Every weekend people gather in churches and ministry centers to participate in singing songs of worship to God. For those of us who are worship leaders, we have the immense joy in choosing those songs. Now there are many different cultural backgrounds as well as schools of thought in the choices of music we play. All of it has value. However, I would like to offer some thoughts in encouraging us to playing simpler music. Music of great complexity can be stunningly beautiful, drawing us near to the heart of God. It can be a symphony to our ears and deeply inspiring. But sometimes, complex music can be a challenge to the voices of our community. Because we are creating an undercurrent of music for people to sing along, we must ask ourselves questions like:
- Is what I’m playing, helpful or hurtful to people trying to sing along?
- Is my part distracting or encouraging within worship?
I offer up these following thoughts for us to consider how simpler music can help foster corporate worship with the people and God.
Remember the Focus
This was my first time leading worship. It was an early Wednesday morning at college. Students were still half asleep but dragged themselves out of bed to come to chapel. Announcements were done, I gripped my blue Dean guitar and clip clopped on stage with the rest of the band.
I adjusted the mic and took a deep breath. In that split second, God spoke to me. I heard, “You can either make this about you, or you can make this about Me.” I knew in that instant that leading worship was a whole different ballgame than playing at the local coffee shop or bar down the street. It wasn’t about entertaining. It was all about praising.
Sometimes we need a reminder that in worship, our voices, hands, mallets, feet, bows and picks are tools to bring praise to God.
We have a holy opportunity to facilitate God’s people in worship.
Our focus is God: Father, Spirit, Son.
When we remember our focus, we play with care and intentionality.
In band practices, we easily get caught in the hustle of getting there, greeting everyone, plugging in, tuning, learning the music and leaving with time to kiss our loved ones goodnight. It’s easy to neglect the relationships we have with our band members.
There was a time early in ministry when I cared only about making sure the band played great together. In those moments I was not a strong shepherding leader. I didn’t take time to foster community with my worship band. Our relationships suffered and so did our music.
Carving out time for each band member to share really matters. We pause and say that, first and foremost, we are a community of believers. We’re going to love and support one another. Take the time to really get to know those who you make worship music with.
The more we foster community with our band, the more we listen to one another. We give room for the other band members to shine.
I believe the authentic closeness gained from worship band community causes us to play with more intentionality. More thoughtfulness. We understand each other. We hear each other. We anticipate what the drummer might do or where the piano might go.
Authentic community encourages better listening, and better playing as a whole.
Train Your Ear
The more we listen to each other, the deeper we understand how our instrument fits into the whole.
I have a confession to make:
Hello, my name is Becky and I am a recovering lazy listener.
For the first couple of years when I was leading worship, I couldn’t pick out the bass line to a song at all. I grew up surrounded by music, but was never taught to listen for the bass. I didn’t try to listen either. I was a lazy listener–more interested in my own contribution.
Then I met my husband.
One afternoon, Nathan auditioned on bass guitar. He started serving regularly at church. With lots of patience, he took the time to train my ear to hear the bass part in songs. It took a while, but now I understand fully what renowned bassist Victor Wooten says (to paraphrase), “The bass is like your floorboards. Without your floorboards, there’s nothing to ground you.”
I needed to listen and learn from the other band members. I needed them to help train my ear to hear and appreciate the other parts.
Here are a couple ways we can help our band members listen to each other:
- Turn up the volume on one instrument and then another during practice.
- Stop a song and ask each instrument to play their part on a bridge or chorus. Help the band hear what else is going on.
- Record last week’s worship music and replay it with the band. Listen back and have a conversation about what everyone hears.
Find Your Pocket
Each song has tons of pockets. Range, rhythm and note pockets galore. There is no need to step on each other.
A trained ear can hear if the piano and electric guitar are both playing in the mid-range. When this happens the song can sound muddled. Try asking your electric guitarist to play an octave above the piano. Ask the bassist to stay in the lower octave. Just as there are specific vocal parts and ranges, instruments can either complement each other or create disharmony.
In college my very kind, very honest, friend Chris sat me down and gave me the cold hard truth that my guitar strumming was terrible. With his help, he began teaching me new rhythm patterns. As I gradually improved, my ear began hearing the drum kit better. I became aware of when my strumming was or wasn’t in alignment. Take the time in practice to find great rhythm pockets for your band.
Have you noticed worship leaders tend to get on a worship song kick? We play the same 2-3 songs nearly every weekend until it’s time for a much-needed break. It’s fun to know a song so well that we begin to play around with it. But if we’re not careful, a song can quickly turn into a cacophony of noise. Some players are prone to play more busily. Either they are virtuosos and simple feels boring, or they have played the song a million times before and just want to make it fun again. As bandleaders, we have the opportunity to encourage our band members to find their note pockets and carefully choose moments of busy and moments of simple.
Finding your pocket means you are intentionally listening and locking in with the other band members. And this is another important step in learning to play simply.
Sometimes a band member may be resistant to playing more simply. We have asked them to simplify over and over but their approach never changes. They may be in need of a pride check. These conversations are not necessarily the highlight of our day. But being in a position of leadership means that difficult conversations must happen if we want to produce good fruit.
If you are getting the feeling that one of these conversations needs to happen, here are a couple suggestions:
- Have a conversation in a place where you both feel safe to speak freely.
- Begin with questions like: “What have you enjoyed recently in the times you have played? Is there a favorite song moment in worship that we have experienced together? How do you view your role in the band?”
- Then ask, “May I share with you some things I’ve noticed with your playing over the past month?”
God gives us these gifts to use for His glory, and we get to steward them well.
We get to create inspiring and uplifting moments.
We get to create a sacred space for contemplation through open tones, swells and sparse playing; through highs and lows, ebbs and flows.
We get to create a sonic undercurrent that encourages people to draw nearer to God. What an incredible privilege we have as worship leaders and musicians! We play simply and thoughtfully so the focus is in the right place–on God.