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Those Treacherous Transitions: Navigating The Narrows Between The Songs

Those Treacherous Transitions: Navigating The Narrows Between The Songs

Jeff Deyo
Those-Treacherous-Transitions_Worship Music

Undoubtedly, the number one most overlooked rehearsal component for worship teams is transitions. You know, those often-so-awkward spaces between songs, loaded with key changes, tempo changes, patch changes, pedal changes, and wardrobe changes—wait no. Scratch that last one.

Let me set the stage. We’re cruising along brilliantly through one of our most beloved Hillsong numbers when out of nowhere the end approaches. Oh no.  The song itself flowed flawlessly—we even hit that dramatic stop before the last chorus. But in the rush of prepping for each song in the set, I suddenly realized—with 7 bars left in the outro—that we forgot to work out how we were getting from this song to the newly arranged—and quite spectacular, I might add—version of that new Jesus Culture tune.

Gulp. Hope the band knows sign language.

Sometimes a transition is like two opposite sides of the Grand Canyon trying to join together seamlessly. We take a running leap off the edge of one song and desperately try to hang glide, parachute, high-wire walk, or even cannonball over to the next one. Unfortunately, many times, if we’re honest, we forget to rig the high-wire or properly pack the chute. We get so caught up with the intricacies of each song that we figure we can just wing the transitions.

Then comes that gloriously awkward moment. Eyes dart between band members. The pad fades out too early. The drummer nervously scrolls to the next tempo, accidentally starts, and then stops the wrong song. The worship leader says something canned to fill the space. The crowd looks down and pretends not to be there. Everyone on stage closes their eyes hoping to time-travel to 60  seconds from this moment. Crickets start chirping. Pins begin dropping.  Microphones start shrieking.

Then, after what seems like 37 minutes, the next song begins, and praises rise— mostly out of relief that the moment is past. All is fine. All is good. All is forgiven. All is forgotten. Disaster is avoided. Sort of.

Right then and there we make a mental note to never let this happen again.  Until 7 bars from the end of the next song. Next week. Oops.

Helpful Hints For Transitions

And so, in honor of these treacherous transitions, let’s look into a few helpful hints for turning them into terrific transitions!

Practice Your Transitions

This may seem obvious, but as mentioned above, these little packed-with-potential interchanges are often overlooked for the pure joy of mastering other musical delicacies. The idea here is to make sure our transitions are seamless. Seamless to the point that no one in the audience is distracted by them. Not so we can be awesome, but to maintain flow. Flow helps people stay focused on God.  Flow helps each song blend neatly into the next like one stream merging with another. This takes practice.

Be Confident With Your Transitions

If we are uneasy about our transitions, the congregation will be too. This of course happens when we are not properly prepared and may create unnecessary turbulence when flying at high altitudes. Our feelings of apprehension are often transferred to our passengers through small hesitations or indecision that can be as untimely as those seatbelt announcements right in the middle of a  37,000-foot nap. They can easily pull people out of a deepening connection with God by creating a preventable disturbance. Of course, nobody has sinned here, but we all agree; that less turbulence is better for maintaining a favorable cruising altitude.

Don’t Underestimate Your Transitions

Songs in the same key with minor tempo shifts can fit nicely together. Yet sometimes these are simple. transitions are the ones that sneak up on us. We overlook them because  they seem rudimentary, yet without proper communication with our team,  we can easily drop the ball here too. Discussing the smallest nuances of. even the easiest transitions ahead of time go a long way toward  cultivating team unity while preserving true communion in God’s presence.

Use Words or Singing to Smooth Your Transitions

Sometimes instrumental music alone can make for a suitable transition, but often,  interjecting a prayer, a scripture, or an exhortation can help massage problematic key and tempo changes. Many missteps in this area by using churched clichés (discussed in the next point). The desire is to keep the congregation’s focus on God and away from tricky musical transitions. While this can be difficult, the key is for the leader to talk, sing, or read just before one song ends (during a crash-out ending or final chord) and then into the very beginning of the next song, melding them together like glue. Many worship leaders make the mistake of waiting until the next song starts (essentially after the transition) when the best approach is to start before the end of the first song so the congregation is directed away from the shallow, rocky rapids and into the deeper, calming river.

Be Authentic In Your Transitions

We don’t need to speak between every song. It is often helpful to plan simple instrumental transitions, especially between up-tempo tunes. When we do say something, it is vital that it is not manufactured, but anointed and heartfelt. We’ve all heard robotic-like exhortations between songs that inevitably do the opposite of their intention. My advice is to pray ahead of time about what the Spirit would have you say or do, and then let it flow out sincerely.  Sometimes I pause for a split second upon approach, letting the music carry the first part of the transition. Then, relying on the Spirit, I step boldly and humbly into the moment, speaking to the people or the  Lord with all my heart, intentionally avoiding Christianese—common  Christian verbiage—at all costs.

