Worship Musicians: A Box of 8 or 120 Crayons? Which is Better for You?

Limitations can feel safe. Growth can be scary. When we leave the safety of what we know and step into the unknown, outside the lines, sometimes it takes a life and death situation to give us the courage to move forward. Sometimes, it just takes boredom.


Just Plain Bored

Change in the sound of contemporary, non-denominational worship is one of the bandwagons I beat my drum on because I was one who was…well…bored. From all reports, I wasn’t the only one. In settings of improvisational worship, I heard myself and others get stuck on one fragment that had come by faith. We’d repeat it…honestly?…ad nauseam.

I’d hear some say, “Oh, I was caught up” or “Boy, the anointing just sat on that for the longest time,” as if it were a sign of great anointing. Maybe that was true occasionally, but it became a “style.”

I think we were more caught up in fear than anointing, afraid to jump off the diving board and find the next undiscovered phrase, afraid the pool had been emptied. For me, however, the anointing in me was saying, “Would you just take courage and trust Me already? Move into the unknown.

If I gave you that fragment, can’t I give you the next?”

In all fairness, it’s not easy to stand in front of a room full of people and make up spontaneous, fresh music day after day. It takes great faith in God’s ability to produce for two hours in a live situation because you don’t get the chance to edit.

A Search for the Cure

Early on, I searched for an answer to the musical limitations I heard. I knew I needed to develop my ear beyond what I knew. I didn’t write songs or compose, but I sure wished I could.

In early 2005, I came up with what I considered a ridiculous thought, but eventually surrendered to it: if I analyze enough classics, can even I learn to write something less boring and repetitive, something that would deepen the experience in today’s worship culture?

Not saying all worship songs were boring. Not at all, but to me, more than I wanted to admit were.

If I was going to try this analysis, I was going to do it on a piece I loved. I picked a favorite piece of my mother’s, Bach’s Double Violin Concerto – just the second movement. It has an exquisitely beautiful sense of longing.

I began to dabble and study its chord progressions and figure out what harmonies and construction gave it those unexpected moments of zing and what made it sound dated. I began to see what today’s songwriters think of as a “discovery” was evident in Bach’s brilliance centuries ago. As God led me, I buried myself in a pile of notes on various classics.

A Brick Wall

I came to a stopping point on each piece I tried because of my total lack of compositional training. After a few years of frustrated dabbling and begging God for the right mentor, I moved to Nashville. There I found the perfect private teacher in 2012.

Little did I know I’d also find a missing piece of myself.

As I worked with David McKay and tried to write a few hours a week, something strange happened. I began to learn where I could veer from the basics, how to develop fragments, how to add color.

Slowly, my own voice began to rise, and I began to develop my own modern sounds, rhythms, and interesting melodies.

I increased my time to about 8-12 hours a week and studied Barber, Ravel, Schillinger, Shostakovich, Arvo Pärt. My teacher opened my eyes to the female composer, Lili Boulanger. I knew about her famous sister, Nadia, who taught theory.

But a woman composer? Why had I never thought about that?

Easy? Who Cares?

Was it easy? Who cares. I was bored.

It took a year of study on my new “Bach” piece alone, but it was fun and exciting to discover colors and textures and elements that made a piece great. And what didn’t.

My mind was bursting with ideas. The next two pieces I wrote, which came from anointed ideas, took only a few months. The next year was only learning.

As a result, nonetheless, I realized…I’m becoming a Composer-Come-Lately in my sixties and jazzed to the hilt about that.

Step Out

Hopefully, this encourages some of you to step out of your comfort zone, find a mentor, and mine for gold in the anointed musical greats of old. Your music doesn’t have to sound old, nor does it have to bore you or your listeners.

You are not limited to a box of eight Crayola crayons. God created and owns the crayons on a thousand hills. Ask Him for more color and interest. Ask to be set free from the prison of a guinea pig wheel where you run around and around with the same pentatonic phrase.

With God’s help, you can learn to use all 148 and create exquisite works of anointed musical art for His glory.

Six Steps to a Box of 120

Sometimes, we just need someone who knows the classical repertoire to give us some names. Let me help you.

1.  Listen to Barber’s Adagio for Strings. Close your eyes and let go. Soak in it.

“Hey, I don’t like classical music, you say. But that’s in a movie.”

“May I remind you? That’s a classical piece of music!”

2.  Next, do a comparison study. This is so fun. Listen to the famous Vivaldi’s Four Seasons. You’ve heard this in films and on TV. Start with one movement, the first movement, “Spring.” It’s beloved. Imagine the earth waking up after a long, cold winter. Ask yourself, what would that sound like to me? How would I write it–the first sounds of birds in the morning, the joy of God and new life, a covey of angels? Even the first four measures of “Spring” could begin a new worship song. Can you hear it?

3. Now compare two versions of it, one old and one new. Listen to the amazing Itzhak Perlman performing and conducting the original (1725) in the link below. The movement “Spring” is the first six minutes. BTW–a slight bunny trail: Since this is a blog called “ON BECOMING,” check out Itzhak’s story. He was struck with polio as a child and still became one of the most famous violinists of our day. And what a humble man!

Here’s a link: Vivaldi The Four Seasons

5. Then compare that to Max Richter’s amazing contemporary version of the same first movement, Spring (2012). He is a modern-day composer who recomposed this classic in a new, creative style. It is amazing. It is worship to me.

Here’s a link: Max Richter: Vivaldi Recomposed

6. Study both. Relax. Let the music wash over you. Don’t take the shortcut and not listen to the original. Go back and forth between the videos, section by section, over and over, like you did to learn a new chord. What does he change? What does he keep? How is the sound different? Where are the spots that are so beautiful you get dizzy? What ideas do you get for a worship song of your own in your own style?

Can God anoint a crayon box of eight colors? Yes! But don’t these anointed composers cause you to yearn for more?

May God bless our growth as we seek Him with all our heart. He will be found by us. He said 

Leave a Comment

Scroll to Top