an instrument— much like the way people view the church organ or piano. It would be a good idea to regularly, with the help of a second person, practice setting up and adjusting the sound system for it's optimum performance. The days of turning on a sound system and walking away from it are over. The idea of an automated sound system in a church seems restrictive. The sound person should be able to play it as if it were a concert violin. The most sophisticated, well tuned, sound system can sound terrible with the wrong person running the console. “The sound person should make it their business to know how to operate every piece of equipment effectively in the sound room. Many sound problems stem from the fact that they don't practice during the week, or take the time to become familiar with the console and equipment.”

Joy adds, “It'd be a good idea if the sound engineer came to choir rehearsal. So he or she could know what to expect come Sunday morning and spend the time working the problems out of the system.

Thou Shall Hire A Drummer Who Can Actually Keep Time

The drummer's role, likewise, is to keep time and provide a foundation for the music. A good drummer should also know when to shut up. I've seen drummers who, inexplicably, tap on the kick pedal during announcements or otherwise fidget and become distracting when they should remain silent. The other extreme is drummers who wander off, leaving their station unmanned, when a sudden move of the Spirit or change in program now demands their presence. Musicians, generally, need to be disciplined, mature, attentive, prepared and submitted to leadership. They should never, ever, take their eyes off of the musical director or minister of music, and their movement around the sanctuary should be at the director's explicit direction. Having too much drums, too many fills, too flashy or too showy, is a distraction. Having no drums when there should be drums, is a distraction. A drummer who loses time, who routinely gets thrown off or out of beat, really isn't up to the level where he should be serving on Sunday morning.  A church should make some reasonable sacrifice to get a good drummer and a good sound technician.

Don't put Plexiglas around your drums unless you are going to mic the drums. The sound shields are intended to isolate the drums so there is less “bleed", less overlap of sound from one channel to the other. They are not designed to just shut the drummer up. If you put the baffle up and DON'T mic the drums, all you're doing is causing problems for the drummer, who now hears only himself and nothing around him, making it difficult for him to keep time, and you've muffled the dynamic range of the drums without compensating for it with miccing. If your choir travels a lot, it might be a good idea to buy a second drum set. This drum set would remain inside road cases, ready to go when you do, so your choir and musicians are not at the mercy of whatever may be awaiting you at your destination.

Thou Shall Take Thy Musicians Off The Leash

When I was coming up, we had the concept of the First Chair. The best musicians were always the First Chair musicians. We had A Drummer. There were several of us who played drums, and anxiously waited our turn, but there was only one Official Drummer, the First Chair Drummer, whose job it was to make sure there was always a drummer for every service. He didn't have to play every service himself, but it was his responsibility to make sure the drums were covered. It was a simple matter of skill: the better musician got the First or Second chair. Your opportunities to play were based on your skill level, which encouraged us youngsters to come in during the week and practice. These days, I see almost NO practice going on at ANY church I frequent. I man, I'm sure somebody somewhere has to be practicing, but, honestly, I never see musicians— just musicians— come in and really work it out. Musicians, like hunting dogs, need to be let off the leash every now and then, allowed to come in and play very loud for hours. Play until their fingers bleed. Play until they don't want to play anymore. That's how a bunch of musicians becomes a band. The only way that will ever happen is if they get to jam with each other in regular intervals. Too often, the only time musicians come together is choir rehearsal. You cannot adequately rehearse a band at choir rehearsal. I should not be learning a part at choir rehearsal. Choir rehearsal is for the choir. By the time I arrive at choir rehearsal, I should know all of my parts, and I shouldn't be in the way. If I don't know my parts, I won't play at choir rehearsal, but will tape the rehearsal and learn my part at home.

Thou Shall Have No Microphone Before Me

This other thing really gets me: people who refuse to use microphones. One of the services I regularly play at has several ladies who go, “Oh, I don't need that, they can hear me.” No they can't. You can hear you. Polling the audience to see who can and can't hear you is a waste of time. And, the main point, if she doesn't use a mic, I have to stop playing. If I stop playing, the atmosphere in the sanctuary changes. Not that I need to be playing all the time, but if you simply use the mic, we have a wider variety of options than if you don't. These ladies refuse to use the mic, and everything comes to a dead stop, with a dead spot where soft music should go. When you get a dead spot in service, people become acutely aware of time passing, and also become self-conscious about their worship. Things they might do under cover of a blanket of music, they're less likely to do if they feel too self-conscious about raising their voice amid dead silence. “Anointed music softens the ground,” Minister Sharon Wilson-Wheeler of The Women of Purpose told me, “makes it easier to till and enables the Word to take root.” Knowing when to play and when to stop, where a pad or fill is called for and where silence is needed, is a specialized skill, one that develops over time. It requires gifting, intuition and anointing to know how to shape a service with music, and this is the primary difference between a music director or music department head and a minister of music. Refusing to use the mic (likely out of shyness) works against the service. Maybe they can hear you, but you are certainly forcing the music to stop and the service to come to a halt while they strain to do so.

