Heard and not Seen–The Invisible Orchestra

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Artistry:  Worship Space

The Case for the Worship Orchestra as Paradigms
Shift All Around Us

Another Reformation

The church is working its way through a reformation in public worship. For many leaders and congregations changes are coming fast and some people are furious. Many congregations hold hardly any resemblance to themselves just ten years ago. Gone are pulpits, grand pianos, robed choirs and full lighting and—No! Say it ain’t so!—the church orchestra! I am writing this to say, “Hold on a minute! Stop right there! Do we really want to get rid of something as productive as the church orchestra?” Let me make my case.

Question: Why does the church need an orchestra?

If I told you that you could develop and maintain a ministry organization that would express more fully the wonder of who God really is as we worship Him, would you be interested? If I assured you that this same organization could involve both youth and adults in the ministry of worship with excellence, side by side, while continually passing the torch to each new generation of worshipers as they grow up in the house of God, would that sound like something that needs doing?

Even if it has been forgotten, overlooked, underestimated, judged out of style, not at all photogenic, expensive and demanding, the worship orchestra still holds an indispensable place in the worship ministry of the local church. Let’s explore the two reasons listed above.

1. The worship we lead should represent the One we are worshiping. God is a being of unlimited wisdom and beauty. He cannot be fully represented by a single set of musical sounds. The church must engage every timbre available to express every emotion in the human heart and every facet of the character of God. Just as we have so many scales, octaves, chords and rhythms, we must also have more than a rhythm section. If we set our hearts to “give unto the Lord the glory due unto His name,” as Psalm 29 commands, we need brass, woodwinds, strings, rhythm, percussion and synthesizers to approach a level of glory that is worthy of Him. Today we need a rebirth of the desire expressed by the original worship leaders, the Old Covenant psalmists, to use every family of instruments to reflect the multifaceted glory of God. We need to take Psalm 150 literally as we use as many styles, beats, meters, harmonies, melodies, countermelodies, and instrumentations as we can muster to adequately express the “manifold wisdom of God.” (Eph.3:10)

2. The worship ministries we build must be discipleship ministries. Like spirituality, music must be hand-delivered from one generation to the next. Every one of us making music in the church can do so because when we were young somebody let us play in church. Church orchestras keep this essential process going by countering the church trends of the last several decades. For several generations, leaders have been dividing the family of God by age, separating the generations from each other for worship and ministry. The church orchestra is one of the few inter-generational ministries left where young people and adults minister side by side and share equal responsibilities. As a conductor of a church orchestra, I need the parts covered and that can be done either by a sixteen year old or a sixty year old.

If the orchestra is so important, why is it in jeopardy in so many churches?

Reason Number One: The Rules Have Changed. Mega churches which were built on TV ministry in the 1970’s through the early 1990’s are now live-streaming their services on the internet instead. This is a major shift in paradigms. The televised worship service had a set of rules based in the local sanctuary. We could call this the Sanctuary Paradigm. Video streaming of live worship services operates by a set of rules based on concert and video production. This could be called the Video/Concert Paradigm. The contrast between the two is sharp:

  • The Sanctuary Paradigm. When TV cameras were brought in to video tape the local church service, the viewer was looking for a church to attend. Pastors in suits, choirs in robes, an orchestra reading music on music stands, choir lofts, grand pianos, and organs were the standard viewer expectations. Lights were for illumination of the whole sanctuary, not for special effects and smoke was a sign of trouble, not an atmosphere enhancement.
  • The Video/Concert Paradigm. In a video musical presentation, nothing is seen by the audience except what the director wants to be seen. There is no wall-to-wall lighting. Random colors, large images, and revolving lights signal to the viewer a contemporary setting that excites the eye and attracts the interest of the viewer. Darkness surrounds everything so that attention may be more easily focused on the performer. An intimacy, real or imagined, is created between the performer and the viewer

It is difficult to imagine two more different paradigms. The orchestra (along with the robed choir) fits the first but has little place in the second. In the first, cameras were brought into the sanctuary to record a worship service. In the second, a video/concert setting is used as a worship service.

Reason Number Two: The Unseen Orchestra As essential as orchestras are to modern and postmodern expression, we have grown used to hearing them, but not seeing them. Except for the occasional story or show that features the orchestra, the invisible orchestra is a part of every film, TV show, and musical presentation we see. In film and dramatic television narratives, the unseen orchestra does its primary work: expressing every possible human emotion in sound. Coupled with dialogue, action, and the actors’ faces, the unseen orchestra tells the viewer when to be afraid, to be exited, to be joyful, to be sad, and when to feel any other emotion called for in the story. The unseen orchestra is such an integral part of visual storytelling that even stories with no orchestral references at all benefit from the amazing power and expressiveness of the orchestra. Think of John Williams’ score for the Star Wars films. The choice of the 19th century romantic symphonic orchestra to underscore action that happened “long ago in a galaxy far, far away” tells us something important about the culture we want to reach with the gospel. If the film story is big enough, we expect a huge unseen orchestra with grand symphonic themes and treatments. The effect would have been ruined with an onscreen orchestra. Can you imagine the climactic scenes of “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” with a guy with a huge, 36 inch bell grand tuba on camera with a music stand playing the sound track we hear when earth people are able to communicate with the mother ship? It would be funny beyond all reason. But the sound of the unseen tuba is perfect for the voice of the aliens. Many worship planners want the effect without the visual—they have been trained to think that the unseen orchestra is natural.

This is an illusion; it is not reality. If your presentation requires a live orchestra, you will get the optics as well as the sound. The truth is, musicians playing music from music stands have never looked good on camera. Today, through technology, first with soundtracks and now with stem tracks, we can add recorded music to live music with ease. If technical substitutions are used when competent musicians are available in the church, the orchestra is driven deeper into the darkness.

