A Heads-Up Before Auditions

1Meeting with potential singers and/or instrumentalists for auditions is always something I look forward to, but it’s also something that carries potential risks for awkwardness if the person I’m meeting with is under the impression that they have a musical gift (when in reality they don’t), or if they think they’ll definitely be given an up-front role (when in reality they might not).

I’ve found that once someone has indicated an interest in singing and/or playing on a team, and I’ve arranged a time to meet with them, communicating in advance the possible outcomes from the meeting is helpful.

A few weeks ago I sent the following brief explanation to an interested musician at my church:

First, thank you for your willingness to explore using your voice to serve this congregation. I’m grateful!

Secondly, please relax and be yourself, and don’t worry about anything.

Third, please think of 2 or 3 worship songs that you love, and come ready to sing those (advance notice of which songs would be great). Let me know a good key for you. Bring lyrics, either printed out or just on your phone.

Fourth, it’s my job to listen well to your voice, and then to prayerfully discern what I think God might be intending for your musical gifts. Usually one of three options will be obvious: (Option A) Your voice is well-suited for group singing, namely in our choir. (Option B) Your voice is well suited for singing on a mic, either on Sunday mornings or Sunday nights, or at things like Alpha, or occasional events. (Option C) Your voice could work in one of the previously mentioned applications, but I suggest singing lessons. (Option D) Your voice has been given to you to praise God from within the congregation, but not in a public setting, so let’s think about another place where you could serve the church.

I always tell singers (and musicians) before I hear them sing (or play), that the number one thing to remember is that their musical giftedness level has absolutely nothing to do with their worth as a person, or their place in the church. The good news of the gospel is that we’re covered, we’re loved, we’re accepted, and we’re free to be good at some things, not-good at other things, and bad at other things 🙂

 

It’s a lot to send someone before an audition, but I’ve learned through experience that it lays a foundation for things to go a lot more smoothly.

Never Beat The Sheep

A few years ago, a friend loaned me a book by Bill Hybels entitled Axiom: Powerful Leadership Proverbs, with 76 short and succinct chapters with different leadership tips he’s learned over the years. I found parts of the book helpful, other parts not helpful, but one chapter really stood out to me.

Towards the end of the book he encourages leaders to “never beat the sheep”, because he knows that this is a temptation for anyone in a leadership role. We don’t get the results we want, so it must be the sheep’s fault. To get them in line, we want to “beat” them in order to straighten them out and whip them into shape.

He talks about a small groups pastor who came into his office one day furious at his volunteer leaders because not even half of them had signed up for a training retreat. Upon further investigation, it turns out that the retreat was really expensive, really far away, and being held at a really bad time. Maybe the problem wasn’t with the sheep after all!

He writes:

If your sheep aren’t responding the way you think they should, put down your stick and ask a few questions first. See if you served your sheep well, because when they’re served well, they tend to serve well in return. Never beat the sheep, my friend. A word of loving admonition every once in a while might be appropriate, but put the stick away. Permanently.

Worship leaders need to hear this word. We can get really frustrated with our sheep from time to time and think that if we could only whip them into shape then we’d see the results we want.

Maybe it’s our congregation. They always come to church late. They don’t engage in worship very much. They talk during the songs. They don’t come to mid-week worship nights.

Maybe it’s our worship team. Attendance at monthly meetings is always lousy. The drummer is always late to rehearsal. They don’t prepare at home.

Or maybe we tried something new. We invited our team on a worship conference and no one signed up. We asked our team to read a chapter of a book on worship before they came to rehearsal and not a single person did. We announced worship team auditions several months in advance and no one came forward.

In every case (and in almost every one I speak from experience), the temptation is going to be to want to beat the sheep. Send a stern email. Make it required or else they’re off the team! Give a glare during rehearsal. Never offer the opportunity again just to punish them.

But most of the time when you don’t get the results you wanted, it’s an opportunity for you to step back and take a look in the mirror. We can be too quick to pick up the stick to beat the sheep. Address your own issues first, do some tweaking and some re-grouping, and then love your sheep as well as you can. They respond to that a lot better.

Six Mistakes You Shouldn’t Make When Disciplining (or Correcting) a Worship Team Member

1One of the responsibilities of worship leaders is to build and cultivate a community of fellow musicians to help serve the congregation in leading worship. You can call that community a worship team, worship band, praise team, praise band, band, or whatever term you come up with. Whatever you call it, it can be a great joy to lead this kind of community of fellow-musicians. It can also be really difficult. 

Musicians have the infamous artistic temperament that makes them not only opinionated, and not only comfortable sharing those opinions, but turns those opinions into “rights”. Musicians then want to protect their rights and their territories against anyone who would seek to invade. Plus, they’re sinners like everyone else.