There is only one microphone, and that microphone is the Shure SM58 vocal mic. It's that simple. If you do not have Shure SM58's, you are kidding yourself. Every other microphone made is built to some specification of the SM58. It's hype sheet will likely read, “ dynamic as a Shure SM58 for half the cost!” Don't believe it. Trinity and Emmanuel Baptist Church use Shures, both churches also using the wireless SM58 for certain applications. I am not a fan of wireless mics (most serious musicians will tell you they're far more trouble than they're worth), but if you must get a wireless mic, get a Shure SM58 wireless with the True Diversity digital receiver. The True Diversity receivers have dual receivers in them and a computer chip that switches between the two several times per second to ensure there will be virtually no dropouts. And, under the bulky transmitter apparatus is the classic Shure sound: fat, clean, wide range. For a VHF mic (UHF mics are way better, FM mics are way worse), the Shure is a winner. But, for the price of one Shure wireless SM58 and a True Diversity receiver, you could buy almost five, yes five, wired Shure SM58's. And mics with wires are more reliable, less breakable, and in terms of church services, a better deal. I'd recommend the wireless mics only for certain applications and users.

The dual mics on the speaker's podium is a typical black Baptist thing, begun, I suppose, because some preacher wanted to look important. The president of the United States routinely has two mics on his podium because one is to the media feed and one is to the house. Outside of the vanity of the “presidential ook,” and the time-honored “That's the way it's always been done” mentality, there is no need for dual podium mics. Reverend Cherry points out they cause more problems than they solve, “Two microphones installed on the pulpit podium are just a bad idea. This is traditionally a misleading theory for those in the black church. When you have two microphones facing each other, it creates a sound field that causes feedback when turned up too high.”

Overhead condenser choir mics don't work. It's that simple. Don't believe me, go on and waste your money. “The condenser microphones pick up the ambient field within a certain distance,” Reverend Cherry says. “When they are too close together they feed into each other.” The things howl and whistle and cause nothing but problems UNLESS you've set up your sound field effectively (i.e. placed your house monitors forward of the stage or pulpit). But, even in those cases, choir mics and (gasp!) lavaliere (lapel) mics simply don't work: they are the worst examples of brain-dead technology. Pastors: please throw out those lapel mics. They sound terrible and they feed back on a dime. “The truth is, most black churches are looking for bargains,” Reverend Cherry says. “The deacons go out to Radio Shack or somewhere and shop for bargains. A bargain lavaliere mic is just feedback waiting to happen. You go to the white churches and their lavaliere mics sound great and have warmth and depth to them, but they cost fifteen hundred dollars. We're crowing about the bargain we got on a $200 mic.” Real cordless mics, cordless mics that Whitney Houston uses, cost, minimum, twelve hundred dollars. Any cordless mic in the three to four hundred dollar range is a big question mark. “The truth is,” Cherry says, “you get what you pay for.”

And stop trying to save money with rechargeable 9-volt batteries: they are a joke, too. You can never tell when they're going to quit on you, and God's work, I imagine, deserves a fresh 9-volt battery. I buy them in bulk from Walgreens, the cheap Walgreens store brand. An average 9-volt Alkaline will work just fine through the day, no matter how many services. After the service, I mark the battery with a permanent marker, noting the date I used it. From that point on, the battery is good for rehearsals or bible studies or something, but for the worship services, I always crack open a fresh battery so I know I'm juiced up.

Reverend Cherry recalls, “The batteries in the cordless mics were not checked before service. We had a time not too long ago [at his church in New Jersey] where they didn't have any batteries for the mics and had to send someone to the store to purchase them during service.”

The absolute best way to mic a choir is with hand-helds. But, if your choir has more than ten folks, obviously that won't do. And, never let people share a mic. The rule is: when two share a mic, neither is heard. Because these well-meaning folks tend to hold the hand-held mic at shoulder level, between them, as they sing. A hand-held mic is designed to be sung into. It is designed to be held right by your mouth. Despite what you may have seen on a concert video, they are not designed for two or more people to share.

Alternatively, you might divide your choir into sections and form semi-circles around quality condensers like the AKG-c1000s, the “Swiss Army Knife For Musicians,” which I swear by. The AKG is designed with a removable pattern converter that changes the mic's radial pattern from a wide one to a narrow one. You can virtually eliminate feedback while keeping this mic hot enough to pick up everyone in the circle.

