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Simple Percussion Instruments for Worship

Suggestions from a pastor and worship leader for percussion instruments for worship, for use by adults and children.

If a church wants to purchase and use light but effective percussion, what instruments do you suggest?

First, I would suggest a hand drum, like a djembe. Not a conga or bongos, in my opinion, as those take a more specialized skill.

A djembe is flexible in several ways: (1) it can be played by a person of any skill level; (2) it can be played in a way that mimics a drum set (with a "backbeat"), if one wants, but can also be played in other patterns, including more advanced ones; and (3) it can also be played loudly enough for most (all?) worship settings, and yet can be played quietly/subtly, too.

Other effective percussion from my point of view includes, in order of importance:

  • shakers (egg shakers, rattles, "one shot" shakers);
  • tambourine (probably shouldn't be over-used);
  • cabasa (can be used like a shaker if one doesn't feel comfortable playing it with a hand cupped around the beads);
  • claves (or even just sticks, like drum sticks, can be used to strike each other);
  • wood block (possibly mounted if a player wants to be able to use their other hand to play other percussion);
  • mounted cymbal. The cymbal can be played with various sticks and mallets to get different sounds (e.g., using a felt mallet can get the "swell" sound which can fit the beginning or end of a song).

A person playing an instrument that takes two hands, like a djembe, can use their feet to play other things:

  • foot tambourine (my new personal favorite),
  • a hi-hat,
  • a cowbell foot pedal (my Latin jazz geekiness coming out here).

Instructions on how to play any of these instruments can be found in searching YouTube videos, and, for those new to these instruments, those videos are probably worth checking.

What percussion instruments do you recommend for kids? Could the instruments be kept up front of the worship space for the kids to play when invited by the worship leader?

Good question. I would shy away from instruments whose sounds overpower such as tambourine, woodblock, cowbell. Those instruments can literally give headaches (said the volunteer at his kids' school's music classes). I would possibly include something like bongos, because getting the proper sound - or, more important, volume - isn't so important if children are playing rhythm as a group. I think sticks and shakers would be good. Keep in mind that a dropped egg shaker can make for a serious mess of beads on the floor of your worship space. Small cymbals (a splash cymbal, finger cymbals) could work.

Other suggested resources include:

Drums in the Church (a DVD) that offers a hands-on guide to the effective and creative use of percussion instruments in the context of Christian worship services. This essential DVD covers fundamental rhythms and techniques for a wide range of musical styles.

The Pulse of Worship, by Andrew Donaldson, offers more practical suggestions.

This article was first published in worship section of The Network blog.