Working with drum ensemble, rhythm section or praise band
The current revolution in church music, with roots in black gospel and spirituals but now embracing elements of all popular Western musics as well as global music, is a source of great joy and consternation. The church choir director who can integrate some of these joyful and expressive styles into the choir’s repertoire will find that they can deepen and broaden the experience of worship, as well as the musicianship of the choir. There are cultural differences to be negotiated when working with musicians trained in an aural rather than literate tradition.
Rhythm sections and praise bands need directors with clear ideas and respectful but clear rehearsal directions. A certain sensual, anarchic tenor pervades the popular music world, much as it did in the time of Luther, one suspects. Redeeming the Guitar Hero and Drum Dervish in service to the Savior is happening throughout the church, however. These instruments make a joyful noise like no other, when well-prepared and pointed in the right direction.
Fortunately for my work in vernacular church music, my son Paul Friesen-Carper is a musical and thoughtful guitarist as well as fine composer, singer, and church musician. It’s been my pleasure to work as his sideman and collaborator in many worship situations. His related suggestions are included in italics below, and I also recommend his earlier blog - Your Ally, the Guitarist.
Dennis Friesen-Carper, Valparaiso University
- Popular and folk musicians tend to work by sound and “feel” rather than by note. This is of tremendous help to the classically-trained musician who finds him or herself at sea in a wash of music that threatens to sound all the same. Unfortunately, there is very little notation of what these differences in “feel” actually consist of. But guitarists and drummers can often imitate if you can find a recorded model for them to emulate, even if the recording is of a different piece. Indeed differentiation by style is at least as important in vernacular musics as it is in historically-informed performance practice of the standard repertoire. This also means that if you need them to change the music, a clear description of the change or feeling desired can have immediate and profound effect in the rehearsal. Though working with the ensemble in advance can be helpful, the musicians may play very differently when they hear how the choir sounds, and get a sense of the musical gestalt.
- Careful attention to the characteristic interlocking patterns of traditional African and Latin American percussion ensembles is the single most important element of an authentic sound in Central African, Hispanic, and South American musics especially with multiple percussionists. American drummers, used to the improvisatory individualism of drumset playing, can find the discipline of these repetitive patterns confining and boring. However, an ensemble which experiences the exhilaration of real “groove” will happily pursue it. Finding a percussionist experienced with Latin or African drum ensembles to coach you, the drummers, and the choir will be a revelation. Note that shakers and especially maracas are much harder to play with good time than it sounds like, as the motion comes a bit before the sound actually occurs. Congas or djembes can obliterate the sound of voices very easily. Cymbals and snare drums fill the higher register where the consonants that make text intelligible reside. They can interfere with successful apprehension of text very easily.
- Western-trained classical musicians, and particularly choristers, have a marked tendency to rush syncopation figures, especially when they are accented. This can be deadly for much vernacular music which is often more dependent on rhythm for its interest and impact than on either melody, harmony, or text. Often, especially with gospel music, uninitiated musicians try to capture with faster tempi the rhythmic excitement of an ensemble which really “grooves.” In both gospel and Latin styles, often a little slower is more effective than too fast, if the cross-rhythms are secure and playing off of one another.
- The ubiquitous notes on the “and of two” or “and of four” in four-quarter time should be heard as anticipations of beats three and one respectively, and delayed slightly for maximum effect. This is even more true when the pulse has an underlying triple “Swing” feel, as in many spirituals and much gospel music. This rushing happens with instrumentalists as well as singers; again, the instrumentalists set the rhythmic approach of the ensemble.
- Percussion and electronically amplified instruments have a huge dynamic range. When rehearsing, start with very low volume levels where everything can be heard easily. Careful control of dynamics from the beginning is crucial. Listen from different parts of the room to make sure that the instruments are in balance.
- In a setting where drumset is used, the drummer is the key to style, much like the rehearsal pianist. Drummers experienced in playing with jazz ensembles are used to “setting up” the band’s rhythmic syncopations, which are notated in the drumset parts, rather than specifically what the drummer might play. Drummers and bass players particularly should be encouraged to set up the choir’s rhythms. The contemporary ensemble can create inviting breaths for assembly song similarly to an organist, but this doesn’t come naturally, it must be defined, demonstrated, and rehearsed.
- When working acoustically, use a wooden “jazz” drumset rather than the common heavy rock set, with very light sticks, brushes, or rutes. Cymbals need to be of high quality. See Paul’s notes below.
The following comments apply equally to Praise Band ensembles leading in worship and to accompanying a choir or group of singers.
Drums can easily overwhelm everything else, so take some precautions: (These are especially important if the set belongs to the church!)
- Tune all the drums (Here is a collection of good videos if you need help).
- Replace your drum heads regularly.
- Dampen the bass drum (a pillow or quilt inside the drum will do in a pinch).
- Tighten the snare wires so that there's neither slapback or odd resonance.
- Upgrade the cymbals. (If they came with the drum set, they're probably not worth the brass they're made from!)
- Although lots of people suggest using rutes, I prefer light sticks. In my opinion, rutes make for a dull, less precise sound, which is harder to follow.
For the bass player:
- "Breathe" with the singers, and everyone will breathe together.
- Keep it simple.
Guitarists specifically, and everybody in general, will want to play too many notes.
For the lead guitarist:
- Remember that you're the icing, not the cake.
- Decorate what the rhythm guitar does.
- Respond to what the singers have sung.
- Wait to rip loose until the agreed upon solo.
- Avoid playing on top of the singers (unless they have sung these words at least once before, or you're playing a line that leads out of the singers' held note).
- Avoid playing through the ensemble's "breath."