A major roadblock to spontaneity in worship is linear thinking. When all of the songs on our setlist have a precise beginning, middle and end, there is very little room for creativity or even just lingering in the moment. Sure, tight arrangements sound great and have their place, but every worship service needs to have at least one portion that doesn’t feel programmed or rushed.
Instead, I like to think of each part of a song as a cog or gear. The verse, chorus and bridge are all connected, but in a way where we can move from one to the other without a specific order or pattern in mind. Each part can be repeated as many or few times as necessary. I’m even a fan of repeating one line of the verse a few extra times for impact. It makes us think about what we are singing.
Some songs lend themselves to this kind of thinking very easily because the chord progressions they use are circular. For instance, C – Am – F – G is a circular chord progression. The bass note moves down from C, down from Am, up from F and up from G. One time through the progression is one revolution.
Songs with only one chord progression are the easiest to lead without a linear structure. Your band can’t mess up too badly when all they have to play is four chords. Using simple songs and intentionally practicing them with no order will give your team confidence to flow. Sometimes, I like to start a song with the bridge or chorus rather than the intro or verse. My team is generally prepared to jump in wherever I start.
Teach your team how to follow your body language and use hand signals. My team knows how big I want to build by how high my hands jump off the keyboard. I also signal them in other ways if they are going a direction that I am not headed. Sometimes I follow the lead of one of the other instruments if they are really flowing well.
Flowing together spontaneously as a team takes practice. Give them lots of opportunity to do so before Sunday morning.
Do you think more or less linear when it comes to worship?
Most people have heard the adage, “practice makes perfect.” However, this statement is not entirely true. Drawing from the wisdom of my former teachers, and my own personal experience, “muscles have memory” and “practice makes permanent.” Since permanence most certainly does not guarantee perfection, here are a few tips for making sure you get the most out of your practice time.
Before you do anything else, make sure your mind is clear and able to concentrate. Without the ability to focus, your practice will, at best, maintain your skill, but more likely, introduce or reinforce bad habits. It is better not to practice than to do so with a foggy, tired mind. Take a nap, have a snack, start relaxed.
2. Warm Up
Just as athletes warm up before any sport or fitness activity, musicians need to warm up as well. Since muscle memory is what we are building through practice, we must be intentional about getting those muscles ready to learn. Scales are a good way to warm up. Use something fun and familiar. Five minutes is usually enough and having a set routine makes it easy.
I remember teaching a song to my worship team when my voice was not warmed up. During the service when my voice was fully warmed, my muscle memory brought back all of the straining from trying to sing the song cold. Not fun.
3. Go Slow
Especially when learning a new song, take your time. Mistakes usually come from going too fast. Speeding up the tempo after you have learned the song is much easier than learning mistakes and having to reprogram those muscles.
4. Take Breaks
Don’t feel the pressure to have a long practice time. Even if you do practice long, take breaks. Give those muscles a chance to recuperate. Play five minutes, rest five minutes. This method will greatly increase the effectiveness of your practice time.
5. Repeat Often
It is so much better to practice everyday for 10-15 minutes rather than twice a week for two hours. Squeezing more practice times into your week will provide greater and faster results.
6. Have Fun
When practice is only about learning new songs or working through difficulties, it can be hard to stay motivated. Playing songs you love or simply improvising as an emotional release is critical to an enjoyable practice. Let your heart be happy during practice time. Make beautiful music.
7. End Early
It is possible to over-practice. Knowing when you’re done and quitting while you are ahead is important. There were times in college when I worked my fingers until I couldn’t play a song at all. If you notice that you are making more mistakes than when you started, you have practiced too long. Again, as in the first tip, only practice for as long as you can concentrate. You should feel encouraged and refreshed after practicing, not exhausted.
Did I miss anything? What makes your practice time effective?
As a worship leader, one of the best things you can do for yourself, your team and your congregation is to memorize your music. Here is a quick list (in no particular order) of reasons why:
- Memorizing a song forces you to learn it better. If you can rely on your music stand you will. No matter how well you think you know the song, you don’t know it fully until you can play it comfortably without the chord chart.
- Memorized music looks better. When you are in front of people, they will look at you. If you are watching your music stand the entire time, people notice. It’s not a good visual. You want to be free to move with the music.
- Memorized music frees you to close your eyes or make eye contact with the congregation. Both are important. Eye contact helps people engage who are otherwise disengaged. Closed eyes helps you focus. Having your eyes free also helps you discern what is going on in the room and communicate with your team.
- Memorized music frees your mind to think about other things while you lead. The less you have to think about the better. You have to focus on Jesus, the band, and the congregation. That’s enough to think about without adding paying attention to a music stand.
- Memorized music gives you confidence. You know the songs and you know that you know the songs. Confidence allows you to lead well. People don’t like following an unconfident leader. They will disengage quickly.
