Players of melody instruments (flute, saxophone, violin etc.) are often left to their own devices to work out what to play in the church band. Listening to what other good players do can help, but sometimes it still remains a mystery. Today I’m sharing the seven principles I work with (in my head) when I’m playing in that role (though I’m most often on keys or vocals). I hope you will find them helpful.
Melody instruments need to see their place in the band rather like the cherries on the top of a cheesecake. The cheesecake still holds together without them (the bass, rhythm and harmonies provide the main body of the music), yet melody instruments can add a great deal of sweetness and beauty, in small doses – especially if they refrain from playing the melody. Here are my top 7 pointers for being an effective single-line instrument in a church band:
1. Know why you are in the band. You are there to serve, as part of an ensemble, to add to the sound in an effective way. It is not the time for you to seek the limelight and show off your solo skills (even though that’s what you have probably been trained to do). Any note or riff you play should enhance the song and the impact of the lyrics. Don’t play just for the sake of it.
2. Less is more. Melody instruments don’t need to play all the time (please don’t!). It is better to add something small and worthwhile, a fill (when singers aren’t singing), or a harmony line for a line or two, than to play too much. Some melody can be useful in the introduction to remind people how a song goes, or when teaching a new song, but other than that your task is to add some light and shade, to help with dynamic build up to chorus, and help set the tone of certain sections of the song. If you find yourself playing start to finish, you are playing too much. If you find that you are standing about doing nothing for much of the time you have probably found a good balance.
3. Play by ear. Most of the effective things you could add to a piece will not be written on the sheet music. You will need to pencil them in during practice, or else learn to improvise. If you know the key (sharps and flats) and know the shape of the melody there is much you can do! Listen to professional recordings of worship music and learn from what the instruments are doing. Copy the types of things you hear that work to add colour and meaning to a song.
4. Fills. Trading phrases is a good thing to learn how to do during the rests of the vocal melody. If the melody goes up you can take a few steps down. If the melody goes down, fill with notes going up. Opposite movement can be quite effective. Think of your fills as a musical response or comment to the words that have been sung. Play along to recorded music to practice this skill.
5. Harmonies. On recorded music you will hear good and limited use of harmonies played by melody instruments. Again, copy good ideas you hear. Write them out if needed. If there is lots of movement in the melody line it is best to harmonise with sustained notes. Choose a note from the chord that is being played at that point. Harmonies work well a 3rd below the melody and up the octave (but it’s a rule that can be broken). Build your confidence by playing along with recorded music. And even if you can play beautiful harmonies for the whole song, don’t. It is best to drop out for whole verse at a time, so that when you do contribute it is effective. Less is more.
6. Improvising. Many people find it helpful to use the Pentatonic (5 note) scale to help with improvising fills. In the key of C major the notes in this scale would be C D E G and A (notes 1,2,3,5,6, of the scale). Play along with recorded songs (of ones you use at church) and try it out.
7. Know the song really well. With all these things I’ve described above you will be better able to effectively add to the arrangement of a song if you know the melody and structure well. It takes time and practice and making mistakes to figure out how to play as a melody instrument in a church band, yet it is a skill worth learning….for the glory of God as His people praise Him together.