Picture the scene. The worship leader wants to create a bit of a different vibe to the Sunday worship time. So in a moment of intense clarity he thinks, “I know, I’ll get the drummer to play percussion instead this week. It’ll be great. After all drums and percussion are really the same instrument right?” Wrong wrong …WRONG!
Although of course both are rhythm instruments, they do need some pretty different techniques to play them properly so right off the bat, tip 1 is don’t assume that because someone can play one thing, they can automatically play the other. Second, the percussionist can be dangerous in a worship band: often the worship leader is not quite sure what to do with the percussionist and he or she just says ‘Oh well, you just follow along and look out for the changes’.
This is bad.
A good worship leader understands what a percussionist can bring to the party: if the percussionist’s instruments are well-chosen and played at the right moments they can add some real colour and interest to the whole groove. Conversely, a bad percussionist/conga player is like a grenade in a nuclear arsenal.
A percussionist usually has a very light brief and is often effectively asked to just jam along with no real sense of how their contribution will make any different to the overall sound. So if you are one of these wonderful creatures that is finding life in the worship band an unhappy one, here’s a few tips to hopefully help the whole perscussion integration gel a bit more
1 Do… learn to pop and ‘heel and toe’
Every instrument requires basic technique: a guitarist must learn a few strumming patterns, a drummer must learn his or her rudiments and a pianist must start out with a few chord shapes and simple music theory to get them on his or her way. For some reason the vast majority of conga players still haven’t learned the basic ‘heel and toe’ technique. This is when you effectively rock you hand on the skin of the drum to deliver two very distinct sounds. Then there’s the ‘pop’. This sound punctuates, and is extremely effective. If you don’t know how to do this, log on to YouTube and search for a demonstration of a traditional ‘Clave’ rhythm. This should be the building block for your conga playing.
2 Don’t… play all the time
The congas can get lost in some tunes and they don’t add anything particularly when the band is playing those rolling ‘Coldplay-a-like’ tunes that have a pounding 4/4 beat. A conga in a rock setting doesn’t usually work that well either, so on these occasions it’s time to stop. These types of rhythms usually demand a well-played tambourine to keep the whole groove steady and that’s pretty much it. Perhaps its not the fault of the congas per se but more about how you play them. Congas generally are brought out to add some off beat pushes add make a groove a bit more…well…groovy. If your church is playing white U2 esqe rock stuff, then offbeats don’t really feature in the language of that style, and to make it sound authentic all your instruments need to speak the same language at the same time. The same can be said of the Djembe. The way lots of people play it adds a real tribal type of vibe and it sounds fantastic when there’s a bit of space in the tune, or when you are playing an ‘acoustic set’ but it can just degenerate into a needless offbeat mush in the large, guitar-heavy numbers.
3 Don’t… overplay the tambourine
Remember the 70s and 80s when Margaret from the front row used to bring her skinned tambourine with ribbons then ‘bless’ us with a thoroughly random rhythm on ‘You shall go out with joy’. This was the time when you wanted to grab hold of her instrument and place it in such a way that it doubled up as a mighty fine necklace. Remember this woman as you pick up your tambourine. Again..
In your life you do not want to live with the tag ‘Tambourine Man’. You might consider this a term of affection, but this is nothing more than a sideswipe imploring you to put a sock in it. Use the tambourine at strategic moments but if you play it to death, a carefully placed marksman from the congregation will take you out.
4 Do… blend with the drummer
Drummers and percussionists need to work together. That’s the rule. If a drummer has chosen a pattern that you don’t think works very well for the song by all means tell him and suggest something that you think does. It’s no good just playing what you think is right and the drummer playing something completely different. If you do this, it’ll sound like an unholy mess. If you are playing the congas or djembe ensure that you are both locked into the groove with the bass player. If you do find a blend that works you’ll sound fantastically tight and it’ll give the congregation a platform to work to.
5 Don’t… ever play rototoms
You must remember that the devil invented rototoms. If you are not familiar with the instrument you have done well, but if you were a child of the 80s you’ll be well aware of these quite unnecessary percussion horrors. A rototom is a drum made from an alloy skeleton and it makes a sort of 80s ‘booow’ sound that is only really of use in early Bonnie Tyler tunes. That’s about it. If you have some in your loft and feel tempted to get them out, don’t. Leave them there to gather dust, or melt them down to make a nice cutlery set. So in conclusion, unless your church is regularly led into the presence of God with the Miami Vice theme tune, don’t even think about it.
6 Do… get soundchecked
If you are playing congas make sure you are miked up and make sure your instrument doesn’t sound like a pale imitation of somebody slapping a ping pong table with dead chicken. Your sound needs to be controlled and it needs to be heard. If the sound man says he hasn’t got a spare mic…then go and buy a mic! Think of it as part of your instrument and if you are not in the mix, there’s no point in playing. You might as well stay at home and watch Countryfile.
7 Do… practice with a metronome
Countless percussionists play out of time. Why? Because nobody seems cares whether they do or not. Don’t be the percussionist who has an ‘in the general ballpark’ concept of tempo or time. Be tight, and if you find yourself shifting tempos and moving away from the backbeat then pop along to your local music store, get yourself a metronome and start practising playing to time. There’s probably an iPhone metronome app that will save you moving from your sofa. The wall of sound masks your timing frailties but the baldness of a metronome clicking away with nothing else will tighten your playing. Percussion, by its very nature is a rhythmical thing, so it’s vital that you are, at the very least, rhythmical.
8 Don’t… pat the congas
As we have said congas demand commitment. Mastering ‘the pop’ can be a painful process but if you have managed achieve that elusive ‘bap’ consistently then well done you. A decent conga player makes sure his or her sounds are crisp and in time, but there are some who still insist on ‘patting’ their instruments. This floppy, uncommitted approach yields an unfulfilling sound and if you are a consistent offender, stop what you are doing and get back to basics. The serial ‘patter’ is the scurge of a worship band and should be asked to step down until they learn their instrument properly.
9 Don’t … overplay your new ‘toy’
The percussion toy shop can be a little overwhelming. The scores of African, South American and Oriental instruments in music shops can be hard to resist and once purchased, demand to be played, regardless of the setting or the tune it seems. Finger pianos, crotales, bells, chimes, rainsticks, Berranbows all have their place but they should be played sparingly and at exactly the right moment. There are percussionists with a rainstick fetish and they spend so much time using it that the large sections of the congregation feel the uncontrollable urge to pee. Also, don’t be scared of the triangle. At school it was largely regarded as a cissy’s instrument. No, a good trigger triangle can be used to great effect and if you have mastered the damping technique you can achieve some wonderfully vibrant rhythms with it.
10 Don’t… keep changing the pattern
Once you have decided on a pattern in the rehearsal then stick to it in the service. Groove is such an important part of music and if you haven’t learned to groove as a percussionist/conga player then it’s time to put your instrument down and learn a racket sport. Stick to your pattern and don’t change it. The congregation needs consistency because they want to be free to worship without having to worry about the changes in rhythm and tempo. A decent, simple groove is like honey dripping over a warm waffle.