Leading a church worship team – the practical bits
On this page is an attempt to
share some thoughts from my experience of running worship music teams for church
and other events. All of the thoughts are my own opinion and hopefully some of
them might be useful to you. Obviously not all will apply to the situations you
may be working in.
This page is very much work in progress - I will add to it as I get time
Do let me know your thoughts – email at firstname.lastname@example.org
Intros & Endings
The most important bits to sort out in preparing material are the beginnings and endings of songs. These are the bits to make sure you practice! How you go about intro-ing and ending songs depends very much on your instrumental line-up and the way the person leading wants to take it. Who ever starts the song needs to be good at hitting the right tempo (speed) first time every time. For songs where the whole band starts together, either the drummer (if you have one) or the nominated music leader should fill this role.
Appropriate keys & ranges for songs
One of the most common issues with using current contemporary worship songs for corporate worship is that quite a lot of it is written by male writers with quite a high range (tenor) and they write material that they are comfortable singing, rather than honing the melody range & key for easy across-the-board corporate singing.
Most modern worship songs tend to be sung in unison – i.e. everyone in the congregation sings the melody. This is different from traditional church hymns where people would learn to sing the part they are most comfortable with in their range (Soprano for ‘high’ ladies and alto for ‘low’; tenor for ‘high’ men and bass for ‘low’).
There are two potential
challenges – one the is actual key the song is transcribed in worship books. The
other challenge can be the sheer melodic range that the song covers. The actual
key issue can be sorted by changing it – which should be achievable with
reasonably competent musicians or/and a bit of homework.
If the range of the song is too much to be comfortable, this is a harder challenge, as it will either be too high or too low at some point.
All men & women have different ‘comfortable’ singing ranges and inevitably finding the right key will be a compromise. (People have a smaller ‘comfortable’ range without warming their voices up, as most people don’t before coming to church!)
Most ladies and men have a common range that all can reach without ‘growling’ or ‘screeching’ (excuse these terms, no offence intended!) of the A under middle C (known as A3) to the D above the next C (known as D5). This gives a maximum range of an 11 notes. It should be noted that even within this range, persisting at either end of this can sound and feel strained. The above indicated range (but an octave lower) suits a compromise between the typical male ranges of Tenor and Bass.
A good example of a popular song that fits this range perfectly in its ‘default’ key is ‘My Jesus, my Saviour’. The first line of the verse dips to the low A, and the second line of the chorus peaks at the top D. Note that both of these notes are one-off ‘visits’ which makes them comfortable. (note this was written by a lady!)
An example of songs that we have moved to make them comfortable are:
– we do in B
Giver of life – we do in Gm
Blessing and honour - we normally do in C. The bridge does go up to a top E but it is (just about) do-able. We have taken this down to B and Bb for specific events
Here I am (Majesty) - we either do this in Gm or F#m, neither of which are fully comfortable. The melodic range is only an 11th but the chorus persists at the very top of this range.
list of all the songs we sis in 2008 at our church and the keys we did them in
is on our church web site under the 'worship' section
Just so he doesn’t get
offended – here is a Mr Tim Hughes one we do as written !!:
Light of the world (Here I am to worship) – we do in E -the original key, and it works well because the melodic range is relatively controlled - just an octave (8 notes)
There is just
One song that we do at our church in
a key higher than books transcribe it:
‘You have rescued me’, which is written in E and we put up to G to give it more of a lift. This is an example of a song with a very limited melodic range, so it can be sung comfortable in a range of keys.
Keys can also be changed for
effect – especially if using just part of a song e.g. a chorus on its own as
part of a flow of songs. Putting a lively song lower can also change the feel
and make it more usable in a quieter worship time.
We have as an example done ‘Shout to the Lord’ the chorus of ‘My Jesus’ in G when using it as part of a medley
We also do tend to do some songs in slightly different keys according to who is leading worship. The main tip is to get people used to transposing, then it doesn’t matter!
