Getting the Most Out of Your Worship Team
First off, huge thanks to the guest posters this last week. Matt, Chris, and Dan, you guys rocked it. Absolutely blown away by those posts. Thanks a ton! I honestly did not check back here all week, and aside from a scary few hours today, the blog did not burn down. In fact, it may have even done better without me.
But upon my return from the fictional sunset that exists in the lofty portrait I have of myself (both physical and mental), I thought I’d give a very practical and in-depth post. Most of the posts here are geared towards the guitar; but I’m gonna go ahead and shift gears (stupid car metaphor…how about a gear one…swap tubes!) here, and do a post specifically for worship leaders and music directors. And as a disclaimer, I don’t do all ten of these well. Or even consistently. In fact, it’s probably safe to say that I do them all very poorly, when I even do them. I don’t have all the answers, but these are some of my hopefully humble observations.
There’s a level of musicianship for which most every worship leader strives. The reasoning for said level may vary: creating an atmosphere where people can let go, giving our best to God, making a distraction-free environment, using the music to touch people’s emotions, the lead pastor told me this is what he wants, etc. Nonetheless, most music directors and worship leaders with whom I have come in contact over the years have more or less the same goal musically. The lack of a goal is not usually the problem. The problem is that we are all striving for something that can only be reached with a group of people; and for ninety percent of us, that group of people is made up of volunteers. And for the other ten percent of us, $75 bucks for a 5-service weekend an hour away when gas costs $863 dollars a gallon (yep), our paid group may as well be volunteering. Either way, one of the complaints I hear most often is how difficult it is to get good performances out of your team.
(Even if your team happens to look like this, I promise you, after this post, you’ll be able to get good performances out of them. Unless they are holding an axe. A gospel axe. I’ve used this picture before, I know, but it just never gets old. I mean, the dude actually has an axe.)
So I’m going to put together a list of things that I think I’ve learned over the years, that have tended to help me in this area. This list comes from continually being on both sides of the page…I lead at my home church, and just play guitar in a few other worship settings. As always, I encourage all you worship leaders to find a place to do this at least once or twice every few months; the perspective shift that it gives you is worth about 183 new books/blogs/tweets on worship leading.
There are three overarching techniques, and seven practical techniques.
1) Do Not Use Managerial Tactics
This is one of the main problems I see with worship leaders. And you know what? Just plain society in general. People are put in charge of other people, and the people in charge have no idea how to lead. So they go buy this month’s newest paperback rendition of ‘The Ten Most Successful Ways to Manage People’, or what is infinitely worse, go take a college course on Management taught by a professor who just read this month’s newest paperback rendition of ‘The Ten Most Successful Ways to Manage People.’
Worship leaders, I can tell you right now, as a guitarist. Please do not ask me questions that are supposed to circle around and get me to think that what you want is my idea. Please do not take me to Starbucks under the guise of friendship or pastorship, and then spring what you really wanted to say on me in the last minute, only to never talk with me outside of church again once I do what you want. Please do not use phrases like, ‘I may be wrong, but…’ when I can clearly see that you haven’t the faintest inkling that you could, in fact, actually be wrong. Not only are these cheap and ineffective because at their core they are really only personality and wordplay tricks, but they also devalue those whom you are trying to lead. When I’m playing on a worship team, and the worship leader starts asking me questions to which I know he knows the answer, but is trying to get me to think I came up with the solution, the condescension is almost unbearable. ‘Really? You think I’m stupid enough to not see through this? Or do you just not care, but know that as a worship leader, you at least have to make a half-hearted effort to break it to me softly. Bro, just tell me not to play in the verses!’ I remember being on stage one time, and the worship leader was asking us as a band a series of inane questions designed to get us to tell him that yes, his acoustic really should play the riff and that we all should back off even though that was not how the recording went. And it was quite amusing to see the looks on everyone’s faces that night, as our band consisted of a university professor on keyboards, and two very well-off and intelligent business owners on bass and drums. It was so absurdly comical.
