There’s an ongoing bickering match surrounding the topic of whether musicians should memorize their music, or if they should be able to use resources such as tablets or (gasp!) music stands. Let’s deal with this, as folks on both sides are making a mountain out of a molehill.
First off, having a music stand does not make one any less “professional.”
I was an orchestral musician at one time, and despite rehearsing for many hours, I found that it was still helpful to have charts. Go to any professional symphony performance and what will you see? Charts. Music stands. It doesn’t detract from professionalism or preparation – written music is simply a reference tool. My professional symphony orchestral musician friends and composers would be deeply offended at the idea that their music stands make them any less a polished expert at their craft, or that they are somehow distracting. I too take exception at this notion. It’s not true, so get over it, if that’s your viewpoint.
Secondly, there are plenty of musicians who are excellent instrumentalists or vocalists, but have learning disorders, and need a visual reference to assist them in the execution of their gift. There is a wonderful man I know who can sound like thunder on his instrument, passionately expressing worship to God, but he has a mental issue that prevents him from remembering things. If “How Great Is Our God” isn’t in front of him on the page, he can’t remember the simple chord progression G Em C D, and he stops playing. Does that make him any less a worshiper of God or a musician? Certainly not. He just needs a particular reference tool – written music – to assist him in the execution of his gift.
For those in the “it must be memorized” camp, how many of you have memorized your Bible completely? Or memorized all the Psalms? Or even one of the Psalms? Because we are commanded to hide God’s Word in our hearts, and indeed to sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to each other… if you’re not actually memorizing the Psalms, then you are being a hypocrite or at least off base when you insist others must memorize contemporary music. Memorization is a noteworthy goal if it serves the purpose, but if it is a hindrance rather than something that facilitates the goal, then stop fighting that fight so ardently. Equip your people by giving them tools to support and grow them in their gifts; don’t chastise them for an ability they may not possess.
In worship, my preference (for myself) is that I do not need to do anything but occasionally glance down to check where we’re at and make sure I’m being consistent in the roadmap of the song. I’ve been known to forget or skip entire sections of songs, whether it’s a verse, an additional chorus, a bridge, an interlude; I know each of us has done the same. I want to avoid that, and yet I want to be connected with the church family that I am leading into God’s presence – making eye contact, smiling with them, sharing communion with them in the time of worship.
My preference for my team is that they’re doing the same – and that the majority of the time, their eyes will not be glued to the page, but making contact with each other and with the church, or closed as they engage with God. Proper preparation and familiarity with the songs ensures this happens.
“Take the music off the page and put it in your heart,” is something Paul Baloche says frequently. Good advice. It’s a great goal to strive for, because out of the abundance of the heart, the mouth speaks. Out of our hearts comes our worship. If we’re not at some level taking this music into our hearts in the first place, then it’s not coming from our hearts as we lead in song, and that’s an offering unacceptable to God. But there is room for grace. There is certainly room for using tools and resources appropriate to raising the excellence of the music. The Bible does not say, “play skillfully and never use charts.” It simply tells us to play skillfully, to consecrate and prepare ourselves spiritually and musically, and to be found trustworthy as stewards of our gifts.
It’s fine to memorize your songs, and it’s also fine to have the charts there in front of you, so you’re not that guy who has a hiccup in service, forgets a line, and train-wrecks the worship experience of hundreds of people just because you’re an imperfect human with some weird ego thing about needing to look “professional”. Get over it. Don’t put your own convictions on others who don’t have the same capacity for memorization as you do, and do be about the purpose of your role: to lead others in worship, without looking down at how others accomplish the same purpose.
Brendan Prout is a pastor at Community Bible Church in San Diego, CA, where he oversees worship and outreach. He has served in worship ministry leadership for over 20 years and focuses on training and raising others to do the work of ministry they are called to.