The Instrument Pyramid

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My family and I recently went through the dreadful process of moving. It was stressful, difficult, and expensive; we are so glad to be done (even if we still haven’t found a place for everything).  Aside from all that, the process brought home to me how choosing a place to live is the quintessential example of tradeoffs. With price, location, size, and features, you are almost guaranteed to have to make at least some concessions. It doesn’t mean you can’t be happy with what you get; only that you need to prioritize.

I find that a similar thing happens sometimes with leading worship. It’s an unavoidable reality that not everyone can participate every week. So, depending on who’s available and what they can do, you’ll probably have to decide which instruments and voice parts are most important. We have a small team, and have to do this pretty often. If those present can each do only one thing, there’s not much to decide. But more commonly, team members can sing and play or play more than one instrument. Then the question is, which role should everyone fill that week? Luckily, we’ve never had to go without piano (that I know of), but other instruments are often missing because we need those players to do something else.   

So how do you build your instrument pyramid? What factors do you use to make the call? Fewer voices? No drums? No guitar? Does it vary according to the song? I have a feeling most of you would place voices and piano at the bottom (the most essential), but I’m curious how you rank things beyond that. (By the way, if anyone has actually done an otherwise normal service with no piano, I’d love to hear how it went!) In some cases, you could have people switch roles for different songs. With some instruments, though (drums and guitar in particular), it’s usually all or nothing since there’s not time to switch between songs. For us, drums almost always win out over guitar, even if there are a couple songs that sound better without percussion.

You may not have thought about this much, or maybe you’ve never had to. Or maybe you’re very familiar with the one-or-the-other exercise. In any case, please share your approach to instrument prioritization, and experiences you’ve had. I’m sure there’s some wisdom out there that will be appreciated by all.

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Contributor

Ooo, Christy, thanks for your post! As a Praise & Worship Band instructor at our local Christian high school, these questions just ring out as wonderful ones to get my students thinking critically about instrumentation. The development of a pyramid, or other helpful tool to assist leaders in making these tough choices would be a great Independent Study Project. 

For myself, while I have not stopped to formally articulate a set of prioritizing questions/principals, I think that practically I do function with a few. As I poke around a bit to explore what those guiding ideas may be, I am becoming aware that I take a pretty 'big picture' view and then narrow the focus as the bigger questions get answered- kind of like that marble that spins around and around getting closer to the hole each time and then disappears. 

What are we being called to do? Who are we being called to serve? How can our musical offerings be an act of love?...What musicians are available? How do the individual musicians feel called to serve at this time?...(spinning, spinning) What is the theme of the service? Given the theme and the people we are serving, which songs are available?...How familiar is this song to the congregation? What impact will losing the drum have on our ability to lead well? ...(down the hole it goes) Have I/we chosen songs and instrumentation that will allow both leading musicians and congregation members to feel invited and included as they seek to offer a 'pleasing aroma' to their Heavenly Father? 

As one moves through that kind of thinking process, I think we can avoid trying to pop the marble through the hole at the bottom, hoping it will spin its way up the vessel. What do I mean? Well, the practical realities of short timelines and long lists of responsibilities mean that we too often deal with the immediate need first: a list of songs for Sunday morning. And then we work at making those songs happen with whomever we've got. We end up having to choose in the midst of rehearsal whether to go guitar or drums, keyboard or harmony vocal, etc. Rarely fun and often leads to dissatisfaction, or 'settling'. So, when it is possible, after answering the bigger questions, I try to pick my song list based on the instrumental support I know I will have vs. fitting the musicians into the song list. I have found it a much less frustrating process that leaves both musicians and congregation members feeling more supported and freer to engage in meaningful worship.

Participant

For a recent service at Trinity here in Edmonton, we did not have a pianist available, which I don't think has ever happened before. Fortunately, the other instrumentalists booked for that service are all very talented. Our praise teams always work with the pastor to choose the songs for the service.  Between choosing songs that worked for both the instrumentalists (sans pianist) and the theme of the service, everything went off without a hitch thanks to the skills of the guitarists and drummer and God's grace.  It might be an interesting exercise to try it out for once to give the musicians the self-confidence that it can be done if needed.

Community Builder

My question is, "Why is there a view that it is so essential to have a piano that it is a concern to have a service without a piano? Why is piano apparently a 'de facto' instrument that must be present otherwise the music might not go well?"

Your instrument pyramid depends partly on the style of music you are looking to implement. However, on a basic level, you need to focus on filling out the rhythm section first.

(Also, their enthusiasm is fantastic, but I feel like we have a habit of using too many vocalists.)