Shifting Paradigms

In this drastic paradigm shift, more has changed than the lighting; the role of the worship/video producer/planner has trumped the role of the pastoral artist. Under the sanctuary paradigm, the worship leader was equal parts pastor and producer. The job description was to produce great worship events and to produce great worshipers! When the pastoral role is slighted, production values rise and people values fall. Orchestra players are not recordings and their instruments and stands are not simply technical devices. Orchestras are composed of people—worshipers, players, students, professionals, amateurs, brothers and sisters, and children of God. They sometimes get sick, or depressed, or find themselves in trouble. They have family events like weddings and funerals. They need more than good arrangements and music stand lights. They need love and guidance, fellowship and discipleship, leadership and opportunity. They need a pastoral artist, someone who is both an orchestral musician and a sensitive pastor of artists. The biblical term for this office is “The Chief Musician.” In short, the pastoral care of singers and players will be more work than a producer-oriented leader wants to do. The technology-driven unseen orchestra or the hired professional will be the producer’s preference. Week by week the service may indeed be excellent, but on the long term the church will lose another generation of musicians.

Orchestras are in trouble in the church because they require musical skills many contemporary worship leaders have never developed:

  • The use of precise notation and
  • Knowledge of how to rehearse instrumentalists trained in school bands and orchestras.

The best friend of the church music leader in this country is the music education system in our schools. The wise and skillful worship leader learns how to function in this world and deliberately becomes a part of this community of teachers and players. Like community bands and orchestras, church orchestras are the final link in the music education chain. Students learn to play instruments in middle school, play them in high school and college and many of them continue to play the rest of their lives. Instrumentalists love to play their instruments! All they need is a place to play, some good music, and a leader who knows how to prepare them. A church of 300 in attendance probably has an orchestra sitting in the pews, uninvolved in the ministry. As worship leaders we have something powerful, unique and eternal to offer the music community in our towns and cities—a spiritual understanding of music. I tell young players this: “Your private teacher can teach you to play your instrument. Your school director can teach you how to play in an ensemble, but you will only learn how to worship God with your instrument in a program like ours.” Adults and students who play well or want to play well are looking for a reason to make their music. As worship leaders we have the best reason of all.

How can the worship orchestra fit in the “unseen orchestra” paradigm?

To prevent losing your instrumentalists and limiting your ability to adequately reflect the many-faceted glory of God in the worship you lead, there are three answers to this three-fold problem.

A Spiritual Solution. As with all things in the ministry of worship, spiritual solutions must precede the musical and technical ones. Leaders need to enter into a time of expansion. We need to ask the Holy Spirit to expand our vision for the ministry beyond the sound of a single song or even a song set to the long term. Developing young musicians needs to be as pressing a goal as next Sunday’s services. The grandeur and holiness of God needs to be reflected in our liturgies as well as the intimacy we have with Him. The more centered on the will of God, the revelation of who Jesus is, and the importance of what we do is to the world, the more we will make room in our hearts for the complete work of God.

A Musical Solution. Worship leaders should learn as much as they can about instrumental music beyond the rhythm section. There are Christian music teachers in public schools and Christian schools who are schooled in the band and orchestra. Learn from them. The things you need to know are not overwhelming; they are just different from the things you need to know to prepare singers and rhythm players. And what’s more, it is fun to know more about how God’s music is made. Music/Worship leaders in the church should not be hostile toward musical notation. It is a gift from God and should be esteemed as such. At the same time, improvisation with chords and words needs to be respected by the band/orchestra trained players as a legitimate way of playing worship music. The leader can allow both to happen at once simply by giving two sets of directions:

1. Word cues for singers and “band” members and
2. Measure numbers for orchestra players.

When the Lord expands the heart of the worship leader to embrace the next generation and lights his/her inner fire for the manifestation of the fullness of His glory, he or she will gladly add these skills to his/her leadership abilities.

A Technical Solution. The place for the orchestra on the video/concert stage is a harder problem to solve. I believe both the needs of the players and the artistic desires of the planners can be compatible.

  • Visual Considerations. While chairs and stands do not provide “contemporary” visuals, they are necessary and should be accommodated by the worship setting. Dressing the orchestra in black and placing them to one side should not interfere with the spacing of the singers and rhythm players. Music stand lights de-emphasize the utilitarian appearance of the stands and illuminate the faces of the players. Different sections of the orchestra can be placed in different places on the stage and perhaps changed from week to week. It is also fun to use a single section of the orchestra in a service when the theme of the service coincides with the musical function of that section: brass for a regal set; woodwinds for a joyful set; strings for a lush or classical set and percussion for a Latin set.
  • Instrumental Considerations. Band and orchestra players need to hear the primary rhythm instrument to stay in tune and in time. Monitors can supply this need. Hearing each other is important so they can match pitch and style. They also need to see the leader, especially when getting started, playing through transitions, and ending the songs. Since each musician is not supplied with the words, he or she needs to know when the first measure happens so they can count their block rests accurately.

Planners need to make room in their hearts and on the stage for the worship orchestra. Orchestra players need to be willing to play in unconventional formations and places to assist in presenting a less-than-traditional setting.

It seems we are not that far apart! I think the dismissal of the orchestra can be avoided. Whew! That was close! Now we can get on with the exciting business of giving the Lord the glory due His name and raising up another generation of worshiping musicians!

Semper Reformanda!
Stephen Phifer

© 2014 Creator Magazine, Update © 2016 Stephen R. Phifer All Rights Reserved

Heard and not Seen--The Invisible Orchestra

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