PHIL KEAGGY - Grammy nominated and seven-time Dove Award winner, is one of the world’s great guitar players and a pioneer in contemporary Christian music.
- February 13, 2017
Church worship bands across the US have become the house band for the postmodern church. Like any concert venue you might frequent, there’s now fog, fancy lighting, and quality production. On the other end of the spectrum, there are plenty of churches that put more emphasis on the traditions of the church. All the others fall somewhere in between. That said, there’s a major surge in the church for production excellence. Although there are differing tastes out there, we can probably find some common ground for the local worship band.
The big challenge that churches have had in the past is poor musicianship because most players are volunteers. Most are still volunteers today, but the game has changed drastically in the last 10 years. With many sites who offer the .wav files of the songs everyone is singing, worship bands are now playing along to the original tracks of the latest songs. No matter where your church is on the spectrum, there are still some fundamental must-do’s to improve your worship band. Let’s take a look.
Like David’s tabernacle in the Old Testament, there must be a heart of dedication. While there are some who are dedicated and serve the team with their whole heart, there are plenty of others who drag things down by not showing up prepared or consistently showing up late. Don’t let this happen!
If a member of your worship band doesn't have his heart in it or he doesn’t offer his best, find somewhere else they can serve and set that kind of standard for the whole team. Don’t be afraid of confrontation or conflict, but have the right attitude and watch your words. Step up and lead. If Sunday morning doesn’t go well, the whole church suffers. Winging it isn’t an option, even if you’re good enough to pull it off.
Dedication demands preparation if you’re going to improve your worship team. Set that standard. Some say “People Over Process.” If someone's going through a hard time, yes be sensitive, but don’t let the team or Sunday morning suffer. Gather around that person and help them. That doesn’t mean they need to stay on the team, though. Perhaps taking a short break to calibrate would be good for them.
Most church musicians do not read music notation. Some read number charts, while others read letter charts over the words. Whatever chart you plan to provide, take the time off for a clinic once in a while to make sure everyone in the worship band knows how to decipher charts. Not to keep putting down volunteer musicians, but they don’t generally practice like professionals or aspiring musicians. Many only play when they get to church Sunday morning or at the mid-week service and not on the days in between. That’s why worship sessions can be a little rough at times. An hour a day at home on the charts to be familiar with the chord changes would go a long way.
Signature riffs get ignored or played incorrectly because musicians don’t always put the time in or don’t have the talent to pull it off. That’s why some churches simply play the soundtrack and pick random musically-inclined congregants to be on the stage to play along or act like they are. We’re not being mean for the sake of being mean here. We’re only trying to help. Playing along with the tracks isn’t an excuse to not grow or learn the music. Do something else if playing on the worship team is a bridge too far.
The worship bands of some churches are paid, usually $100-$200 each to play every Sunday. They are your local professionals, but many are volunteers. To raise the level of excellence among your church musicians, especially the younger ones, you must provide them with mentorship. This can look many different ways. You can offer music lessons from your paid players if they’re willing to teach. They should make a separate wage for giving lessons if you end up going that route. $30 for 30 min is the norm in most music stores. Make sure they're getting paid.
Also, you can offer clinics periodically and spend a half-day with the musicians on their individual instruments helping them with the upcoming song additions. You can charge for this or just make it a free service if your more experienced musicians are willing to offer their time freely.. If they choose to do it freely as a gift to the church, that’s great, but it should be a choice. You don’t work for free and neither should your great players.
There are awesome tutorials out there on guitar websites and from these bigger churches who are providing the music we’re all learning. That’s a huge blessing because it’s typically free to view. Get your church players the song list and ask them to study online or provide the link for them on Planning Center or whatever you use. However, if their skill level isn’t at the place where they can observe and duplicate what’s being demonstrated, it’s not going to sound that great coming from them on Sunday.
We’re all about the heart here, but a 16-year-old who hasn’t played a total of 1000 hours on his guitar won’t have the muscle memory to pull off the movements of a Lincoln Brewster solo. The kid will tug on the strings or bend poorly and the solo will come out sounding like a tortured pig. There’s always exceptions when it comes to younger players, but make sure they know what they’re doing.
Discipleship is a big part of a Christian community and it works for musicians too. Invest in your younger or less experienced players and you’ll have a much easier time improving the worship band.
Worship Band Rehearsal Etiquette
Structure, structure, structure! Announce the rehearsal downbeat. Let your musicians know it’s their responsibility to allow setup time. If it starts at 5:00, be ready to play at 5:00. When you’re 5 min late, you’re not just 5 minutes late, but 5 minutes times every person in the room. If you want to be a professional, you have to think like one. You’ll play better and feel more at ease if you allow plenty of setup time and be ready for the downbeat. If you wanna improve your worship band, stop the doodling. The band rehearsal isn’t the time to be learning the part. That is done at home in preparation for the band rehearsal. You’re holding up the rehearsal while you play around on your guitar trying to find the notes.
The setlist has been provided. Hopefully the sound man is a real servant and has already checked the lines and has everything dialed in quickly. A long line check or troubleshooting issues with the sound can kill the flow of a rehearsal. Don’t forget that most sound men are volunteers too. You can expect the occasional headache with equipment or something like that, but aim for a smooth flow at rehearsal.
