Pursuing Lyrical and Musical Flow

1What’s one thing that can make or break your effectiveness in worship leading?

Flow.

Good storytellers, movie directors, public speakers, and writers learn how to flow naturally from one chapter/scene/subject to the next. Bad or nonexistent transitions can weaken otherwise good content, because the joltiness of the finished project screams a lack of cohesion. Cohesiveness – or “flow” – is a really important thing.

Worship leaders who don’t lead their congregations and musicians with a cohesive flow from one song to the next run the risk of working against themselves. Even though the songs might be good songs, without those songs being threaded and woven together, it doesn’t matter so much. There’s no clear narrative, no natural progression, and no clear big picture. It’s all a jumble of little pieces, random songs, different keys, disconnected topics, and instead of leaving a congregation saying “aha!”, it leaves them asking “huh?”

Developing a good sense of lyrical and musical flow is absolutely essential for worship leaders.

Lyrical flow
Before I even mention some tips/ideas on how to connect songs musically, it has to be said that the most important thing is that songs connect to each other lyrically in a way that not only makes logical and theological sense, but that also points people in one direction. You don’t want to take a sharp right turn after one song and a sharp left turn after the next. The songs should connect to each other like a road leads to a destination. The destination being exalting the greatness of God in Jesus Christ. Every week. Every Sunday.

It’s like you’re a tour guide at the Grand Canyon. Are there a lot of different ways people can look at the Grand Canyon? Yes. There are many different overlooks. Maybe they can take a helicopter ride. Maybe they can go deeper into it. Maybe they should look at from the north. Maybe from the east. You, as the tour guide, can point people to the Grand Canyon from different angles every time you stand before them. But you’re always pointing at the same thing.

The same goes for our songs. They point at the same thing, but from different angles, and they do so in a way that helps people see the greatness of the One to whom they all point.

Musical flow
Here are eight ways I try to make the songs I lead flow into and out of each other naturally. 

1. Songs in the same key. 
I’ve chosen my first song. It’s in G. I’ll pick a song after it that’s in G. Easy as worship leading pie.

2. Songs in connected keys.
I’ve chosen my first song. It’s in G. What’s the “4” chord in G? That’s right, it’s C. So I’ll pick a song after it that’s in C. Or what’s the “5” chord in G? That’s right, it’s D. You know your scales. Good job. So, I’ll pick a song after it that’s in D. Voila.

3. Be thinking of the tempo/groove/time signature of the next song when you’re wrapping up the first song
I’m finishing up “Cornerstone”. After it I’m going into “Praise to the Lord the Almighty”. I’m doing them both in E, so that’s easy, but how do I get from “Cornerstone” to “Praise to the Lord…” smoothly since “Praise to the Lord” is in 6/8 and “Cornerstone” is in 4/4? I make a mental transition to “Praise to the Lord” during the last two or three measures of “Cornerstone”. When I’m singing “…Through the storm, He is Lord, Lord of all.” I’m getting ready to hit that 6/8 feel immediately on the word “all”. Then I establish a strong foundation for the next song and my congregation feels confident enough to sing with… I hope… confidence.

4. Don’t let your sheet music/chord charts/iPad/hymnal ruin your flow
Worship leaders should not, ever, under any circumstance other than it being their first year of leading worship (in which case you have an exemption that expires after one year), stop one song and take 3-5 seconds to shuffle pieces of paper around on your music stand (or swipe your iPad) before starting the next song. Do whatever it takes to turn pages without anyone noticing. Tape papers together. Use paper clips. Big tabs. Foot pedals. A page-turner. One of Santa’s elves. Whatever. This can kill momentum in a set faster than you can say “skinny jeans”.

5. Be confident enough to start and stop
Having said that, not every song can go into another song in the same (or related) key. In this case, be confident enough to stop the one song, and confidently start the next one. But you might to consider “covering it up” with a prayer, or reading a Psalm, or actually (gasp!) letting there be an actually intentional time of silence and stillness. There’s a difference between meaningless dead air when you’re flipping pages, and intentional quiet space for people to reflect on what they’ve just sung.

