A few years ago I attended the Sunday gathering of a church that primarily sang traditional hymns. The voices carried the songs and there were few, if any, instrumental breaks between verses. The congregation sang robustly and the sound was beautiful.
But at the end of the meeting I was exhausted. Not only were the hymns in higher keys than I was used to, my voice never got to rest. I knew my experience was partly due to the inherent differences between singing hymns and contemporary songs. But because there were no musical interludes, I also had less time to reflect on the truths we were singing. I was reminded that instrumental turns (or “links” as my U.K. friends would say) in congregational singing can be refreshing and provide an opportunity to think more deeply about the lyrics.
But as the title of this post suggests, one good turn doesn’t always deserve another. I used to think this was a minor topic, but due to the influence of popular music on the way the church sings, it’s become more significant.
Too many times I’ve seen instrumental portions of worship songs actually have an adverse effect. Congregations don’t know how to respond when the singing stops and the musicians keep playing. People who were singing their hearts out to the Lord in one moment are suddenly standing around wondering what to do. They’re transformed from participators into spectators. Some strike a “worshipful pose” and wait for the next cue. Emotions subside. Minds drift.
But this isn’t a rant against instrumental breaks. It’s an appeal to use them more intentionally and pastorally. Here are a few things I’ve found helpful to remember.
1. The turns I use don’t have to match the ones on the album.
Albums are generally recorded to be listened to, which means instrumental breaks can be creative. They can be as long or as short as we want, depending on the song, where it’s at on the album, or how it fits into the overall sound. But the 24-bar intro a band plays on the recording might not be as meaningful to the people I lead on Sundays. It’s becoming increasingly common to augment your band with tracks available from sites like Multitracks.com or Loop Community. If you do that, the structure is usually determined for you in advance. But in many cases you can edit the tracks to better suit your setting.
2. The turns I use don’t have to match the ones I played earlier in the song.
Just because we start a song with an 16-bar intro doesn’t mean we need to play that same intro for the rest of the song. Our primary purpose in playing on Sunday mornings is to support faith-filled, engaged congregational singing. People aren’t coming to hear us jam. Or at least they shouldn’t be. And we don’t include instrumental breaks simply to stretch our creative wings. We want to think pastorally (i.e., ask if what we’re playing is really serving people). Varying the length of turns can also shed new light on songs you’ve played the same way 10 times in a row.
3. The turns I use don’t have to be the ones I rehearsed.
During rehearsals I’ll often tell the band that we might not play songs exactly the way we rehearsed them. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with doing just that. But when I’m leading I sometimes think what we practiced isn’t the best choice right at that moment. It might be that people need a little more time to think before the next verse. Or the evident faith in people’s singing makes it advisable to cut the turn in half. Or it seems like we should bring the volume down for the last chorus rather than build it up as we had planned. As my senior pastor, C.J. Mahaney, told me for years, “The Holy Spirit helps us plan, but our plans aren’t the Holy Spirit.” And if I think I might do something different from what we planned, I should practice being spontaneous during rehearsal, to make sure the band can hear me and will follow my lead.
4. I don’t have to play the turn at the end of the song.
It’s not uncommon for bands to play eight, 16, even 24 bars at the end of a song. But why not end with people singing? It stirs a response in their hearts that’s different from watching the band play the obligatory outro and leaves the truth ringing in their ears rather than the crash cymbals. Ending “In Christ Alone” with a slight ritard as people belt out, “Here in the love of Christ I stand!” can impress the biblical truth we just sang on people’s hearts more than the band’s performance.
5. Turns can be about more than the music.
At times we’ve used longer turns or bridges to project a relevant Scripture for people to read silently as a kind of selah, or moment of reflection. Timing those out in advance will ensure people actually have enough time to read the whole passage. We’ve also interspersed reading Scripture between verses of songs (e.g., portions of Ps. 103 can go well with “10,000 Reasons“). Whether projected or read aloud, we want to find ways that enable the word of Christ to dwell in people richly as we sing (Col. 3:16). If you’re interested, I posted some thoughts on what you can say when you’re not singing and whether or not it’s helpful to play music behind people praying.
It’s safe to keep doing things the way we’ve always done them, playing turns the same way, the same number of times, or not at all. But we can do better.
Used wisely, intentionally and with some clear direction, instrumental turns can contribute to passionate, theologically informed, faith-filled congregational singing.
And isn’t that what we’re aiming for?