Most musicians serving in our churches have a heartfelt desire to be as well prepared as possible as they come together as a team to lead others in worship. And yet it’s fair to say that while every musician has their own idea of how to best prepare, many of their ideas aren’t actually based in sound principle, logic, wisdom or guided from the voice of experience.
Many worship leaders I know work very hard to provide their musicians with what they feel are more than adequate resources for preparation, including song chord charts and lead sheets, Youtube video links, mp3s that have been transposed to they key the song is actually being played in, etc etc etc. Many even plan out their sets many weeks in advance, posting the sets and resources online using Dropbox or Google Calendar or Planning Center Online or any of a wide variety of other websites to give as much time as possible to the music team to be able to show up prepared, knowing the songs and able to play them well.
But somehow, the musicians still show up without having learned the songs. They show up to our midweek rehearsals expecting to learn them there, and magically somehow in the few days between their first time playing it and Sunday morning, to achieve mastery.
We all know this is ridiculous.
Yet… week after week, it keeps happening. Worship leaders get frustrated that their team members aren’t working hard enough to prepare. Musicians get frustrated with themselves and with their team members who aren’t pulling their weight. Pastors get frustrated that the team is just not getting any better than their 7th grader’s garage band – or annoyed that their 7th grader’s garage band is actually quite a bit better than the worship team at the church. The church gets frustrated that the music is just not very effective at helping them worship – or that it’s just truly not good at all for anything.
So with leaders providing all these tools for preparation, and believing that our musicians are indeed diligently trying their best to learn the songs, what might be happening?
One possibility is that while all the tools have been provided, clear instructions in how to best use these tools have been lacking. For some, it’s like being given a clear, high definition picture of an assembled Lego toy, and a bucket containing all the individual parts needed to assemble that toy… but without step by step instructions of what to do with the tools, chances are the finished product is not going to closely resemble the desired picture.
That’s exactly what happens with our musicians. “Here’s an mp3 and a video of this song by Hillsong, and here are the chord charts you need to play it… and go! Make it look and sound just like that!”
Yeah, that doesn’t work out so well.
Our role as worship leaders in shepherding our teams includes the responsibility to train and equip members of the body to become musicians who are trained and skilled in music for the Lord (see 1 Chron 25:7), not just to throw the resources at them and expect them to figure it out. For many of us, especially those whom have not been given a clear framework of “how to’s”, that’s a big challenge.
There are of course, many books that have been written on how to develop a worship ministry, and most of these include chapter upon chapter of step by step instructions. Consume as many of those as you can, and utilize any and all methods that assist you in pouring into others to bring out their best! Time invested in learning how to train others is time well spent that will reap a plentiful return.
In the meantime, here’s a quick checklist that will aid in establishing an achievable framework of preparation for your teams. They may never been given a step by step tutorial of how to systematically prepare for a song, and if they have, they can always benefit from knowing another approach.
11 Stages Of Preparation
- General Observation
Get to know the basic roadmap of the song
Listen for the specific formulaic components: verse, pre-chorus, chorus, bridge, refrain, interlude, key changes, etc. Write the roadmap down. Practice predicting what part is next as you listen, so you commit the roadmap to heart.
- Specific Observation
Listen for your particular instrument/vocal parts throughout the song
Make it a point to listen not only to the version that has been provided to you as reference, but to other recorded versions as well – go search on youtube, soundcloud, noisetrade and you will certainly find alternate versions done by other artists. Some contain small parts that are gems, which your main reference recording does not. Do the extra legwork to understand your parts in this song and what is possible to bring to the table with your instrument.
- Critical Observation
Listen for signature elements of the song: the hooks, the parts that identify it as “that” song
Some songs are simple and don’t contain an instrumental part that clearly defines it. “Blessed Be Your Name” falls into that category. It can start off a myriad of ways, and doesn’t have a particular riff, line or sound that makes it stand out. Other songs do have a signature part for various instruments. For example, “This Is Amazing Grace” has the buzzy lead keyboard hook that makes us recognize the song (this can be replicated by an electric guitar, sax, viola, etc). “Whom Shall I Fear” and many other guitar led songs do have a signature riff that defines it. Whatever song you’re studying, pay attention to these elements and if it has them, learn them, regardless of your instrument. You may not use this part exactly as written, but get in the habit of learning it well so you can communicate this song element from your instrument. I routinely ask keyboardists to approximate guitar parts and vice versa, and I’ll also ask violists and cellists to do various lead lines. Whatever you’re playing, be ready to be “johnny-on-the-spot” with these signature licks, and you’ll be your worship leader’s hero.