From time to time, if you’re a worship leader attempting to lead a healthy worship team, you will be faced with difficult situations when you’ll need to bring correction to one of your fellow musicians, or in more difficult situations, bring discipline. You will lose sleep over these situations, and you will want to avoid them. But sometimes it will be clear to you that you need to address an issue with a member of your team. 

Here are six mistakes I’ve made, that you shouldn’t make, when disciplining or correcting a worship team member.

1. Interact Primarily Over Email
If at all possible, avoid the use of email from beginning to end. The more difficult the type of interaction, the more healthy it is. A face to face conversation is crucial. If that’s impossible, then a phone call. Under no circumstances should you interact over email. Emails can be so much more easily misinterpreted, misread, forwarded, blind-copied, and saved forever. Pretend you’re handling this before the invention of the computer.

2. Insist On Meeting On Your Turf
Do not insist that the meeting take place on church property, or in your office. That’s your turf, not theirs, and it will immediately cause their defenses to go up. Not good. Find a neutral place, and a public place, for both of you. A coffee shop or a restaurant. This will level the playing field and increase the odds of a relaxed atmosphere.

3. Handle It All By Yourself
You have people over you. Take advantage of their covering. The single most stupid thing I’ve done when I’ve had to deal with a difficult issue is to keep it from my pastor until it had blown up. Consult him, ask him what you should do, have your pastor in the meeting with you, and keep him totally in the loop. Don’t put yourself in a position to take all the bullets or do/say something unwise. Use the covering God has put over you.

4. Let It Simmer
So a band member has a profanity-laced temper tantrum at rehearsal. The rest of the team is shocked. You’re shocked. They’re all wondering if you’re going to address it. Tension is building. Don’t let it simmer. You might not think stopping rehearsal is wise, but address it before the guy goes home. It might be easier in the short-term to let things slide, but in the long-term it will build tension and pressure in your team that will be unhealthy.

5. Don’t Know What Outcome You Want
On a scale of 1 – 5, 1 being minor correction (i.e. I can tell you didn’t practice one single bit and that’s why you ruined half of the songs) and 5 being major correction (i.e. I need to ask you to step down from the team for a while), you need to know what you want for the person. If you go into a meeting/conversation with the person without an acceptable outcome in mind, then you could very likely get trampled on. 

6. Be Unwilling to Apologize
You’re not perfect. You don’t communicate with your team as well as you could. You lead a rehearsal on an empty stomach and say something mean-spirited to your drummer. You ask a singer to sing a song you know he or she can’t pull off. It could be anything. Be the first to apologize, the first to show contrition and humility, and genuinely ask forgiveness for things you’ve done wrong. Even if your apology isn’t reciprocated, you’ve done the right thing and will get a better night’s sleep even if the meeting doesn’t end the way you hoped.

It’s a great joy to lead a worship team. It’s also hard work. If you’re faithful and consistent in the hard things, then the joy, morale, and unity on your team will increase. If you avoid the hard things, then no one will be happy.

How to Play Well with Organists

1One of my favorite organist jokes goes like this:

What’s the difference between an organist and a terrorist?
You can negotiate with a terrorist.

It’s a funny joke that quickly gets at the heart of the reputation organists have of being unbendable, inflexible, unwilling to take direction, and impossible to work with.

Many “contemporary” worship leaders would nod their heads at that last paragraph, immediately thinking of organists who have refused to play along either out of disdain for “pop” music or an inability to work off of chord charts or simple lead sheets. Because of this disconnect between organists and contemporary musicians, a dividing wall is built up (with varying levels of hostility depending on the egos involved) that results in the worship team standing on the side lines while the organist does his/her thing, and vice versa.

And because of this, when organists get together to tell their own jokes about guitarists, the punch lines in the other direction aren’t any more gracious than the one I told above. We each equate the other person to being (worse than) a terrorist and go on our own way not negotiating with them out of a matter of egotistical security.

It doesn’t have to be this way. Contemporary musicians and organists can (and should) play well together. There is no reason to take an “either/or” approach to organs and guitars, or organs and drums. Organs don’t have to be seen as a relic, and amplifiers don’t have to be seen as the enemy. We can laugh at our reputations (and sarcastic jokes) with good humor, reaching out to each other in mutual submission. The results might be a bit messy, and we might break some musical rules, but the Church will be edified, and the musical traditions that have been passed down won’t be abandoned.

As a life-long Anglican, almost every church I’ve ever attended has had an organ as a central instrument in its worship life. And in every one of those churches where organs have been central, I have come along with my guitar, (and usually my drums-playing brother too), and tried my hand at the “playing well together” approach.

I made some huge mistakes early on.