Thou Shall Not Use Giant 1970's Disco Speakers

Most black churches I've been to have appallingly bad sound systems. Patched together out of dusty relics collected over the years (while the pastor drives a brand new Cadillac, but I digress). They have either inadequate monitors down front or no monitors at all. The house speakers are almost always behind the field of regard ( the wide angle from the front of the microphone: the mic is subject to pick up sound waves from any sound within its pickup pattern, think a wide “V” in front of the mic). If the speakers are behind this field, you will inevitably have feedback problems. If the speakers are placed properly forward of the sound stage area, you will have fewer problems BUT you now MUST have adequate monitors so the people on stage can hear themselves. Many churches have HUGE “disco” style speakers, massive cabinets with giant horns and woofers, precariously suspended from the ceiling just over Mother Angie Lou's head. That day, the Day of The Giant 1970's Disco Speaker, is sooo dead. The giant speaker must come down. Must be destroyed. The giant speaker is an abomination unto God. 

The proper application for house-style speakers with massive woofers is for music. If all you are broadcasting through your P.A. is vocals, the massive speakers are likely not even being used. The horns are, likely, the only parts actually being used, as these cabinets usually include some kind of crossover, which sends the mids and highs to the horn and the low-end frequency sounds to the woofer. There is not enough low-frequency notes in the human voice to move those massive cones in and out. But you DO need a huge amplifier to power those dinosaurs. 

Most modern churches now use satellite speakers not much bigger than bookshelf speakers you'd use at home. Many of these speakers are wireless (though, like the mics, I dislike wireless speakers intensely). They weigh mere ounces and can be placed anywhere. They are energy efficient, often being low-wattage 4Ohm speakers (as opposed to many of the giant speakers, which are 8Ohm; the lower the Ohm, the more efficient the speaker; by “more efficient,” yes, that often translates into “louder”).

NEVER stack your amplifiers way in the back with the mixer. Place your amplifiers, ideally one high-voltage mono amp per speaker or speaker pair, as close to the speaker as possible. Again, most black churches have the amplifier either way in the back with the sound board, or it is *shudders uncontrollably* behind the pulpit itself or under the steps (I kid you not) or some other odd place. “The pastor should not be responsible for adjusting the P.A. system during service,” Reverend Cherry adds. “The old amplifier-behind-the-pulpit bit is very 1965. That day is long over.”

“The truth is, though,” he continues, “most black churches build the sanctuary and then think about the P.A. They think about the sound last, as if they just went, 'Oops, we need some microphones.'”

The most efficient place to put your amplifiers are where the speakers are. Keep your run of speaker cable as short as possible and do NOT go cheap on the speaker cable: get the very best shielding you can afford to cut down on FM and CB RF (radio frequency) transmissions. Keep the amps well ventilated and in a secure place, but a location that is easy to get to in a hurry should something go wrong.

So many churches are set up so poorly, in fact, with bad sound, inadequate instruments, cheap mics and so forth, that when I go out, I tend to bring my own portable rig with me. This rig, a self-contained PA system, not only powers my keyboards and mics my vocalists, but I can run almost any small to medium-sized church right from the compact 20-channel stereo mixer in my rig. Setting the rig up takes me about fifteen minutes, and I frequently incur the snickers of church folk, amused that I'd go to the trouble. But, it never fails: once service starts, once they hear the difference between my rig and their house system, every time they gravitate towards my mics and my keyboards. And then nobody is laughing anymore.

They Saw You Coming: The unscrupulous morticians of music equipment: Clavinova dealers.
For the price of one of these, you could buy three high-end keyboard workstations.

Thou Shall Not Let The Deaconesses Pick Out Thy Piano

The great majority of black churches I've served in have had the piano picked out by a committee. Or, worse, by a decorator. I have not, in 25 years of ministry, encountered a black church where the instrument was picked out by the musician who will play it (though I'm sure it's happened, I personally have not seen it). Often, the musician is the last to know what instrument is being chosen. Often, a piano is chosen by its color or veneer or finish or how it fits into the decor of the sanctuary, without much regard given to the fact Daewoo probably doesn't make a great piano. I have routinely played better sounding, better-playing pianos in school auditoriums than in churches. So much so that I am actually afraid of church pianos. I am afraid to visit churches without coming prepared with my rig and my keyboards just in case the instruments are bad or I can't hear myself. I go in, check it out; if the sound or instrument is not up to snuff, I pop the trunk and start loading in my own gear. A piano, and write this down someplace, is not furniture. It is an instrument. It is played by a musician. And the musician's input on the buying decision should be the major deciding factor. 

