Avoiding Abrupt Endings

It’s awfully jarring to be riding in the passenger’s seat while cruising 35 mph along a city street when all of the sudden the driver slams on the brakes. One second you’re looking out of your window at buildings and houses – and the next your head is bouncing back and forth against the head rest with no warning. Not very pleasant.

Similarly, it can be awfully jarring to be standing in the congregation, singing a song of worship when all of the sudden the worship leader slams on the brakes, and the song suddenly stops. One second your attention is fixed on God’s goodness and glory – and the next you’re acutely aware that everyone has stopped singing, the worship leader is turning his pages and taking his capo off, and your hands are still in the air. You figure you should put your hands down. Again, not very pleasant, and a bit embarrassing.

It’s probably safe to say that one of the most important goals of any driver is to prevent his passengers from experiencing whiplash. It doesn’t make for a very pleasant experience for them, it won’t exactly make riding with you an attractive option in the future, and it’s not what they’re looking for when they get in your car and strap in.

For the same reasons, it should also be an important goal for any worship leader to prevent his congregation from experiencing whiplash. It’s good to try to avoid abrupt endings.

Here are some ways I’ve found it helpful to avoid giving the congregation the sensation of having the brakes slammed on a song:

Ease on the brakes
Most worship music CDs don’t slow songs down at the ending. Instead, they might fade them out, stop them without slowing down, or cover up a “hard break” with applause. That’s nice for a CD, but usually not ideal for a congregation. While you certainly want to vary how you end songs and transition into the next, and it may be appropriate at times to have a “hard break” or encourage clapping after a song, a congregation is always grateful for a heads up. Start slowing the song down on or near the next to last measure and bring it to a nice smooth landing. Your goal isn’t to impress, but to pastor. This may mean sacrificing a cool sounding ending for a predictable one.

Linger on the last chord for a few measures
If I’m leading a song that’s in the key of G and we’ve come to the end, it might be appropriate to just linger on the G for a few measures, perhaps moving back and forth between that and a Gsus, or some sort of simple and predictable chord progression. I might keep playing the same tempo as the just-ended song, or slow it down, or start playing the tempo for the next song while still in the key of G. This provides a bit of a buffer after a song and helps avoid an abrupt ending.

Sing the last line a few times
Avoid singing the last line of a song just because it seems like that’s kind of what you’re supposed to do. It can become mindless repetition and lose effectiveness if it happens every time you sing a song. But if you’re ending a song and feeling like you’re coming close to slamming on the brakes, just go ahead and let the band cut out, the tempo slow down, linger on a chord or two, and then sing the last line together a few times. Maybe go back and sing the whole chorus, or the first verse, or the bridge. You don’t always have to end on the chorus. Whatever it is, there might be something you can repeat to help soften the ending a bit.

Choose songs in complimentary keys
I’m asking myself a lot of questions when I’m choosing songs – one of which is “will it feel musically natural to move from this one song to the next?” While it’s not the most important question and there may be occasions when it works to move from one song to another in a totally different and non-complimentary key, I will most often try to avoid putting myself and the congregation in a situation where there will have to be a clear break between one song and the other.

I try to keep in mind the Nashville numbering system when considering complimentary keys.

A quick crash course for those who don’t know what this is:
If I’m in the key of D, D is the “1”. E is the “2”, F# is the “3”, G is the “4”, and so on. If I’m choosing a song to follow up this current song, the three keys that lend themselves most naturally to a smooth transition would be stay on the “1”, or move to the “4” (key of G), or “5” (key of A). I won’t have to do an awful lot of maneuvering to get there.

This number system would apply to any key. If in the key of A, A is the “1”, B is the “2”, C# is the “3”, and so on.

I recommend Paul Baloche’s DVD, Music Theory Made Easy, to look at this idea in more detail.

You can get from any key to any key, of course, outside of my little box, and sometimes do it very smoothly. It just takes some thought and practice.

Think through and practice transitions
Don’t just pick 5 or 6 songs or hope they’ll flow well together. Think through and practice how to transition between them both musically and thematically. Choosing good keys and consistent themes make this a whole lot easier. Sing and play through them, in time, visualizing how it would feel on Sunday morning. If you’re not comfortable with it, keep practicing.

Every Sunday as your congregation “gets in the car”, they’re putting a certain degree of trust in you – that you’ll lead them well, that you’ve prepared for the trip, and that they can look out the window at the beauty of God without interruption. Take it easy on the brake and your congregation will be grateful.

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