  • I assumed the organist couldn’t/didn’t want to play along, so I didn’t even give them music or communicate with them.
  • If I did give them music, they were simple chord charts (lyrics and chords), which, for many organists, are complete nonsense.
  • I didn’t try to build a relationship with the organist.
  • I secretly wanted to see the organ disappear.
  • I looked at my (at that point) 1-2 years of experience leading worship for a youth group as being superior to their decades of playing, lessons, studying, and degrees.
  • I saw things in terms of superior/inferior.

Needless to say, in those early years, the organists and I saw each other more like terrorists and less like partners.

There came a shift for me when I came (as a high schooler) to Truro Anglican Church in Fairfax, where I’m now (God has a sense of humor) the Director of Worship and Arts. It was the first time I had seen drums/organ/guitars/strings/descants/synthesizers all “blended” together without killing each other in the process. It was messy. But it was wonderful.

I drank it up for a few years before God called to me to another church, The Falls Church Anglican, where for a decade I would continue along as the contemporary guy attempting to bridge the divide with the classical guys. Sometimes it worked. Sometimes it didn’t. But most of the time it worked, and I learned some lessons about how to play well with organists.

Here are ten of them.

  1. Be humble. Organists have been taught (seriously) that you are the enemy. Disarm them (if they believe this) by being humble.
  2. Be winsome. Kill the elephant in the room by making fun of it. You’re a guitarist. You don’t read music. They’re an organist. They can play Bach for hours without messing up once. You’re trying to work together. It’s hilarious. Laugh about it.
  3. Ask them specifically for their help. You have a guitar. Or you have 88 piano keys. They have an entire orchestra at their fingertips for crying out loud. They have something to add, and the fact that you’re humbly and winsomely asking them for help is even more wonderfully disarming.
  4. Give them specific instructions. Don’t tell them how to play organ (since you have no idea), but at least try to walk them through the whole song and say “on the intro do something like this, on verse one don’t play, on the first chorus how about something like this…” and so on.Some organists like improvising. Most do not. But all organists are quite used to having very specific music with every single note, every dynamic change, and every volume swell specifically laid out. If all you give them is a chord chart strewn with mistakes, then they’re going to politely slide off the organ bench and be frustrated. They will appreciate (and do better) if you’re very specific about what you want.
  1. Embrace the awkward. It might sound a little muddled. There might be too much bass in the room if the pedals are walking all over the bass guitar. The organist might get a little loud. Whatever. Who cares. You’re demonstrating something very sweet and God-honoring. In ten years no one will remember how it sounded, but they will remember such a powerful display of musical unity.
  2. Music matters. If their brain is able to improvise off of a chord chart, then that’s wonderful (maybe). But organists usually like a little more than lyrics or chords, so be willing to go through the work to get them sheet music, and to tailor your arrangement to work with the sheet music they’ve been given. If the song you want to use is a hymn, you can use the hymnal arrangement and ask the organist to write out the chords for you. Or if the song is on CCLI’s SongSelect, you can print out the lead sheets or 4-part vocal score. Or (gasp) actually buy the actual sheet music.
  3. Include them as a member of your team. It’s hard for you all to consider each other enemies when you’re getting pizza together after rehearsal, or hanging out together in between services eating donuts. Mmm. Pizza and donuts. Now there’s a winning combo!
  4. Turn them loose. Let them do their preludes and postludes with as much bombast as they want. Give them hymns and anthems to accompany that let them use all their skills to their fullest. Then ask them to play with just as much intentionality (yet more constraints) on the songs you’re leading.
  5. Don’t talk, socialize, or set-up and tear-down equipment during their preludes or postludes. It annoys them.
  6. Learn from them. They probably have some really good arrangement ideas. They might be able to teach you a lot about music theory. Who knows – they might even be willing to give you organ lessons. Then you’ll become one of them and they will have won!

Do what you can to try to make this work. It will be awkward. You’ll be speaking different languages. But it just might be a wonderful blessing, and a practical demonstration of the reconciling power of the gospel.

Leading Effective and Enjoyable Rehearsals

1Ineffective and unenjoyable rehearsals are worship team morale killers and congregational engagement limiters. The more your team is out of sync with itself, the less your team is able to function like a healthy body, operating in the way that it should, and unable to meet its responsibility to the congregation it stands before on Sundays.

I’ve led all sorts of different kinds of rehearsals, on different days of the week, at different times of the day, in a variety of venues, and with different time constraints (or the lack thereof). I’ve made lots of mistakes in the process, and I’ve also learned some lessons that have come in handy. Learning how to lead rehearsals that are both effective and enjoyable, no matter what your setting or constraints, is crucial to your success and your team’s success at leading worship  with musical skill for the purpose of exalting Jesus Christ.

Here are some pointers:

Rehearsal should start before rehearsal. Communicate with your team before rehearsal, getting them the music well in advance, and giving them links to listen to/watch any new songs. Your expectation needs to be that your team is ready when they arrive.