And if you think it’s working, it’s usually only because you’ve got the bed of ‘being at a church’ on which to fall back. The musicians are not really buying into what you’re saying, but are instead doing the Christian thing of humbly keeping their mouths shut. So there’s no conflict, but then you wonder why your lead guitarist is still passive-aggressively playing the solo you told him not to.
The bottom line is, these are people on your team. Not pawns for you to move where you wish. If you want something to happen, be a man (or woman) and come out and say it. And for most of us, myself included, some pastor thinking we have a good enough voice to get people to sing worship songs with us, does not make us smarter, more intelligent, or more creative than anyone else on our team; least of all some of the amazing professionals with whom I’ve played from time to time, who just happen to also be gifted on an instrument and want to serve God when they’re not spear-heading special ops CIA missions. Seriously. I know your guys’ worship teams are probably the same. Treat people as people.
2) Stop Reading Leadership Books!
Also known as, serving. So instead of using cheap managerial tactics in order to try to trick people into doing what you want, Jesus actually put to use a different form of leadership. He served. For the majority of his ministry! We don’t see a lot of staff meetings, management, or that article every pastor has been so stoked to be on the cutting edge and read to his staff for the last 8 years. You know, the one where they interview Starbucks and McDonald’s about how they became successful? (Please don’t tell me I’m the only one inundated with that article. ) A good portion of Jesus’ leadership came through serving. And here’s the crazy thing. People saw that, and wanted to follow Him to the ends of the earth. True serving of other people gives your words weight. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve played wrong chords because the worship leader asked me to…knowing they don’t work as well in the song, but respecting him enough to play them anyway because I just saw him on his hands and knees switching the channels in the stage box for my amp mic because it’s not coming through the house. And I can’t tell you how many times the haughty keyboardist who plays what he wants no matter what I ask him to play finally comes around and plays what I ask, after he has loudly complained about how he cannot hear himself, and then saw me be the one to put down my guitar, go back to the Aviom rack, and try different gain settings for him.
Be the first to help your drummer in with one of his seven trips to his car. Have the stage set up for your team before they arrive; you’re the one on staff, not the sound guy. I promise you, it’s this type of service that will allow you to lead. I used to work at a school for troubled children, and one of my bosses there exemplified this lightyears better than anyone I’ve ever seen at any church, including myself. There were times when I would work hours of overtime, staying with or driving home the students who were in various detentions, just because he asked. Why? Because I watched as he was the one putting in 6 hours of overtime every day the previous week. This same guy could walk into a room where I had been unsuccessfully processing with an out-of-control student for a half hour, take one look at them, and calm them down on sight. He commanded respect and people followed him because he was always the first one to serve, both staff and students.
Now you should never serve just because you want to be an effective leader. That’s the complete opposite mentality. However, I can tell you that from my limited experiences, it will work. But maybe try serving just to serve, and let what happens happen.
3) Arrive Half an Hour Earlier Than You Think You Need To
This goes right along with serving, and it’s called love. For any time you think you need to get ready for a worship set, get to the church half an hour earlier than that. And I’m gonna go ahead and be extremely unspiritual here: not to pray, not to read your Bible, not to ‘mentally prepare for worship.’ (What does that even mean, anyway? It’s like how we spiritualize the rock show ‘headspace’ idea.) So that you can get everything ready as if you were going to start rehearsal, and then have a half an hour to greet, hang out with, and help the band with their gear as they arrive. Time spent with people is essential if they are ever going to listen to anything you have to say. But here’s the part you knew was coming: you can’t do it just so that they’ll listen to you, or it won’t work. That falls right back into being a managerial tactic. You can’t do that; it has to be real love, for the purpose of loving them. And the happy side effect is that your rapport with them grows.
And in full disclosure, I have to say right now that I absolutely suck at this one. I’m the guy trying to carry on meaningful conversations with my team as I re-solder a lead in the RS Modulator pedal I’m going to use for one measure of one song.