Run through the songs once and fix any problems you hear. Then run the songs like you’re going to on Sunday morning. Look for potential trainwrecks and fix them. If a song doesn't sound good or doesn’t fit the flow of the set. Don’t be afraid to change it on the spot. It doesn’t matter who chose the music two weeks ago in a staff meeting. Better to do a song that you can pull off effectively than to butcher one in front of the whole congregation. Just remember to let someone know so the church can change the bulletin, slides, etc.
Choice In Music
Sure, all of us want to do “Hark!” by Israel Houghton in the Christmas production, but with odd timing signatures and swift unison lines, not many average church players can pull that off. Your options are to just sing along with the track or pick a song with an easier arrangement instead. Most of these worship songs are four chords anyhow and it’s not an issue, but it’s still worth the mention. Don’t ask your players to play something they are simply not capable of playing. This happens sometimes when a non-professional musician is making the song choice in staff meeting. That’s never a good idea.
If patience is a virtue, a careful and honest evaluation of your church worship team and their abilities deserves this virtue. Let’s say your church is less than 100 people and you’re in a small room. A real live drum kit would be impossible to tame, so go with a Djembe or a Cajon or maybe an electronic kit. You have a guitarist that plays out of tune or out of time and thinks he’s Eddie Van Halen. He overplays and you can’t get him to stop because he’s Eddie and has to be heard. The pastor’s wife plays piano or keys and plays like a saloon style pianist for the 40’s. Ok, she’s used to playing from the hymnbook. You’re the worship leader and you want excellence or at least improvement. You can’t hurt people, so what do you do?
Your rockstar guitar players isn’t going to like this, but you have to take away his controlling spirit. If he says, “I can’t worship if I’m not on the stage playing.” Well, that sounds more like pride than worship. What you really need is a wonderful atmosphere in the sanctuary. It does no good to play a Hillsong album before the service starts and then have the band crank up some chaotic mess. You may need to limit the band to a special song or two. Be considerate to the rest of the group, but there has to be a sense of service and humility when it comes to playing on a worship team. Serving the team the way it needs to be served is true service. Let’s be true servants.
A Godly Musician’s Heart
These days, many churches will move you from the altar of conversion to 4 weeks of growth track or church protocol and straight into ministry. Well, you reap what you sow. If the new believer is suddenly sanctified at the point of salvation and he or she’s ready for your platform, that’s amazing. While no one on the stage is without sin, there is a biblical warning to know those who labor among you. The platform might not be any more sacred than the foyer, but putting a person who isn’t ready to stand in front of the congregation as a leader on the stage can cause you a lot of issues. The team may suffer, the atmosphere may change, you may end up with a lot to undo. Test the heart first.
Ask the new musicians or singers who sign up if they wouldn’t mind serving somewhere less visible for a while. If that’s not acceptable to them and they only want to do platform ministry, you can see where their heart is. Plus, we don’t want to set them up for failure, but success. We’re all servants here. The principle is to humble yourself in the sight of the Lord and He will lift you up. Exalt yourself and you’ll be abased or brought low. Humble yourself and you’ll be raised up. This is a hard one for musicians, but it’s important.
Avoid Burnout with Your Worship Band
With most worship band members being volunteers, it’s easy to abuse the time of a few individuals that you depend on. Treat them to a retreat once in a while. Give them the best equipment you can. When you can, rotate them with others so they can worship in the congregation too. They’ll be refreshed and you’ll improve your worship team 100%. Have regular prayer times with just the staff and worship team. Minister to their practical needs. Don’t overload the team with learning too much new material. A half dozen songs per quarter is plenty. We need to repeat songs a lot so the congregation can learn them and really sing. Otherwise you're just entertaining them while they stand there staring at the big jumbo screen.
A Practical Road To Improvement
Step 1: Pick 6 new songs together with the worship band you’re leading. Make sure you play them 10 or 12 songs. Let the group agree on the finalists.
Step 2: Print the charts in the right key. Determine who will lead the song and find the best chart online or make one.
Step 3: Ask the team to take two weeks at home to learn the riffs and chords of the 6 songs really well and schedule a long rehearsal.
Step 4: When the rehearsal time comes, provide some food and start with prayer and an uplifting short devotion and dig into the rehearsal. Work for two hours, take a break, and come back for an additional hour or so to run the songs again.
Step 5: Schedule a long soundcheck perhaps on a Saturday night before the Sunday you plan to perform the new music.
Step 6: Plan an extended soundcheck. Ask the worship band and sound persons to come 30 minutes earlier than usual and really run the songs again before the service. By the way, an amazing way to improve your worship band would be to require all hands on deck for rehearsal: Sound, lighting, media etc. How can it be excellent if they’re winging it on Sunday morning? A rehearsal isn’t as effective without the sound, light, and media people.
Step 7: Pray before you play and then go worship as you play.
Step 8: Do an honest evaluation of the performance and make notes for improvement.
We know some of this can come across as a little harsh, but it’s for the best. Finding ways to improve often involves an honest assessment of where you currently stand. Some churches do very well with their worship bands, while others are just too inexperienced to realize what is being done wrong. Whether you lead the worship band or are just one of its members, you should take time to evaluate how things are going at the moment.
A worship band is made up of individual musicians who want to perform to the best of their abilities. That means taking lessons. Even if you are self-taught, you need to challenge yourself and take advice from other musicians with more experience. At Pro Lessons, we offer affordable online guitar lessons at a variety of skill levels. Our guitar instructors come from a number of popular bands that tour the road today. Find out how you can take advantage of our lesson plan by clicking on the banner below.