"For Those Who Are Passionate About Reaching The Younger Generation"

Youth Ministry Topics Developing Student Praise and Worship

Cynthia Cullen Interview (Part 2)

Cynthia Cullen

SM - Tell me more of your transition from traditional piano to playing chords and playing by ear. It seems to me that 90% of the kids taking piano lessons today learn to read notes, but know nothing about accompaniment with chords. Someone’s reading this and thinking, "I’ve taken some piano lessons. I’m a member of a 200 member church and they need someone to lead worship. But I’m afraid that by just playing the notes I’ll be too mechanical. Do I take a course on piano by ear, piano by chords, or keyboarding?"

CC - Don't worry! There are some incredible courses available on-line. From these sites, you can even purchase charts that already have transitions written out for you that you can "vamp" on, playing these progressions during prayer times or the offering. So if all you can do is read notes, there are great resources available on-line to help you do a great job while only reading notes.

Today most of the praise and worship music includes good piano arrangements. They also have chords written above for those who can follow the chords. I’m fortunate because I do play by ear. But at this point in my life, because of how much I’m doing in different ministries, I probably rely on that more than I do on the written page.

No matter how you play, by notes or chords or ear, you've simply got to know the song. You can't read notes, sing, and lead your team at the same time. You’ve got to know where you’re going and memorization is key. I would challenge anyone that struggles with playing by ear to memorize the music. Memorize it to the point to where you can get yourself in and out of things and compensate for not having an ear. There will be times when you have to just do it off the cuff, so you need to have something in memory to do that if you don’t play it by ear.

I laugh because I fake most of what I do. God’s given me that gift, plus I have a good understanding of chords and I have all the theory. My husband asked me the other day, "Do you feel like you play more from knowledge or just by instinct?" I don’t know where to separate that because I took piano for 20 something years of my life. As a music major I had two full years of theory and I can explain anything to you. But part of me doesn’t know where my ear stops and my knowledge begins. That's why I’m a firm believer in knowledge - in getting the basics of music theory and understanding how chords work.

Learn about it. Study it. There are great resources available. Any community college offers music theory courses. Although they tend to be very general and basic, you can understand and learn chord patterns and things of that nature.

SM - That's great! I think that’s key for a lot of people - to keep learning and not get discouraged. Most people conceive of playing by ear as something that either they have or they don't. Thus, they don't even try to learn to play by chords, thinking that they don't have the "ear" for it. From my experience, if people can learn the fingerings of the chords and some 4/4 and 3/4 patterns to play with these chords, they can be set free from the notes to concentrate on the worship.

CC - Exactly. And practice, everybody says practice makes perfect. That’s a myth. Perfect practice makes perfect execution. Include understanding and playing with chords in your practice. The way that I played at 13 is totally different than I am now at 29. I can play better by ear now than I did at 13. Does that mean my ear’s getting better or that my knowledge is getting better? That could be a whole discussion. But I believe that I have more knowledge and I understand progression so that if I’m going from one key to the next, I know where I’m going because I understand the patterns.

SM - You mentioned that a community college would have a basic theory course. Then there are on-line courses. What about seminars?

CC - Most of the worship seminars do some theory, but can't go very deep because they don't want to go over people's heads. That’s why I challenge people to do a course with a community college, because that way they know they’re getting a professor that understands it. Even the on-line courses are excellent in doing that. I’m not aware of a lot of seminars that teach just theory. But there may be some out there.

SM - Yet, most seminars would help practically in leading worship, right?

CC - Yes. Go to anything that comes to your area. An organization has come to our area three times and I've attended each time. Encourage other people to go along with you. I always take someone with me.

SM - You've also learned a tremendous amount by experience. I’ve heard several staff here talk about serving their way to the top. You didn’t just get a professional degree and move into a mega-church ministry. You served in lowly places where opportunities arose. So, let's back up a bit. You’re growing up in a home where your bi-vocational dad pastors a small mission church. You're seeing Jesus change lives. How did you start serving through music?

CC - When I was nine, my mom walked up to me before Sunday morning church and said, "You’re playing today." I looked at the hymn book and said, "I can’t do this." My mom says "Yes, you are" and motioned me over to the piano. About 50 people were in attendance. I had never been so scared in my entire life. I didn’t play it perfectly, but I got through it. My mom always encouraged me to just get out there and try it. It doesn’t matter if you fail; just get out there and try it. After that Sunday I played every week.

I also played the little songs for childrens' church. I never had a problem doing that, but playing for adults freaked me out. I had music for children's church. Mom would teach me some of the stuff. But I played for every opportunity, whether it was a funeral, a wedding, church cantatas, or whatever. My mom and dad encouraged me to play. I would accompany any chance I had.

But if you had told me when I was a teenager that I’d be the worship director of a church, I would have laughed at you. It was the last think I wanted to do. In my mind, I was headed to Nashville to be a studio musician and play on records. But a defining moment changed my life.

I was a Junior in college, traveling around the country doing music. I dated Todd, whom I would later marry. I was really seeking God as to my future in music. We performed in this little church, probably 75-80 people. I think it was in South Carolina. Typically, our performance was a really big deal to the small churches.

We were sitting around talking to the music minister when he said something that I’ll never forget. He said, "We look so forward to you guys coming every year because we never have music as good as this except when you all come." Instead of getting puffed up with pride, the comment broke my heart. I thought, we’re good, but we’re not that great. God's Holy Spirit said to me, "Wouldn’t it be great if the music in local churches could be as good as the music people listen to during the week? Why can't someone help these people to become better musicians?"

That was my calling. I knew it. We returned to college late Sunday night and the next morning I told Todd, "I've got to tell you something. I’m not going to make any money." I don’t know why that was the first thing that came out of my mouth, but I said "Todd, I’m supposed to be in music ministry. That’s what I’m supposed to do."

I knew how to take people where they are and help them to become better musicians. I’d done it with a band and singers. God wanted me to pull people together and help them do this in the church, rather than working in a recording studio or performing. That was my calling.

SM - How did Todd take that, that you weren’t going to be the next Amy Grant?

CC - Todd has never been wowed by my musical ability. Number one he’s not a musician. So he doesn’t understand it. Number two I think he’s always seen through it with me. He’s always been able to see straight through me to see who I really am and he knows that the singing and the music and all this kind of stuff is not who I am. So to him it was like "Cool. So that's what you're going to do."

Then I put out a resume as a worship associate, mainly to work with bands rather than singers, working under a worship pastor. I worked at three or four different churches before I came to NorthStar. I came into NorthStar in that role, to work under worship pastor Rick Cobb with the bands, arranging music, teaching them parts and investing in them.

When Rick left for the mission field in December, 1999, they asked me, "Is this something you feel that you can do?" I’ve never wanted to do that. I always felt like I was the perfect number two person. So I was scared out of my mind, but I knew it was the right thing.

For the first three months I didn’t know if I could do it. I have stage fright and I break out in hives if I have to sing by myself. But God has used my weakness as a strength. You see, I don't really want to be up there. Because of this, I'm able to train and use other worship leaders. I don't have this ego dying to take center stage. I'd rather have others stand out.

SM - That’s very much an asset. That’s why people can go to NorthStar for several weeks and not know who's in charge of the worship. Since you stay in the background, when somebody with a big head wants to stand out every week, you can say, ‘I don’t sing solos every week.’ I think that’s a major asset.

To continue reading Part Three, click HERE.