Modulating up for final
verses or choruses is highly effective for building a song. This again involves
ensuring people can transpose OK or have the parts written out appropriately
before-hand. It may be good to start the song a bit lower to allow for the
Some typical songs we might modulate for emphasis are as follows:
Crown him with many crowns
(start in C, then modulate to D)
We have sung our songs (Townend) (start in Bb and move up to C, the written key)
Linking & flowing songs
One of the areas of focus for creating a flowing worship time is the way you transition between songs. This can be the make or break of the atmosphere. There are a few simple rules that can help make this flow work much better
Create a musical transition. This works especially well for more reflective periods. If two adjacent songs are in the same key, the transition can be achieved quite easily. If not, you have two choices – either change the key of one of the songs – which may work depending on the melodic range of the songs concerned (see the section on keys) or create a modulation (key change). The easiest way of doing a modulation, which almost always works, is to go via the dominant chord of the new key. For those that don’t understand musical terminology, this simply means to go via the chord of the fifth note of the new key. As an example, if you are transitioning to the key of C, you would go via a G chord or if going to the key of Eb your would go via a Bb chord. My only additional recommendation is that you use a suspended chord (known to guitarists as a ‘sus4’). This sounds less sweet, less obvious and holds more anticipation.
Music ready - musicians having next song ready to play, with music ready and visible. Being prepared is always the most important rule. Even better – learn it so you don’t depend on music!
Write it down - even after having practiced something an hour earlier, it is amazing how much people forget! So everyone taking responsibility for annotating their running order etc to reminder them of what they need to do is important
Practice it ! – most of our ‘service specific’ 45 minute rehearsal time on a Sunday morning (starting 75 mins before service) is spend doing what I call ‘topping, tailing and transitioning’ – all the starting, stopping and flowing between songs.
Communication is the most important part of being a team in almost every way, but especially in the way people are let know about what is happening.
Agree a default structure in advance so you have a framework of where you are likely to go. This allows you to practice the various transitions you are likely to use.
Signs for the fundamental parts of the song are still essential and this is easier for those not leading on Guitar, where generally both hands are needed most of the time!
Basic signs for ‘from the top’, ‘verse x’, ‘chorus’, ‘instrumental’, ‘end now’, ‘breakdown’ etc are essential. They need to be obvious enough for everyone who needs to know but subtle enough to not be off-putting (e.g. the classic ‘slitting of the throat’ to indicate the end !)
Leading without playing
At our church, of the 6 people who regularly lead worship, only 2 play instruments whilst leading. This gives both potential and risk to those that don’t play to lead. The potential is that they are not constrained by their instrumental ability, as some would be – so they can choose songs without concern about how they would play them (relying here on competent musicians behind them). The risk is that they do not have any direct control themselves over what is happening musically – this involves lots of trust!
The approach I use is to have monthly rehearsals to learn material or learn specific arrangements and then to use the 45 minute period on a Sunday to top & tail the material specifically for that service.
We have 2 key rehearsals each month – a vocal session, where we work on melody and harmonies for new songs, and revise ones that need attention. The following week, we hold a full team rehearsal, where I focus my energy on the band, and the vocalists have a chance to practice the material, having covered it previously.
Stepping out of the safe zone can be as much of a challenge in the musical domain as the spiritual one for some people! Getting formally trained people
Instrumental & vocal line-up
In most church music teams, the instrumental line-up is pretty well dictated by the musicians available !
There are a few guidelines worth following, however, to help decide the best combinations.
Fundamentally, either a keyboard or acoustic guitar is required to provide the instrument that will give the harmonic structure. If you have drums then you fundamentally need a bass to go with them – the drums and bass really work as a pair. If you have a drummer but no bass player then you should really consider ‘finding’ a bass player (e.g. retrain a guitarist or a competent keyboardist’s left hand with an appropriate sound) Failing this – consider using hand-percussion (e.g. congas, bongos etc) rather than kit-drums (this may be more appropriate for some material anyway)
Another area that might be a challenge is a large number of solo instruments (brass, woodwind or strings). The challenges are keeping people involved whilst not making the music a busy mess ! The two ways round this are two either rota the instruments so you only have two or three on for a service, and then use them sparingly, or to use arrangements, whereby people play as an ensemble. This obviously necessitates arrangement to play – which can be a challenge for some. We will often, for instance, use 4 violins together, as a string section, playing arrangements for songs, or 3 sax/brass players together, again playing as a section.