(You thought I was joking. Yep. I buy things like this. No reason really. They sound horrible and never work. But man, that’s cool to have on your board! Can’t remember now why I ever sold this. I think it was noisy, had a huge volume drop, the effect was almost inaudible, and never worked. Hmm. Still can’t remember why I sold it, though.)
Okay…this is a huge one. You can’t ask your bassist to transpose the sheet music you hand him in G to capo 6, and then stop the song 30 seconds later to tell him he’s playing the wrong chords, overplaying, or is off-tempo. You just can’t. Not only is it unfair, but why in the world would he put time and effort into something that you obviously haven’t?
Even when I feel that the worship leader’s direction is wrong, I am so much more likely to follow it anyway when I can see that he put his heart and soul that week into learning those songs inside and out. So many times worship leaders and music directors expect their volunteer, 40-hour-a-week-at-regular-job musicians to be perfect, when they themselves can’t sing the lyrics to a single song, don’t know the chords, and show up with the wrong sheet music. I can almost guarantee you that if you show up unprepared, you can pretty much just expect every direction you give to go in and then instantly back out of your team’s collective ears.
2) Actually be Prepared to Admit You’re Wrong
So this is where you can honestly use one of the managerial tactics you learned in your dime-store class. But you have to be sincere. If you use the phrase, ‘I could be wrong, but…’ , then you need to be prepared to actually be wrong, should one of your team members point it out to you.
Most worship leaders are scared senseless of this, and will hold tight to the mantra of ‘No, that’s not a typo, the progression is G, C, Bb#min!’ simply because they think that if they admit an error, they will lose credibility. When in fact, it is just the opposite. The humility and bigness it takes to admit an error, commands a ton of respect. And here’s the really cool thing. It also starts to create a culture where people aren’t scared to admit a mistake. So if you’ve admitted mistakes, and people are still listening to you, the guitarist is more apt to admit that he’s wrong when you point out that he’s fingering the riff improperly. And that culture is almost a non-negotiable prerequisite for being able to have your team take direction from you.
3) Point Out Your Own Faults
Which leads right into this next one. We all make mistakes during rehearsal, even if they’re just tiny ones. So when I am leading, I make sure to point mine out at least once per rehearsal. Phrases such as ‘Great job everyone, except for me’ after finishing a song, instantly make it okay for other people to make mistakes, admit them, and work on them. Pretending you’re perfect, even if the band can clearly see you’re not, creates a culture where people feel they will be looked down upon for a mistake. So they will continue to make it, rather than admit it; or what is worse, will deny that they are making it, rather than try to fix it.
So make it a point to call attention to your mistakes. Make fun of yourself. But don’t leave it there! Go through the song again, and show the example of working hard to try to fix your mistakes.
(See? There’s one of my faults right now. I bought this amp because it had a wood finish. Literally. In my mind, if I see an amp with wood finish, I get this odd sound picture of incredibly warm tone. I can’t help it. And then I buy homemade things like this, they break, I repair them and sell them for a huge loss. Alright, I’m being open, humble, and honest, and admitting my faults. So let’s keep the number of emails I get this week from all of you trying to sell me wooden things, to a minimum. hehe Also, props to that guy for the not-so-subtle advertising mental-association technique of just happening to have a Ferrari in the shot. Either that or mid-life crisis.)
4) Use Other People’s Ideas
Realize that other people might just have some good ideas, even if they aren’t you. There have been plenty of times when the drummer has suggested a song arrangement idea, and I have thought instantly how stupid it is, simply because it’s not following in my path of thought. And then, forcing myself to be humble, we’ve given it a try. And it’s turned out to be better than anything I had planned.
And as everything in life, it’s give and take. People are much more apt to take your direction, if you take some of theirs every once in a while.