6. Look for a commonly shared note between random keys and make that note your best friend
There aren’t a whole lot of shared notes between C major and E major. But they both have a E in them! So if I finish “It is Well” in C and want to move to a song in E, I might (if I’m playing piano or have someone playing piano who can do this) find that E note, play it randomly for a few beats, and then keep hammering it while establishing the new key of E.

7. Modulate!
Song one is in C. Song two is in D. So make the first song modulate to D so they’ll connect better. Or, if I want to come out of Bb and go into the next song in G, I might make the song that’s in Bb modulate to C towards the end so that I can move from C to G more naturally (since G is the “5” chord in C).

8. Move keys around
My first song is in G. The next that works after it is in A. I don’t want to have to worry about a modulation. But that second song would work just fine in G. I’ll move it down to G and now I don’t have to worry about doing any gymnastics in between songs to make that transition sound natural.

Five years ago I tried to demonstrate some of these musical flow ideas in a tutorial video. If you’d find it helpful to see what I’m talking about with these musical flow ideas, click here.

Understanding the importance of lyrical and musical flow – and learning how to craft and lead a progression of songs that cohesively points people to the greatness of God in Jesus Christ – is a skill in which every worship leader needs to be consistently growing. I’m always finding new ways of connecting songs more effectively to one another, and I’m always learning in hindsight (or realizing during a service) some things I could have done differently. It’s all part of the process of growing as a worship leader. It should never stop.

Challenge yourself – and listen back to yourself – to make sure you’re leading worship like a good storyteller. We have the best story of all (because it’s true!) to proclaim week after week. Tell the story well and cohesively (lyrically and musically), so that the “ahas!” far outnumber the “huh?”s as much as you can help it.

Thinking Like a Non-Musician

1It’s hard for musicians to turn off their musician brains. We hear, notice, and pick apart things that a non-musician would never notice. For example: the snare drum hitting on the wrong beat, the bass playing the fundamental instead of the 3rd, the alto singing the wrong fourth note of that measure, the electric guitarist using the wrong kind of delay, or (one of my favorite pet peeves that a non-musician or non-guitarist would never notice) an acoustic guitarist hitting the bottom E string when he/she shouldn’t be.

Our brains are trained over time, through lessons, and with practice, to pick up on mistakes, inconsistencies, tonal conflicts, rhythmic errors, or just an all around lack of cohesiveness. We learn to spot the problem and identify how to fix it: whether it’s fixing our own fingers/voices, or helping someone else fix their issue(s).

Musicians notice specifics. Non-musicians usually don’t (except for when they’re glaringly obvious). They notice generalities.

It’s good for worship leaders to think like a musician, and notice specifics. But it’s also good to think like a non-musician and notice generalities.

Most people in your congregation are non-musicians. And here are some things you need to know about them:

– They don’t notice the musical minutiae. They seriously don’t hear the things you hear.
– They do notice musical excellence. They can tell when something is working and gelling.
– They don’t notice the intricate details. Their ears aren’t trained to pick up on that stuff.
– They do notice when something (vague) feels off (generally). They don’t know what it was, though, until you tell them.
– They don’t notice tiny mistakes, especially when the musicians play them off graciously and cover for one another.
– They do notice when there’s tension between musicians on stage.
– They don’t spend all of Sunday afternoon/Monday morning going back over all the musical details in their minds.
– They do remember singable melodies and grasp-able lyrical phrases.

So, you go ahead focusing on the details, and the specifics, and the minutiae, and the intricacies that combine together to form musical excellence and skill. But don’t let all that work get to your head. One way to stay humble is to also be thinking like a non-musician. Most of what you’re obsessing over will not be noticed by most people in your congregation, except for a few. Instead, they’ll notice the final result and the general fruit.

Hopefully your musical brain can produce something in addition to musical things only musicians will notice. Aim to produce a clear and compelling invitation for people to feast on Jesus. A musical invitation that’s skillful, excellent, and aimed at engaging as many people in your congregation as possible. That’s an invitation that musicians and non-musicians alike can accept.

From Joshua Spacht

1Almost two years ago I had the joy of meeting Joshua Spacht for the first time. Joshua is an amazingly gifted worship leader, orchestrator, composer, arranger, and musician extraordinaire. He’s become a great friend, and in his relatively-recent role as Director of Worship at McLean Presbyterian Church in McLean, Virginia, he’s also become a neighbor. I’m impressed not only by Joshua’s worship leading and wisdom, but also by his musical creativity (you can hear his string orchestrations on this Advent EP that I produced and sang/played on with my former church last year, or at his Sound Cloud page). I asked him some questions about music and worship leading and I think you’ll find his answers encouraging and helpful.

