Friday, January 6, 2012

Whither the Music Ministry?

I have been giving a lot of thought lately to the direction of worship music--particularly non-piano and non-organ music--at the church.  Since the advent of our summer ukulele (and other instrument) worship series, we have seen a steady increase in other forms and styles.  During the other three seasons, we have never actually replaced a regular hymn, but we have added other tunes to the service.  This seems to work well.  In addition to the usual soloists that accompany our accomplished pianist from time to time (trumpet, cello, clarinet, et cetera), we have heard from the uke, many guitars, drums, bass, and mandolin.  Many of these performers were youth.  Folks seems comfortable with that and we have allowed a few of the older and more serious of our young musicians to play on "normal" (non-kid-focused) days.

I, of course, continue to hack away at the ukulele.  It comes out once in a while during the year and--I must admit--I seem to be a little bit better than I was two summers ago when this experiment got seriously underway.  That said, I feel like I am at a turning point.  Perhaps the church is as well.  I am not sure, though, so I will keep this post directed toward my own music ministry.

The fact is, I see some weaknesses in the current set-up.  The "Adam pulls out the uke" routine isn't quite old hat, but it is limiting.  I lead hymns and occasionally play "special music" but I am always on my own.  My colleague Matt does pretty much the same with the guitar and occasionally accompanies youth singers.  The difference, I think, is that guitar has a greater range.

 Also, the uke just cannot compete with other instruments in an ensemble.  This Christmas vacation, during one of those family jam sessions that sometimes break out amongst hippy families, I was clearly outclassed in terms of volume.  The casual guitarist banging away on a big steel-string will naturally obscure a small, nylon four-stringed instrument.  While I don't foresee a time in the near future at Eliot where we would have a regular "praise band," certainly occasional  group performances would lend a deeper dimension to what we are doing.  When the youth groupers do it, people talk about it for a good way.

What I do know is that I have little interest in dusting off my guitar.  There are plenty of guitar players of varying interests and skill levels.  The world doesn't need another one.  One of the advantages of the uke has been that it is unusual.  It makes even old hymns seem new and different.  The uke makes us quirky and funky.  These are both good things when struggling against cookie-cutter worship.  Still, as I mentioned earlier, the concert uke does suffer a bit in range as well as volume.  Also, mine (the Fluke) does perky well, but struggles when a fuller sound is called for.  Most of my work will continue to be solo, so I would like some depth.

This is all a long way of saying that I need to branch out, consider more ensemble work, and generally increase my solo options over the long, hot summer as well as (to a lesser extent) the church year.  This will require an additional instrument, but I am not sure which way to go. 

I have ruled out certain directions, though.  The Banjo, for example, is a great instrument but is too much like the Fluke in sound and image.  In fact, I have narrowed it down to three overlapping options...

Mandolin:  Over Advent a couple of our confirmands performed Eddie Vedder's song "Rise" on the mandolin and it sounded great.  The a-type mando has a clean old-timey sound which would go well in our congregation.  It is also loud.  As a steel-stringed instrument is can compete with the guitars without need of amplification.  This is important in a church with 19th Century wiring.

The downside, of course, is that it is not a uke.  I like ukuleles and their mellower, rounder tone.  Also I would have to learn new chords.  This isn't a deal-breaker.  It would be fun!  Still, it has to be factored in since I am not that great a musician to begin with and the purpose isn't so much my enjoyment as creating and growing a new dimension in our congregational worship...

8-Stringed Tenor Ukulele: OK, this is an intriguing option.  The 8-stringed uke is, naturally, fuller sounding.  It is tuned like a regular uke.  The larger tenor body gives it a mellower feel.  One made of wood instead of plastic would also help here.  I know how to play it and the samples I have heard have a lovely, rich sound that would win people over in a heartbeat.

The only problem, honestly, is that they aren't falling off trees here in New England.  These are expensive instruments, particularly the solid mid-range ones.  I would have to order online and hope for the best.  Mandolins, on the other hand, are plentiful.  People also know what they are.  I have gone to multiple music stores and the 8-stringed uke stumped everyone I talked to.  Finally, it would need to eventually take an amp for group play.  Wiring aside, this is fine.  However, those models naturally are better made and cost more...

Electric/Acoustic Tenor Uke: This occurred to me recently while pestering a local music dealer about mandolins.  In order to distract me, he put me in the corner with a Kala UBASS and plugged me in.  The UBASS is--as you probably guessed--a bass guitar in the form of a tenor(ish) sized uke body.  I had played it before, but unplugged its polyurethane strings make it sound like rubber bands hitting a cereal box.  Plugged in, though, it is beautiful.  Sting (apparently) likes them because they take up so little space but give a great big sound.  I reluctantly walked away from the fretless model.  I could see exactly how I would use it.  Unfortunately, it didn't fit the needs of the church.   That is, it would only be useful in a group.  Feel free to buy me one, though.  I would definitely put it to work...

Anyway, perhaps what I need to do is get a good solid-wood acoustic tenor ukulele with a good pick-up.  It would have the strength of being easier to play solo and in groups.  It would have a better sound than my current line-up.  Also, I could get a better one of these for the same money that I would spend on one of the other options.  The disadvantage, though, is that it wouldn't have the full sound of the 8-stringed instruments.  Effects pedals might even the score a bit, but--let's face it--I play pretty small rooms so the natural acoustic sound would dominate anyway.  It would be a lovely sound...but it would be one with half the strings of the other choices.

Anyway, I am asking for your help.  What do you think?  If you are a member at Eliot, what would you like to hear this summer?  If you like the current sound, option #3 might make sense.  If you would like more range, the others may be more advantageous.  If you are not a member, I bet you still have an opinion.  I would love to find out your biases. 

Let me know...really...either here or one Facebook or by email.  I have truly enjoyed this aspect of worship and would like to see it grow!

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