Thou Shall Not Buy A Clavinova (or Technics or Kawai)

Clavinova Digital Pianos by Yamaha are the evil money pits of the black church. They have gained popularity as all-in-one instruments that have organ sounds (terrible organ sounds), and, some, disc drives and touch screens and all of that. Most musicians will tell you they hate Clavinovas. Most musicians would never spend a dime of their money on these beasts because they exist, in large portion, to take advantage of gullible non-musicians, like mommies who want a piano for the house or, yes, churches who think a Clavinova can pull double-duty as a Hammond organ. Well, it can't. We hate Clavinovas. Hate, hate, hate. Technics, Akai, all of that— those creepy contraptions with all the buttons that sound horrible and play horrible. They are either run through the house, overwhelming the congregation, or not, so the player can't hear himself at all. And they've got all of this crap nobody ever uses— the Bosa Nova rhythm section, the always-horrible fake Hammond sound. The ubiquitous and horrible Glockenspiel fake-sounding electric piano patch.

Please stop wasting your money on Clavinovas. They are cheaper than pianos, but they are, in effect, really average to lame synthesizers with a HUGE markup. For the money you wasted on a Clavinova or Technics psuedo-piano, you could have gotten one of Yamaha's high-end 88 weighted-key digital pianos, or any number of high-end synthesizers that not only do 3-5 times as much as the Clavinova is capable of, but also has high bitrate samples of real Hammond B3's. Yamaha's MO8, a cheaper alternative to their flagship Motif, not only sounds like a B3, but can emulate the rotary speaker of a Hammond (not only spinning it up and down, but the “free spin” of a real Hammond Leslie speaker— when you shut the vibrato off, the speaker doesn't just stop, it slowly winds back down, creating a unique effect). A high-end Clavinova with glossy piano finish can cost around seven grand. The MO-8 streets for around $1999. For $2500, you can get one heck of a good synth, one that an actual musician would appreciate, and one that is a much more potent weapon than the toothless, laughable Clavinovas. No matter how fancy they look to you, no matter how high-tech the touch screen and all of that, any real musician will snicker at how you got took for all of that money for what is, under the hood, a Hyundai with a Porsche price tag. I am personally not aware of any professional keyboards (save, maybe, a Synclavier or Fairlight MFX3.48 System workstation) that cost anywhere near seven grand. For seven grand, I can outfit your church with a whole armada of keyboards. But, this is what happens when you send a deacon to pick out an instrument: he or his wife picks out something that looks right in the sanctuary, and they are, as often as not, taken advantage of by the unscrupulous morticians of the music business— the Clavinova salesman.

Thou Shall Not Let The Deaconesses Decide Where To Put Thy Piano

The mistake most every single church I have ever seen routinely makes is they place the musical instruments forward of the choir. The exact opposite should be true. Musicians need not be seen. Most real musicians prefer not to be seen, prefer to concern themselves only with their instrument and the music and not with looking cute or being seen. The main reason many churches struggle with loud musicians is they've put the musicians in the wrong place and/or they have not supported them adequately. A musician who has a decent monitoring system, who can hear himself, is much less likely to overplay or play too loudly. Musicians need to be able to hear themselves, and hear themselves at a ambient level considerably louder than most regular church folk want to hear. Not only do I need a monitor, I need that monitor to be hot. I need it to be both loud and clear, free of distortion. The cleaner my monitor is, the less inclined I am to continually increase the volume or over-play, playing harder than I need to. A simple, low-tech solution is an earbud system. Headphones tend to isolate, so this needs to be done carefully, but, done right, it can be very effective in providing the musician what he needs while keeping the music down at a level the larger audience appreciates.

Move your musicians from in front of the choir. The only reason they are there, in the time-honored tradition of Hammond organ on one side of the sanctuary, piano on the far extreme other side, is because that's how we've always done it. These decisions, where to place the instruments, are typically never made by musicians but by interior decorators, typically women (no offense, sisters, but it's true anyhow), deacons' or pastors' wives. We all grow up with this idea of what a sanctuary should look like, the organ way over yonder, the piano way over yonder, the pulpit, the choir behind. It's a nice tradition, but it was wrong 100 years ago and it is wrong now. Musicians want to sit together. It is incredibly frustrating trying to play at Trinity because Reverend Cherry seems a football field away from where I am sitting, and I have to squint and duck and lean this way and that to see around the pulpit and the gamut of flowers the sisters set up around the pulpit that block my line of sight to the most crucial man in the building for the musicians. “Last week, one sister started singing in the wrong key,” Reverend Cherry says. “She was standing over by the piano, way on the other side of the pulpit. So far away she couldn't hear the tonality of the organ. When I heard the recording later, I could tell she was off key.”

Joy adds, “In most cases, the piano and organ are so far apart there's this delay— this millisecond or two off-timing— that makes it harder for the musicians to be in sync.” Musicians, by and large, don't care about space. We'd rather be cramped up but bunched together than to have lots of space but be spread out across the front of the sanctuary. As a musician, I could care less whether or not anyone sees me. My main concerns are: (a) seeing the musical director and (b) being able to hear myself.

