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Brian Reichenbach on Including Band and Orchestra Students in Church Music

Playing his trumpet in worship alongside adult instrumentalists profoundly affected Brian Reichenbach’s Christian faith and church life. He works to help congregations give school band and orchestra students a similar grounding.

Brian Reichenbach will begin teaching band at Kigali International Community School in Rwanda this fall. Previously, he has played trumpet and taught music for many years in the Chicago area and, most recently, in southeast Tennessee. He has been a music professor, gigs in traditional and contemporary churches, performs with orchestras, and tours nationally with organist Rhonda Sider Edgington as the Great Lakes Duo. In this edited conversation, Reichenbach explains why he especially loves helping musicians of all levels and ages play together in worship services.

How did your church make room for your musical gifts when you were growing up?

My family was very involved in our Baptist church. Our church music director was my first trumpet teacher, and his wife was my piano teacher, so music education went hand in hand with our church life. I remember Mr. Benjamin occasionally picking up his trumpet and playing a descant on the last verse of a hymn. In hindsight, I can see how that really shaped my imagination for what an instrument could add to the mix of piano, organ, and voices. I loved that trumpet!

As a trumpet player, I worked my way up into playing in the services. I’d sit in the front row of the congregation during Sunday evening services and simply play along with an adult amateur trumpet player for the congregational songs. It was great sightreading practice and low impact for a young player. Yet people often commented appreciatively on our playing and noticed when we would miss a week. Eventually this became our habit for Sunday mornings as well, and others would join us too. Sometimes a larger “orchestra” was put together for the services. I also periodically played duets or solos as special music or offertory.

How did playing music in church shape your faith and relationship to church?

Looking back, I can see how formative this was for me. I saw how my gifts—mostly developed outside of church in lessons and school band—could be used in congregational worship. It provided a unique way to interact with adults in the church, something Kara Powell, executive director of the Fuller Youth Institute, calls “sticky faith” intergenerational relationships. My church music mentors helped me remain grounded in my Christian faith and connected to other Christ followers throughout my life. I learned so many Christian hymns! As an instrumentalist, I didn’t always know the words so well, but those melodies remain with me, and I’ve come to know and love the texts as well.

My wife, Christine, grew up playing in a church orchestra setting. As a kid, she sat next to musicians from the area professional orchestra. We both attended—and now teach at—Csehy Summer School of Music, a Christian summer music camp that highly values corporate worship through hymn singing and with quality musical instruction. She has taught Suzuki violin and school orchestra, and our four children are Suzuki trained.

How common is it for congregations to include band and orchestra students in leading worship?

In spring 2023, I administered a short survey of church music leaders at a Church of God worship conference in southeastern Tennessee. More than half (57%) regularly use orchestral string, wind, or percussion instruments in their worship services, and nearly a third (29%) use them in a church orchestra. On the other hand, 43% typically use only organ, piano, guitar, and/or drums in their services. When asked what ages of instrumentalists are involved, 39% of churches use orchestral instrumentalists who are 22 years old or younger, but only 14% use orchestral instrumentalists under 18 years old.

Anecdotally, it seems to me that church orchestras are still a thing among larger churches in some denominations in the US South. I’d love to expand my research to understand these trends better.

Does your church include youth instrumentalists?

Yes, a lay couple leads the youth worship band at our Southern Baptist church, which draws three hundred people between two Sunday services. My son, who has been playing for ten years, plays violin on that team in Wednesday night youth services. My wife and I started a little orchestra that plays on some Sundays. If everyone’s there, we have violinists from age eight to adult; early teens on oboe, sax, horn, and trombone; and adults, including someone who hadn’t played in ten years and two good flutists, a college-trained percussionist, and a violin teacher. A middle schooler who’s been playing guitar in the Wednesday youth band recently started playing in Sunday worship. I love the variety of ages and experiences of those involved!

What barriers prevent more churches from offering this intergenerational opportunity?