- Memorized music allows for spontaneity. You will never break into spontaneity as long as you are tied to a page. Memorizing is really the only way to get there.
So here’s how you do it. If you have never memorized a song before, go to your instrument right now and try playing anything that comes to mind. See how far you can get. Did you know all the words? Did you know all the chords? Could you tell when you were wrong?
Now, look at the music and see what you missed. Put the music away and try again. Try it with your eyes closed. Repeat it over and over until your confident. Work on it a little bit at a time every day. Doing something for a short amount of time every day has much longer lasting results than practicing for three hours once a week. Muscles have memory and practice makes permanent. So get to it!
A current trend for that last decade or so has been the constant clarification that music is not worship. In our culture, it is especially easy to refer to the worship time of our services as the singing time. But singing in and of itself, is no more worship than throwing a rock in a pond. Worship is the response of the human heart to God.
Now, having said that, let’s talk music! Even though music itself isn’t worship, music has a deeply powerful effect on the human body, soul and spirit. It’s not a coincidence. God created it that way. (It was an amazing day when I realized that God created music and art and color. You’re believing a lie if you think God is in anyway uncreative or boring. He’s the most magnificent, interesting and wonderful being in the universe.) God created music to be able to engage us in a different way. Different from pictures. Different from stories. Different from movement. Its not necessarily better than other ways. Just different.
There is a story of Elisha the prophet in the book of Kings. When asked to give the word of the Lord, Elisha first asks for a musician to play the harp. While the music was playing, God’s Spirit came on Elisha and he began to prophesy. Likewise, when King David established a tabernacle in Jerusalem for the Ark of the Covenant, he ordered musical worship night and day and taught the musicians to prophesy on their instruments.
If we come to worship and think that an electric guitar solo or a drum solo is just about enjoying the music and having a good time, usually that’s all it will be. I’m proposing that, as worship leaders, we invite God to release His song through our instruments so that we begin to prophesy. I’m not asking you to be weird! Please don’t. I’m not suggesting that we manufacture something either. Other than being skillful on our instruments, the only thing we need to do is be open in our minds for God to move through the notes we play. The change in thinking and expectation is enough to bring it about.
We can also develop our ears by practicing simple chord progressions. Start with something easy and familiar. Play until you’re bored and then begin to listen for new melodies or different chord resolutions. Ask God to sing to you. Try it out. You’ll be surprised. It may take some time, but you can develop your relationship with the Lord and discover how He interacts with you in the music.
When you prophesy on your instrument in a worship service, you will know. Something will feel very fresh and new. Often, someone else will confirm it too by describing how God was ministering to them. If you truly prophesy with your guitar or keyboard, others will recognize and acknowledge God’s involvement.
Have you ever prophesied on your instrument before? I’d love to hear the story.
Flow. It’s an important thing every worship leader should know how to do. Yet, in my experience, flow isn’t usually something that’s taught. True, some things are easier “caught than taught”, but we still need to talk about it.
So, what is flow? Definitely not a technical term. Flow is the ability to transcend the plan/roadmap/agenda/itemized schedule and be free to adjust on the fly. Flow is what keeps the worship service from feeling stagnant or “going through the motions.” Flow provides momentum like an undercurrent that takes you faster than you can paddle. Flow keeps the worship team and the congregation together in a unified direction. Flow is the satisfying feeling of riding a bike downhill or canoeing downstream. Flow is like flying. When you don’t have it you feel grounded, tied down. Like you’re pulling a load of bricks in a wagon with no wheels (anybody else ever lead a set like that?).
Flow is a release of control. A following of the Spirit.
As with many things in life, flow is something you cultivate in your bedroom when no one is watching. Your personal interaction with the Lord in worship is the place to start. I don’t know anyone who plans a worship set for their personal worship time.
First I’m going to sing… followed by a cool key change… then I’ll wrap up with a remix version of my favorite hymn…
Who does that?
Since worship isn’t really about the songs, all we need to bring is our hearts. The adoration of God’s grace. The thankfulness for His mercy. The expectancy of our hope. Whether spoken, sung, laughed or cried, the movements of our hearts are what move His heart. God’s not impressed with your voice as an artist. It’s not the precise combination of pitch and rhythm that excite Him.
So at home, there’s no performance. Just you and God. Enjoying the presence and love of each other. From this place, what do you do? Maybe sing or say a prayer. What comes next? We have a dialogue. As we minister to God, He ministers to us. His word brings life. It awakens passion, desire or simply peace. Then we respond. And He responds. You get the idea.
Corporate worship can be the same. Should be the same. A wonderful dialogue (aka not a monologue) between God and His people. As the worship leader, we have the ability, even responsibility, to release God’s response for His people.
I should have titled this, “An Introduction to Flow.” I have way too much to say here and now. But let me encourage you to begin practicing flow. Do it at home by yourself. Practice with your friends or worship team. Let your worship become more of a release. Sing spontaneous songs. Be free.
Release your song.