Thou Shall Not Place Thy Leslie Speakers In The Balcony

The Hammond B3 Organ is the definitive lethal weapon of the black church in America. Most black Baptists don't even feel like they're in church until they hear that Hammond playing. There is no other. There is no getting around it. There is no substitute. Not even the very best and most expensive synthesizers can touch it for tonal quality. The Hammond B3 is the end of all arguments. It is the place, in the black church, where the buck stops. Where the rubber literally meets the road. Where you have to put up or shut up. The musician's holy of holies. Without it, you are merely kidding yourself. The toughest and most electrifying keyboard players cannot move a crowd the way a B3 can. Absent this unique, classic instrument (which hasn't been manufactured— the tube organ, anyway— in nearly 35 years), your church loses a bit of its credibility (at least among the seniors).

I was always amazed when, at Emmanuel, I could quiet a noisy pre-service crowd by simply firing the thing up and playing a quiet prelude. People who would ignore me on piano suddenly remembered they were in church, and people moved to take their seats and the ministers lined up and order was restored— all because of that sound. That unmistakable sound. We've been trained, in Pavlovian fashion, to respond a certain way, with dignity, respect, and reverence to that sound. That sound and no other. Ladies and gentlemen: the Hammond B3.

I never learned how to play the thing. At Emmanuel, the late Bart Reynolds occasionally sent me upstairs to stall for him while he whipped the choir into shape downstairs, but that's about as close as I've ever come to being an actual organist. Playing the Hammond requires a specialized skill I never acquired. I have seen many a talented keyboard player mount a Hammond and fail miserably, eking out only an anemic, pathetic sound. You can be the meanest keyboard player who ever walked the Earth and still be a lousy B3 player.

In Colorado Sprfings, if you're talking Hammond B3's, you are talking about one guy: John Bowen. Mr. Bowen, the venerable elder statesman of black church musicians here, is unquestionably the best known and best respected organist in the city. A retired music teacher, Mr. Bowen (everybody calls him, “Mr. Bowen,” despite his protests to, “Just call me 'John'.” I mean, he calls himself John, but when you meet a man who can make a Hammond talk the way he can, you call him Mister) served as Minister of Music at Trinity Baptist Church for 22 years. Currently, he plays at Trinity on fourth Sundays (not coincidentally one of the best attended Sundays of the month), and plays at Emmanuel on second Sundays. Besides Mr. Bowen, there are, maybe, a dozen people who can play a B3. And only a half dozen or so who are any good at it, among them (in no particular order): Trinity's Minister of Music, Reverend Cherry, Emmanuel's Professor David A. Sharpe and Vicki McCampbell, Israelite COGIC's Earnest Dunn, and Sam Bryant, who teaches the Cadet Gospel Choir at the United States Air Force Academy.

Playing the Hammond, with its drawbar and foot pedals, is a dying art. Fewer and fewer young people are coming along who show any interest in the thing at all. B3 organs have no pitch change button and no sustain pedal. You can't cheat it, you can't fake it. Playing a B3 in a black Baptist devotion (where people can and do pop up singing, literally, any song, unannounced, in any key whatsoever) truly separates the men from the boys. A B3 organist has to have an extraordinary grasp of his craft. He is constantly changing the wave shape of the sounds with the EQ section on the organ (the drawbars), and switching between custom and pre-set sounds, vibrato on or off, chorus on and off, and other sound variations, including sending the sound to one Leslie or another or both— making these changes dozens of times during a song while also playing the bass line with one foot and controlling the volume level with his other one. This gives the Hammond a smooth, fluid, and “live” or organic sound that synthesizers cannot duplicate. I can dial up a tasty B3, a cool B3 or a hot B3 on my synth rig, but I lack the ability to meld the three into one sound. The test of a true B3 player is his ability to constantly shape and re-shape the sound so it takes on the fluidity of water, while mastering the blues house styles that define black Gospel. Lacking either the blues chops or the B3 technical skills exposes the Hammond player as a dilettante. It's a tough racket. It takes years to master. And, if done correctly, it should appear, to the observer, to be effortless and easy when it is, in fact, neither.

A church Reverend Cherry used to play at in New Jersey had a Hammond organ with two Leslie (that's the name brand) speakers. Someone, in their infinite wisdom, placed those Leslies up in the balcony, at the extreme REAR of the sanctuary, in the left and right corners. Now, in case you don't know, the Leslie is the speaker for the organ. The only way the organist can hear what he or she is playing is by the sound coming out of the Leslie. A Leslie placed some fifty feet away from the organists (as these were) is utterly useless in terms of the organist being able to hear himself. Reverend Cherry was routinely chastised for playing too loud, even when he was trying to play quietly, because, frankly, he could not hear himself. Reverend Cherry points out, “There is no speaker built into B Series Hammond organs. Some C Series Hammonds have a speaker, but it's usually a cheap speaker that probably doesn't work anymore.”

