Playing background music during worship service

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Almost every Sunday morning, I am needed to provide live background music, either on the guitar or the piano, at church worship services. Usually this takes place during the offertory and times of corporate prayers. Since I’ve been doing this almost every Sunday for the last 12 years or so, it comes very naturally to me. It helps that improvising comes very naturally to me. Put some sheet music in front of my eyes and I will freeze up (reason why I disliked piano lessons so much...) but take them away from me and I can sit at the piano and play whatever comes to my head for hours... literally. I understand, however, that for a lot of musicians, it doesn’t come as naturally. They could be extremely skilled instrumentalists, but without the guidance of sheet music or chord charts, a lot of people tend to have a difficult time providing live background music, especially ones that would work well at worship services.

So with that said, I thought I would provide some tips on this very topic. I gave a seminar on this topic at my church to our keyboardists and they found it helpful. Hopefully it’ll be of some help to you as well–especially if you’re having to provide live background music during church services.

[ I. Support the Plot ]

Can you imagine watching a movie without any background music whatsoever? Just how incredibly dull would that be? Sound tracks in music are powerful in the ways in which they support the plot. I’ll bet that a good number of movie sound tracks echo in your heads whenever you think about a movie. For instance, I remember that one scene in ‘Forrest Gump’ where Forrest runs for the first time in his life and I heard that sound track come on... I remember just how incredibly powerful that scene was. Without that music in the background, it would not have been nearly as powerful or emotion-provoking. And that’s just one example I can provide among countless many.

With that said, when you’re in the position to provide live background music during a church service, determine what the plot is. If you’re asked to play the piano during a corporate prayer time immediately following a sermon centered on the crucifixion of Christ and your pastor is asking the congregation to meditate on Christ’s suffering, the last thing you’ll want to do is to play some kind of a happy-sounding music. On the other hand, if this is Easter Sunday and your pastor just preached a message on the resurrected Christ and His victory over death, you’d probably want to play something that sounds uplifting.

And remember to change up your music if the “plot” changes. Whenever I’m playing background tunes while someone is leading the congregation through various prayer topics, I listen carefully to what the person is saying. For instance, it is very possible that following a sermon that focuses on the cross, the preacher will ask the congregation to first meditate on the cross, repent of their sins, and then give thanks to God for His grace, followed by giving praises to God for His victory over sin and death. Well, the plot just changed multiple times right there. It would be a good idea for your background music to support the changing plot.

[ II. Don't Become the Main Attraction ]

When you’re providing live background music during a church service, remember that your music is not to be main attraction. As stated above, it should support whatever is taking place without attracting unnecessary attention. Here are some tips that will help your music (and you) to stay in the background:

Be generic: Try to avoid playing melodies that your congregants may recognize; otherwise, they may start to follow your playing instead of focusing on whatever else they’re supposed to focus on. And when that happens, you’ve just become the main attraction. There have been numerous times where I was praying alongside other congregants and the keyboardist started to play very familiar tunes–such as ‘Amazing Grace’ or ‘Great is Thy Faithfulness’. Well, things like that make it nearly impossible for me to pray. I probably suffer from it more than most other folks being that I’m so music-minded, but still... I can’t imagine how familiar tunes like that would not draw people’s attention. Be simple: Play simple things. Don’t play so many different notes. You’re not playing at a piano recital and you’ve got no one to impress when there’s worship going on. :)
Repetition: Be repetitious in your playing. While you don’t have to stick to playing the exact same notes every x measures, it might not be a bad idea to stick to some sort of a basic chord progression. When we hear music that is repetitious, we tend have an easier time letting it fade away into background. [ III. Volume Control ]

When you watch a movie (or a TV show or a play, etc.), note how when the background music is playing in scenes where there are dialogues being exchanged between the characters, the volume of the music is lot lower than when the music is being played in scenes where this is not the case. This obviously allows the audience to make out what the characters are saying. In the same way, when you’re having to play an instrument in the background during a church service and someone is speaking over your playing, you should soften your playing whenever this person is speaking. Don’t just turn that volume knob on your keyboard (or depend on your sound person to lower your volume for you) but actually soften your playing. When the person is done speaking, well, you can then play louder. Go with the flow.

Well, if you’re having to provide live background music at church (or in various other settings) I hope this post has been of help to you.

Support the plot, stay in the background, and watch your volume!

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