Kate Simmonds is a worship leader and songwriter based in Sydney, Australia, where she and her husband Miles serve at Grace City Church. For many years, in the late 90’s and early 2000’s she was on the worship leading team along with Stuart Townend at the Church of Christ the King in Brighton, England, and also led worship at events throughout the UK, many of which became hallmark worship albums of that era.
A few months ago i asked Kate to share her wisdom/experience regarding leading worship without playing an instrument. What she offers below is some of the best, practical worship leading advice for those who don’t play instruments.
I’ve been leading worship for quite a few years now and have never led with an instrument on any of those occasions so it really doesn’t have to be a hindrance to you. It also doesn’t have to hinder you if you are playing with a different band each time, even though there are benefits to having a regular band and being able to develop a repertoire together.
I will run an arrangement for a song with the band in rehearsal which I would call the ‘default arrangement’. This would probably be something like Verse 1, Chorus, Verse 2, Chorus, Bridge, Chorus, Chorus. But the band understands that I may wish to deviate from that in response to the congregation and of course to what God is doing among us. That is easily done with hand signals and also just by speaking out, “let’s sing that verse again” and so on.
It’s important that you have a sight line to all the members of the band so they can see your signals (and also that they can hear you clearly in their monitors, so always check they can hear you in your soundcheck). The signals I use are a V shape with my fingers, pointing downward, for verse; a C shape for chorus, my hand held downward in a fist to signal the end of the song; a little mini C shape to signal a turnaround where you might repeat a line (e.g. “Nothing compares to the promise I have, nothing compares to the promise I have in you”). I have one odd signal for the bridge or Middle 8 which is that I discreetly point to my bellybutton (it’s my ‘middle’) but I’m really not sure how that one came about so feel free to make up your own one!
The important thing to develop in rehearsal is the band looking to you for a signal at the key moments when decisions need to be made, (e.g. are we repeating this chorus?) So you need to be clear and decisive with your signals (eg give them say a line before the section is going to end) and they need to look up and see them. This is a good thing to practise in rehearsal so you can all get used to it.
Call it out
If they’re not looking at you but you want to change from the default arrangement, then you just need to call it out clearly so both the congregation and the band know where you are going. I will often give spoken instructions as well as signal the band as I think it can be helpful for the congregation.
Leaving space for free singing/playing
The other thing you can practice in rehearsal is an ‘open section’ where you might want to leave room for the congregation to sing out freely to God. If I want to signal this I wiggle my fingers – again, feel free to make up your own signal! The thing I would do in my preparation is try and identify a key place in the worship where I think the congregation is most likely to respond in this way. Then, in rehearsal, I would tell the band that I might open the song up at this point and decide with the band a chord sequence so that everyone is playing the same thing. You might choose just to play between two chords, or you could have a longer sequence if you wish.
Bring the best out of your band
The final thing I would add is that you don’t have to be a star musician on an instrument yourself to bring the best out of your band. I usually have an idea in mind of the dynamics of the song, so even if I can’t execute it on an instrument myself, I know that others can, so I give them some clear guidelines of what I have in mind. I’ll give them clues such as “I’d like this to be majestic” or “let’s have a strong introduction then drop down a little in verse one, building to the chorus” or I might invite them to add some interest in verse 2.
You are the worship leader but that doesn’t mean that you have to have all the musical ideas. I always encourage the band I’m playing with that (while you’re the one making the decisions) as lead worshippers you’re all leading the people in worship together, it’s a team effort and their musical gifts are making a huge contribution to that.
Thanks, Kate, for the great advice!