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Make a Joyful Noise
Each of us has our own early memories of music. An older siblings’ record collection, songs sung in school, the radio Mom always had on in the kitchen. For millions of Americans, these early memories include hymns and other songs of faith, heard in church or at home, and resonating for a lifetime. A recent Gallup poll suggests that as many as 41% of American families regularly attend religious services, and churches continue to be one of the country’s primary sources of live music.
Over the last 25 years, the US has seen a dramatic increase in the number of nondenominational “mega” churches, many of which host large-scale musical events. Still, the majority of churches across the country remain small, relying on members of the congregation to provide musical accompaniment. These members are sometimes professional musicians or music teachers, but they’re also amateurs — recreational musicians who put aside their career and family obligations to make room in their lives for music. Every week, they gather their instruments and raise their voices in worship. The churches and temples in which they perform are as different as the musicians are, but the common threads that unite them — community, music, and faith — are universal.
Phil Grajko (at the microphone) is the music director for Eastern Hills Bible Church in Manlius, New York. The church’s musicians range from the professional, like drummer CV Abdellah, to the novice, like high schooler Chris Cox. Grajko says the music benefits most when each musician is able to find his or her niche, and everyone shares a willingness to get involved
Playing from the Heart
Peter Green, 49, a musician and business consultant from Niagara Falls, New York, grew up with a love of music, learning to play the flute, oboe, French horn, and guitar. As a teenager he began playing in his church, where he met the church’s organist, a young man from Holland who was in the US for school. Green says that the organist’s influence, as well as the changing role of music in his church during those years, acted as a catalyst for him.
“It was the late 1970s, and Catholic churches were beginning to make the shift to what was, at the time, called folk mass,” he recalls. “It was a blend of folk and pop-sounding songs. One night, after we had run through a couple of songs, the organist asked me to avoid the sheet music altogether and just play from the heart. I was terrified!
That terror quickly gave way to inspiration, however, as Green found that he was able to improvise easily with his flute. The result was powerful and uplifting, he says, “almost as if I could pray through the music.” He began playing in various worship-oriented groups, and is still active as a church musician today.
Melany Ethridge, 38, a public relations account executive, has also found great satisfaction in making music on Sundays. Her husband’s career as a church music director has moved her family a number of times, and in each new home, she has found a congregation that is welcoming of and eager for live music. At her current church in Dallas, Texas, she frequently plays clarinet solos or accompanies the offertory portion of the service
“It’s a wonderful creative outlet for me,” she says. “And a wonderful way to worship as well. Being in church gives playing so much more meaning. It’s not just about entertainment or personal fulfillment, it’s about bringing glory to God.”
A Quality Product
The volunteers who give their time and talent each week come from a wide variety of backgrounds and musical abilities, and many have found that it is important to be flexible. Says Paul Witkowski, 43, a pianist who plays at his church in Jacksonville, Florida, “You’re basically working with the talents that people are offering.”
Still, performance quality is important to these musicians, and they work hard to ensure that they’re delivering. “You need to be able to play well enough to keep up with everyone, and to really be a part of the group,” says Ethridge. “The point is to show reverence, to celebrate God. You don’t want to deliver a second-rate product.”
To stay on her game, Ethridge finds time at home to practice her clarinet, but acknowledges that her husband’s work as a musician offers her a bit of an advantage. “It’s probably a little easier for me to find the time,” she says. “We’re a very musical family. So my family is supportive of the time I spend practicing.”
Green also finds time to play at home, and agrees that having a musically-inclined family member does help. “My wife plays with me,” he says. “She plays the mandolin and sings, and we play out several times a month. We rehearse frequently at home.”
Technically speaking, playing in a church environment is not much different from playing in any band or ensemble; the same skills apply. Sight-reading, versatility, working well with others — these are all essential components. But making music as a means of expressing one’s faith has an element all its own. Instead of music being the focus, or the end result, it becomes the medium. Worship, community, and reverence are the ends; the music is the journey.
“To be a church musician takes a very different heart,” says Green. “You can’t measure, or even hope for, what the world calls ‘success.’ You can’t count heads, or count collection offerings, and say that’s a sign that you’re reaching people. Sometimes you’re called to reach a room with only four people in it — but if you do reach them, then there’s the success.”
Community of Praise
Whether secular or spiritual, music has a way of bringing people together. Witkowski says that community and diversity are what inspire him to play in his church. As a child in Detroit, he sang with his church’s musical ensemble, continuing the tradition into college. “What was unique about our ensemble was how it became multicultural,” he recalls. “It really embraced the community, and that increased the number of families coming into the church.”
After college, Witkowski moved around a bit, eventually settling in Jacksonville, where he works as the public relations director of the Jacksonville Symphony Orchestra. “The church I play in now is the first African-American Catholic church in Jacksonville,” he says. “I sought the church out after finding that there wasn’t as much diversity elsewhere. It’s something I really enjoy.”
Lonnie Pacelli has become a more involved member of his own church community, returning to the drums after a 20-year hiatus to play at a marriage retreat. “I had played regularly all through college, but after graduation I just stopped,” he says. “When I heard they needed a drummer, I decided to try picking it up again.”
Pacelli, 44, works as an author and business consultant in Sammamish, Washington. His church’s music director heard him playing at the retreat, then asked Pacelli to play at services when their regular drummer left. “At first I resisted,” he recalls. “But eventually I agreed to play. I’m now in rotation with two other drummers, and I play in the church about three times per month.”
Making and strengthening community ties is one of the most rewarding aspects of joining a church ensemble. The musicians often find that they feel more connected to their fellow worshippers, because the goal is not performance, but simply participation.
“We’re a part of something,” explains Green. “Those with the instruments are not ‘special’ in the way they would be if they were on a stage somewhere else. We’re simply part of the overall gathering of people who are there to worship together. Some are there with voices, and some are there with instruments meant to help lift those voices. But we’re all there for the same reason.
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Making Music is a bimonthly magazine for adult amateur and recreational musicians. Our readers make music simply because they enjoy it—it helps them to relieve stress, connect with their loved ones, and express themselves creatively. Many have played all their lives, while others have only discovered music recently. We publish articles on music theory, practicing and performing techniques, and the health and wellness benefits of playing a musical instrument. Our stories feature real people who find ways to fit music making into their lives, and is intended for musicians of all playing abilities.
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