I’d like to get more hard data on this, but my experiences and conversations lead me to see several barriers. Guitar, keys, drums, and bass drive contemporary music styles. So much congregational music is influenced by CCLI (Christian Copyright Licensing, Inc.) songs, popular worship radio playlists, and just a few influential churches, songwriters, and musicians. As church music becomes more performative than participatory, it tends to push out amateur and younger musicians. Churches try to cover top songs just like they sound in studio recordings, but those recordings rarely include band and orchestra instruments. I would love for church music leaders to instead go after a stylistic sound the leverages their congregation’s individual strengths. That’s where musical creativity can flourish.

Another barrier is that worship leaders often lack the formal musical training and expertise to incorporate more instruments and instrumentalists with varying skill levels. Also, contemporary worship is often done by ear and improvisation, while typical school bands and orchestras prioritize learning to play music from the written notes. Students often lack the aural skills that, for example, Suzuki music education or informal learning by ear provides. Finally, in my youth, I started playing my trumpet in evening services, but many congregations no longer have Sunday night church. That kind of low-performance, high-community gathering can be helpful for engaging with young musicians.

What good first steps can church music leaders take to include band and orchestra students?

Start with little things. Twenty years ago, when our family lived in Wheaton, Illinois, we attended a Christian & Missionary Alliance church that did contemporary music every week, with occasional hymns. Christine and I started an intergenerational “Advent Orchestra” because, even if you rarely do hymns the rest of the year, your church probably does Christmas carols. That orchestra still happens one December Sunday every year. Kids, parents, and other adults find it really meaningful to play together. Younger children look forward to growing up into that ensemble.

Wait till kids have a few years of experience before inviting them to play in church. Otherwise it can be overwhelming for them. Include them in small ensembles and try to make sure there is more than one player on each part, especially for the newest players. Pair youth with adults. Use instrumental music for reflective or celebratory moments such as the prelude, offertory, or postlude. Even if it’s not a typical part of your Sunday morning worship, why not try something different? You can find more tips in my three-part blog series “Band and Orchestra Kids Go to Church.”

Are there ways for band and orchestra students to join on contemporary worship songs?

I’m very interested in helping kids learn to play by ear and improvise, often in a contemporary worship band. Look for the jazz band kids because they are more likely to play by ear and are learning to read chord charts. A good curriculum I’m aware of that teaches aural skills is Improvisation Skills for Orchestral Instruments in Worship.

Use string and wind instruments sparingly and not for every song or even the whole song. Listen to recordings to find easy, repetitive lines to cover. For example, a violin layer could work well on flute, or a cello line might be covered by a good euphonium player. Consider adding an instrumental verse to contemporary worship songs with simple melodies. Provide students with music written in their key, which may require the help of Google, a local music teacher, or music notation software. My blog post on adding band and orchestra instruments to the worship team gives more ideas.

How much does including band and orchestra students depend on socioeconomics or local public schools?

Music education in public and private schools can provide significant skills for students to play in church. Traditional school music programs have band, choir, and maybe orchestra. Some schools now teach popular music with guitars and keyboard. However, not all schools offer all instruments. For example, the public schools in our area don’t have orchestra.

The most recent findings by The Arts Education Data Project show that 92% of U.S. public schools offer music. The 3.6 million students in schools without music are concentrated in low-income communities of color in urban centers. That’s unfortunate, because studies show that schools that offer music programs have higher attendance and graduation rates than schools that don’t. Many U.S. Black students go to underfunded public schools with outdated textbooks and broken musical instruments.

Which churches or organizations can help more students play band and orchestra instruments?

It is widely known that instrumental music education has an equity problem, and it’s one that the church could have a natural part in. I really love helping to involve musicians at all levels and ages in my own church’s worship services. I want them to see the church as a place that values their particular musical gifts.

I just know about little pockets of places that offer music programs for youth in families with lower incomes. Check to see whether your region has music lessons offered through the MusicLink Foundation, National String Project Consortium, Salvation Army, or a local community music school or university.


Read Brian Reichenbach’s three-part blog series “Band and Orchestra Kids Go to Church.” Listen to Reichenbach’s trumpet solos.