In terms of vocal line up, your resources may provide from a lone guitarist to a full choir! At our church we aim for 2 ‘melody’ singers, 2 ‘altos’ (female harmony under the melody) and 2 ‘tenors’ (male harmony). We have a separate rehearsal each month for vocalists to ensure everyone
One thing that has sadly been lost in many churches embracing contemporary worship music is vocal harmony. It can be a struggle just to get people singing in unison !
Modern songs do not lend themselves necessarily to a full 4 part harmony approach, though many benefit from having 2 harmonies (1 male and one female) for at least part of the song.
As with many aspects, practice is important in achieving a musical coherence as free for all harmony can be a bit too creative……….!
I personally have a few ‘pet’ issues that I work with - firstly, only using below-melody harmonies (i.e. not above, which I feel can sound too twee) and I try and avoid really obvious ‘tracking thirds’ harmonies and especially 3rds of dominant chords – I aim for either 5ths or suspensions.
Restraint: Less is more
This is possible the biggest issue with inexperienced musicians – playing too much, too much of the time !
Some of this comes from being used to being on your own – especially keyboard players and guitarists. With solo instruments as well, the space is more important than what you do play
Piano & keyboards
This is my home ground, so I am opinionated on this area !
The standard piano music provided in song books can be pretty dire (I know, I have written some of them!). This is, to be fair, mainly because the poor arranger is trying to achieve many things across the 2 staves: Write the melody clearly (which can be quite difficult with the syncopation of many modern melodies and the transcribed ad-lib approach that seems to be prevalent, with inconsistent meter, especially in verses of songs), provide the harmonic structure of the song, provide the bass line and provide the appropriate rhythmic feel for the song. This, as you may have observed, is almost impossible !
There is therefore a need to be creative on the playing of music – generally don’t play it verbatim but optimise it to fit what you are trying to achieve.
If you area lone pianist with no rhythmic or melodic support then you might well need to try and provide rhythm, melody and harmony with your two hands, though hopefully once the melody is known you can avoid this part.
If you are however in a team with other people providing possibly rhythm (from drums, percussion, guitar), bass line, melody (from singers or solo instruments) then you need to reduce your output accordingly!
Despite the fact that some guitarists believe they have the most flexible instrument (!), I believe a well played keyboard can provide the most flexible underpinning of worship – especially sensitivity and atmosphere.
Things to try of you are in an ensemble situation is cutting out bits – if you have a bass player, try playing songs without using your left hand at all! (put it on your pocket !)
Apart from intros or turn-arounds I would suggest you never need to play the melody and with drums or percussion you don’t have to create the rhythmic framework all on your own either!
There is a joke about the drummer who was asked to play with more dynamics – his retort was ’but I’m already playing as loud as I can’! Dynamics are often lacking in a lot of a band setups. Providing 'colour' between different sections of songs is essential - and this involves everyone feeling this and playing their part (or not playing their part!)
Drums & Bass
Terl Bryant very usefully likened the dynamics of drums to being like the water skier behind the motor boat – for every swing that the music takes dynamically (the ‘boat’) you need to exaggerate the range of dynamic 'swing' behind this.
Like most instruments, when played well, they are wonderful ! The usual challenges are lack of restraint and limited technique.