- Dynamic Observation
Pay attention to the dynamics of the song, especially your parts
Where does the song get really quiet and reflective? Where does it begin to build, and how does it build? Where are the breaks? Where are the rhythmic cadences and nuances that make the song sound expensive? Learn these – even if your band doesn’t do them at first. Often when learning a song, we’ll skip the fine nuances while the team is getting familiar, but have them in the back of your mind, so that when you’re confident with the main roadmap, you can work in the fun tasty bits!
Work out your parts as written/performed by the creators of the song
This part is important not to skip. Not that we want to just be a cover band, but if you don’t understand how to play the song as originally written/orchestrated/performed by the writers, you probably don’t understand the heart of the song as it was intended to be heard. Once you know the original parts down cold, then you can exercise creative freedom together as a team to wander from the beaten path. Many musicians make the mistake of going off the roadmap before they even know the roadmap – but you need to know it so that if someone gets lost you have a common point of reference to get back moving together! That someone may be another team member, or it may be you… either way, since this is ultimately about helping others worship and not about you, best to know how to recreate your instruments parts in the song for the sake of serving the song, serving the team, and serving your church.
Work out your parts as you are actually able to perform them effectively
Reality hits sometimes while we’re doing step 5 (recreating the parts as written) and we come to the realization that we can’t effectively replicate those parts. Here are a couple examples of this challenge:
A good vocal example would be in the song, “Lead Me To The Cross,” in the bridge section where Brooke Ligertwood sings: “to your hear – ar – ar – ar – ar – ar ar ar art” with a very airy, sing-songy voice. She makes it sound effortless. And then we go to try to sing that part, and we find out it’s not that easy, and trip all over the part. And then we have to envision our poor church folks trying to sing along…
An instrumental example might be, well, any Lincoln Brewster lead line for electric guitar. Very few can pull off all of his riffs note for note and make it sound smooth and effortless (though I do know one guy who can). For most of us, we can hit maaaaybe 70% of the notes and muddle our way through it.
So what to do with that? Rather than replicate the part exactly, approximate the part as best you can. Drop some notes if you need to, keeping the main riff apparent. Whatever version you do come up with, make it sound good. It most often doesn’t have to be exact. This is where you can do variations on a theme, and bring some of your own sparkle to bear on the song.
Work out ahead of time what your part is going to sound like in the context of your particular band.
Not only taking into account our own ability to play the parts of the song, we do need to consider if will it clash with another part that is not present on the actual recording, but that you know will be present in your worship team by virtue of the people you have involved. Does your drummer play with a lighter touch than the recording, making your heavy bass line sound overbearing? Might need to dial it back. Does your keyboard player tend to live on the low end of the register? A guitarist may need to live on the high end of theirs in response.
Also, take into consideration the unique composition of your instrumentalists you play with. Most modern recordings don’t have a sax part or a harmonica part, and if your worship team has those instruments, take a moment to think ahead of time about what those folks will probably be doing so that what you do won’t be competing with what they might do. Like the Word says, prefer others above yourself. Your worship leader can (and should) communicate clearly what should be prominent in the context of your team for this song, but be willing to let others have the spotlight if it makes you sound better as a whole – even if it means sitting out that really good part you spent a lot of time working out.
Think constructively with the whole team in mind, as best you can.
Commit the song roadmap and your parts to heart
Don’t be glued to the charts. Free yourself from fright reading, take the song off the page and put it in your heart. Then – and only then – will you be truly able to concentrate on worshiping the Lord and helping others encounter Him through song. If you’re so focused on the basic mechanics of what comes next in the song, you’re not in a place where you’ll be able to notice the leading of the Holy Spirit, you’re not going to be in close connection with your team, and you’ll miss out on the joy of fellowship with your church as you lead them in musical worship. Memorizing the music is a very practical way to put yourself in a place to truly be free as a worshiper to seek God in spirit and in truth, to be effective as a team member and to help others worship Christ.