1. How do you stay fresh musically?
I listen to music – lots of it! I listen at several different levels. Everything from superficially skimming through an album to listening to one section of a song over and over. I have friends whose musical tastes are different than mine, and I ask them to provide me with songs, bands, or entire albums that I “need” to listen to. I then systematically work my way through the recommendations. I don’t have time to sort through lists of best­selling recordings or scour blogs for what’s new and fresh. So, I ask others to fill me in and keep me in the loop. Even music I don’t prefer can have a positive impact on my writing and arranging.

If I only expose myself to my musical preferences, I will stagnate as a writer and all my ideas will inevitably begin to sound the same. Listening to things outside your comfort zone is like trying to increase your vocabulary. You have to actually find new words before you can begin to use them in normal, everyday conversation. The same is true with our “musical vocabulary”.

2. What are two things the average worship leader could do to grow in musical creativity?
Listen to things you don’t gravitate towards naturally – particularly music that doesn’t have an immediate payoff and may require several listens. This is one of the beauties of classical music. It’s layered, nuanced, and requires an investment of time and thought to fully be appreciated. I’ll often make CDs of classical music for my rhythm players – particularly baroque music if they’re a drummer or bass player. Rock­-and-­roll didn’t appear in the 20th century, it existed long ago in the music of rockers like Vivaldi, Bach, and Handel! There’s a drive, pulse, and “pocket” in their church music that long pre­dates Chris Tomlin.

The other thing I’ll often recommend to worship leaders who want to grow creatively is that they simply watch themselves leading worship for several weeks (or even months) in a row. The recording doesn’t have to be professional or fancy, an iPhone will do. But look for patterns, monotony, thoughtless patterns that creep up in playing, speaking, or praying. We don’t just want to eliminate mistakes in our leading, but we want to eliminate those quirky things we all do that aren’t obvious to us (but often are to others). Sometimes the best way to give a freshness to our worship leading isn’t by adding more elements, but by removing unnecessary phrases, licks, whatever. Space can be a beautiful thing!

3. How should worship leaders handle criticism when they’re pushing the musical envelope in their congregation?
Arguing my case and musical convictions has yet to produce one convert to my perspective! You can’t strong­arm or manipulate people into realizing the “superiority” of your opinions. You earn trust over time, which then allows you to speak into the “music transition” issue with credibility. You need to first build relationships with team members and those on your committee/elder board. Take people out to lunch – start with the most difficult cases. Leadership isn’t as simple as telling disgruntled individuals to “take two Bible verses and call me in the morning”. Change takes time, time, and more time. We should all understand this because of the slow process of growth we see in our own lives. You need to pray – not just that the Lord changes others’ hearts, but that He melts yours with love for the folks you’re supposed to be leading.

Don’t talk about music, talk about Christ! Reinforce this statement at every meeting, rehearsal, and service: “Content is King”. Few people will oppose that statement. Rally your music ministry and your church around the truth that what we sing is far, far more important than the form of our singing.

Be deferential and loving to naysayers by being willing to do things and choose songs/hymns that are meaningful to their particular spiritual­heritage and tradition. After­all, contextualization doesn’t only mean adopting practices that are perceived to be “hip and cool”. We also need to contextualize for those who are more traditionally and conservatively oriented than we are.

4. What’s some of the best musical/worship leading advice you’ve ever received?
I asked my dad, who was a minister of music for 30 years, this question on the phone in the last meaningful conversation we had before he passed away. He paraphrased Robert Murray M’Cheyne and said, “Pursue holiness. All else you do will be null and void without spiritual integrity.” There’s a lot of truth in that. We can debate techniques, philosophies, musical styles, sound amplification, drums as the day is long. However, all those issues are secondary to the importance of pursuing godliness.