Teach The Congregation to Worship Through The Transitions

Part of the issue is that we must create a culture in our churches where people realize they don’t have to stop worshiping when the band shifts gears. They can simply glide right on through the yellow caution light, continuing to engage with the Creator, regardless of what the band is doing, even if the transition is a complete disaster! We must teach these things to our spiritual family; things like Tehillah (a little-known Hebrew word for praise,  which means ‘to sing a spontaneous song to the Lord from the heart’).  We must remind them to avoid slipping into spectator mode and instead to sing or pray in English or the Spirit during transitions and instrumental sections. We invite the congregation to worship God in their own words, with their melody, so that this in turn becomes a part of the norm. Then they won’t lurch in and out of God’s presence like a  person driving a stick shift up a hill for the first time.

Be Creative With Your Transitions

God made us in his image. He is highly creative, and this means we can be highly creative too. So, let the  Holy Spirit amplify your creativity, allowing fresh melodies, rhythms, and swells to help you navigate tempo, key, and feel changes along the way. Here are a few simple ideas to help, even with the trickiest of transitions.

If you have an odd key change—like C to B—you can move subtly into singing the last chorus a cappella a couple of times at the end. From here, you can fade in the keyboard on the new key just as the last word of the previous chorus ends. Taking the instruments away distracts the audience from the key change and allows the band to move astutely to the next song.

When going from one key to another from songs that share a  couple of chords, try ending on the chord both songs share—often the 4 or 5 chord—establishing a new 1 chord. For example, when going from C to F (jumping down a fifth), try ending on the 4 chord, and swelling on it long enough to establish this chord as the new 1-chord. Even if you’re going down a fourth, you can end on the 5 chord, establishing it as the new 1 for the new key.

Starting your song with a drum groove is another creative technique you can use to help with odd key changes. If you end on the 1 chord in A, you can swell on this chord, and before it fades out, start a four-bar drum groove leading into the intro of the next song in a key like Bb. Again, this distracts the listeners from the key change and allows the flow to continue.

Utilize Longer “Crash Out” Endings with Up-tempo Songs

I’ve begun to notice how teams do overly short “crash out” endings.  People long to respond to an exciting declarative song, but unfortunately aren’t given much of an opportunity to do so when we only “crash out” for 3 seconds, moving abruptly into a soft ballad. Not only is doing a longer “crash out” ending practical in helping bridge two songs together, but it allows everyone to celebrate more freely without worrying about getting caught shouting out alone when the band suddenly dies down—awkward! If we allow these endings to last just a few seconds longer—maybe 15-20—people learn that it’s okay to let go and praise a bit more.

When moving from a mid-tempo song to a slower song or even from one slow tune to the next, it still really helps to create a definitive ending. Even if you are vamping on the song’s chorus a few times at the end, it helps to use instrument swells to communicate to the audience that your song is coming to an end.  Communication is the key. Keep it subtle, but realize the audience is always looking for cues. They are wondering (without realizing it) whether we’ll be singing the chorus a few more times or going back to the bridge or whatever. By swelling softly, we tell them things are changing. This means, that even if everyone but the keyboardist has stopped playing, others should still swell in on the final chord together—cymbals, guitar, bass, etc.

When going from 1 fast song to another in a different key, it works best not to leave any dead space for things to get uncomfortable (unless the space is very intentional). Why not just crash out at the end of song one and do a hard key change right into the next song? Follow the drummer’s lead to count off the next song before the “crash out” ending comes to a close. In other words, don’t fade out the crash ending completely until right as the next song begins. The band should play the downbeat of the next song definitively, and then no one will even notice the sudden key change. In this way, as long as we play together confidently and accurately, we can get away with just about any key change or tempo change.

When moving from an up-tempo song into a slower song, I  highly recommend avoiding moving too quickly. If this is a must though, one effective technique is to sing the chorus of the up-tempo song at the end one more time at a slower tempo with keys and guitar swells. This helps lower the intensity of the up-tempo song while foreshadowing the mood change that is about to take place. In this way, you utilize something from what you just finished and blend it with something you are about to do, which makes for a mucho grandioso transition.

Downfalls of Focusing on Perfection and Performance

Some may read my brief expose and be concerned that we are overly focused on perfection and performance techniques, worrying that we might miss the organic and raw presence of God in doing so. But honestly, it’s just the opposite. Let’s not miss the two most important ideas here; that we have been anointed and appointed by God

  1. to faithfully utilize the creative resourcefulness he has put within us and
  2. to humbly serve and empower people of all kinds as they seek to encounter their Heavenly Father, all within a world where so many voices vie for their attention.

People will survive if things aren’t “just so” in the transition department and making mistakes or botching things between songs will never prove to be the end of the church as we know it. Of course, we don’t want to crash and burn on anointing and authenticity while flying high on form and function. But there is no reason we can’t have both. This is precisely why God designed us with such amazing creative musical abilities—to serve his people lovingly and exceptionally, genuinely and extraordinarily—much like a believer who builds homes, flies planes, cuts hair, or performs surgery—all with a  passion to do his work with tender loving care and with attention to detail, so others don’t have to concern themselves with potential mechanical failures. They can sit back and enjoy the glory of the Lord as we, the servant artists, concern ourselves with skillfully and carefully operating the craft.

This article was originally published in Worship Leader Magazine in 2019.

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