Every now and then I find myself in a scenario where I am called upon to lead worship without the luxury of having a band with me. As a solo worship leader I find myself thinking much differently than when I am leading a band. Everything from how I play my instrument, to my style of relating to the group I am leading, to the way that I sing plays out differently when it’s just me. While I don’t claim to be an expert on how to lead worship when you’re alone, I hope some of the methods I have come to adopt might be helpful for anyone that may be in that vulnerable, sometimes awkward, position of being on a platform without much to hide behind.
- Your instrument is your orchestra.
As a guitar player I’ve noticed my style of playing over the years has greatly changed from the “wall of sound” that I used to produce as a younger version of myself to a much more minimal style today when I play with a band. When I play alone, however, I try to use the full potential of the instrument to create more “sonic real estate” than I would otherwise want to as part of a group. A good way that I’ve found to do this as a guitar player is to experiment with more open chord voicings and use of the lower strings for rhythmic “droning” of the bass notes while the mid-range and higher strings play a less dominant role and provide a sparse color to the sound. A great example of this type of playing can be heard on any of Phil Wickham’s “Sing Along” albums.
- A little extra sparkle goes a long way.
Carefully consider adding some other textures to the pallet by means of technology. I will offer a word of caution that less is definitely more here and that this can easily be overdone to the point of distraction. However, a subtle sustained pad that runs throughout a song and stays low in the mix can add just the right amount of support to a solo act. The key for me is to keep the pad just loud enough to feel but almost not notice. I use some tracks that provide long, sustained ambient swells in every key and stay on roots and 5ths in order to avoid clashing or dissonance when I change chords on my guitar. An iPad with the tracks pre-loaded in the keys I am using in a set in addition to a simple volume pedal to fade the track in and out has served me well in situations when I need just a little more texture.
- Keys matter!
At a camp where I recently led worship I had two separate pastors comment on how easy it was to sing while I was leading but didn’t know why. While I always try to be intentional about choosing very singable keys for the average person, I find this to be particularly important when there is no band present and people feel particularly exposed in their singing without a lot of volume to drown them out. A good rule of thumb I have adopted is to try and never let the melody of a song rise above a “D” and to keep the majority of the melodic line well below that. It may not be as flattering for your own voice, but remember, you are not recording a hit single. Your job is to lead people to sing.
Enough said. In reality, though, this may be an easily forgotten discipline when you are heading out on your own to lead. I have found that the temptation for me is to be less prepared when I don’t have a group behind me than when I do. I think in many ways, though, it can be more important to be prepared when you are on your own and have no one to help fill in the gaps. Being well prepared both as a musician and in a spiritual sense can make all the difference in the world when it comes to leading people. I have found that the more prepared I am, the less I need to think when I’m leading and the more I can be aware what is happening in the room.
While I’m sure this list is by no means complete or the gospel when it comes to leading worship without a band, I hope it can offer some helpful insight for you the next time you pick up your instrument and head out by yourself to lead.
Eric Heinrichs is a worship leader in Southern California. For more information or to connect with him please visit worshiptones.org.