The Texas Music & Arts Department supported the Worship Band Workshop in AOK last month, an excellent retreat for praise teams with worship led by transMission, Capt. Mike Harris sharing the Word, and training with experienced mentors. I know the 3 corps participating from Texas left inspired and are already looking forward to this event in 2016.
Fresh off of this experience, we wanted to share some resources we've put together through the years training praise teams at Conservatory, TMI, and local officer seminars. Below is a rather lengthy summary of some of the principles these resources address, and then you can browse the resources section of our website for more detailed documents related to the specific needs of your group. Keep practicing and give God all the glory!
Church music has undergone a facelift over the past 20-30 years. Where once the norm was an organ and choir, now the guitar and drum set grace the stage of many sanctuaries. Building design, service format, class offerings, and even church lingo are all constantly evolving in an effort to reach people where they are. Church music also follows this trend of relevancy, so much so that the genre for praise band repertoire is oftentimes referred to as contemporary Christian music. While this genre tries to stay attractive by mirroring the latest fads in pop music, the level of music composition, performance, and literacy does not always move in the same forward direction. As church music is ever-changing, similarly our methods of music education must adapt so that high standards are kept regardless of style.
Regular rehearsals are crucial for any successful music group. School music programs generally have daily rehearsals and attendance policies that have an impact on class grades. Churches frequently rely on volunteer musicians, and in some cases even volunteer music leaders. Because of this extracurricular atmosphere, church music rehearsals tend to be limited and sometimes sporadic.
Intermediate to advanced praise bands should ideally schedule one rehearsal a week and then meet for a run through before the service on Sunday morning. Since most praise bands use basic music notation in the form of chord charts (lyrics and chords) or lead sheets (melody line, lyrics, and chords), this run through refreshes the memory, giving confidence to each musician on his/her part as well as how everything fits together as a whole. Meeting together Sunday morning is also beneficial in the case of any last minute absences or program changes. The sound and media technicians should be at this run through so that sound levels are set and lyric slides are in order, ensuring that there are no surprises during the service. Praise bands that are just starting out may find it helpful to schedule sectionals earlier in the week before meeting for full band rehearsals. Specialized instruction will provide for smoother and more productive group rehearsals.
Contemporary Christian music brings a certain level of excitement with its openness for creativity and accessibility to intense emotions, but rehearsals must be more than a jam session. The music leader should come prepared with a detailed plan so that no time is wasted. Sharing sheet music and sound samples ahead of time allows each musician to learn his/her part, cutting down on individual attention during group rehearsals.
A large part of rehearsal will be spent on learning and reviewing new songs. The music leader should consider the addition of new songs very carefully, as the majority of your repertoire should be familiar with the congregation. Remember, the praise band’s goal is not to perform, but to lead the congregation in corporate worship through singing. When including a new song, be sure the melody is easy to pick up on and the lyrics relate to different themes so that the song can be repeated and learned by the congregation over the next few weeks and months. The praise band should rehearse a new song for at least two to three weeks so that they are completely comfortable before introducing it at a Sunday service. Rehearse familiar songs as well. The music leader is generally more versed with the repertoire than the rest of the praise band. Even when including an older song in a set, it needs to be rehearsed so that everyone is on the same page, especially new members or subs.
When teaching a new song to the praise band, plan out a logical instructional sequence to keep rehearsals from becoming scattered and chaotic. Write the form at the top of the chord chart. This can be very detailed, including dynamics and changes in instrumentation, or basic (verse one, chorus, verse two, etc.) allowing each musician to make notes throughout rehearsal pertaining to his/her specific part. We learn best by doing, so give a few instructions and then play. Stop the group to give a few more instructions, and then play again. Experiential learning sticks much better than trying to explain every musical idea you would like to achieve in the song prior to playing a single note. Teaching the song in sections allows the music leader to hone in on specific elements that give shape to the song as a whole.
Music notation for instrumental and choral repertoire is precise, laying out dynamics, articulations, tempo alterations, and other expressive markings. Again, praise band music notation is very simplistic. The music leader is responsible for determining the vision for each song and how the musical elements will fit together to tell a story. Dynamic contrast is the number one means of storytelling. Less experienced praise bands tend to stay at one volume for an entire song, thinking that loud is equivalent to exciting. The opposite is true, as this approach becomes monotonous to the listener. Many contemporary Christian songs contain a chord progression that remains the same or similar throughout each section of the piece. Varying the dynamics keeps the congregation engaged through the peaks and valleys that establish an emotional journey. For added dynamic contrast, different instrumentation can be applied at various sections, even scaling down to a cappella.
