Advice on Church Music Composition from John A. Behnke

Dr. John A. Behnke is a frequent handbell clinician, festival director, and organ recitalist. He enjoys composing and arranging, and he has 450+ handbell, choral, and organ compositions in print with nineteen different publishers in the United States, Germany, and Taiwan. Behnke’s relationship with Concordia Publishing House started in 1994, and he has since composed more than 200 of those pieces with CPH. In honor of his 70th birthday, we asked John to share some words of wisdom and key lessons he has learned throughout his career.

The Creative Process

When asked where he draws inspiration for his music, John shared, “I walk every day, and most of the time it is during that hour walk. I think, ‘Can I still hear that idea?’ If I still hear it, then that’s a good thing because maybe someone else will have it in their head for a while too. If I don’t hear it again or I can’t sing it back to myself later, then maybe it’s not the best, and it gets thrown away. The hardest thing to decide is which idea is best and to stay with that idea for as long as possible. I keep trying to expand the tonal palette, and even kind of push the boundaries a little bit with church music and the traditional way sometimes. I’ll use wind chimes with the organ, and I’ll use percussion. I ask myself, ‘Can I actually expand with resources that are pretty easy to work with or worship leaders would have around and make a connection with the listener?’ I try to be intentionally different.”

Regardless of where he draws his inspiration, John is always thinking about the people on the other side—the one playing the music he writes and the one listening to it. “If it doesn’t speak to me, or seems like it’s not unique or creative, then I just know that’s not going to work. So I write what’s meaningful to me. Then I’m amazed, honestly, that other people like it and want to use it for worship. If it enhances their worship, I feel like I’m there praising God with them, that we are doing this together. Yes, I provide the paper and the spots on the paper, but they’re providing the voices, and we’re all doing it together.”

His Feelings about His Own Music

John has written so many pieces, and we asked him if there were any that he preferred to write. John shared, “I love them all. I love every variety of the bells and organ—[hand]bells and choir, the choir and organ.” When asked if he had any favorites within his own work, John was proud to say, “They’re all my children. I mean, how do you like one over another? The one I’m working on right now is the one that sticks with me and stays with me. And it’s a blessing and a curse in the sense that when I first start to work on something, that tune or the idea just sticks and sticks. Sometimes when I'm trying to go to sleep at night, I keep hearing that thing over and over again—an earworm that is painful at times until I finally finish the project. Then I can finally start to move on to the next one. But I’m a dweller, so I kind of dwell with an idea for a long time until I really think that it’s worthwhile.”

Advice for …

We asked Behnke, with his wide breadth of experience, to share some words of encouragement and advice for young musicians and worship leaders. Here are some of his insights from his career and suggested ways to get involved through your love of music. 

Young Worshipers: 

“Join a church choir, get involved, sing your praises to the Lord. If you can sing in a football stadium, you can sing in a church. Singing in a choir is a wonderful thing; you get to know those people around you. It’s a ministry all in itself.”

Worship Leaders

“You’ve got to get your feet wet. It’s one thing to be in a classroom, and it’s another thing to be in front of your choir members or to play the organ on a Sunday-to-Sunday basis. Ask yourself, ‘What do I really like to do? What’s my passion?’ Then just keep working on it. Keep growing. Keep trying to take some lessons. Keep attending concerts and listening. Keep growing on your own. It’s not where you are at age 21. It’s where you are at age 65 or 70 or 90. It’s a lifelong pursuit. It’s a lifelong service. It’s not just today—just keep working at it and do what you love. Even now I’m still learning; I’m still trying to grow a little bit.”

Order John A. Behnke's essential organ collection, compiled in honor of his birthday, by clicking the button below. 

Order the 20 Preludes



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