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who/ what are we serving?

October 18, 2012

As worship artists, we often say we value a “servant’s heart”.  Does that mean we only serve God and people? Or are there other things/ areas that benefit from acts of humility and serving? 

About 6-7 years ago I saw an interesting video interview with Kenny Aronoff on the now defunct  Apparently Aronoff is a well-known studio musician who I understand played for bands like Lynyrd Skynyrd before getting a big  break with John Mellencamp.

I remember him telling a story of how he had a great passion to play the drums and was very technically skillful. He graduated from an esteemed music school and was exceptionally creative.  Needless to say he was a really good drummer. This is how I remember the gist of that video.

One day he gets this big opportunity to fill in on John Mellencamp’s tour after John’s drummer had to step down for some reason. Having a drum/ percussion degree, a passion for Jazz, and an arrogant attitude he auditions for Mellencamp thinking it can’t be too hard to play a bunch of pop songs.  He lands the gig and after a number of shows he was let go. FIRED.

The main reason, as I recall, was he didn’t listen. He wasn’t a team player. He was skillfully proficient – better than most, but, as he explained, failed to really listen to the songs.  How hard could it be right?  I got the impression that, at the time, playing pop songs was somehow beneath him. He just wanted to show up and play awesome drums.

Later he somehow gets something that was unheard of – a second chance. My understanding was He met w/ Mellencamp and was told  that those songs were written to be played a certain way, recorded a certain way.  These were hits that sold a lot of records and neither the audience or Mellencamp wanted, or needed, new drum arrangements. And the band didn’t want or need a show-off player on the team.

Then Aronoff went on to make 2 points that have stuck with me as a technical artist – that he said radically changed the trajectory of his career.

  1. it’s all about serving
  2. that day he became a musician

Serving:  what an odd thing for a secular musician to allude to as important.

We talk about it in church settings quite a bit.  We serve with each other, we want servant attitudes, servant leadership, etc. It has a certain desirable air of humility.  But in this context he went on to say that serving is crucial to successfully making great music in a band.  I would go on to say it’s critical to functioning as a team.  It’s about everyone caring and attending to the big picture.  Of course he had to serve his boss but he also learned that it was important to serve the other band members, serve the song, serve the mix, serve the audience and serve the process. It was way beyond just getting his part down or being the best player. It all had to fit. What made him really valuable wasn’t necessarily his skill. There are thousands of good drummers (or sound engineers, guitar players, singers etc.) What later made him valuable was his ability to bring his art to something bigger than himself.

…he also learned that it was important to serve the other band members, serve the song,

serve the mix, serve the audience and serve the process. It was way beyond just getting his part down.

Before re-entering the studio with Mellencamp, Kenny listened to a lot of John’s old material.  He met with the original drummers. He asked a lot of questions and took a lot of notes – not to duplicate note for note but to catch and internalize Mellencamp’s vision and style.  What was the songwriter going after?  How can he bring his great drum skills to the creative process? how can he make room for the other players in the arrangement?  He practiced and prepared relentlessly.  He didn’t compromise his art, he actually became a world-class musician.  Aronoff went on to say that during that period he moved from being just a “drummer” to a “musician who plays the drums.” He brought that attitude to every opportunity thereafter.  And there were many.  He wasn’t just good, he had developed a reputation for serving.  He was the guy you wanted on your record and on your tour.

After that period, I understand that Aronoff went on to chart several more hits with Mellencamp and become one of the most highly regarded and sought after live/session drummers in the country over the past 2 decades.

How about you? 

  • Are you just a “guitar player” or are you a musician who plays the guitar?
  • Are you just a “sound guy” or are you a musician who mixes and serves the band?
  • Are we part of a worship team that just “learns songs” or are we musical or technical artists who lead people toward and closer to God?
  • Are we filling our spiritual tanks between weekends or is the weekend service just the creative outlet by which we feed our personal artistic needs?
  • Does our art serve our mission and who we are in the eyes of God or do we get our identity, value, self worth solely from practicing our technical or musical craft?
  • Is mixing or playing praise/worship choruses just a little beneath us as artists or is there a bigger purpose for which we bring our art to bear on the weekend?

When I act as a FOH engineer, I can say there’s a big difference in the rehearsal if I’ve downloaded the mp3s from Planningcenter and had a few conversations with the worship leader a week or so in advance.  If I go in prepared and familiar, along with an understanding of the “flavor” of the weekend, I’m in a much better place to bring appropriate skills to the team and ultimately to the weekend experience. It takes a little effort and some time. But it matters … a lot.

The Kingdom benefits when we prepare and serve one another and the areas of ministry we’re called to influence.

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