While volume should avoid being stagnant, texture is another component where the full range available is often untapped. In a praise band, texture refers to the full tonal range of all involved, and the different colors that each instrument brings to the whole. To take advantage of the entire spectrum, musicians must listen and be aware of one another, especially in regards to chord placement and voicing. For instance, the piano and guitar have wide ranges, but musicians have a natural tendency of landing in the mid range. Played together this can generate a muddy texture. Compromise to spread the tone, whether the pianist changes octaves or the guitarist adds a capo to move up the neck. Work to complement each other rather than compete. Rhythms can confuse the texture as well, such as a strumming pattern, bass line, or drum fill. Brief musical licks add interest, but two or three licks at the same time can be a distraction. Communicate and compromise during rehearsal so that each musician contributes with clarity.
During sound checks, levels are set to achieve balance. When an instrument or voice is not coming through, a common practice is turn that channel up at the mixing console. Of course this can create a domino effect where various levels are pushed louder and the end result is piercing to the congregation. Instead, consider decreasing the volume of an instrument or voice that may be sticking out, creating space for others to be heard.
Before adjusting levels, it is important to define balance as it relates to the praise band. Desired balance can change depending on the song, but general descriptions give a place to start. Vocals should always be clearly heard above the rest of the band because without the words, the worship message is lost. Vocal harmony thickens the texture to produce a fuller sound at points of impact, such as the chorus. When harmony is added, the melody should still be the focal point of the chord, meaning that the harmony parts should be sung softer or their microphones adjusted to attain proper balance. When teaching a new song, stay away from harmony until you repeat a verse or chorus so the congregation can hear the melody clearly the first time through.
The keyboard and acoustic guitar share a similar role in giving the sense of tonality, which helps the singers stay on pitch. Their level should be just beneath the vocals, having equal footing unless the song has a particular piano or guitar emphasis, in which case the volume should change accordingly. Unless using microphones for larger sanctuaries, the drum set is normally the only true acoustic instrument. The drummer must be careful not to overpower the group. Since their level cannot be controlled by the sound technician, the drummer in essence determines the volume of the praise band. Be sensitive to the size of the hall, the feel of the song, and the atmosphere expected by the congregation. Like the drum set, the bass guitar has a tendency to stick out of the texture. The foundation of each chord is essential, but it is not the melody. For most of the song the listener should feel the need to lean in to hear the bass. Then the bassist can come out of the texture during moments of vocal rest, almost like a game of hide and seek. Lastly, the electric guitar is a color instrument with the greatest ability to change timbre. Some songs will be driven by the electric guitar, which will bring its level to the forefront, still below the vocals. However, the electric guitar takes the backseat for the majority of the time, coming out of the texture when appropriate, such as providing melodic hooks, specialized effects, or additional volume for high intensity sections.
There are so many musical elements to strive for, yet song selection can be just as crucial to engaging your congregation in worship as playing with precision. Traditional worship services can be fragmented, moving through each program item without much fluidity. Contemporary worship services have more of a meat and potatoes approach, utilizing a longer time of corporate worship that leads directly into the sermon. The responsibility of leading worship for thirty minutes can be daunting, especially if there is a lack of preparation in regards to weaving the songs together and shaping an overall story for the entire set.
There are three main factors to look at when trying to put a set list together that flows. Meeting theme is of utmost importance. Most, if not all, of the songs selected each week should have lyrics that line up with the scripture reference and main point(s) of the sermon. With this in mind, the congregation can begin considering the topic as they sing, similar to an appetizer before the main course. Some themes correspond easier with songs than others, so it could be just a verse or a line in the song that you want to emphasize to get the congregation thinking in the direction the preacher is headed later on.
Secondly, the key signature of each song can either make a set feel like one long progression, or prompt abrupt stops that cause the story to completely start over. Playing two or three songs in the same key can come across as a medley to your congregation because additional time is not needed between songs for participants to adjust aurally to a new tonal center. Basic chord progressions set to the same key can sound repetitive after a while, so staying put for an entire set is not advised. A direct modulation within a song can serve two purposes. This works best if the second song is a whole step above the first. Simply modulate toward the middle or end of the first song, and both the emotion is lifted and the new key is already established for the next song. Sometimes scripture, a short text, or a prayer is shared between songs, and this is also an ideal time for the keyboardist or guitarist to modulate or transition to a new key. Related keys provide a more pleasant modulation, so a working knowledge of the circle of fourths and fifths is beneficial.
Lastly, tempo is a good indicator of mood. For instance, if the set list begins at the start of the service, and the first song is meant to get the congregation’s attention so they can move out of the aisles to their seats, an upbeat song would serve this purpose. Conversely, if the final song leads into a time of prayer, then a slower song would be appropriate. Typically moving from fast to medium to slow, or vice versa depending on what program items bookend the set, creates a gradual slow down or build up. Going back and forth between fast and slow songs multiple times interrupts the flow, and should only be planned this way with a specific purpose in mind. Remember, tempo within in a song should remain steady regardless of dynamics or emotion.
As praise bands become more proficient, there are countless minute details that can be fine-tuned. With the genre classified as contemporary Christian music, the target is by definition always moving, so even some of these best practices will become irrelevant. The point is to go after quality no matter how the style changes. Worship is an offering to God, and He deserves our best.