The Sax In Contemporary Christian Worship Music

What a grand title! I don’t know enough to fully deliver on what that title promises. Not yet. I have some basic ideas, but the rest I probably won’t figure out until the Sax Project progresses beyond the experimental stage. But I do have definite ideas about what the sax should not do.

Let me back up a bit for context. This is better understood if you know what praise and worship really is, which will make a good topic for Wednesday God-blogging. But for now, the basic thing is this – the role of the worship band is to escort people into praising God. The team kick-starts the thing by their own praise and worship, presented in a manner that brings the people into it, then lets the congregation take it from there.

How can a saxophone aide this goal? Generally, not in the traditional ways a saxophone is used, which mainly comes from jazz ensembles, big bands, and to a lesser extent from pop music. In a typical 5-6 piece jazz ensemble, the sax is out front, often as the prima donna of the opus. Sax players solo, and a soloist draws attention to himself, as he should if his purpose is to entertain. But the purpose of the worship team, besides worshiping and praising God themselves, is to draw the focus of the people toward God, not to the team or any member of the team. There is occasion for soloing, and a solo well done can draw focus to God, but for most praise and worship in a church service, the congregation is a participant, not an audience. Praising God is really their gig, not the worship band’s, whose role is to facilitate their worship.

The typical contemporary worship band has several vocalists, and usually a rhythm guitar, bass and drums, maybe a lead guitar and perhaps a keyboard. What’s missing in this group? Not much. Some teams have more instruments. As it happens the Sunday crew at our church has a second keyboard and a flute. As a general rule of thumb, the more instruments you have, the less any one of them should play.

I know these sound like reasons not to add a saxophone, which of course is not the case I’m making [and why would I? I'm a sax player!], but it does provide an important first rule -

Sax Rule #1 – Don’t play, unless there is a reason to play.

There’s nothing wrong with the sax just sitting out most of a song or the entire song. Especially with rock music, the sax is often not the right ingredient. Just because I’m standing on the stage or in the band pit, doesn’t mean I have to play all the time. The sax should enhance, not distract, and should never muddy the waters.

Melody is covered by the singers. The sax can do melody as intro or interlude as desired by the band leader. So that is one use for a sax if not it’s primary use. But it does give me another rule.

Sax Rule #2 – Be ready to play what the band leader wants you to play, including lead.

There’s a reason why a band leader wanted a sax in the first place. He’s got something in mind for how he wants to use it. Likely it’s for the general flavorings a sax can add, but when he has something specific in mind, like an intro or interlude, the sax player should be ready to take the lead.

That leaves harmony. I don’t know the conventional music terms, but I divide harmony into three general categories – what I call basic background harmony – the rhythm and the chord progression; vocal harmony – a tenor or alto part that roughly tracks the melody; and complementary harmony – which I’ll explain later.

Basic background harmony is provided by the core rhythm section. Saxophones do this in a big band or orchestra, but unless the worship band is light on an occasion and missing a key rhythm piece, a sax is not needed to provide basic background harmony.

The sax can provide vocal harmony where it is missing. I find that many amateur singers don’t hear harmony. Perhaps they picked up singing as adults and had no training as children. But for whatever reason, vocal harmony other than bass (provided by, well, the bass) is often missing, so the sax can step in. Of course unison is often preferable to vocal harmonization in worship music, and that is stuff for a future post [Isn't blogging great? The potential for digression is endless.]. However, if the singers do provide harmony, the sax should not duplicate them. In situations where I find an appropriate vocal harmony missing, I might play it in rehearsal, hoping that a singer picks it up, and if one does, defer to her (or him). This leads to another rule, which I’ve heard from other sax players.

Sax Rule #3 – Never step on the singers.

Complementary harmony is the area where the sax has the most potential for aiding worship. This post is getting long, so I’ll define and elaborate on complementary harmony later.

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23 Responses to “The Sax In Contemporary Christian Worship Music”

  1. [...] from previous post The Sax In Contemporary Christian Worship Music [...]

  2. Christian Symbols and Christian Resources…

    Sorry, it just sounds like a crazy idea for me :)

  3. admin says:

    CS&CR -

    Thanks for the post, but… ???

    Care to elaborate?

    Are you a sax player?

    Ken

  4. nathan says:

    i play tenor sax and want to join a worhip band consisting of percussion(bongos) bass and lead guitar as well as one or 2 vocals. is this a good idea? i am only about 5th grade saxophone but would really like to help out.

  5. admin says:

    Hi Nathan, and thanks for posting.

