Saturday, May 10, 2014

What happened to the tambourines?

When I was a kid Sunday mornings were a bit of a dash trying to get into the car and to church by 10am. Dad always had a bag of stuff he needed to talk to people about, like creationist comics to give to the kids, we all took a Bible for some reason, and usually just as we were leaving my mum or dad would suddenly cry out ‘Have we got the instruments?’

The ‘instruments’ were mum’s tambourine and my dad’s – wait for it – triangle, and possibly a couple of other things like shakers. The church we went to was very interactive and a lot of people brought along similar things to join in with the music.

I’m not sure when this stopped. I can’t put a date on when we weren’t scrabbling around looking for wherever we had dumped the plastic bag with the instruments in after church the previous week. But at some point it stopped being the fashionable thing.

It’s odd that we took them at all. We weren’t a particularly musical family, despite my parents’ good intentions in trying to get me and my brother learning to play the piano and the trumpet respectively. My dad literally never put a record on. Even now I have never known him to sit down and listen to music or even have it on in the background.

Dad’s non-musicality is why he had the triangle, running on the debateable theory that you don’t need much musical ability to master it. He used to ping it at key points in the more upbeat songs – usually whenever ‘Jesus’ or ‘Lord’ appeared in a song line. I suspect he also liked the fact that he was the only triangle-player in the congregation. Lots of people had shakers and tambourines. He was unique.

The ‘joining in with the music’ thing seems to have passed. I think this is possibly because of the higher expectations people have now of musicians in churches. Back in the 80s, in a charismatic non-denominational church, the ‘worship’ was fairly simple. There would be one or two acoustic guitars, a keyboard for the older hymns that were written for the organ and didn’t translate very well to acoustic guitars, and maybe a person leading the singing.

Gradually new instruments were added to the mix. First electric guitars and basses, then a drum-kit, then whatever else people played – some churches effectively have brass and string sections. The music is much more rounded out and enhanced by proper PA systems. Instead of just a couple of loudspeakers at the front, there are now amps all around the room.

As the ‘worship’ has grown from what was once quite amateur to something much more professional, maybe people don’t want to join in as much. Sometimes it does feel that you have Christian songs performed at you. Taking your own instruments might feel a bit silly now. ‘Make a joyful noise’ is no longer the mantra of churches like the one I grew up in.

Still, the old ways are hard to kill off. My brother told me recently that he was just about to welcome everyone to a Sunday service he was leading when he noticed the woman in the second row immediately behind his seat had brought her own acoustic guitar and was obviously planning to play along.

He had never met her before and I think he recognised that it takes a certain kind of person to turn up at a church for the very first time with your own guitar ready to join in. So he didn’t say anything to her except Hello.

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