Ask the expert – anointing vs training / orchestral instruments in worship

Ask the expert – anointing vs training / orchestral instruments in worship


We had a really interesting couple of emails from Jonathan Warburton and would love to start a discussion about the content.

What are you views on orchestral instruments in worship bands?
Also how trained do you have to be to effectively be a strong player in a worship team?

I’m a professional trombonist. I rarely get chance to play much worship music because of my commitment to the BBC and other bands/shows I’m involved in. Here’s the reason I ask and a scenario:

Last week I was in a big band of good church musicians playing music by Glenn Miller and other big band arrangers. However it was clear that the band couldn’t cope with the music at all. The bass parts had no chords as the parts were written out. The drummer couldn’t read the drum parts. The pianist couldn’t play the more difficult chords (extensions, half diminshed chords etc) as for the instrumentalists – most struggled to read the rhythms accurately.

This is in no way a criticism but whilst I know they’d have made an excellent worship team, as a big band playing big band arrangements they just didn’t have the skills to do a good performance.

So I suppose I’m asking is worship and performing secular music linked by the skills and experience of musicianship?

Would you encourage a worship musician to gain skills in secular music?

I think the thing that concerns me a little is can we look at worship from a musical perspective? I have to ask myself sometimes,  “Do I like the song for it’s musical or theological content, does it draw me in to worship?”

In all honesty worship has a way of getting me to praise God no matter how naff I’m feeling however I also have a professional performing side to me. I’m lucky to be involved with Stuart Townend and Dave Fellingham and others……but interestingly so many of the well recognised worship leaders have little (so I’m lead to believe) musical training.

So I ask myself does anointing trump training?  hmm…..
I just don’t know….I suspect it does…..but the jury in my mind is out.

Andy replies:

Thanks for the email. Yes this is a very interesting subject. Yes I believe the worlds of church and performing secular music are linked in as much as they are about leading people in an artistic expression and they are both music!

Perhaps another way of looking at modern congregational music is as a style in itself. Of course many different churches sing different songs with different styles but in my mind there does seem to be a few standard skills that the church musician needs to master that may not be required in other expressions or styles. I.e. skills needed are: being comfortable playing music in often guitar friendly keys, comfortable with improvisation in certain magic scale orientated familiar chord progressions, a range of textural licks, sensitivity, listening skills etc. So for instance a church musician will probably be able to cope with related styles that that much of today’s worship music draws its inspiration from, artists like U2, Coldplay, Dylan, James Taylor, Shawn Colvin, Sarah McLaughlin, etc etc…Basically secular styles that have their roots in jam band, community music type music. e.g. 60’s folk, MOR rock, country rock etc.

So whilst that’s a credible music skill in itself, modern church musicians often are just not versed in the tools that other styles might need, e.g. reading, knowledge of scales and modes other than Ionian, 7th chords, extended, augmented and diminished chords (unless they play gospel), shuffle beats, tempos above 120bpm, unusual time signatures, even pentatonic and blues licks.

And whilst that may make the ‘secular’ or classically trained musician sound superior to the church jam band guy I sometimes find that the jazz players interpret congregational worship music just as badly as the worship band murders a bebop tune.

I think we would both agree that the wider range of styles a musician can credibly accomplish makes them massively better players and I would of course encourage all of us to be as broadly versed as we can. So just as jazz players talk about knowing ‘the language’ which really is about the chord shapes, feel, nuances, authentic stylistic references etc players in every style need to develop the language of sounds to make authentic music that fits with the genre and song. That means for congregational music, players in good worship bands need to work on developing a set of creditable musical language references they draw from to make authentic sounds. This contrary to popular belief is hopefully more than just rehashing old U2 and Coldplay licks!

