Own The Song

1You hear a worship song. It’s a good song. You want to do that song in your church. You want your congregation to sing that song. You can picture that song working well on a Sunday morning at your church.

So you buy/download (or make) a chord chart/lead sheet/rhythm chart/orchestration of that song. And you send/post the mp3 for your worship team.

Sunday comes and you teach the song and lead it in your context. Exactly like it was on the recording. Every measure, every chord, every melodic riff, and every repeat. But strangely enough, it didn’t go ever quite as epic-ly as it did on the recording.

Of course it didn’t.

It’s not a bad thing to hear a song on an album or at a conference and want to incorporate it in your own setting.

And it’s not bad to get/make an arrangement of it and get it to your musicians to rehearse.

But in between your musicians hearing the song, and the actual implementation of that song in your rehearsals and services, a very important thing has to take place.

You have to own the song.

You have to tailor four important things in every song in order to make it work in your specific context.

1. The key. Is it too high? Is it too low? Transpose the song up or down a few steps to get in the average voice’s sweet spot.
2. The repeats. Just because the chorus needed to be repeated five times in a stadium full of 15,000 people doesn’t mean it should be reported five times in your hotel ballroom of 150 people.
3. The feel. On the recording the drums start it off, and the electric guitar drives the verse, and the chorus is an epic rock anthem. But in your church of mid-50 Cleveland residents, perhaps you should straighten it out a little bit.
4. The goal. A producer and a mixing engineer listen to a song asking the question “how can I make this sound awesome?” And of course they should. That’s their job. But a worship leader listens to a song and asks “how can I make this accessible to my congregation”. And of course a worship leader should. That’s their job.

Own. The. Song. Don’t just replicate a recording. Don’t always do it the same way. Don’t assume that because it worked a certain way on a recording or at a conference/concert then it will work the same way in your setting. It won’t. Tailor it!

Let me state two quick/important caveats: (1) It’s not always bad to do a song exactly like a recording. I do this from time to time! If you have a lot of moving parts, like a choir, small string/brass section, or orchestra, or even just some insecure players, then it would be foolish not to nail everything down beforehand. (2) With the advent of the ability to purchase click tracks/backing tracks, and create your own tracks to accompany a song live, that certainly limits your ability to make changes on the fly.

But before you bring a song before your band/choir/80-year accompanist, and before you ever teach it to your congregation, make sure you’ve made it your own. Make sure you’ve pictured it being sung in your sanctuary/auditorium/ballroom/YMCA gym. Then, tailor it, arrange it, transpose it, and set it up for success.

It won’t sound anything like the recording, and that’s absolutely OK. The more important thing (by a mile!) is that your people will actually (hopefully) sing along.

6 thoughts on “Own The Song”

  1. Jamie, you have hit on all of my pet peeves in one article! Thank You!

    For me the key is usually the first issue…

    Then, the tricky lyrics. It is always possible to smooth out the phrasing of lyrics to make them easier to sing.

    If need be you can change a word or two to make it more accessible to you church family, or more personal. (Perhaps even more theologically sound for you denomination?)

  2. Beautiful. Thanks Jamie. I had to learn some of this on my own. I hope this will encourage others to look past the highly processed recording to how it plays in their house.

  3. A hearty Hear! Hear! for congregational accessibility, and a quick observation regarding your caveat #2:

    Those playing with multitrack stems don’t have to stay locked in to a particular arrangement. Arrangements can be adjusted before the service. Adjustments can also be made on the fly with a foot pedal or numberpad. I’ve done it many times. You can easily repeat a chorus or loop back to an earlier part of the song in a number of DAWs, including Ableton (which is what most people playing to click/multitracks use.) You simply have to drop a marker on each section of the song, and those markers can be assigned to hot keys (or a MIDI controller) and when you get to the end of a section, it automatically goes to your selection.

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