I remember back in the 90s when black churches were discovering Praise and Worship. I was developing as a musician and getting used to my function as a bass player in a service. I learned that I could steer the direction of a service just by changing the groove a little bit. I would sometimes put in a groove that I heard on the R&B radio station and get a rise out of the congregation. Before you know it, the Electric Slide breaks out in the middle of Worship. Although it seemed innocent enough, I was completely wrong for this. In all of my growing at the time, I hadn't learned one of the most important functions of my job as a church musician. One that makes a difference between being a musician and a minstrel. But I will get to that in a minute.
I must give full disclosure, I in no way condemn playing secular music. I make most of my money playing outside the church. As Christians, we have to realize that we live on Planet Earth. Every word out of your mouth is not going to be Jesus. In saying this, we must also realize that music is a means of communication. It is seen by many as a language. I am not here to argue the spiritual issues of playing and listening to secular music. I just say this for context and to let you know where I am coming from.
As minstrels, it is important that we know the purpose of what we do. It is pretty common knowledge that we play for God. If you don't know this, you need to have a serious conversation with your pastor before you play another church service. Another function of what we do that is rarely mentioned is to help the people see God. We must be intentional in this. In the worship setting, we are to play in a manner that points people to the Cross. If I play the groove for Flashlight and the worship leader starts singing Jesus is awesome, which message do you think is going to get across more. You probably already have a context for Flashlight. It probably puts you in the mind if being in the club partying. Not exactly the desired frame of mind that we want the congregation in is it? We must realize that everyone has a past. And some people have a past that is as recent as last night. Ecclesiastes 3:1 says: To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven. We must know when to play what in order to have the people in the frame of mind that is relevant to the service. Even to the point that we are sensitive to what is going on in the service at the time. In most instances you don't want to be playing the offering song, which tends to be up beat and celebratory, during a time when people are being called to repent. Oddly enough, there may be a time when a "secular" song might be appropriate in a service. For example if the first lady is being presented with a birthday present you could play Stevie Wonder's Isn't She Lovely. Once again, we are on planet Earth and music is a means of communication. This song would put someone in the mindset of what is going on at the time. But don't keep playing that for the altar call. That would be inappropriate and take the focus away from what is happening.
As minstrels we must be sensitive to the spirit and convey his move to the people through the expression of music. We must not play things that take the focus off of what the Holy Spirit is doing at that time. If we shift the focus, we run the risk of making someone miss what they should be there for which is an experience with God. And for those that have other agendas, we just might be able to shift their focus. I believe that the power of the spirit expressed through music is just that powerful.
Most people who know me or have seen me play know that I have a pretty complicated set up. Especially considering most bass players are trying to carry the bare minimum for amplification. Effects, synth bass and looping are generally reserved for higher paying situations where someone else is doing the setting up. Local club and church situations are lucky to get an amplifier. But I have a different way of seeing things.
I recently did a church service at a local Seventh Day Adventist church. It was a very easy service with music that was not too challenging and didn’t require more than a bass running naked through an amplifier. Since this was the case, I decided to set up just that. The laptop would get to take a break for this one. I was unlikely to start creating loops and improvising over them in this service.
Part way through the service, the keyboard player turned to me and points out that there is supposed to be a saxophonist to play Oh Come On Come Emanuel (this was a Christmas Sabbath service). Well, the he was nowhere to be found so I was asked (told) me to play the melody. I had never played the song before, let alone the melody. But I have been blessed to have a pretty decent ear so I figured it out and I think it turned out cool. The congregation didn’t cringe or anything negative. But I can’t help but think that I could have made it better had I set up my full rig. I could have added some delay and/or flange effects on my bass sound. Or maybe I could have stacked a lead synth sound on top of my bass sound. Or maybe I could have done swells with my expression pedal. None of these things were available to me at the time because my laptop was chillin in the corner in my book bag probably mocking me the whole time. Don’t get me wrong, I am a capable bass player. I can make an old Squire bass with 20 year old strings running through a Gorilla amp sound hot. But I choose to play some of the best equipment available because it makes my job easier. It allowed me to hear different things and explore new textures and timbres. I don’t need to be able to run effects, play backing tracks, trigger drum loops and play a harmonica solo on most of my gigs. But there is that situation where any one of these things would make a huge difference and add value to what I do. It’s called being prepared to give your best. If I do just one of these things and makes a situation better, who do you think will get called the next time, me or the bass player who just brings an amplifier to run their bass?
We as musicians must realize that everyone can play. There are many people that play circles around me. How are you going to make yourself more valuable to a particular situation? How will you stand out? That is why I will drag my whole rig to every gig from now on.
I have done a bit of reading about finances and how to make money work for you. I am a huge Robert Kiyosaki fan. Probably the biggest thing that I have learned about money in my reading is that money is really an idea. It has little value in and of itself. It is created by people with the cunning to convince people to trade their most precious resource, their time, for something that is not worth the paper it is printed on. Even the value of money is easily manipulated by emotion. I constantly hear on the news how the markets lost value because people got scared. That may be a slight oversimplification. But it is the truth nonetheless.
You may ask what this has to do with music. Well I think it has everything to do with music. This bit of knowledge can give you some power. Especially if you are trying to get more work as a musician. The reason Pop records sell more than Jazz records is because Pop appeals to base emotions and feelings. Primarily lust and a desire to have a good time. This is not to say that Jazz doesn’t elicit emotion. I find few forms of music as expressive as Jazz. But with Jazz, you have to go through too many layers of thought to get to the emotions. And most people are not trying to experience the emotions that the Jazz artist may be expressing while trying to get drunk and find a date.
I also see this in the hiring of musicians. The days of hiring the best player are long past. Not just on the big shows. But the local club gig is the same way. If you can get an emotional connection with the owner of the club, then you can probably get the gig. You can even get a band fired and your band hired. If the artist gets goose bumps because of the way you hold your instrument, you can probably keep the gig as long as you want it. If the audience likes the way you play that one note, as simple as it may be, you will get the standing ovation. I have even seen churches want to hire someone who never learned any of the music, but the musician made them feel a certain way when he played.
I say all of this to say the if you can tap into peoples emotions as you play, then you can make yourself more valuable as a musician. More people will want to hire you. More audiences will want to see (not necessarily hear) you play. There are a number of factors that go into this. One of the biggest being your appearance. You have to look the part if you want people to connect with you. You also have to look engaged. Nobody wants to pay the band any attention if you as a performer look like you want to get home because Scandal is on. Your stage presence is very key in this. But I will discuss this more in a later post.