How Gospel Musicians Learn Music

Have you ever wondered how gospel musicians learn to play fat chords by the age of 8? Or how gospel drummers can melt your face with chops by age 10? If so, you’re not alone. For a long time, the music community has been mystified by the ability of gospel musicians to perform at a high level of musical mastery. The answers lie in the one place that most questioners refuse to go; the black church.

The way that gospel musicians play music is often criticized by people who are not familiar with black church culture. But gospel musicians play the same chords, licks, chops, and fills as musicians from other genres. In fact, the structure of gospel music is a complex mixture of most other genres. However, gospel musicians typically learn to play music in a very unique way that is distinguished from other musical styles. This article will explore the cultural methodology involved in training master gospel musicians in the black church in a way that other genres view as “nontraditional.”

Early Start

If you think gospel musicians typically start learning music at birth, you’re wrong. The process literally begins in the womb. Medical researchers have discovered that a fetus begins to hear at around 18 weeks and by 22 to 24 weeks, the baby can hear low frequencies from outside of the womb.

The black church is a notoriously loud environment. With screaming Hammond organs, booming kick drums, and thumping bass guitars pumping through PA systems, church babies are exposed to music from the moment their hearing is developed. In fact, many pregnant mothers report increased baby movement when they attend church services. Musicians don’t play softly because a pregnant mother-to-be is in the sanctuary.

When the baby is birthed, church attendance continues and the service doesn’t lower the volume to accommodate the newest church member. So the baby, at just a few weeks old, becomes familiar with the loudness of the church environment and any initial jumpiness subsides. At this early stage of life, the newborn baby becomes comfortable with booming drums, crashing cymbals, and screaming chords.

Once babies are able to sit up, it is common for mothers to sit them on their laps while holding their hands and teaching them to clap on beat. Babies are also held and bounced in rhythm with gospel songs. The result is a baby who knows rhythm, timing, and melody before they can even speak words.

Around 2 years old, the child is often given a tambourine, making them a participant in the sound of the church, while reinforcing the importance of rhythm and timing. Although their musical abilities are rough at this stage, the developmental process is ongoing and greatly encouraged.

First Instrument

Most gospel musicians get their start on the drums. It is the natural progression of learning rhythm as the first phase of gospel musicianship. This commonly occurs as a toddler between 3 to 4 years old. At this point, the child has been exposed to gospel music and the loud church environment for several years and even though they may not be able to perform rhythms perfectly, the sound is embedded in their psyche. In time, the musical execution will develop.

Young toddlers are given drumsticks to familiarize themselves with the process of hitting in musical time. Often a tambourine is used as a drum since the child is not yet ready to play the drum kit. At this stage, children watch the drummers closely, imitating their drumming and pretending to play their role. These kids can even be seen beating on church pews with their drumsticks so their beating is muted and their learning is not a distraction to the church service.

As an act of encouragement, young children are often placed in the lap of the drummer while he plays drums. Just as the child’s mother once held their hands and taught them to clap in rhythm, the drummer will also hold the hands of the child with drumsticks and play during the service. You can imagine how excited and inspired these young musicians become at the chance to participate in what they imitate each service. This act further builds the child’s interest in the instrument.

It’s worth noting here that many of the greatest gospel musicians are not first-generation musicians. They commonly have a parent who is a musician so the musical influence continues and is encouraged at home.

Sunshine Band

The sunshine band, also known as the children’s choir, is a mandatory part of the black church. Once a child can walk, they are commonly forced to stand with the other children and sing simple gospel songs. In so doing, they learn melody.

At this point, the children are around 5 years old and able to memorize song lyrics and tonal pitch. It is also during this phase that musical talent is identified and children are selected to perform on the instruments during the children’s songs. If more than one talented drummer is identified, they are allowed to rotate to facilitate participation and encouragement. However, playing other instruments, like organ or bass, are less common at this stage of the learning process.

The critically important part here is that these young musicians are greatly benefitted by the opportunity to play alongside older, more experienced musicians who can guide and mentor them in their musical development. Musical parts are memorized and musicianship grows tremendously during these years.

Youth Choir

At around 10 years old, children transition to the youth choir. At this point, gospel music is engrained in their social consciousness and some of them have been performing music regularly for several years. The gospel songs performed by this choir are more complex in nature, both lyrically and musically.

In this age group, some kids decide to expand their musical interest from drums to other instruments. Such musical diversity is encouraged and often a youth band is formed. Around this time, children also enter middle school where they can take music classes at school and further expand their musical ability. It is not uncommon for a child to play a horn in the school band and be invited to bring their instrument to church to play during services.

So, just to recap, we are now at the adolescent age where a 12-year-old child can easily possess a decade of musical experience performing with other skilled musicians in a band setting in front of a live audience. Furthermore, some of these young musicians have had this exposure with multiple instruments. See how this works?

Sanctuary Choir

The sanctuary choir, also known as the adult choir is commonly reserved for grown-ups, although some churches allow teenagers to participate. This choir not only performs during the most important church services, but they are commonly invited to sing at various events outside of their home church. This presents musicians with the experience of playing on new stages before unfamiliar crowds.

By this time, the best young musicians have been selected and playing for the adult choir, behind the preacher, or for visiting psalmists are the ultimate rewards for years of dedication to musical advancement. At this point, musicians have amassed years of experience playing live music in many different settings and mastery of the craft is common.

Conclusion

Reading music was intentionally not discussed in this article because it is not typically required of gospel musicians. They learn by imitating what they see and hear and their musical awareness is learned through the socialization of the black church environment.

By the time a gospel musician becomes a pre-teen, they have many years of exposure and experience on their instrument. As a result of this culture-based process of music instruction, many children are able to achieve musical mastery long before their minds are cluttered with the concerns of adulthood. To the outside world, the learning process is very different from common music instruction. But rest assured, the learning process of gospel musicians is steeped in tradition.

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