Let’s face it. The guys in your band are amateurs at best. What are you to do? How do you transform your ragtag group of musician wannabes to something inspiring and worshipful? Hopefully, you’ve picked up some tips along the way to avoid this, but the long term answer is having useful practices.
1. Establish your direction. For the first several months of my church’s existence, our worship time was little better than a guitar guy playing solo coffeehouse style music, because I was all we had. But I knew from the beginning the direction I wanted to go, so I started recruiting early in the congregation for people who had interest. If you want to lead a contemporary band, start looking for the personnel who can accomplish that.
2. Be Patient. It may take you a long time to find the right people, but keep searching and recruiting. They don’t need to be incredible musicians right away. I looked for a percussionist with a good sense of rhythm; not necessarily the best technique. Technique can be taught, but a good sense of rhythm is pretty much something that you’re born with.
Once you find your musicians, take your time in developing the band. I started band practices for months before I actually brought them into a Sunday morning service. This gave me time to work through many of the songs on the set list and for us to get familiar with one another.
3. Pay Attention to Chemistry. Musicians are hyper-sensitive crybabies. I should know, because I am one. Playing an instrument is a very vulnerable form of self-expression, and so musicians need to be coddled a little bit. I always lace any critique with encouragement because I don’t want people to feel crushed and get discouraged.
“You’re playing the wrong chord, but I like your hair today.”
The band needs to be comfortable with one another’s personalities and musical contributions. This takes time, so its best to do it in a pressure-free environment where everyone can play and experiment without the stress of having to perfect it by Sunday. Take a couple of months to practice and have fun before throwing them under the Sunday morning worship bus.
4. Create Ownership. Smaller churches or church plants needs everyone to contribute a little more. I require all band members to maintain their own worship notebook.
Here’s how that works. First, I take all the songs on my set list and make sure that I have typed up lead sheets for all of them, complete with accurate lyrics and chord charts.
Second, I send these Word Documents to everyone to store on their own computers.
Third, on Wednesdays, I send everyone in the band a set list for the coming Sunday. If I needed to change the lead sheets for any songs or update chord charts, I attach the lead sheet for that song in the email. The band needs to make sure that they keep the most recently updated file in a folder on their computer. Make sure everyone assumes responsibility for this.
Fourth, during our Thursday night practices, everyone should have their set list with them and the appropriate songs pulled to practice that night. If someone isn’t prepared consistently, that needs to be addressed. Give them a Joel Osteen smile and tell them, “I really need you to own this and be prepared.”
Fifth, everyone should take detailed notes on their lead sheets. This will save you so many headaches down the road. The goal is to be able to have the notes detailed well enough that the next time you sing that song you don’t have to ask, “when did the bass come in?” or “do I sing harmonies here?” You will have it already written down.
5. Lead Practice with a Plan. A worship leader that knows what’s going on and has a plan will help set everyone at ease. Make sure you communicate your plan to them so there’s no ambiguity. It helps everyone to know that there’s a start time and stop time with some built in flexibility if you want to go long.
Since musicians are often undisciplined, you have to be organized.
Here’s how I structure our worship practices:
10-15 minutes for prayer and scripture reading. This is not a time for tuning or fiddling around with guitars. We will often use this time for prayer requests and general how-are-you-doing-today kind of stuff. We have often had many times where someone is having a problem at work or a medical concern with a family member. In such times, we always attend to the needs of the person before plowing into the practice time. We devote an extended time of prayer to make sure that everyone is spiritually as well as musically prepared to practice.
45-60 minutes for practicing music. Once the band knows the songs on the set list pretty well, it may not be necessary to go over each song. My band will often spend this time working on fine details of a song we particularly enjoy, writing new music, or working on and learning new songs for the future. If your band is taking detailed notes and managing their own worship notebooks, practicing already known songs should be minimal.
Close promptly. Many church musicians have families and other responsibilities, so I always end on time (or early) and clearly establish the fact that practice is over. But then, those who want to stick around and continue to jam and have fun can do so.
6. Set a High Musical Standard and Hold Everyone To it.
This is uncomfortable at times, but if you have good rapport and band chemistry you can do it. Everyone is responsible for his or her own instrument but the band leader is, in a sense, responsible for everyone’s instrument as well. If instruments are clashing or playing to “busy,” the band leader needs to recognize this and help everyone to make adjustments.
7. Lead the Purpose of Worship before leading the Practice of Music.
Worship leading is primarily spiritual before it is musical. It is music of a particular kind, with a particular purpose. For this reason, the worship leader needs to be mindful of the spiritual nature of worship while preparing, practicing, and leading. Worship leaders who are only mindful of the music are no different than pastors who merely prepare speeches. Worship is musical preaching; therefore, practice needs to be reverent and attuned to the fact that you are preparing to lead God’s people in worship.