    I started playing tenor sax in the church orchestra at right about the 5th grade. I had only been playing about a year, having started in 4th grade, so I didn’t think I was good enough. But the orchestra director, who was a professional alto sax player, said he wanted me in the band.

    Of course back then, we played out of hymnals so all the music was printed, and I didn’t have to transpose anything, though I learned that later while in the orchestra as well as to play by ear.

    Point is, it’s up to the band leader to decide if you’re level of skill meets his needs (and if he even wants a sax). I suggest talking to him. If your skills aren’t quite up to what he wants, don’t get discouraged. You’ll just have a new target of excellence to aim for. He may only want a sax on occasion. He might need another singer too, so you can double if you can sing.

    I’m facing a try-out of my own in a few months and may find myself in the same position. I’ll let the worship leader decide if I’m what he wants, and if not, I’ll keep playing anyway.

    As for integrating a sax with a four-piece modern band, I’m right there with you in trying to figure out how to go. I suggest you check out Sax On The Web forum . Sax players of all skill levels, ages, and histories post there, including many helpful professionals. There’s even a Sacred Sax topic.

  6. admin says:

    nathan -

    I had assumed by your question that you meant you are a 5th grade student.

    If instead you are referring to a Royal Society grade 5, you’re somewhat ahead of me at my best if its a jazz rating and way ahead of me if its a classical rating. But then you’d likely be way ahead of the other musicians in the team.

    If I assumed correctly, lemme know how it goes, or even better, tell about your experiences in your blog (and post a link here).

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  8. Sherri Kanneg says:

    Have you ever hear Jentezen Franklin play his saxaphone in worhsip? This will debunk everything you said.

  9. admin says:

    Hi Sherri, and thanks for posting.

    I have indeed heard Jentezen Franklin a few times, though as a soloist. I do not follow how this debunks what I said, nor why you would want to.

    Note in my post I stated -

    “There is occasion for soloing, and a solo well done can draw focus to God, but for most praise and worship in a church service, the congregation is a participant, not an audience.”

    “Back in the Day”, many moons ago, I solo’d on tenor extensively in church, but that was a very different time and a very different kind of congregation than you see today. The Sax Project is about finding a role in today’s worship team.

    It would help if I revisited this topic now that I’ve been on the worship team for awhile, and see how the heuristics I used going in played out in practice.

  10. Ken Tamplin says:

    I would love like to see Christians to take our singing and playing craft more seriously. We seem to have fallen in to a rutt of “campfire music / singing” and thought there is nothing wrong with that (for people 16 and under) this seems to keep getting spoonfed to the church as “great modern worship.” Paul said when I was a child I spoke as a child I reasoned as a child etc. but when I became older, I put away childish things. I wish we could do that. Also: David played skillfully before the Lord. Old testament singers & musicians were hand picked by by their talents first and then weeded out by their dedication to God (because they had so many people “trying out that were skillfull, they could afford to do that). Noadays what we do is we pull in anyone “who’s heart is right” and leave out the talent part altogether. Paul said to run the race for the victor’s crown. The bible instructs us to study to show ourselves approved. Yes of course it means to study scripture but also to strive for excellence in all we do. I would so love to see the church take God seriously as though they are playing before a King, rather than it be “just good enough.”
    -KT

  11. tony ostinato says:

    im playing sax, trumpet and windsynth at both the contemporary and traditional services again this year.

    i recently saw the chrsitian service at the NAMM show in anaheim with kirk whalum as leader. it doesnt get any better.

    and ive also read psalm 150, which it seems a lot of christian “musicians” havent.

    what happens in christian rock too often is you have the leftovers from commercial rock playing guitar and breaking all these “rules” with total abandon but thats “ok” theyre used to that but as soon as you add in horns and strings etc they arent and they panic.

    i actually had to record the service and play it back to them to show them all the extra/wrong notes were actually from them and by them playing less there was a better mix and it was more appreciated by the audience that actually was a little bored hearing him solo guitar on every song all the way thru with the amp on 11.

    you shouldnt be getting your experience playing with horn sections onstage, you should already have years and years of it, if you dont maybe show some patience and respect both with them and yourself, remember horns take longer to learn and are harder to play and require more skill (and thats why almost all horn players are good readers) than electric guitars.

    dont blame the sax player if youve never played in a band with more than 5 memebers after all, thats your fault not his.

    theres no reason good musicians shouldnt be able to make a 100 pc band sound good.

    bad musicians can sound bad all by themselves. if you can’t write charts and orchestrate you shouldnt be a bandleader, but the flip side of that is the worst player pretty much has to be the leader because he wont be able to follow anyone. thats pretty much how most christian rock bands are run, like garage rock bands, and so theyve become the repository of weak guitarists who like to hear themselves a lot.

    its sad because the genre could be much more open and diverse instead of closed and inbred.

    try some different instruments i say, everybody learns. and turn down the guitar every once in awhile, just because guitar is easy to play loud doesn’t mean it should be that way all night every song every song.

    ironically this will likely fall on deaf ears.

