Small Churches Can Have
by David R. Owen (church planter and pastor of Friendship Community Church in Hudson New Hamshire)
The following article appeared in the May/June 1995 issue of Worship Leader Magazine.
How in the world can a small church have consistent, high quality music
accompaniment? And where can I find a keyboardist whose personal style fits the low-key
contemporary sound we desire?
I pondered these questions repeatedly in the first five years of our existence as a church, until God answered with a new technology that does the job beautifully.
In October of 1987, my wife Carole and I arrived in New Hampshire following an 11-year pastorate in Omaha, Nebraska. Our assignment, working under the Baptist General Conference, was to establish a new, contemporary style church in staid New England, near Nashua. I had just completed a Doctorate of Ministry in Church Growth at Fuller Seminary, and was excited at starting 'from the ground up.'
In The Beginning
We spent the first year holding home Bible studies and raising financial support through friends and Conference churches throughout New England. In January, 1989, we began a massive telephone outreach and mailing campaign, and secured the cafeteria of a middle school in Hudson for services to begin on Easter Sunday.
Even before our first service, I faced the challenge of providing good worship music. I realized that music would have a significant impact on the life and growth of the new church.
We obtained a $3,500 start-up loan, bought a used keyboard from my son, and put together a good sound system with both new and used equipment. That was the easy part! Neither my wife nor I played well enought to do the job, although we both had musical backgrounds. Neither did anyone else in our startup small groups. And we truly wanted a sound which would be contemporary enough to enable us to reach unchurched 20th Century New Englanders.
The long road to good music for worship led this pastor to his computer and MIDI.
The Endless Cycle
That's where I ran into a sizable hurdle: finding someone who not only played well, but someone who played contemporary Christian music well. I could import accompanists from sister churches, but all of them knew hymns and older gospel choruses more than contemporary praise music. For that matter, so did I!
Then we found Fred. He didn't read music, but he could play anything by ear. Together, we listened to a lot of Hosanna! and Vineyard praise tapes, chose some songs, and learned them. Over time I found a few vocalists who could help lead the congregational singing, and we all learned together.
But we couldn't hire Fred full time, and he was on his way to the mission field anyway within a few weeks. God answered my earnest pleas and sent an organist who could play anything well if he had the music. He really was a trojan. Although his preferred style was Handel and Bach, he played exactly what was written on all our contemporary sheet music. But then he got a job and moved away. He was followed by a new church member who was a superb pianist, but he also moved away to take a job. Then we had a different accompanist every week, from various churches, none of them familiar with our music.
That's when my son John, a budding contemporary keyboardist, moved to New Hampshire, and became our music director. He not only directed all the music, but he also updated our music repertoire. After three yers, we finally had a good contemporary keyboardist! Not an organist or a pianist. A keyboardist.
For two years, we had excellent contemporary praise music, vocal and instrumental. But John fell in love with the best vocalist on the musc team, married her, and moved an hour's drive to the west. Two of the other vocalists left shortly afterwards, and the one remaining member of the vocal team became ill and had to drop out. We went from an excellent, complete team to nothing in a few weeks.
We were no longer a new church, and it was harder to find anyone to play. I searched diligently in other churches, local colleges, everywhere. That school year we were happy to pay a small stipend to a plucky high school senior who knew neither traditional nor contemporary Christian music but was willing to learn. The next summer she was followed by a high school junior with much less competence, and by then, I was near the end of my tolerance. I couldn't stand the quality of music in the church I pastored!
Finding The Answer
I remembered that a year before, my son had been able to punch buttons on a machine called a sequencer, and play several pre-recorded tracks of instuments. He had told me that the sequencer utilized MIDI information on a computer disk, and could speed up or slow down the song, add verses and sounds, correct notes, etc. In fact, the quality would be just as good as when he played it originally! And much of this could be done using a computer.
I had no idea what MIDI meant, but I enoyed using Macintosh computers and was ready to learn. John answered a million of my questions, and then I obtained a software catalog and written explanations of how it all worked from a secular outfit called Computers and Music in San Francisco.
Budget was tight, and I learned that I could use the computer itself in place of the sequencer. We bought Musicshop sequencing software (by Opcode Music Systems), an inexpensive MIDI interface, MIDI cables, and a Yamaha TG-100 sound module. A layperson who heard of our need donated the cost for a Macintosh Powerbook 180, and our chain of equipment was complete. The sound module, MIDI translator, and software had cost less than $500. The laptop computer made a sequencer unnecessary. We were set up for good music!
How It Works
I have never since worried about losing a keyboardist (although I would still like a live one). In the meanwhile, here's how it works.
We loaned an old accerlerated Mac Plus to my son John. Every week he records as many songs as he can from his keyboard into Musicshop software files. He puts verses, introductions, choruses, and returns in separate sequences in each song file, enabling me to choose the number of verses and choruses to play. Once a week we utilize a direct modem-to-modem connection to transfer the files to the office computer. I edit the files for tempo, key, instrumentation, mix, volume, and transfer them to the notebook computer.
Every Sunday we set up early (we meet in a school) and hook that laptop computer through the sound module to the sound system. We hold a rehearsal before the service, change the computer files if necessary, and have excellent accompaniment for every service.
I had to learn two skills: First, I learned to operate the software so that I could edit the files. Second, our four vocalists, including myself, learned to sing to prerecorded music. Now that we are used to it, there is rarely a problem. Since our vocalists lead the worship using microphones, it is easy for the congregation to join us.
When we first began, the technology had been little used in churches, although it had been available for some time. Few MIDI computer files were available for purchase (Christian music), and they were hard to find. We depended on John for them, and our repertoire was extremely limited. Now we are able to buy many of the song files we need. I watch the ads in Worship Leader magazine for sources. Today, there are several compaies that supply MIDI files for churches.
Now And In The Future
In summary, a few hundred dollars' worth of new technology enabled us to significantly upgrade the quality of our worship music. Musicshop, as entry level sequencing software, has proved fully adequate for our editing needs. The Yamaha TG100 sound module does an acceptable job for a low-end module, and has a built-in MIDI interface for the Mac. (However, the customer is required to order the special cable directly from Yamaha.)
The notebook computer is superb for the sequencing. The first piece we upgrade will be the sound module. Sound quality is only as good as the sounds stored in the module.
We plan to use this technology for a long time to come. When we have capable musicians, they will perform live along with the playback. Meanwhile, we can rest assured of quality worship accompaniment.
Copyright 1995 CCM Communications, Nashville, TN. Used by permission. Worship Leader Magazine, May/June 1995.
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