Guidelines to Become Effective Musicians at Church

Over the years, I have observed different kinds of church musicians who have served in different Mass times or different other liturgical celebrations for different language groups. For some musicians, the musical notation of the west is used. Other musicians use only words and chords. For musicians who play for the Mass in Mandarin, quite likely the 简谱, 簡譜, jiǎnpǔ or "simplified notation" is used.

Regardless of which music notation system one uses, there are a few observations that could help make a difference between a spirit-filled worship in song, and a dull, boring or ho-hum effort. Here are some of the observations for your evaluation:

1. Talent
To be a musician, you need talent. You could attempt to play a guitar or keyboard or even the organ without much talent, but the outcome would be quite different from those who have got the talent in playing such instruments. There is a difference between playing mechanically, and playing using one's talent. This is why we need to encourage our many young and not so young faithful who have an ear for music, to come forward and offer their talent for the glory of God. Finding such persons should not be that difficult, but the challenge is to encourage them to play, and play with joy.

2. Attitude
Can you imagine coming across a musician who plays but has a foul or bad attitude? From time to time, we may come across certain musicians who play because they have a "what's in it for me" attitude, and some even have a "don't tell me how to play" attitude. However, we should remember that one is called to be a musician not for one's personal gratification, or to boost one's ego, or to show off, but to glorify God through music.

3. Commitment
As a musician, one needs to be committed in playing at the appointed time. One could have talent and good attitude, but sometimes life is such that one is unable to commit oneself. Ideally, we should have musicians who are able to commit themselves to play according to a schedule. This is because when you keep changing musicians due to someone being unable to play for some reason (even though the reason may be valid or good), the choir and the congregation may become confused and the singing may become disrupted or disjointed, since each musician would have a different style or way of playing.

4. Accessibility of Music Material
For a musician to play well and play properly, he or she needs to have access to the music notes. Some musicians may be able to get by with just the words and chords, but the danger with only words and chords is that one musician may be familiar with the hymn, but another musician or a newer one may not know the hymn. This poses a problem if the senior or veteran musician is no longer around, or has moved elsewhere due to work, studies or for some other reason. How are the newer folks going to be able to play the hymn correctly if there are no music notes available? Not only that, without the music notes, people may be singing the hymn incorrectly compared to the original.
This is why it is crucial to have the proper music notes at hand (whether in the western form of musical notation or using the jiǎnpǔ or "simplified notation"). Preferably the music notes should be from the original composer, not from one of those folks who have heard the music played and then come up with their own interpretation of the hymn. Sometimes we come across people who have changed the music notation quite a bit, possibly due to an error in listening to the original music. However, there may be times a musician may need to make do with whatever music notation he or she can get, and hopefully gain access to the original or more accurate music notation, if and when it is available.

5. Study the Music Material
As a musician, one should have a close look at the music material before beginning to try it out. Things that should be looked at include key signature, time signature, unsual notation patterns and other things which may affect the way the music piece is to be played.
Also, one should look at the lyrics and see how the words and music harmonise. This could be helpful if the musician is not familiar with the hymn, or is helping to teach the hymn to the choir or the congregation. Remember that as a musician, you may be one of the few who can read music, so you really need to know the music well before teaching others.

6. Check the Instruments
Musical instruments are strange beasts. They should normally behave well, but from time to time, we get musical instruments throwing tantrums or malfunctioning. To ensure that the musical instruments are in good working order, it is the musician who should check the musical instruments from time to time, especially a few days before choir practice and a few days before the Mass. In case a problem is detected, at least there would be some time for the musical instruments to be examined by an expert and necessary repairs could be carried out. If an acoustic piano is being used, then it would be necessary for it to be tuned at regular intervals, to ensure proper tone.

7. Arrange the Music in Proper Order
It may be advisable for a clear holder file to be used to arrange the music in proper order according to the flow of the Mass, so that the music could be played with little distraction. Instead of lugging one book after another to play the hymns or even different parts of the Mass, one file containing all the hymns and Mass parts could be compiled so that all the musician needs to do is to turn the page as the Mass progresses. It can be distracting if the hymns and Mass parts are all over the place, or in disarray, or messed up, so getting the hymns and Mass parts in proper sequence would help lots.

8. Practice, Practice, Practice
To play the hymns and Mass parts well, one needs to practice. Even if one is already familiar with the hymns and Mass parts, one still needs to practice, since as we know, practice makes perfect. Practice not only enables the musician to become adept with the hymn or Mass part, it also enables the choir and the congregation to become adept as well. I remember an article saying: "When you have not practised for a few days, you would begin to notice the slack in playing; When you have not practised for a few weeks, the audience would begin to notice the slack in playing. Don't be sloppy, practise and practise well, so that your playing would be wonderful and beautiful.

9. Evaluate
As musicians, we often like to hear good things about our playing. We like to hear good compliments. But sometimes, it may be necessary to get some feedback and evaluation of our playing, so that we would know which areas we could improve on. By having evaluation about our playing, we would identify habits and playing styles that could be improved on, or if the playing style is not so suitable for church, then such habits and playing styles could be rectified.

10. Remember to Pray
In all things, prayer is important. Prayer reminds us that ultimately, God is in control and we need His constant help to be effective musicians. Prayer helps us stay committed and focused in our playing. Prayer helps us to learn to be more patient, prudent, persistent and persevere in our words and conduct. Through prayer, we learn to be more dependent on God's providence, while offering our best in playing for the Lord.

Naturally, this is not an exhaustive list. There may be many other factors to consider. May we offer our best to God in our efforts as musicians, and as St. Augustine reminds us: "He who sings well prays twice." May we guide our faithful to singing well, and give God the glory.

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