  12. admin says:

    Your reply got me thinking, Tony. It’s worthy of a full post rather than a comment here.

  13. [...] The Sax In Contemporary Christian Worship Music « On Second Look 31 Aug 2007. The Sax In Contemporary Christian Worship Music. What a grand title! I don't know enough to fully deliver on what that title promises. The Sax In Contemporary Christian Worship Music « On Second Look [...]

  14. Ross Walters says:

    “As a general rule of thumb, the more instruments you have, the less any one of them should play.” I agree. Specifically regarding improvised fills.
    My experience is the more instruments you have the more communication and planning needs to happen. In an ideal situation you have a strong arranger that can chart out things. Like real charts, real arrangements. Or at least be able to make a decision who plays what and when.
    I played at this church in Ohio with 15 horn players. Very organized, nice charts. Otherwise its a mess.
    Anyway good blog. Here’s a clip at the big church with the big band.
    http://youtu.be/l6D2OaZITic

  15. JReyes says:

    Thanks for your article. I agree with your advise. I have over 20 years (a few breaks in between) in Contemporary Praise/Worship playing the sax.
    I have been on hiatus along with alot of other horn players. Somewhere between 2006 and 2008 Contemporary Praise/Worship changed to an all rock style and alot of us horn sections were “retired”. We were told that a move of God was in motion and btw they needed more parking attendants. I became upset and have not volunteered again in any part of any ministry.
    I witnessed musically educated Worship pastors being replaced by young kids with NO music education. It has been hard to make it on time to church and participate in the Worship as a spectator. Our team incudes 3 or 4 guitars not including a bassist. The music is so loud that I feel like I am in a Rock concert. The Holy Spirit is not allowed to flow in the music….two fast songs, a slow song, announcements, and then the teaching. No intimate time with the Lord. A few churches that I am connected to seem to have this same format.
    While many would say it was a move from God I suggest it was a staffing change in a world leading church from “down under” that changed the scene.
    I am really saddened by these changes and I know I should not feel this way. Just when I think I am good I make it to church on time, hear the music, and I am back to where I started.
    I am a saxophonist who loves the Lord. I went back and started playing jazz again out in the world which is not a bad thing. I am waiting to go back and be allowed to play for the Lord again.

  16. NewBernMama says:

    Thanks for the post. We have the opportunity to incorporate a sax into our praise and worship ministry but were concerned about how to convey everything you pointed out in tactful way. Thanks for saying it for me! LOL.

  17. Dan says:

    I think JReyes summed it up for me. I played in Church through the 90′s and into the new millenium. I play professionally and am a fairly decent musician. I began to find myself being forced to make the Sax fit into musical styles that it just wasn’t meant to fit into. Ironically, I could play a gig on a friday night, sell some of my CD’s and generally feel like I blessed people with my playing. Sunday morning would come around and I would feel so frustrated with the narrow styles of music I was forced to play. The Churches in the town I live in seem to all want the Christian version of Cold Play or U2 in their services these days. It’s unfortunate that I can no longer use my giftings in the Church, but I now feel so free to be a Sax Player again that I have no regrets. I guess I’m getting old…

  18. As a trumpet player, I’m not sure if I’m allowed to post a reply to a sax post. :)

    But…after a number of years of waiting around for folks to create arrangements for horn sections to play in worship and not seeing a ton of music, I decided to create my own series. I’ve called it Horns & Rhythm.

    It’s basically a series of arrangements that feature a horn section on top of a rhythm section for worship services. The saxophone player on the recordings is Mark Douthit who is an amazing sax player here in Nashville, TN.

    If any of you guys want to hear the arrangements, here’s a link:

    http://www.anderkampmusic.com/catalog/music-for-horn-section-praise-band-and-big-band/horns-and-rhythm-retro-hymns-bring-on-the-funk/horns-rhythm-retro-hymns-complete-set/

    I great up playing trumpet in church and I really want to play a small role in helping horn sections be able to use their gifts in church.

    All the best. Email me if you have any questions about this project. Happy to talk.

    Jeff Anderson
    AnderKamp Music
    jeff@anderkampmusic.com

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