Start on time. If rehearsal is at 7:30am on Sunday morning, ask your team to get into the habit of setting up at 7:20am. Start at 7:30am. Of course things happen, traffic is bad, people oversleep, or a boss makes someone stay late at work. But do your best to start when you said you’ll start.

Start with a proper sound check. If you’re rehearsing in your worship space, with a sound engineer, start with a sound check. This starts with letting the sound engineer set the gain levels on each channel, and then should progress with setting monitor levels. When you begin to have your sound engineer set monitor levels, do two things: first, have your drummer start to play and keep playing. Secondly, add different instruments one-at-a-time in a certain key.

For example, after we set gain levels and we’re ready to work on monitor mixes, I’ll say to my drummer “alright, can you play a rock beat in 4/4”. Then he’ll start to play. If we’re using in-ear monitors, and everyone’s belt pack is at the normal spot, I’ll say “raise your hand if you need more drums”. Then I’ll wait until the sound engineer has addressed the requests. Then “raise your hand if you need less drums”. Same drill. Then add bass. “Raise your hand if you need more bass”. Then, “raise your hand if you need less bass”. If you have any panning requests (i.e. put the bass in my left ear) you can do it now. Then add the different instruments on top, while the already-added instruments keep playing, but not overly so. Finish with the vocals. You’re running this whole sound check, keeping it moving, talking into your mic so everyone can hear you. It shouldn’t last any more than 3 or 4 minutes.

Then you’re ready to run through the songs.

Drive the bus. Lead the rehearsal with intentionality, with order, with decisiveness, and with authority. Yes, foster a “team” atmosphere by asking for ideas, feedback, etc. when it’s appropriate. But rehearsals aren’t the time for lots of free-for-alls. And when those moments come, unless you keep them moving, they can grind rehearsal to an ineffective and unenjoyable halt. Keep your hand on the wheel, respecting people’s time, and addressing the parts that need to be addressed.

Avoid playing every song through from start to finish several times. You should only play songs from start to finish if they’re brand new, or if you’re re-arranging them, or if you’re working with new musicians, or if you’re preparing for a live recording. Most of the time, playing through a verse and chorus (and then skipping the second verse and chorus) and jumping to the bridge before cutting it off at the final chorus. Get comfortable with the phrases “you guys know this one” or “when we get to this point in the song we’ll do it this way” or “we’re fine with this one, right”? Few things are as painful during rehearsals then getting bogged down for another 4 minutes playing a song all the way through again.

Work on transitions. Transitions are huge. Smooth transitions make such a positive contribution to the cohesion of a worship service. Instead of wasting time on unnecessarily playing through entire songs again, take time to work on how you’ll finish a song, how you’ll transition to the next song, and how the team will enter that next song. You can go over things like this several times. It will help you relax, and it will help the whole team be more in sync during the transitions, as opposed to just flipping pages on a music stand and looking around like confused tourists.

Make jokes. If you’re all-business and all-serious, then you’ll be missing out on the key ingredient of laughter. People love to laugh. And musicians love to laugh at themselves. Yes, keep the train moving down the tracks. But look for strategic moments to let the train stop, to make jokes, to have some fun banter, and to foster a sense of family.

Review. Don’t get to the last song in your list and let everyone go. Go back through the set list, have your team follow along in their music, and talk through what’s going to happen and when. Talk over key parts. Play through any tricky spots. This review time is key to reminding everyone what to work on between the rehearsal and the service.

Make rehearsals about Sundays. Rehearsals for the sake of rehearsal isn’t a compelling reason for people to care about rehearsals. Rehearsals for the sake of being ready for Sunday is a reason for people to be on their game.

Pray. Maybe it will work best for you to pray with your team at the end of rehearsal. Maybe at the beginning. Maybe after the sound check. Don’t worry so much about when to pray, but make sure that prayer is part of each rehearsal, no matter how tight your time constraints. Encourage the team to pray for the service, for the congregation, for the tech team (and have the tech team join you, by the way), for the pastor(s) (and have the pastor(s) join you too if they can), and for your role. Humbly ask the Holy Spirit to guide you, unify you, and empower you.

Maybe you rehearse in your worship space, with a sound engineer, and have the luxury of being able to go for 90 minutes (never go past 90 minutes even if you can!). Or maybe you’re downstairs in the choir room, gathered around a piano, with your drummer practicing on the bottom of a chair, with 15 minutes to talk through the songs before you can quickly set up for your service and launch right into it. Whatever your rehearsal situation, and however ideal or not-ideal, you can’t expect a rehearsal to run itself, or for a team to organize itself.

Lead rehearsals with clarity and strength, with good humor, with an eye on the clock and an ear tuned to the Spirit’s guiding. Your team will thank you and the congregation will ignore you and focus instead on Christ.