Ineffective 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.