Realistically though I think it comes down to time you have to invest in that style, musical interest and natural ability. I.e. I don’t really touch jazz much as I have enough trouble mastering Hendrix, blues and country which I am infinitely more interested in. Some of my friends can do the lot well; I can’t which means being realistic about the type of music that I can make work and type of gigs I agree to play. On the flip side many acoustic guitar playing worship leaders simply aren’t that well trained, they do enough to get by in services but are often shackled by their lack of knowledge particularly in music theory and the heritage of acoustic guitar styles. This can sometimes manifest itself in the song writing process where all the melodies sound broadly similar simply because the player writes around the chord progressions they know rather than finding a melody and having the knowledge to understand what other chord possibilities can go underneath it.

There are some church environments I’ve been in where the unspoken elephant in the room has been that – being ‘technical’ is the enemy of anointing. This can translate as harshly as “because the Holy Spirit ‘comes down’ and people are moved when I play, I don’t really need to invest in my musical craft, I’m a worship leader, not a techy musician”  Perhaps for some it’s a fear that if they get technical they’ll loose their anointing, perhaps it’s a fear they won’t be able to grasp some of the concepts and not feel validated as a ‘real’ musician, perhaps they feel they’ve got a lot on their plate and are happy that their skills are enough for what they want to do, perhaps they just can’t be bothered. Sometimes it’s even that they want to learn but just can’t find a teacher that can understand where they are and can take them to the next step with ideas and learning that is useful for congregational worship – which is precisely why I created our intermediate DVDs in the first place! So it could be all sorts of things, good and bad.

Yes there can a tendency for music to become over intellectual if the musician has a high level of training. But in my view that comes down to being more interested in intuiting and working with the congregations’ responses, trying to reflect their expression, their emotion in musical sound rather than playing your own favorite styles and licks because it appeals to you. In short always ask who am I really playing to serve? Them or me? That doesn’t mean I can’t play the things I like, but does the congregation get it??

Some of the most intuitive and congregationally aware musicians aren’t trained but have the most amazing natural musicality. If they hear a sound in there head they’ll find a way to make sense of it in chords even if they don’t know what the chord is called and are hungry to learn more.

So can anointing trump training? Depends how you really define anointing! Is a great musician anointed or just very skilled at evoking response and emotion in a congregation? Is a great speaker anointed or just have great oration skills? Is a bad musician anointed or do they just have a lovely way of connecting with and encouraging the people they play to? In any type of music creation I believe the ear, sensitivity, feel and meaning what you play is more important than intellectual knowledge or stock phrases but a little training can go a long way!

As for orchestral instruments in worship – absolutely yes! I’d hate for us to further drive down the road of the 5 piece rock band is the only way. I think it’s really important for community worship teams to work with what they’ve got instrument wise and create their own unique expression rather becoming a cookie cutter sound alike. This can be difficult particularly if the songs themselves are tightly designed around a certain sound – which brings in the whole debate about needing more songs that can be sung by small congregations without a full band. Many of our favorites right now come from big anthemic large church settings and maybe don’t translate across very well to small churches. A tough job indeed!

That said for orchestral instrument players to engage in this well they do need to actively pursue a set of skills they helps veer away from playing set parts the melody line in the score. They need to develop team playing abilities, fitting in with other instruments on the fly and supporting the melody line, not cutting across it. Its very similar to multiple backing vocalists learning to blend with each other on the fly, not stick out and sound as one voice. This is definitely possible; you don’t need to be a virtuoso just a bit of training and practice with other instruments.

We think this is such an important skill for church worship teams to grasp we currently finishing off a 3 DVD set called ‘Improvisation skills for orchestral instruments in worship’ (or a shorter title if we can think of one!). It is designed to take the scales, arpeggios, rhythms and knowledge you have and use it to work with other single melody instruments on the fly without a score or set parts.

But ultimately in answer to your question, I do think it’s extremely important for musicians to play in locations other than just church services. The aspect of engaging an audience that doesn’t feel duty bound to work with you, or musically creating a fun, happy and clean vibe to make party goers feel comfortable to get up and shake their thang on the dance floor provides excellent learning opportunities to equip a musician to lead people in many settings, very much including a congregation in worship.

Lots of thoughts – Hope some help

I’d love to know other people thoughts too (please comment below)