Strings, Woodwinds & Brass
Once again, the challenge is how to use solos instruments to compliment rather than clutter the musical experience. If you have just one person playing a solo instrument, and they have a good ear, then it is relatively easy to integrate. If you have multiple solo instruments, then there is a need for more control. This is best achieved by the use of arrangements. A few rules for playing in general are as follows:
In most situations someone will tell you something is too loud
The biggest problems arise
with drum kits ! Less experienced people are less able to play in a restrained
manner and these drum things are fundamentally potentially quite loud !
There is the added complication that drums actually sound at their best when they are played loud!
You therefore find that you tend to try and bring the volume of everything else up to a level that matches the drums
Placing absorbent material
behind the drum kit can help without looking too offensive. (Rockwool slabs
covered in material or carpet is a cost effective way of achieving this)
Perspex screens round the kit do help reduce the volume but can make the drummers experience tough and can look imposing. Playing with hot-rods rather than sticks can reduce the volume but does change the sound and feel as well.
We hare in the fortunate situation at our church where the drums are in a contained area under the screen/rear projection area and this helps limit the kit volume. More traditional church buildings do not really help the cause of the drum kit, but with appropriate acoustic damping round the kit you can usually reach a good compromise.
Sound system & operators
These folks, although based at the back of the church, have amazing power and control over the whole service, especially the music-based worship times. It is essential that people involved in controlling the sound are musically aware as well as technically competent – in fact once the system is up and running, musical awareness and an attentive approach are the most important requirements.
Key approaches are common sense: leave plenty of time to sort things out
From the perspective of the people involved in singing and playing in the band, the two most important things are the confidence that they can be heard and their satisfaction that they can hear what they need to. Musicians work so much better and are more relaxed if they can hear each other properly.
There are three main ways of musicians hearing their instruments:
Generally, as long as people are reasonably disciplined, I have found it is best for non acoustic instruments (e.g. bass, electric guitar, keyboards etc) to have their own combo to hear their own instrument comfortably.
Foldback monitors can be effective as long as you are not trying to service too many purposes with one ‘mix’
As a rule, unless you have a large venue and a powerful system, you should not be putting instruments such as drums or bass etc through the foldback monitors
In Ear Monitoring has been used more and more - usually the wireless systems ,which provide complete freedom. These can be expensive, especially if buying lots of them.
As an alternative for a lower price, we use wired IEM systems based on small mixers with decent headphone drive capability. Generally the singers will typically use one ear of an IEM system
We use contact microphones on
solo instruments such as violin and flute to help achieve the gain needed
Our sound system
At our church we have the following setup, which as been optimised over several years:
There are combos for the bass, electric guitar & keyboards
We use wired in-ear monitors
for the 4 singers and for the drummer and percussionist
To achieve the wired IEMs, we use a small mixer (e.g. Behringer XENYX 502) for each singer/player. The XLR signal from the microphone/DI is split into the little local mixer and the main 'Front of House' mixer using a simple Y-split cable. An auxiliary mix from the main mixer is then distributed (split) to another (balanced lines) input on the little mixers, to give the 'everything else' general mix. The singer/player then plugs in-ear headphones into their little mixer and can control how much they hear of themselves compared with everyone else
The IEMs for each of the singers allows them to adjust how much of themselves they hear with respect to everyone else – this is important as everyone usually wants to hear a bit more of themselves that others which makes a generic foldback mix less than ideal.
The worship leader either uses a foldback monitor or a wireless in-ear system (depending on their preference)
I normally play keyboards and
act as Music Director. The worship leader communicates with me and I signal to
the rest of the band.
I also have an extra useful system that I have built – a ‘front-of-house and foldback-speaker mute’ pedal (for my left foot!). This mutes my vocal microphone in all of the speakers but leaves it in the headphones (in ear) mixes. This means I can communicate with the drummer, percussionist, singers and the visuals operator (who is located at the back of the church) through their in-ear mixes if there are any changes of direction of a song or the flow.
Lyrics & visuals projection & operators
Like the sound guys, these folks are the people that really have all of the control over the worship time – the true worship leaders!
We use easy worship (www.easyworship.com) which is an excellent software package. (We tried out several packages before deciding on this one)