I arrive at the church around four in the afternoon, two hours before the service is due to start, ready for the band rehearsal. I am looking forward to playing saxophone again. I have spent the previous couple of terms operating the church visuals system, mixing video loops and projecting song lyrics onto the flat-screen monitors which are suspended from pillars around the church building, but the summer months, where many of the team are away from the city, provide space in the life of the church for more-flexible role taking, offering opportunities to mix up the usual routine of alternating set bands.1 I am pleasantly surprised to be playing alongside Pete Wigley, someone who has previously had a significant musical leadership role in the church but who has stepped more into the background in recent years. Lauren, the principal worship pastor is leading worship,2 and has

emailed out the set list ahead of time. Glancing down the email I notice nothing which particularly captures my attention; the list of songs is drawn mainly from a pool of repertoire which is employed fairly consistently across events within St Aldates.3 The first half hour or so of rehearsal time involves the usual routine of waiting around for everyone to arrive and waiting for the sound technician to finish wiring up the stage before the initial sound check. Pete, with whom I am sharing a music stand, has helpfully drawn up a hand-written sheet containing the chords for each of the songs. As someone who hasn’t played in a while I am grateful for this, as the current expectation that repertoire be played from memory doesn’t sit entirely well with my own need for some written reassurance of how things should go. The drums were moved around for the morning service, so the drummer

has to spend some time rearranging the kit and reconstructing the drum cage that usually surrounds them. This provides the opportunity for some debate amongst band members: there have been a number of recent complaints to the church leadership about high sound levels within the church so Lauren is keen to ensure that the drum cage is completely closed off; a position which I, as someone standing next to the kit and

who isn’t a great fan of loud music, am in favour of. Adam, on bass, however, is concerned that this will lead to him losing a proper connection with the drummer as he feels the fold-back system is unable to provide an adequate replacement for the transmission of direct sound through the air. In the end Lauren allows him to open the side of the cage a little, a gesture that seems to satisfy him. A little discussion about Paul’s drum setup follows; someone compares the use of a single crash cymbal to a jazz kit, and the tighter sound of the kick and snare this week is also remarked upon by members of the band. Concerns over sound come up again when Adam is asked to turn his bass amp down – he worries that he will no longer be able to properly feel what he is doing, but as the sound is fed back through the fold-back he is reassured. Upon seeing that I am there to play saxophone, Adam remarks how

wonderful it was to play at a wedding gig the night before and to have a horn section inserting funk-stabs into the arrangements. He follows this up later with a comment about how, with the amount of gig playing he’s been doing recently and the relatively small amount of worship playing, he’s forgotten how to play worship.4 He nevertheless, after the usual mucking-around during the soundcheck, manages to slip back into the mold fairly effortlessly, at least from the perspective of an onlooker. Later in the evening I think I hear elements of funk coming through in his playing during the bridge of ‘You Alone Can Rescue’, something I try to encourage and pick up on with my saxophone improvisations. During the soundcheck Paul plays around on the drums, creating patterns which clearly fascinate Adam. This free experimentation is common during soundchecks, but is quickly laid aside when proper rehearsing begins. Later in the rehearsal, however, I notice a similar moment as Adam comments on his enjoyment of some of the acoustic guitar lines which Pete has been introducing into the arrangements. Lauren is introducing a new song into the repertoire for the first time

– ‘Beneath the waters/I will rise’ from Hillsong.5 She asks Pete what he thinks of the song and he responds by acknowledging the way in which it fills a gap in the repertoire with its talk of baptism, but suggests that he would have liked it to have a little more focus on the necessity of sharing in Christ’s suffering required in order to be raised. I find that I am drawn to some of the imagery of the song, and its connection with aspects of biblical images rarely used in Contemporary Worship Music. Alongside this, however, I find myself slightly disappointed by the predictable way in which the melody lines and chord progressions of the song seem to conform closely to the familiar patterns of the Hillsong repertoire and by the way in which interesting ideas that I feel could have been developed further seem to be hidden within what I find to be a much more generic set of lyrics. The first song in the set leads to a certain amount of discussion about

arrangements. A number of the musicians have been at the New Wine

summer conference, where they played and rehearsed an arrangement which Lauren wishes to repeat here.6 Paul, on drums, doesn’t really see the difference between the New Wine arrangement and the regular way in which the piece would be played, but Lauren points out that it is more poppy than the usual way of playing. I’m struck by the way in which everyone seems to have a deep familiarity with the ins and outs of this song in a way that I, as someone who hasn’t played in a while, don’t. During the rehearsal there are points where Lauren reflects self-

consciously on what she is doing musically within the worship set. When the key of one of the songs requires alteration, she expresses frustration that it is moved into the key of E, not wanting the entire first set within the service to be in this same key – a tendency in her planning that she is aware of and dislikes, wishing for a greater degree of variety.7 The same frustration emerges when it seems that she will be starting most of the songs in the first set purely on keys and vocals – she doesn’t want to become predictable and boring to this extent and so welcomes the opportunity to allow Pete to start ‘I will exalt You’ on acoustic guitar. At one point I make a comment about something she does which departs from the structure on the set list and she observes that she is much less predictable and structured than fellow worship leader Rich, a comment that leads to a little discussion about whether this should be perceived as a positive or a negative quality. Either way, it clearly seems to be part of her musical self-conception and the way in which she sees her practice of leading musical worship. As we finish rehearsing and make our way towards the Oak Room for

a time of pre-service prayer I am struck by the choice of music put through the sound system by Will on the sound desk. The arrangement seems to break away from the soft-rock of the standard St Aldates sound into a more highly-produced pop sound-world, with greater use of synthesised sounds and stand-out melodic figurations. I mentally put this down to his personal tastes and interests and notice that the next song to come through is one which is much more familiar within the regular sound world of St Aldates. Perhaps he had used the period of time when the church was still half empty to demonstrate a little bit of his own tastes before reverting to type as people began to arrive and fill the chairs and aisles of the building. There is a moment towards the end of the service where Charlie (the

Rector) makes it clear that he wants Lauren to continue playing on her own during the prayer ministry time – I share a look with the other musicians questioning whether he really means to exclude us in this way. Adam remarks that Charlie doesn’t realise that we’re able to play quietly if we want to. After the service I am pleasantly surprised by the number of people

who compliment me on my playing – something which rarely happens when playing keys or mixing visuals. There is something about the rarity

of solo instruments within the worshipping environment that seems to lead people to pick up on the elements which they feel they add to the worshipping experience, often expressed in terms of an extra lift, or a sense that the music somehow ministered to them.