The decision to place the Leslies way up there was made by deacons and their wives, largely in a misguided attempt to move these speakers away from the older congregants who tended to complain about the volume of the music. This is an extreme example of a common practice: deciding on Leslie placement based on aesthetic choices, on how they look in a particular place, or out of concern for or fear of the wrath of people who have no apparent understanding of the nature of live music.

Thou Shall Not Shush

Most musicians I've known share a universal complaint: they hate being told to quiet down. In the black church, it's more like, “Tone it down.” “What's that mean?” Reverend Cherry exclaims, “WHAT 'tone'? 'Tone' what? 'Tone' is a measure of the sound's quality, not its volume. I'm also annoyed when church folk tell me a song is 'Too Jazzy.' 'Jazzy?' What we do isn't Jazz. Has nothing to do with Jazz, other than that it is largely improvisational. Traditional black Gospel music is derivative of blues, nor Jazz.”

It is fair to say the musicians  in an average are outnumbered and outvoted 300 or even 500-to-1. There are, after all, around a thousand church members, and maybe five musicians. The will of the people is overwhelming, and these are people— the sound engineer included— who are not musicians and who do not hear the same things. Non-musicians' understanding of music is typically limited to the radio or stereo— most of those purchased at Walmart and other fine family stores. Most people's ears are not trained enough to appreciate the nuances of the performance, and their understanding of Reverend Cherry's fiery chromatics or Professor Sharpe's vocal calisthenics are extremely limited. The volume of music in the sanctuary, therefore, tends to be conceptualized by these people— not by the musicians— based on the dynamics of music played in the home or, worse, the elevator. When I hear complaints about the music being too loud, it is never, ever from a musician. It is always from a non-musician. They are always, without fail, universally wrong, and they always, every single time, get their way because there are more of them.

Comparing home music to music played live by actual musicians is like comparing apples and Volkswagens. It's two completely different subjects. The women at church complained mightily when Reverend Cherry talked me into playing bass at Trinity because the bass notes made the choir stand vibrate. “He's too loud,” they'd say. I was not. But a Hartke XL Series 410 cabinet puts ouit a standing bass wave that can be 50 feet long. A properly set-up bass rig simply dominates the room it is in, not with volume but with presence. The ladies are hollering at me to turn down, but I'm not actuallyh playing all that loud, it's just that bass has depth and shape. When I stop playing, to scratch my nose or what have you, the entire bottom falls out of the room and the entire sanctuary--to a person--turns to look at me. What happened? It's like someone shut off the lights. Having grown accustomed to no bass in the sanctuary, adding a bass guitar, especially from a high-powered SWR (top of the line bass) rig, is quite an adjustment for most church goers. Not knowing how to quantify this invasion of bottom end, the complaints began flying about my volume when it is, in fact, my presence they are objecting to. Most musicians love bottom end. Playing over bottom end is like jumping on a bed when you were a kid. The drummer and Reverend Cherry giddily wailed away and reveled in the bottom end, which now brought Cherry's chords into sharper focus (the bass notes define the color of a chord), and gave the music a whole new dimension. Still, I was urged to “tone it down," one deacon, trying to be helpful, suggesting I turn the bass down so it wouldn't have so much bottom. I just stood there, blinking at him, “Ah...” I said, “ do realize that works against the reason I am here...” I eventually grew so frustrated with Church Folk complaining that I stopped playing bass altogether. [Postscript 2013: I've actually stopped playing any music at all in churches, mainly due to burnout from ignorant Church Folk.]

Thou Shall Respect Thy Musicians

At a recent gig, I was sound checking with my rig, and the event host complained that the music was too loud, and sent her little emissary over to advise me of this. I kind of shook my head in acknowledgement and went on adjusting things, which apparently annoyed the host, who once again dispatched another emissary. Which forced me to stop sound checking, a half hour before the service began, to explain to the emissary what a sound check is for. Please, folks, write this down someplace: A SOUND CHECK IS SUPPOSED TO BE LOUD. At the sound check, I am adjusting my levels and my EQ for the specific dynamics of the room I am in. I need to find upper and lower limits and I need to BLAST the music on occasion while I am making these adjustments. The emissary nodded and vanished, and then, mere moments before we began, the host herself, walking down an aisle away from me, barked at me from across the room, “Priest, I'm not gonna tell you again, it's too LOUD.”

