Handling Awkward Moments: When Someone Misses a Modulation (Or Plays in the Wrong Key)

trainwreckA few months ago, one of the pianists on our worship team (let’s call him Steven Hill) forgot to modulate on the last chorus of Keith and Kristyn Getty’s “There is a Higher Throne”. This was awkward for three reasons: First, everyone else modulated but he didn’t. Second, not only did he not modulate from F to G, but he remained in F with a flourish. And third, we had practiced this modulation several times during rehearsal and made jokes about how this particular pianist had missed a modulation with a flourish previously.

This pianist, Steven (as we’re calling him), is an excellent musician. He could probably play most pieces of music put in front of him. But at this particular moment, his attention drifted just long enough to create what can only be described as a cacophony of noise.

What do you do when someone misses a modulation or plays in the wrong key?

If, like in this instance, only one member of the team forgets, then the rest of the team just has to keep plowing ahead until the renegade realizes the errors of his ways. Hopefully after a few unharmonious measures he’ll realize that the strange sounds are coming from him.

If you’re the one who forgets, and you’re in the middle of a song, you can’t stop. Just smile, switch to the right key when you remember, and keep going. If you start a song in the wrong key, you’ll probably just need to (1) stop, (2) laugh and say “oops,  I’m sorry about that. Let’s try again”, and (3) move on. Don’t make a huge deal of it.

See a great demonstration of how to handle this awkward moment here.

The main thing to remember if you or someone else misses a modulation or plays in the wrong key is to not take it too seriously. Relax and laugh about it. Odds are that the person didn’t do it on purpose! (If they did, that’s called sabotage.)

After the service was over and I was able to talk with “Steven” about his missed modulation, we just laughed and made a joke about it. When we played it at the next service he nailed it and I was sure to give him a grin when we arrived at that point in the song. Good humor will go a long way towards helping you handle awkward moments like this.

Ultimately, moments like this are good and necessary reminders that we’re not leading worship to impress the congregation or display our musical genius. We’re offering our gifts, as well as we can, to serve the church for the glory of God.

Handling Awkward Moments – When the Lyrics Operator Falls Asleep

SpaceBarWe’ve all been there.

You’re leading a song on Sunday morning when all of the sudden everyone stops singing. You look over at the screen and realize the lyric operator (or whatever you call the person who controls the projection software) has not advanced the slide. You start to sweat. You can feel yourself growing impatient. You look back at the person and they’re oblivious. You feel like screaming “PRESS THE SPACE BAR!” but decide (wisely) that’s not a good idea. Finally after what seems like eighteen minutes, the lyric operator wakes up and advances the slide and everyone in the room breathes a collective sigh of relief.

How do you handle this situation?

First, a few suggestions of what not to do.

Don’t allow yourself to get angry
I saw this happen once when I was visiting a church in the UK. When the slide didn’t advance, the worship leader stopped singing (thereby making everyone else stop even though they knew the song by heart), let out a huge sigh, looked back at the lyric operator and gave him the kind of glare that said “I want to kill you”. This is a bad idea for several reasons. First, it embarrasses the lyric operator. Second, it magnifies the distraction, as opposed to minimizing it. Third, it could result in the congregation getting angry and wanting to kill the lyrics operator too. You turn a late-advancing slide into a major crisis.

Don’t stop singing if you’re in the middle of a verse or chorus
Nothing screams “we are completely dependent on the screens” like stopping during a verse or chorus that’s already started. Just go ahead and finish whatever section of the song you’re in, hoping that most people will either know it by heart, or just patiently wait until the slide progresses again.

Don’t take it too seriously
If it happens all the time, you’ll need to talk with your lyric operator and ask them to be a bit more attentive. But if it happens once, just let it go. As someone who has operated the projection software from time to time, I know how easy it is to forget to advance the slide when you’re singing along, when a member of the congregation interrupts you, or when your mind wanders. Extend grace to the lyric operator and don’t take it too seriously.

Now, a few suggestions of what you can do.

Offer a subtle prompt to the lyric operator by talking to the congregation
Instead of saying “Sally, will you please advance the slide?” – try saying “let’s sing the next verse together”. If that doesn’t work, try saying “this next verse says ‘O for a thousand tongues to sing my great Redeemer’s praise…’” By prompting the congregation, you just might jolt the lyric operator back to life.

Offer line prompts to the congregation
With a gentle and calm voice, call out the line before it’s sung. If you sound relaxed and like this was planned all along, you’ll minimize how much of a distraction is caused by the late-appearing slide.

Make a small joke out of it
In my post “When is it OK to Use Humor”, I suggested that, on occasion, the worship leader can use humor to break tension. When a room full of people is staring at a screen, and staring, and staring some more, it might get a little tense. Instead of feeding into it by being tense yourself, you can break it by making a small joke.