5) Lose Every Battle You Can
This is another huge one. When I’m leading, I try to concede every single point that I can to my team members, because I know that there will be points that I simply cannot concede. For instance, if the guitar player asks me if he can play a swell instead of the 2-note riff underneath the piano intro. And maybe I really want the riff, but I know that in the grand scheme of the song, it really won’t matter. And I know that in the next song, he has a tendency to overplay, and we’re going to have to run the song into the ground while I force him not to overplay. So I concede the 2-note riff so that he doesn’t feel like every idea he has is getting shot down.
Basically, lose the battle of Keyboard Pad Patch 1002 verses 1003, so that you can not be viewed as a tyrant when you shoot down the idea of changing the tempo from 106 to 142.
6) Learn How Things Work
You have to remember, that on the average, worship team members know more musically than the worship leaders. It just seems to work that way. And we all have a human nature, and that human nature makes it very difficult for us guitarists to take advice on a riff from the worship leader who just asked us how to finger a G/B. Yes, in a perfect world, we shouldn’t have a problem with that. But even though it’s church, worship teams do not operate in perfect worlds. So learning all you can about music theory, other instruments, and the soundboard, goes a long way in establishing your credibility.
And it’s not like you have to become an expert at it either. There’s a certain worship leader I play with, for whom I have tons of respect. Not because he’s a technical genius, but because he makes it a point to learn and remember everything I show him when he has a question. That level of commitment makes me much more apt to follow him willingly when he asks me if I wouldn’t mind putting the slide down and playing it straighter.
7) Give Them Another Chance
And lastly, this one is just plain ginormous. (‘Hey, have you seen these toilets? They’re ginormous!’ …Pretty sure that’s where that word was invented. Will Ferrell put a word in the dictionary.) When you hear a mistake from one of your team members, do not call it out right away!! There is nothing more frustrating and humiliating to me when I’m rehearsing a song, and I accidentally hit a wrong chord trying to learn the song or trying a different fingering or what-have-you, and the worship leader stops the song because ‘something’s off.’ And it’s like, ‘Ya, no duh (well, I keep such ’90′s Full House phrases to myself in these instances), I hit a wrong chord. I’m not going to hit that in the service.’ Nine times out of ten, it’s a rehearsal mistake, and your musician who is not stupid or deaf, heard it too. But once you humiliate your team member like that, he’s not going to be very quick to listen to any other direction you have to give.
Instead, after the song, point out that there may have been a few rough patches, and suggest that you run through it again. Once again, 90% of the time, the intelligent musician will have taken care of the problem himself or herself. And you humanely save their dignity, and salvage the relationship. Now, if after a couple times through the song, the same mistake is made at the exact same place, of course some further screwdriver work and pointing out of the mistake is needed. But not right away. Give your musicians the same chance you’d want to get. Imagine if your drummer stopped the song every time you started to pull off tempo. You’re smart, you get it, and you’ll fix it. Give your musicians the same benefit of the doubt.
Okay, I just can’t seem to help myself:
(Man, how can it possible be that 20 years later, I still want to be him? Oops. The italics parts only go in my head, right?)
This is in no way a full list of the ways with which to gain a rapport to use to communicate direction to your worship team. However, these are ways that I have found to help, and ways that I have found to…well…help not so much. The most important thing is to love, serve, and never condescend by thinking that your title or position somehow makes you more intelligent than your team members. Oh, who am I kidding, the most important thing is delay. But a little bit of actual love (and not just for delay) can’t hurt either.
- Live Ambient Looping, Studio Recording Tips, & Tone Walkthrough (Wexford Carol)
- Christmas Album, Charity, & a New Addition
- Baring My Soul in Music
- Twelve Things I Believe about Worship Music
- The Future of Christian Music is That Band I Listened to in Junior High While Playing Wolfenstein
- Worship Leading Choose Your Own Ending (Part 8)
- When God Says…Something Else
- A Guitarist’s Answers to Life’s Questions
- Story Time II (Worship, Weirdness & Something Else That Starts with W)