We can be creative with a song, but not excellently until we know how it was originally intended to be performed. When we’re solid with the original roadmap, we can comfortably go off the beaten path.
Come up with alternate parts
It’s always a good idea to have a backup plan, just in case the main one you’ve been preparing doesn’t work. Sometimes there are multiple parts for your instrument, and sometimes you spend a lot of time preparing what you think is that one killer part, but when you actually play it in the context of your worship team, it just doesn’t work.
I remember doing so one time, preparing a guitar solo note for note like the recording, building my tone to match it exactly, and I had it nailed. Then we had our team rehearsal and the worship leader stopped everything after that solo, told me he was impressed how I emulated the exact part from the recording, and then bluntly said, “too bad it just don’t work for what we’re doing as a team. Can you play something else there? Maybe change your tone too?”
Rather than pitch a fit about how much time I’d put into it, I (fortunately) made the better choice to say, “You got it! Can we give it a couple go-rounds so I can try something out?” After listening to our horn and percussion section, I came up with a different lead and tone that rhythmically was a better fit, and it made our worship leader and the team very happy. Felt good to be a team player that day!
I encourage you do be prepared to do likewise – and if you’re not a strong improvisational musician, prepare alternate parts ahead of time.
Put the rubber to the road with the band
Togetherness. Rehearsal. Making it happen for real.
My friend likes to say a couple things about rehearsals and practice that have stuck with me over the years:
1) Practice is personal; Rehearsal is relational.
2) Rehearsal is not the place for you to learn your parts. It’s the place for you to learn everybody else’s parts.
This is where you actually get to try out your parts, learn what everyone else is actually doing, and make changes as necessary. It’s about coming together as a team. Finding unity together in song. Making melody to the Lord, with hearts united and instruments & voices in harmony. And if it’s not coming together, be willing to make the changes necessary on your own end to further that goal. You can’t control how well someone else prepared or how well they’re playing – but you can take responsibility for how you minister to them in that moment, carrying them along with you instead of leaving them behind.
The final product
The ideal: you arrive at with your individual parts as a team gelling together, finding your own groove, committing it to memory, and able to replicate it again and again from now on. Then whenever the song comes up in the schedule, it’s a joy and thrill to play it well, rather than a challenge to be overcome.
Observation is Key
The introductory class at my seminary was a course in Biblical Interpretation, the foundations of which guided the remainder of the program of theological study and application. The first four extremely tedious weeks of the class focused on the concept of Observation. We read the same passage of scripture over and over again, each time writing down what we observed.
Not questions we had about the passage.
Not ideas we had about what it might mean.
Not how it related to other passages.
We learned to read what was actually there, clearly and plainly.
We learned not to jump five steps ahead and rush to an improper result.
We learned to take it step by step, investing the time necessary for the best possible outcome.
It was a painstaking process, helping us understand that often times when we read the Bible, we were reading it through glasses colored by culture, language, vernacular, history, other things we’d heard or read… to strip away those lenses and read what the Bible actually said is a discipline that requires careful concentration.
Likewise, a musician can listen to a song and hear it through all sorts of different filters. The challenge is to strip away those filters and start at the basic building blocks of the song, listening purposefully through many multiples of repetitions, to hear what is actually being performed. The first four stages of preparation involve learning how the song is formulated and orchestrated in its original form and how it was meant to be heard by its authors.
Another friend of mine likes to say it takes at least 50 times listening to a song before we really are familiar with it, 50 times playing it to learn it passably, and another 100 times playing it before we’ve mastered it. For the average song, that’s about 16 hours for each song. I don’t know about you, but I don’t know many people who have two solid work days to devote to learning a new song on any given week. So be patient with yourselves, but be persistent and methodological in your approach to preparation, and you will reap the benefits – and so will your team and your church!
Brendan Prout is a husband, dad, pastor and worship leader. He loves training and equipping others to do the work of ministry they are called to, all things geeky, good food, cars, and not driving off cliffs anymore.