AOG Worship

Practical Tips for Involving Less Commonly Used Instruments in Worship

Emily Rowlands Bio Photo
Photo by Alice Dryden

Psalm 150 (MSG)

Praise God in his holy house of worship,
praise him under the open skies;
Praise him for his acts of power,
praise him for his magnificent greatness;
Praise with a blast on the trumpet,
praise by strumming soft strings;
Praise him with castanets and dance,
praise him with banjo and flute;
Praise him with cymbals and a big bass drum,
praise him with fiddles and mandolin.
Let every living, breathing creature praise God!

Musical instruments change over time, as do musical fashions, tastes, styles and expressions. Various different translations of Psalm 150 demonstrate this. But it isn’t the instruments listed in this Psalm that matter. They’re not an exclusive list of instructions to follow and a ‘must have’ for our worship teams (though that might be fun!). The essence of this Psalm expresses the freedom we have to use different instruments for the purpose of praising God. That’s what matters. Whatever instrument we learn to play, we can use it for praising God. We are instruments of praise ourselves, after all.

It’s exciting to think how we can creatively include some less commonly used instruments in worship (please let me include a marimba, one day). I like to think of them as being a bit like the salt we might add to cooking. My father was a chemistry teacher and he always told me that we add salt to our cooking to raise the temperature of the boiling point and in theory reduce boiling time. I believed him until I met my mother-in-law who is an outstanding cook. “Salt enhances the flavour”, she told me, slightly disturbed by my misunderstanding of why we add salt. Adding unusual instruments can feel a little risky and stressful, like we’re raising the temperature but they can enhance the flavour of our worship experience immensely. Although, with that analogy in mind too much salt can spoil the flavour of our food and too little added, we don’t notice any change in the flavour. This is true of adding an unusual instrument to our worship team. An instrument that plays insensitively can be too much and one that plays tentatively can be too little, defeating their purpose of adding flavour. So what might a recipe for success look like?

A recipe for success – from a leader’s perspective:

  • Do not be afraid!
  • If you are not familiar with the instrument, get to know it as best you can.
  • Familiarise yourself with which keys are most comfortable, what styles suit it best (often this is more than one style), its range, its tone etc.
  • Get to know the capabilities and skill of your player. Some tend to favour a certain style in playing, but also don’t be afraid to push them gently out of their comfort zone.
  • Have an idea of what you are expecting, so you can guide your player if they are uncertain but also give them space to explore and find their voice.
  • Seek out recorded examples of the instrument being used in worship to help (but don’t feel limited by this!)
  • Practise, practise, practise together!

 A recipe for success – from the player’s perspective:

  • Do not be afraid!
  • Work hard. Practise as much as you can.
  • Worship in private on you instrument.
  • Always be looking for ways to improve. If time and finances allow, have lessons to help you improve. But if they don’t, stretch yourself to play in different styles or in ways that develop your skill. Also don’t forget the rudimentary building blocks of scales and studies to help you!
  • Strengthen your weaknesses and take risks, knowing that mistakes will happen but God doesn’t mind.
  • Step in faith out of your comfort zone trusting God to move through you, as you do.
  • Look for ways to enhance the flavour of the worship experience through your playing that help people connect with God. Never detract from the words being sung.
  • Look for melodic leads between sung phrases or look for melodic phrases that emphasise the words (I call it ‘word painting’).
  • Look for rhythms that will enhance and move in keeping with the energy and character of the song being sung, knowing what you can do to move things on or build up tension of expression at important moments.
  • Look for harmonies that work well within your band set up. For example are you playing in exactly the same octave as someone else and would it be better at that moment to be in a different octave? I have found that sometimes the power of close harmonies is exactly what is needed, but on other occasions being able to broaden out the texture with different octaves brings a whole new dimension, and again is what is needed in the moment.
  • Be sensitive and remember that less is often more. We don’t have to play all the time and should not be afraid of keeping it simple.
  • Follow your leader. You’re there to serve them (and God and the congregation), so respond with a good attitude when they are specific in what they ask of you.
  • Celebrate, praise, worship and above all fix your heart on making Jesus great as you play! It’s not about us.

Emily Rowlands lives on a smallholding in Wales with her husband, Tim, four children and far too many animals. As a family, they lead Festival Church in Chester where Emily is part of the worship team. She loves the gift of creativity and is motivated to see all artistic mediums and creative communication connect people with God. Emily teaches violin, plays in orchestras and folk bands, home educates her children and writes children’s books.