Drumming in church: some first steps

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By Jacob Slichter

I am one of several percussionists at Saint Paul’s Chapel in New York City. Under the guidance of our music director, Marilyn Haskel, we accompany congregational music with hand-percussion instruments. Visitors from out of town often come up after the service to express their interest in introducing hand drums and percussion to their churches back home. “How do we start?” Here are some of the principles that have guided us at Saint Paul’s.

Find instruments that cover a range of timbres—Eager as you may be to rush out and load up on drums, this is can be an expensive mistake. Consider instead building a palette of timbres, one that includes such elements as blocks, bells, shakers, tambourines, finger cymbals, etc. Let your current musical repertoire and the acoustics of your worship space inform these choices. In any given space, certain instruments will speak clearly, others will be easily lost, and still others will prove unwieldy. Many stores have an exchange policy, which will allow you to audition different instruments until you find those best suited to your particular environment and music.

Start where you are—While the percussion instruments you bring into church may have their origins in West Africa, the Amazon, or the British Isles, you are free to make whatever music you want with them. Alas, many concern themselves first with the question of learning authentic rhythms, but this can wait. Listen instead to the music your congregation is already making and begin there. Listen to the mood and personality of the music, to the natural ebb and flow of the groove (that mysterious element that makes you want to move your body as you listen), to the shape of the rhythms already present in the melodies.

Then think about how you can support these elements. Simple, easy parts can always do the job; even beginners can make great music right away. Listen to and then answer the melodies and countermelodies, support the bass motion, and so forth. Resist the urge to “liven things up” with percussion; music that works well is perfectly alive. What it wants is support and accent, not a personality transplant. Learn to listen thoughtfully, a skill infinitely more valuable than hand speed and dexterity. Give me the percussionist with hands of clay and ears of gold any day.

In time you’ll gain a natural sense of how rhythms from other musical traditions can be imported (perhaps with modification) into your church’s musical repertoire. At Saint Paul’s, we play a percussion postlude, an excellent time to strut out rhythms from West Africa, or, as we’ve done, from the drumbeats on James Brown tracks.

Always pay attention to the acoustics of the worship space. A cathedral where each note reverberates for several seconds may call for a sparser accompaniment than what you can get away with in a room with a carpeted floor.

Prepare—I favor making rehearsal attendance mandatory for anyone who wants to play. If possible, members of the percussion ensemble should be able to take the instruments home for individual practice.

In the best case, the ensemble (or lone percussionist) would have a chance to rehearse with singers, but if that’s not possible, make sure to sing through the music before coming up with parts. (I did a workshop at St Gregory’s Church in San Francisco, famous, among other things, for its use of liturgical dance. There, we danced through the various steps before coming up with parts that supported the dancing.) Ask yourselves, “Is accompaniment even necessary for this piece?” (While you’re at it, get your organist/pianist to ask herself the same question!) Why rob the congregation of the chance to hear the glory of their unaccompanied singing?

Use rehearsal time to plot out arrangement ideas such as staggered entrances of the various percussion instruments. Practice maintaining eye contact with each other. Establish the framework for improvisation. “Do an extra little something on the high drum during this section,” etc. If possible, practice with a metronome. Even better, make the additional purchase of a cheap Dictaphone and listen back to yourselves so you can make adjustments.

Be Givers, not Takers—Music joins your congregation in community. Let the percussion support, empower, and open up that experience. Be members of that community, not performers looking for an audience’s admiration. The minute you think of yourselves as performers, you cut yourself off from the congregation. The result will be playing that overwhelms or otherwise obstructs their musical experience.

Let your whole body listen to the congregation around you. Feel what they are feeling. Let them speed up and slow down if that’s what they have to do. Herd them together when they stray apart from each other, but avoid becoming rhythmic enforcers who club the congregation from joy into obedience. Remember that sometimes the most exciting thing a congregation can experience is the sound of their own voices, unaccompanied.

Don’t pick up a drum to get your ya yas out. Pick up a drum (or set it down) to bring the full pleasure of music making to those around you. As you feel their pleasure, you will have found the true power of drumming.

Jacob Slichter is a writer and musician who is a member of St. Paul’s Chapel/Trinity Church Wall Street. He serves on the board of All Saints Company, where he has consulted in the development of Music That Makes Community, and he leads drumming workshops for interested congregations.

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