First of all, in the sanctuary, I am REVEREND Priest. Musicians, typically, are the least respected ministers in town, with some folks showing us a kind of selective and seasonal respect. Yelling at me, from halfway across the church, with your back to me, without acknowledging my calling (as is proper etiquette in the black church— hey, I didn't make the rules) is extremely offensive. So much so that my first instinct was to pull the plug and tow my rig out into the parking lot. I stayed as a favor to people I was performing with but, otherwise, I'd have left immediately.

Second: the host was flat WRONG. Not only was I not “too loud,” but, having readjusted my levels based on her complaints, the music was overwhelmed by the singers, and I had to keep making sound adjustments on the fly, while playing two keyboards, singing and triggering my drum machine. What the host failed to realize was, a sound check typically occurs inside an EMPTY auditorium. Once you fill the room with bodies, those bodies tend to absorb the sound. What sounds tremendously loud in sound check is, likely, adequate for the actual performance. 

I've found I need to do a lot of lecturing to the non-musicians whenever I'm out gigging somewhere, because they know absolutely nothing about what I'm doing over in the corner, and they tend to treat me poorly, pay me nothing, and, on this occasion, I didn't get so much as a thank-you from any of the groups (and there were several) who came up and used my equipment. I was not hired to do the sound for this event, I'd just brought my own rig for my group. Once my group was done, I was going to pull the rig down, but other groups, hearing the quality of my rig as opposed to the cheesy house system, and asked me to leave it up. Not one of them said thank-you or offered to help carry my gear out after the service.

Music in church is, typically, performed live. Live music, almost by definition, is going to be louder than recorded music because live music is, typically, uncompressed. CD's and tapes and other recordings have gone through an equalization process that is similar to homogenizing milk. Milk straight from the cow is not something most of us would likely enjoy. It needs to be processed into something more palatable. Live music, likewise, cannot and should not be compared to recorded music or thought of in the same comparative way. Older congregants typically complain about the volume of the music when it is, in fact, the content of the music they object to. I've yet to meet an older person who complained about the volume of music they liked. “Nobody would be complaining if y'all were blasting Old Ship of Zion,” Joy jokes. We could likely blast Ave Maria as loud as we want, and nobody has ever told us to quiet down Handel's Messiah. 

Live music needs to have a certain presence. Presence is not necessarily volume, though the two go hand in hand. Any time you have human beings playing real instruments, there is going to be a certain amount of sound coming from them. The task of sound engineers is to work against nature, taking this live experience and processing it so it is more palatable to the old folks. No, I'm not kidding, this is basically what church engineers do: make the old folks happy. In many white churches I've visited here, the trend seems to be to draw vampirically all of the life out of the music until it sounds exactly like it would in the kitchen of a senior citizen. I don't want to play in the kitchen of a senior citizen. Younger people, and by that I mean under 55 or so, tend to have less of an objection to the volume, per se, though they will tend to complain more about music they don't like than music they do.

But since old folk tend to give more money than young folk, keeping the old folk happy becomes a prime concern in many congregations, typically going overboard to the extent where the needs and concerns and likes and tastes of the older congregants becomes the preemptive, injunctive demand, and the younger folks tend to get passed over and disregarded. Some congregations have taken to offering both a contemporary service and a traditional service. I'm of two minds about that: on the one hand, yeah, it's be good to be able to do my thing in an atmosphere that works with me and not against what I do. But I don't like the idea of them and us. I don't think there should ever be them and us in Christ, and splitting services along those kinds of lines seems more divisive than we should be. Reverend Cherry's approach seems to be a well-orchestrated melting pot of traditional and contemporary styles within the same service. Most Trinity congregants will suffer through a song they don't like, knowing that a song they will like is somewhere in Reverend Cherry's queue.

Thou Shall Kiss The Cook

Many people in the church, of any ethnic group, think musicians are, in fact, magicians. I've even heard someone slip in he pulpit, “and we'd like to thank the magicians.” They think playing music is simple or easy, and that we can, magically, play any song in any key at any time. Joy asks us to, “Please be respectful of musicians. At least give us a hint of what you intend to sing and, even better, an idea of what key you want it in. Don't just wander up and start singing any old thing, 'Can you play this now?' I've had people just wander up and hand me sheet music to some song I've never heard of and expect me to be perfect. If they have the sheet music, chances are they've known for a while what they wanted to sing, and just didn't think to tell me so I could prepare. That's awfully disrespectful of what I do.”

Musicians practice. They practice more than choirs, more than most soloists, more than most preachers. Music leaders not only practice but they have to select music, sifting through dozens and hundreds of songs to find music appropriate to your specific congregation. Then they have to learn how to play it and then re-score it for the instruments and voices that are available to them in your church. They spend hours creating individual parts, sometimes making tapes or burning CD's for the song leaders, rehearsing the soloists off-line and sometimes the individual musicians on a part. By the time the choir arrives for choir rehearsal, a typical minister of music has invested a full working day or more in preparing for that rehearsal. It's not magic. They don't just sit down and play. They don't pull this stuff out of thin air. These people work and work diligently almost every single day of every single week.

