Worship Notes

"Sight Reading
vs.
Playing by Ear"

For a couple of years in a row, I had the opportunity to minister at the Worship Workshop at Only Believe Ministries Church in Botkins, Ohio.  What an awesome time we had, worshipping with a choir and band consisting of about 150 people!  The Anointing was very strong and we truly had a great time in God's presence!

As you may already know, I have come out with a SongBook to go along with my praise and worship CDs.  We had it available at our product table at the conference.  One person who was browsing through it at our table made the comment, "Wow!  You even have sheet music for piano!  I haven't seen sheet music in ages!"  He was basically referring to the fact that many contemporary church musicians very often have to play from lead sheets rather than sheet music.  He was relieved to see that I actually had some sheet music for him to read, evidently something that does not happen often enough for him. A couple of days later, there was a series of messages on my church music internet newsgroup regarding whether it was better to read or to play by ear.

My whole philosophy is basically this...you need to be able to do both.  For those of you who read only, I believe that if you really apply yourself, if you really try to put forth some effort, and if you practice, you will not be bound to just being able to play by reading.  And for those of you who do not know how to read music, I believe you are robbing yourself of many blessings that being able to read can give you.

If you can play by ear, it is so much easier to learn songs that are hard to find sheet music for.  It also allows much more freedom during a service to be able to go to certain songs at the leading of the Holy Spirit, without having to search through your book for the right music.  On the other hand, if you only play by ear, you may find it hard to understand certain complex rhythms, fills, and hits.  If the worship leader says to play a chord "on the 'and' of three" or "on the 'e' of four", many people who don't read wouldn't know what those mean.  

If you are a drummer and you can't read, your music director would not be able to write out a certain rhythm for you to play.  But if you are a keyboard player who can't play by ear, and your worship leader starts singing "Amazing Grace" in the key of G, you may not be able to follow.  Being able to read and play by ear (or lead sheets) is a big asset in music ministry.

For those of you who can play by ear (or lead sheets) I also want to say this...you should know the music you are playing well enough that you can play it without having your eyes glued to the page the whole time.  Even if you can't play by ear very well, you can at least memorize the chords of the song so that you know what chords are coming up next.  Even if you are not necessarily playing them by "hearing" them in your head, you can memorize them to the point that your lead sheets are not a "crutch".

I play by ear.  I learn songs by ear.  There's hardly a song in my repertoire that I have ever seen the sheet music or lead sheets for.  I have simply heard them on a recording and learned them by listening to them.  This talent is not something that happened overnight, but by years of practice and study.  It is one of my greatest assets as a music minister, because I can simply listen to a song and play along with it almost immediately.  Even songs that I have never played before, or songs that I haven't heard for months but still know how they go, I can play with relative ease.  

Being able to play by ear has also made me a better songwriter.  In fact there are songs that have been completely written without me touching a single key on the keyboard, because I can "hear" the chords and melody line in my head without having to try to peck it out.  Then, when the song is finished, I can go sit down at my keyboard and actually play it.

But I also know how to read.  I played trumpet in band as my main instrument for almost 10 years, so I can read quite well.  I know and understand rhythms.  Therefore I can teach songs with greater ease.  I can write out rhythms or notes for those who can read.  I can write horn parts for a horn section if needed.  Knowing how to read has made me a more versatile musician.

I encourage all of you instrumentalists out there to apply yourself towards the task of being competent both in reading and playing by ear.  You will find your talent growing exponentially if you do.  Make the most out of your talent.  Be the most versatile player you can be.  No, it will not be easy, but it will be very well worth it!  Encourage everyone on your team to do the same.  God bless you in your efforts to make the most out of your God-given talent!  Matthew 25 says that God will bless you for it!