I had to do this when I led worship for an event in Bedford, Texas, with a few hundred pastors and bishops in a big tent, singing the hymn “Jesus Shall Reign”. I didn’t have the words in front of me, and was relying completely on the screen, which wasn’t such a good thing when I couldn’t remember how the third verse started. Neither could anyone else. We all stood there for about 10 seconds just waiting. Finally I made a joke and said something like “what do you all say we try singing the next verse now?

On the inside I was begging the person to “just press the space bar!” but, by God’s grace, I was able to relax, make a little joke out of it, break some of the tension, jolt the lyric operator to life, and help the congregation feel comfortable.

Go back and sing the verse or chorus again once the slide comes up
If we’ve gone through nearly an entire verse or chorus without the right slide (and the slide finally comes up at the very end), I’ll usually say “let’s sing that again”. In a way, it kind of redeems the fact that everyone stood there waiting for it the first time through.

Just wait for a few measures
The lyrics operator might get the hint if he or she realizes no one is singing. If we’ve ended a chorus and the next verse hasn’t come up yet, I might just play for another measure or two. Oftentimes that does the trick.

Connect with the lyrics operator before the service
This is something I could improve in. Take a few minutes before the service to connect with the person who will be in control of the lyric projection and let them know of any repeats you know about, any new songs you’re teaching, etc. This will help them be more alert and aware that you’re depending on them – and the congregation too.

Ultimately, if your lyric operator falls asleep during a song, you have a split-second decision to make: How big a deal am I going to allow this to become? If you want to make it a big deal, then stop the song, look angry, embarrass the volunteer, and distract everyone in the process. If you don’t want it to be a big deal, just relax, keep leading worship, offer some more prompts than usual, and don’t overreact.

Handling Awkward Moments – The “Over-Compliment”

fanWe’ve all been there. After the service someone comes to tell you, with tears in their eyes, how you “sing with the voice of a thousand angels” (I’m exaggerating a bit with that one) or “took us right into the holy places” or “brought God’s presence down”.

These people are well-intentioned – wanting to encourage and thank you for helping them encounter God in corporate worship – but they’re off base in their understanding of what a worship leader can and cannot do.

No worship leader can take any one “into the holy places.” That’s Jesus’ job.

No worship leader can “bring God’s presence down”. While there are certainly times we’re more aware of his presence, and times God is at work in more noticeable ways, God is always “present” with us (“Where can I go from your Spirit? (Psalm 139:7)).

There are a few ways to handle situations when someone offers you what I call an “over-compliment”. You have to discern which way is best depending on the person, the setting, what they say, etc.

Just say “thank you”
If someone tells me they think I sing with the voice of a thousand angels, it’s probably not a good idea for me to correct the person and say “well actually, Ma’am, I sing a bit flat a lot of the time, and when I can’t hear myself I can kind of sound like a thousand meowing cats”. I know that the compliment is over-the-top, but it’s generally best to just say “thank you” and let it go.

Gently correct them without making it terribly obvious
If someone tells me that I “really led [them] right to God’s throne” and I just smile and say “thank you”, I will send a message to that person that I agree with them. I don’t. So I’d probably say something like “I’m so glad you were aware of God’s presence this morning” or “what a gift to be able to approach God’s throne because of Jesus”. I’m not giving the person a lecture or seeking to reprimand them. First, I don’t have the time after a service to give a lecture, and secondly, they don’t need a reprimand. Instead, I’m seeking to gently correct their thinking by responding with God’s truth. Over time, this person will (hopefully) think about the role of a worship leader more biblically.

Take a minute to address the over-compliment
A few weeks ago, a woman offered me the mother of all over-compliments. I felt as though her compliment was insinuating that I was responsible for whether or not the congregation could encounter God. It wouldn’t have been appropriate for me to say “thank you”, and I couldn’t afford to let her keep thinking this way by offering only a subtle correction. So instead I asked her one or two questions so that I understood what she was saying. Once I did, I tried to politely and gently point out where she was a bit off-base. Afterwards she thanked me for helping her understand better how “it all works”. It’s not always so easy, but it’s worth a try.

The best preparation for handling over-compliments happens long before the service starts and long before you stand in front of a congregation. By intentionally and prayerfully seeking to grow in humility, you’ll be well-equipped to be able to judge when a compliment crosses the line between well-intentioned encouragement and misplaced worship.

Lessons Learned from This Weekend – Pt. I

mirrorFrom time to time, usually on Mondays, I think it might be helpful for me to post some reflections on the previous weekend’s services. Perhaps some ways I could have handled certain situations better, some specific ways God was at work through the music, or various other lessons learned (however major or minor). I’ll get it started this week with some situations that, looking back, I could have handled better.

Memorize the words
You would think that I would follow my own advice (“Put the Music Stand Away”) and spend some time during the week getting familiar with the songs so that I didn’t forget lyrics, fumble for the right chords, and come across as unprepared. I wish I had. This past Saturday night we used Andrew Peterson’s song “Invisible God” as a special song during the collection/offering time, and I mangled the first verse pretty bad. Oops. Lesson learned: I need to practice too.