As a result, musicians are, typically, the most spiritually starved demographic in your church. They are, in typical worship services, always working. They work more, put in more hours in the aggregate, than even the ministers or pastor. From the opening moments to beyond the benediction, these people are working. So much so that, often, they are not spiritually fed. Like a wife who spends all night and all day cooking and preparing the house for guests, they practice and plan and sweat the details and prepare for your Sunday service. Then, like this wife who then serves the meal but is often too exhausted to eat or even to enjoy the occasion, the musicians can often become isolated from worship itself. They are making it possible for you to worship, often at the expense of their own worship.

By treating them with indifference, almost like cattle, and isolating them from the very meal they have worked all week long to prepare for you, you can cause musicians to become spiritually starved. This creates an opportunistic environment for Satan to gain a foothold in your music department, as your music staff becomes increasingly isolated from God and worn out by the foolish ambivalence of the church staff.

Of the many demographic groups within your congregation, musicians are the smallest and most easily ignored. But they are the tip of the sword. Their role in worship is so broad, so very important, that it is ridiculous that most churches routinely dismiss and ignore them. These people need to be fed, too. They need to be encouraged, and they need to be able to have a meal of their own. You've got to kiss the cook every now and then. You've got to make sure their spiritual needs are being met and that they have encouragement and growth opportunities.

Kiss The Cook

There will, likely, never be a complete meeting of the minds between musicians and church members. However, if you really want peace in your church, the musicians cannot lose every battle every time. Accepting the fact you are not a musician and that musicians think and behave differently than normal, regular people, it's important to recognize them as a threatened minority group and not just step on them at every opportunity. Before you harshly demand they turn the music down, ask yourself if it's the volume or the song selection you're objecting to. And then remember this is a person who has prepared all week to come and serve you. Someone who has practiced and practiced and dragged equipment up flights of steps and, likely, arrived earlier than you to set up. This is someone who is hard at work for God, certainly, but just as certainly they are working for you. Please show them some respect.

And, please understand, before you open your mouth, that they disagree with you. If the musicians thought the music was too loud, they'd turn it down without being asked. If they are wailing away and having a great time, they obviously have no idea they are bothering you. Snapping at them rudely is simply not acceptable. It totally works against their enthusiasm, takes them out of worship, and derails the worship service itself. Don't be selfish. Don't treat us like dogs, barking at us. At 41 years of age, I am still, routinely, snapped at like I'm some grade-school kid. Please think before you speak, and then speak only if it's an Earth-threatening emergency. If the issue can wait, let it wait. If it isn't a big enough issue to disturb the pastor with in the middle of his sermon, then please sit on it until later.

If you wouldn't disturb the pastor, please don't disturb the music minister. He is in worship. He is invoking God's presence. He is not a taxi driver or a security guard. When a minister of music is working, which is 80% of there service— more than even the pastor— he should be treated exactly the same way the pastor in the pulpit preaching is treated. You would never dream of walking up to the pastor, mid-sermon, and barking complaints at him. When I'm on the floor, my ax in my hand, laying it down, I am in my pulpit. I am preaching. Please respect me. If you can't respect me, please respect the God who sent me. Let me work. Worry about the trifling stuff later.

Losing every battle, every time, is demoralizing to the musician. Being taken for granted and forced to beg for his check, being worked to death, barked at or ignored— these are common complaints of musicians in the black church, and account for the high burnout rate. The majority of the black churches I've experienced do not place nearly as high a value on a qualified minister of music as they should. When they lose one, a church can go years trying to replace him, only to then begin the cycle of neglect and abuse again that inevitably leads to a musician's exit from the church. These are people with specialized skills, like marine biologists. There are only so many of them, and only so many of the so many are actually any good at it, and only so many of the so many of the so many are actually called by God and anointed and ordained to that work. When you have a minister, a true minister of music, he or she is like the Levite priests mentioned in 2 Chronicles above. These priests were a unique group set apart from the other priests. They were respected, fed, and yes paid— their needs met so they could concentrate on the work they were ordained to do: invoke the presence of God through music and praise. Mistreating these people, taking them for granted, is simply wrong. It is not scriptural. And it inevitably leads to your church singing a capella and suffering drops in attendance while you execute a time-consuming and expensive search for a replacement for the guy you took for granted.

Probably the best way to make peace or keep peace with your musicians is to talk to them. More than that, to listen to them. Pray with them. Go eat with them. Try to appreciate the work they do and the gifts they've been given and the special calling on their lives.

Christopher J. Priest
18 November 2002