Owning the Music
Every weekend around the globe, cover bands take the stage. The audience size may vary, but they all have one common goal: to lead people in worship.
When was the last time you thought of your band as a cover band? A cover band, by definition, plays songs written by other people. Most worship bands play songs written by other people (despite the fact we call it a “worship team” and we’re “leading” the song). So what separates a worship band playing other people’s songs, from a cover band playing other people’s songs? Aside from the likely different end goal, it’s that the worship band has (hopefully) gone beyond merely playing the music to owning the music.
Owning the music means you prepare, approach, understand, and play the song differently. We need to see what we do as more than just being a “cover band”. Going beyond playing music to owning it is the way to do that. Here’s are a few tips:
Approach the Song Differently
First we have to approach the song—and even the act of what we’re doing—differently and beyond simply ‘playing’ music. That starts in our heart. Is this another song? Are the lyrics merely spaces between the guitar solo? You’ve got to frame the song not merely as a song but as a piece of the greater picture of what’s happening on Sunday. Remind yourself of the importance of what you’re doing. They aren’t just songs. They’re expressions and connections for people to God.
Start with Excellence
Once you’ve learned the songs, it’s easy to see the set list and quickly move on. Stop and remind yourself of the importance of excellence. Here’s what starting with excellence looks like:
If you’re the person in charge of picking/preparing the music:
- Make sure everyone knows the songs/details as soon as possible
- Make sure all the charts, tracks, and MP3’s match and are the same arrangement
- Spend time listening through each song for details
- Think and pray through how to make the song “fresh” for your band
- Is there something you can share or a verse you can read that will help your congregation better connect with it?
- Pick up your instrument and play through and sing the songs before you schedule them.
If you’re the person serving someone else’s music choices:
- Remind yourself it’s not about you and your preferences
- Learn the original part as best as possible. I’m a giant advocate for doing new/creative parts ideas, but you have to start with the original part. It’s a good discipline for good musicians to adapt. Great creativity and expression only comes from studying those that have come before you.
- Setup your gear, plug in, and play.
- Don’t wait until rehearsal to practice the song. Learn the parts and do your best to internalize it all.
- If the song is simple enough don’t use the chart. If it’s too difficult to put the chart away, make sure it’s merely a reference and roadmap.
Choose Songs for the Season
We can’t merely pick songs because they’re the newest songs from the newest worship album. We need to pick songs that match the season our church is in. If we’re not writing songs that express the season we’re in, we can choose from a huge selection of incredible songs that can match that season. When my previous church went through a giant leadership change, “Cornerstone” became an anthem for us. It wasn’t merely a melody, it was an anthem. When people’s hearts and emotions can attach to the lyrics and melody of a song, they leave singing and their hearts are reminded of God and his faithfulness.
Understand the Intent of the Song
In order to go beyond merely seeing songs as songs, it helps to understand the intent of the song. What was happening in the heart of the songwriter when they wrote the song? What was happening in the life of their church, in the world at the time? As onlookers, it’s easy to simply hear and play a song. For the songwriter, it’s an expression and outpouring of themselves. Thankfully for us, it’s easier then ever to get to the heart behind the song. Almost any new worship album includes bonus song stories or testimonials from the songwriters. These are excellent ways to hear the heart behind why a song came to be.
One of the best examples of this for me was when we led Matt Maher’s “Lord I Need You”. After the rehearsal, I tasked the band to watch Matt lead the song for World Youth Day. I told them not to show up without watching the video on Youtube first. The visible humility he showed by leading the song on his knees was inspiriting, but learning it was on a stage in front of almost three million people? That showed his heart and character. You can’t lead a song about dependence on God and not check if your heart is in that place.
Make the Song a Personal Expression
Study the lyrics of the song. Read the verses the song is based on. Make the song your personal prayer. If you can sing, “Lord I Need You” and mean it, pray that it would be real. Make the songs your prayers. It’s not easy. It takes work and takes battling to stay in that mindset, but it’s worth it.
Play the Song Differently
If we view a song as more than a verse, chorus, verse, chorus, bridge and it’s an expression, then take all liberties to rearrange the structure, combine with other songs, and make it fit your church.
Customize the Arrangement
I’ve yet to find the verse that commands us to play the radio edit of a song, or to not remove the spontaneous section of a song. If a song is too short, or something in the verse really needs to connect with your church, spend time there. Start with that section. Teach that section. If a song moves too quickly and you need time to reflect on the words or pray that God would teach your heart to sing “Lord I Need You”, then give space in the middle of the song to reflect on that and pray as a congregation. Technology today is amazing and inexpensive enough that you can customize a song to fit your needs and give your team the exact tools they need to prepare.
Make it a Medley
If there’s an old hymn that matches the heartbeat of a new song you’re sharing, tag it on at the end. Or perhaps the chorus of a song is a perfect way to wrap up a set; attach it to the end of another song. When we can break up and disconnect songs from their normal structure, we subtly remind our congregation and ourselves that it’s not about the song or music. Try picking 3 songs all around the same theme and make them flow as one. It’s probably not a great idea to do every week, but it is worth referencing when it’s appropriate.
Serve the Song
I’ve never wanted to be a great guitar player. But I’ve always wanted to be a great musician. I always dread filling in on a team when someone mentions, “He’s a great guitar player,” because more often than not, that means I’m walking into a bad Van Halen concert. Thought you’ve heard every version of “Lord I Need You”? Try it with a pinch harmonics and a tapping solo.
Great musicians serve the song. They find joy in playing their part to make the song a success. That doesn’t mean finding space to try a new lick you’ve been working on or show off your newest shimmer reverb preset in the low chorus. It means using restraint and playing what part the song needs, when it needs it.
Again, I hope we aren’t merely members of a cover band on Sunday morning, but that we’re active participants in trying to own the music. Prepare and approach the song differently and play the song differently. What we do is far more important than simply playing music. Learning to own the music will keep what’s important in the forefront of our minds and hearts.