Multi-tasking isn’t as easy as it seems
On Saturday night, in addition to leading the music, I also opened the service, led the time of prayer, and gave the announcements. The pastor who normally does this was on vacation, so he asked me to step in since I would be at the service anyway. I have to confess that I didn’t prepare for these responsibilities as thoroughly as I should have. At 4:45pm (15 minutes before the service started), I was trying to figure out what to say to welcome people, how to lead the prayers, etc. A few transitions were awkward, especially getting from the announcements to the offering. Lesson learned: Don’t ever wing it.

There are good ways to get your sound engineer’s attention and there are bad ways…
We had a crazy morning at my church with baptisms at both services, short transition times between them, and very little time for a sound check. In the midst of a noisy Sanctuary about 20 minutes before the service, I was having a difficult time getting the sound engineer’s attention, so I thought it made sense to yell “Andreeeeeeeewwwwwww!!!!!!”. There are about eighteen reasons why this is always a bad idea. Lesson learned: Never yell at your sound engineer. Sorry Andrew.

These are just a few of the lessons I (hopefully) am taking away from this past weekend. It’s good to look back and thank God for his guidance, his presence, and his grace – and pray that he’ll keep teaching me lessons each time I lead.

The Importance of Leaving Space

open_field_homepageOne common mistake that worship leaders make is failing to leave space either during or after songs. Instead of viewing that space as something that is biblical and helpful, it’s seen as either being awkward or a waste of time. So where the worship leader could just play for several measures after a chorus and allow room for the congregation to consider what they’ve just sung – he jumps in and talks the whole time. Or where there could be a time of silence after a song, the worship leader rushes on to the next one.

It’s helpful to leave space for a variety of reasons:

Sometimes I don’t know what else to do
Oftentimes I’ll get a sense as we’re singing that we should move in a direction I hadn’t planned. This could be going back to a verse we sang earlier, offering a word of encouragement, a prayer, skipping a song, singing a different song, highlighting a line we sang, etc. Other times I’ll get a sense that we should do something – I just don’t know what. I’m learning to not be afraid, when this happens, to just pause (I’ll usually play quietly) and wait for clearer direction. This gives me time to consider where the Holy Spirit might be leading, how to smoothly transition in that direction, and how to communicate it to the congregation and worship team. If some time has passed and I still don’t have a clear sense of what I should do, I’ll just move on in the direction I had planned.

Sometimes we need to think about what we’ve just sung before moving on
We can be singing amazing truths but be thinking about whether or not we like how the drummer is playing. Our minds can wander so far off during a song that we can get to the end and realize we weren’t even paying attention to the words that were coming out of our mouths. Leaving space after or during a song is one way to help re-focus on what we’re singing. A little bit of direction can be helpful, such as: “before we sing that verse again, let’s take a moment to allow the truth we’re singing – that all of our sin, every single one, is ‘nailed to the cross and (we) bear it no more’ – to sink in to our hearts”. A little of space here could go a long way.

For many people, the only time they’re ever “still” is on Sunday mornings
I would suspect this is true around the world – not just for people who live in the crazy pace of Washington D.C. Many people who walk into the service on Sunday morning have been going non-stop, making no time to be still and quiet before God since they left church the previous week (if they even made time for that!). I can serve these people by giving them an opportunity to experience a few minutes of stillness and quiet on Sunday morning.

After we’ve sung 4 or 5 songs, and before we sit to hear the scripture readings, I might say something like: “let’s be still for a few moments and allow God to speak to us” or I might not say anything at all.

If people aren’t comfortable being still before God in a church service, how can we expect them be comfortable with it at home? Intentionally leaving space is not only a good way to stretch yourself as a worship leader, but also a good way to stretch your congregation.

Leaving space is certainly a biblical value. In Psalm 62:1, David wrote: “For God alone my soul waits in silence; from him comes my salvation.” And throughout the Psalms, the word “Selah” appears, which was most likely a direction to stop and consider what was just sung. David prayed in Psalm 131:1-2, “O LORD, my heart is not lifted up; my eyes are not raised too high; I do not occupy myself with things too great and too marvelous for me. But I have calmed and quieted my soul, like a weaned child with its mother; like a weaned child is my soul within me.”

It’s good to leave space in our times of corporate worship to “calm” and “quiet” our souls before God. Rushing through the songs does a disservice to the congregation in the long run because it makes periods of “calm” and “quiet” look like wasted time.

The main reason why I think most worship leaders make the mistake of failing to leave space is that it makes them nervous. We think that if we leave some silence at the end of the song then everyone will either be really bored or staring at us wondering how long it will last. We’re afraid that if we pause after a verse then everyone will think we’ve forgotten the lyrics. If this is you, I’d suggest two things: First, pray that God would fill you with his Spirit when you lead – reminding you that “…God gave us a spirit not of fear but of power and love and self-control.” (I Timothy 1:7) Secondly, practice stillness with your congregation. The only way people will get used to “space” is by experiencing it. It might be awkward for some at first, but through your sensitive and strong leadership, they’ll grow in it and learn to value it.