Now, I know it’s Christ who qualifies us salvifically before the Father. And I know it’s Christ that mediates for His children as they sing, not our integrity and practical righteousness. But, let’s not pretend that our personal pursuit of the spiritual disciplines has no affect on our hearts and dispositions – your spouse will be the first one to agree with that statement! How much more will you benefit, protect, lead, and serve your congregation by pursuing Christ through His Word and prayer and by actually saying “no” to sin and “yes” to what pleases Him?

On another note, my dad used to say the phrase “loud and proud” to describe how a worship leader should speak when giving short exhortations or reading Scripture, etc. We all need to slow down and ruminate on what we’re actually saying. Don’t be hasty or apologetic. Be predictable, coherent, and purposeful in everything you say and sing.

And one final nugget of advice from Chuck Spacht, let’s occasionally pretend like we enjoy what we’re doing and smile at our people (note sarcasm)! It might feel a little awkward and doesn’t do much to feed our “rock star” personas. But, it goes a long way to demonstrate that we’re happy to be there and we’re not the “worship artist” that’s putting on a show and can’t show weakness. A smile says “I’m one of you. I’m a worshipper, too. Let’s rejoice together!

Thanks, Joshua, for these fantastic words of advice, encouragement, and wisdom!

From The Drummer

1My older brother Matt is a great guy and one of my best friends. He’s also an incredibly talented drummer, and phenomenally gifted at playing drums in a worship context. I asked him a few questions about his experience and advice as a worship drummer to worship drummers, and here are his answers.

1. What is the job of a worship drummer?
This didn’t really hit me until about 5 years ago.  I knew the importance of drums as well as their overall role in music, especially the more rock/contemporary style in my church.

It wasn’t until one particular Sunday during the first song that morning.  I forget what song it was but it was very upbeat but, just as we rehearsed, I was waiting until the first chorus to come in.  I looked around the room and noticed some people engaging in worship while looking over in my general direction pumping their fist to the beat.  It was as if they were saying “Come on! Let’s go!”  As I began to play it felt as if there was already this energy or emotion in the room and that the drums really help capture that.

Now, I try to be sensitive to the message of the song, what style the worship leader wants, and where the spirit may lead us during that song.  Some parts may have heavy tom pounding.  Sometimes, just some light cymbal splashing.  Even other times, it may mean not even playing at all.  Yes, there are actually parts of songs where by back off completely the drums are adding the most to the feel of that song!

Recently, someone who has been a member of my church for years complimented me by saying “you play so tastefully“.  Usually, I try not to dwell on compliments (or complaints for that matter), but that stuck out to me.  It wasn’t speaking to my skill or even style, but rather that I had an awareness of where things were going musically and helped facilitate that.

2. What are some big mistakes worship drummers make?
A mistake I made for over 10 years was simple.  Showing off or overplaying.

For many years growing up, I would be in small bands that had no bass player.  I played at some large event with a full band and really went at it.  I was quite impressed with myself afterwards seeing as how my sextuplet runs were performed with precision and I was even able to sneak in a couple Carter Beauford style fills.

When I was asked back to that event a few weeks later, the worship leader informed me that the bass guitar player really didn’t like to play with me. “Me?  How’s that possible?”  I wondered “I really rocked out! Didn’t you notice?”  What I didn’t realize back then was that the drums and bass guitar help set the rhythm or “groove” for a song.  In order for that to happen, the bass guitar player should be generally playing when the drummer is hitting the kick drum.  Well, that was impossible for this bass player as I was all over the place!

It took me years to refine how I play with bands.  In marching band, our drum captain taught us that simple and clean is better than complex and messy.  Musically most worship songs are not that complex.  It’s great that I can play along to funk, gospel, reggae, etc. when I practice but I don’t need to cram all that in to a Chris Tomlin song.

Drums by nature stand out.  Put them on a stage and people are going to see them and that’s fine.  I’m not suggesting that drummers play backstage (though I had to do that once when there wasn’t enough room on stage.  It was awkward) or that they should avoid all fills whatsoever. But be sensitive that your playing doesn’t scream “Hey everyone look at me!  Look at how good I am!” Have fun and be creative but, as I mentioned earlier, be sure to remain “tasteful”.

