The 3 Roles of a Worship Cellist
I have been a cellist in a worship band for over 4 years now. Since starting out I have taken on various musical roles. My situation is unique from the “traditional” church going cellist because my church does not have an orchestra. I am the lone orchestral string player in a contemporary worship band. This is a trend that is becoming more common in mainstream contemporary Christian groups such as “For King and Country”, “Bethel Music” and many others. This creates an interesting setting in which I usually have to be very aware of how I fit into the mix of the band as a whole. Each Sunday I have to reassess what my role will be and while there are many different nuances to worship music on any instrument, I have noticed 3 main roles that I as a cellist usually have fallen into.
The first role is a secondary lead. I am often asked (more often than not) to learn a specific melody from one or more of the songs in our set to play on the cello. The worship leader usually assigns me these melodies for the quieter, more reflective chorus sections. When this happens, most of the other instruments cut out and I take the lead solo over the pad or simple chords. Most often I am simply repeating the same melody that the singers have iterated multiple times already, but there is something about the cello which makes this melody special all over again. This role is most easily recognized by the listeners and is when I usually get the most compliments after church about my playing. The emotional impact I have as someone simply playing a worship melody on the cello is something I still haven’t quite gotten used to hearing about. During these times of taking a leading role in the song, I am in control of the overall feeling the worship takes. If it is simply a time for quiet reflection, I opt to stay in a lower octave and allow the rich tones of the cello’s lower range to push the melodic content of the song. If the song is building towards the ever growing feeling of “ascension” that worship music modulates towards frequently, I will follow suit and bring everything up an octave in the brighter sounds of the upper A-string. While this is usually my role for at least one song every Sunday, it is not my most common role as a worship cellist.
The second and most frequent role I take on during worship is the provider of ambience. As a member of a band that doesn’t usually use background synth pads (a staple in today’s contemporary worship music) the job of providing a consistent background foundational sound usually falls to me. The bass player usually assists with this job and leans into the roots of the chords in the progression. I usually take the chords and help to outline them. By alternating between roots, thirds and fifths, I provide emphasis on the harmonies that exist elsewhere in the instrumentation. This is crucial to making sure our songs never sound empty or lacking in anyway. It is usually the case that when the worship leader directs the instrumentalists to cut out at a given point in the song, that direction is not for me. I stay in to act as a constant drone and tuning reference point for the vocalists. This role in the band adds just as much emotion into the song as the leading role but is usually less noticed because of its background nature.
The third and least common role I have taken on as a cello player in a worship band is an interjector. This role requires the most overall knowledge of the chord charts and improvisation. In this role, I am responsible for listening to the vocalists or soloists and adding short musical phrases onto their melodies. It is a version of call and response where I hear what is presented and find a way to grow the musical idea or create a variation of it that still fits the feeling. This is an extended version of adding ambience to a song and also helps to make a song feel less empty because I am in charge of filling the gaps in sound. This usually only takes place during the faster paced songs, which makes it that much harder to execute successfully.
There are many jobs a worship musician has, and sometimes those don’t become apparent until you are in the moment. Worship music is ever flowing and changing. No matter how much time you spend rehearsing the music, it is ultimately up to feeling and response you get from your congregation and fellow band members that help you decipher where the Lord is leading you to go in the music. Sometimes it’s a windy path that you have to hike through carefully and others it’s an ocean that you have no choice but to dive headfirst into. That’s what makes being a cellist in a worship band exciting, despite the role I take on.