Playing Wind Instruments in a Worship Band

1. Your role/function in the worship band

Playing horns (Trumpet, Sax & Flute in my case) in a worship band is a delicate situation. In a worship service, a wind instrument is like frosting on a cake, spice in a casserole, or hot sauce on a Mexican dish – just the right amount produces a delicious effect, but too much ruins the whole meal! Musicians who have played in a school band are accustomed to playing most of the time, but this is NOT the role of horns in a worship band. The “message” of the song is the “melody” of the music, or “subject” of the painting. Study the words well, and ask God to help you enhance the message with your contribution. And the rhythm section adds the harmony and beat to the music. These are the foundational elements of worship music. So where do horns fit in? We add color – tone color – to the worship experience.

There are some songs that I don’t play a single note, because my horns are “out of character” with the nature of that song’s beat or feel. But occasionally I will add a flute or sax line that is not in the YouTube example if it fits the character of the song. My suggestion is for young musicians to listen carefully to how your instrument(s) is used in worship music. Even in secular music, I have noticed how the horns never interfere with the message of the song. I seldom, if ever, play during the verses of a song, and usually sit out the first chorus, since new words are being introduced to the worshipers. Then on repeated choruses we may “echo” or “fill” in the gaps to give emphasis or emotion. Even secular arrangers observe these practices to keep the message central. How much more should Christian musicians seek to help the hearers remain focused on the message of the song.

2. Preparation

Ideally, be able to play in all 12 major keys and all 12 minor keys. C instruments (flute/oboe/trombone) need to be able to play up to 5 sharps, but only 2 flats (more like orchestra than concert band). Trumpet and saxophone need to be fluent up to 7 (yes seven) sharps when the band plays in the key of B, but rarely in flats, unless you have a C Trumpet or Piccolo trumpet in A.

If you’re not there yet, begin with scales in the key(s) you need to learn, then arpeggios (broken chords), then try to play simple songs by ear (no sheet music) like “Yankee Doodle”, “Do-Re-Mi”, “This is the Day” (that the Lord hath made), etc.

Rarely is a wind instrument given sheet music to play. Common practice is we are given a YouTube link or recording of the song(s) to be played. Then listen to the song for your instrument. Sometimes there are no wind instruments, but I can hear “spaces to fill”. You should listen to much music that has your instrument so you can know what is appropriate to fill these spaces (we call the phrases played in these spaces “fills”).

Saxophone is most commonly used to fill spaces. Trumpet usually supplies “hits," supporting accented notes in the song. If there are violin/string section background counter-melodies in the music, these can be replicated by flute or oboe, but the synth keyboard may already be covering this, so listen carefully and work together.

Contributed by Tom Buffham