3. What is going through your mind when you’re playing drums during a service?
I try and be mindful of the message in the songs we are leading.  Some drummers can sing and play.  I can’t.  (I can’t even really sing for that matter so I’m better off behind the drums).  I’ve come to see my drumming as my body singing.  I’m worshiping God through my playing.  This helps me stay in tune with the worship leader.

It also helps to be positioned in a way where the leader and I have a clear line of site with each other.  An experienced leader will be able to give quick cues to the band.  The more comfortable I am following a leader musically, the more freed up I am to worship as I play.

4. If you could give three pieces of advice to worship drummers, what would you say?
Your gifts don’t define you.  They are just that, gifts.  You’re no more special when you play a great set than you are a failure because you made a lot of mistakes.  Anyone in ministry who is visible is subject to the temptation of being prideful or needing to be validated by what we do on stage.  God could care less about how well I played if I’m not living a life that’s pleasing to him.

Play humbly but with confidence.  Just as it’s important not to overplay, it’s equally important to not play hesitantly or weak.  Think of drums as a foundation to a house.  The rest of the band, even the singers, depend on that foundation to be solid.  That means keeping a steady beat, building up or down as needed and just overall saying “I know where this is going.  Follow me.”  Come to practice and service comfortable with music.  Meet with the leader to make sure you’re on the same page about feels and cues.  If you have the capability to have in ear monitors, I highly recommend playing with a click track.  It will take some getting used to but will help you immensely in staying on beat and keeping the tempo.

Stay fresh.  Drumming for me is fun and therapeutic.  However, during different seasons I’ve been the primary drummer at my church.  I’ve had to ask for a month off here and there to recharge my batteries.  Every time, I come back feeling and even playing better.  If you’re feeling burnt out and that your heart really isn’t into it, ask the leader to let you take a step back for a while so God can refresh you.

Thanks to Matt Brown for these good words of insight and advice! If you have any questions for Matt, or thoughts of your own, please chime in (pun intended) in the comments below.

Performing A Role Or Performing A Show? Looking At The Fruit

1Yes, we’re all performers. 

The stay-at-home Mom performs her duties as well as she can on as little sleep as she gets. The mechanic performs his duties with the tools and training he’s gained through the years.

And the worship leader performs his or her Sunday duties on a platform of some kind, with musicians and vocalists of some kind, with training and (hopefully) practice of some kind. So, yes, worship leaders and their teams are performers, in one sense of the word.

But the word “perform” can mean two things: First, do a job. Second, put on a show. It’s the second meaning of the word that worship leaders have to avoid. We have to perform a role (which has both musical and pastoral components) focusing a congregation on Christ, without performing a show, focusing a congregation on us. It’s a fine line. And it’s a crucial distinction to make.

DISTINCTION ONEOur role is to serve our congregation by performing our role of helping them see and savor (and sing to) Jesus Christ.

– This requires pastoral gifts and sensitivities (i.e. knowing, loving, and serving our people).

– It requires musical skill (i.e. choosing songs, directing musicians, running rehearsals, and leading music).

– It requires leadership gifts (i.e. working with volunteers, arranging a team, interacting with different kinds of people, and leading a congregation in singing).

– And finally, it requires a certain comfort level with being up front, being seen, and being heard, in order to ensure the congregation’s confidence in singing to Jesus.

– All of these pastoral, musical, leadership, and up-front gifts go into us performing our Sunday morning role as a worship leader, facilitating the corporate exaltation of Jesus Christ.

DISTINCTION TWOOur role is not to entertain our congregation by performing a show (that they are welcome to follow along to if they can, or just observe).

– This diminishes the pastoral component of our role, since entertaining a crowd allows us to be more removed from the people.

– This disproportionately elevates musical skill to being the primary ingredient in the mix, since the demand is not so much on facilitating congregational singing, but more on keeping them entertained.

– This de-emphasizes pastoral/musical leadership, and instead demands a certain degree of star-power necessary to carry a musical performance from week to week.

– And this exalts the up-front persona, or stage presence, as being less about facilitating congregational singing, and more about performing the songs well.

– This is not the description of a worship leader performing his role. It’s the description of someone performing a show.

CRUCIAL DISTINCTION:
(1) Performing the different aspects of our role with humility, excellence, and skill, for the sake of building up of a congregation into Christ and helping them sing TO Christ, is effective worship leading. The fruit is that people focus on Jesus.

