For the longest time I viewed the musical world through two separate lenses. The first of which was the educational lens in which I participated in band, choir, and orchestra. In this musical ecosystem I grew my knowledge of classical music training techniques and repertoire. The second viewpoint I had of music was created by recreational listening. This was the soundscape that pulled me into the emotive side of music and showed me how to use music as an escape from the world around me.
This Jekyll and Hyde version of a musical life that I was living worked well because in my mind “school music“ and “personal music” were two very different things. There was some overlap in the music I was required to learn and the music I listened to for fun, but the majority remained divided. That is to say, I appreciated the concert band pieces I was learning, but hardly ever found myself downloading them onto my iPod Touch in middle school. I continued this way until I graduated high school and transitioned into my life as a college musician. A switch in my brain occurred regarding how I thought about music. This switch did not come from a more advanced teaching of music in college, however. It came from my start as a musician in a worship band.
During my freshman year of college, I just so happened to be the substitute cellist for a wedding gig that my private teacher from high school was not able to make. This gig entailed playing a few different songs which were almost all hymns. At this point in my life, I was not very religious and did not attend church regularly, so these songs were foreign to me. I had no idea the correct inflections to put on any of the notes or the emotional outcome they were portraying. So I learned strictly to play the right notes, just as I would a technical exercise. During the rehearsal for the wedding was the first time I met the other musicians I was playing with: the keyboard player James and the guitarist Josh. Both of whom were experienced worship band players. I felt so out of my league it wasn’t even funny. I knew the notes, but I still seemed to be missing something.
We began warming up and running through some simple chord progressions in the key of D. All of a sudden, the keyboardist looked at me and said: “Why don’t you improv a little bit for the sound check”. Now I had played solos before, but they were always pre-prepared at least weeks in advance. This was the first time anybody told me “Just play what you feel”, and boy did I struggle. I realized I didn’t know what I felt or how to express emotion in my music. In the 9 years I had played cello up to that point, that was never a lesson I was taught. Apparently I fumbled my way through well enough because after the gig, the keyboard player James invited me to play for Easter at the church he led worship at. I was hesitant at first but said yes in the end. This was the can of worms I never knew I needed to open.
That Easter gig at First Baptist Church of Midway sparked creativity I didn’t even know I had, and I began to learn the true impact worship music has on its listeners. I had such an intense emotional experience playing on Easter that I began attending church there regularly and have been going there now for four years. In those four years I have learned a few very important things I hold with me in my musical mindset to this day.
The first thing is that not every great musician is classically trained. This was a bias I held as someone who grew up in a school system based on performance assessments and standard repertoire. When I started jamming with worship musicians, I realized there is a much larger world and spectrum of musicians who learned things their own way either on their own, through family traditions, or through life experiences. These musicians are often times very versatile in their playing styles and while they may not be able to read traditional music notation, can shred it out with the best of them.
The second important thing I learned was how to understand chord progressions and how to improv over them. For a while at church I would listen to the recordings and write out a cello part I thought fit well so I had regular sheet music to read off of during worship sessions. I quickly realized that relying solely on traditional notation was a crutch I needed to wean off of to gain the full experience of playing worship music. Writing out sheet music is not the norm nor is it even completely helpful in a worship setting, as it is often spontaneous and ever changing between musicians. Learning how to anticipate chord changes and build a repertoire of patterns which I can utilize in various keys has allowed me to evolve to the point where after four years I hardly ever even use chord charts during services. I learn the key and listen to the recordings and off I go, playing off the other musicians in real time. This has permeated every aspect of my playing. Not only my cello playing but my piano and drumset playing as well.
The third and probably most important concept I have learned in my few years as a worship musician is a conglomerate of the two previously listed items. I learned how to bridge the gap between what I was learning at school and what I was listening to in my free time. I started actively listening to the music I downloaded recreationally. I also started learning and feeling the emotion behind the music I was required to learn in ensembles and private lessons. These skills only became sharper the more I learned about the theory and context behind chord progressions and applied those to the on-the-fly choices I was making during worship. Now instead of compartmentalizing my musical experiences into “school music” and “recreational music”, it has all become “life music” which I actively participate in during all times of the day.
As church has allowed me to grow spiritually, worship has allowed me to grow musically. Through worship music I made friends who can tear up the piano and guitar but hated band class as a kid. Through worship music I expanded my knowledge of the functions of chords and how my melodic choices fit into them. Through worship I had my first experience of being moved to tears by music. This kind of emotional impact was not taught to me in school and honestly, I don’t even think that it could’ve been. I think that every musician should get out of their comfort zone and experience the other musical worlds that are out there because it will open your eyes to so many other facets of music that are simply beautiful.