(2) Performing a sequence of songs in front of a congregation in a way that leads them to focus on the performance and the performers, is effectively performancism. The fruit is that people focus on the performers.

Of course we can’t help if someone, or let’s say a whole congregation, just happens to want to focus on us, even though our heart is absolutely in the place of performing a worship leading role. Every worship leader experiences leading a group of people who just aren’t responsive, no matter how hard they try or how much they pray.

But we can help what kind of fruit we’re planting.

If you want to grow apples, plant an apple tree. And take care of that apple tree. It might not grow apples for a long time. But eventually, if you planted it right, it will grow the right kind, and right flavor, of fruit.

Same goes for worship leaders. If we want people to look at Jesus, then plant that fruit. If we want people to look at us, then plant that fruit. We decide what kind of fruit to plant.

But God will only water one kind of fruit. The other kind will shrivel up and die.

And Now Please Admire My Musicianship

1We’ve all experienced that awkward moment when someone tries to say something nice about you but you take it as an insult. You’re not quite sure how to take it, how to respond, or how to process what they’ve said.

Several years ago I was having a conversation with someone I knew fairly well, and this person attempted to encourage me about my worship leading by saying: “Jamie, the thing about your worship leading is that no one walks away from one of your services thinking to themselves ‘wow, he’s a great musician‘”.

Um… thanks?

I know what the person was trying to say. I know the heart behind it. They were trying to say that I didn’t draw attention to myself. There is no higher compliment that can be paid to a worship leader than that. The problem wasn’t with what they said or even how they said it. The problem was with my heart: I wanted my musicianship to be admired.

I didn’t want my musicianship to be admired too much, of course. But I didn’t want my musicianship to be admired too little, either. And that was what I was afraid was happening. I was afraid that people didn’t appreciate me for the musician that I am. And I’m sure you can’t relate to what I’m saying at all.

Yeah right.

We can’t blame it on our artistic temperament. We can blame it on our sinful nature. We want to be the ones lifted high and exalted. And so we feed our desire for adoration with a sometimes-subtle and sometimes not-so-subtle attitude from the platform that basically says to the congregation “and now please admire my musicianship”. While I play this solo, while I do this postlude, while I play five instruments in one service, while I use six different tunings on one song, while I do a three-minute song introduction, while I do this song in a key that’s terrible for most voices but amazing for mine, while I sing this song that no one could ever sing along to and that’s kind of the point, or while I fill all the musical spaces instead of letting someone else.

And so on. We can get really good at doing little things to help people remember and appreciate that they’re really quite fortunate to hear us every Sunday. Lord, have mercy!

When my friend said those encouraging words to me and I took them as an insult, the Holy Spirit was putting his finger on an area of recurrent pride, that if not called out and killed, will grow into a ministry-destroying monster. It’s like those pesky weeds outside my house that never want to go away. I can either feed them or I can destroy them. There’s not really a third option.

Of course you’d never think of actually saying the words “and now please admire my musicianship” on a Sunday morning. That’s too blatantly egotistical! But those might be the very words you send without even realizing it.

Examine yourself. Simplify your leadership. You don’t need to do, in one service, all that you’re capable of doing. You don’t need to operate within the full parameters of your musical gifting every Sunday. No one needs to know how versatile you are. Is that glissando really necessary or do just want to sound awesome? Tie one hand behind your back if you need to. Whatever it takes.

May it be said of us very often: no one walks away from our services thinking “wow, what a great musician”. They walk away thinking “wow, what a great God”. We have got to decrease, my friends. For God’s sake, we must.

Video Clip – The Ineffectiveness of Some Tunes

I’m really looking forward to the Worship God conference that starts one week from today at Covenant Life Church in Gaithersburg, Maryland. I’m bringing 11 worship team members to the entire conference, and several others are coming to the evening sessions after they got off of work.

There is so much good teaching, meaningful times of corporate worship, practical instruction, time with the worship team, and opportunities to enjoy being in the congregation and not up-front.

I always look forward to hearing from Bob Kauflin. He’s a humble, gifted, wise, and Godly man – and I learn something from him whenever he leads worship or teaches. Here is a short clip of him from last year’s Desiring God conference (hosted by John Piper) that gives one example.