Praise My Soul the King of Heaven

1Having grown up in the Episcopal/Anglican church, one of the hymns I grew up learning to sing and love was “Praise My Soul the King of Heaven”. The first time you hear it the melody is a bit tricky. But it’s good. And the lyrics are full of powerful descriptions of the kingship and worth-ship of Jesus. But I never had much success putting the hymn in a more contemporary format.

One night in 2009 I was watching the consecration of Bob Duncan as the first Archbishop of the Anglican Church in North America and during the incredibly long procession of clergy and bishops, the orchestra and choir led the congregation in a powerful arrangement of the hymn. It turns out that John Wasson, a worship leader/musician in Texas had written the arrangement just for that occasion.

You can watch the really long procession and hear John’s full arrangement on this rough YouTube video:

It wasn’t long until I was trying to rip off John’s arrangement to use this hymn at my church. I experimented (with varying levels of success), but the result was that I had found a way to bring this amazing hymn into a contemporary context. The other small change I made was to close the song by going back and singing the last line of first verse after singing the final verse. It ends better that way.

When my congregation received word that we’d have to vacate our property of over-275 years, and I started exploring the prospect of recording a live CD in our Sanctuary before we lost it, I knew we’d have to put this hymn on it and try to capture a bit of the arrangement John had written in 2009. But… it couldn’t be as incredibly long.

So I sat at my kitchen island one night, about 6 days before we’d start recording the CD, watching the video of the song from Bishop Duncan’s installation, hearing Carl Albrecht‘s drumming in my head (since I’ve been listening to his drumming since I was a kid and he had kindly agreed to play drums for this project), Russell Crain’s electric guitar genius (since I had come to admire his playing when my Father-in-law began pastoring a church that neighbors his), and Simon Dixon’s organ prowess (since he and I have the privilege of working together).

I wrote a rough arrangement of it and recorded this really (really) rough demo. Oh, I was recovering from the flu, I just remembered:

Like I said, it’s rough. So when we began rehearsals for the CD, Carl suggested we cut the intro by half. Great idea. Then Russell began experimenting with different things he could do on the intro. On the first night we recorded, here’s what the intro sounded like:

Russell thought he could do his part better, so on the second night, he changed some things.

The result of all of this thinking/arranging/demo-ing/rehearsing/tinkering is on my church’s live CD. Here’s the final full-song result in its mixed and mastered form.

If you’d like to download it for free: click here.

Here’s the chord chart we used for the recording. If you want a more simple chord chart (without the crazy chords on verse 4 that we put in to work with the choir descant, click here).

Here’s my church singing the more simplified version of this hymn in our last service ever in our building. The picture at the top of this post is from that night too.

Just Because That’s the Way They Recorded It…

I wrote a post a long time ago called “Just Because That’s the Key They’re Recorded In” which encouraged worship leaders to feel free (!) to change the keys of songs to make them more singable for the average person in the congregation.

This post, “Just Because That’s the Way They Recorded It” has to do with something else, and that’s to encourage worship leaders to feel free to not do the songs the same exact way they’re recorded.

Intro. First verse, second verse, chorus. Then the interlude with the cool electric guitar thing. Then the second verse and chorus. Then half of the interlude. Then the bridge once with just the drums, then the bridge again with the band building on 8th notes, and then the final chorus two times before ending with the bridge three times.

Every single time you do the song.

But what if instead of going back to the second verse after the chorus you want to do the first verse?

Or what if you want to start the song on the chorus instead of the first verse?

Or what if you want to leave out the bridge altogether (gasp)?

What if you only want to sing the chorus?

The arrangements songs are recorded in are usually pretty good arrangements. They were settled on by gifted musicians and/or producers, and I’m not suggesting we ignore them. Sometimes these arrangements need no adapting at all.

But sometimes they do need adapting, and too many worship leaders either don’t know how to adapt them, or are just afraid to mess with “perfection”.

Just like there’s no wrong way to eat a Reese’s (does that joke translate cross-culturally?), there’s no wrong way to do a song. Unless, of course, that way is singing all the backwards while being led by a bagpipe band accompanied by a ukelele. That, in every instance, would be a wrong way.

Want to start on the chorus? Want to skip the bridge? Would it serve the needs of the service better if you just sang a chorus from a song? What about if you want to just sing the first verse and chorus? Has the song gotten a bit too predictable and it would freshen it up to do it slow instead of fast?

Do it.

I suppose the only time you should not alter a song would be if you’re skipping over bad theology. In that case, it might just be better to skip the whole song.

But just because you heard a song a certain way on the recording, or just because your sheet music is written out a certain way, or just because you’ve always done it a certain way, you shouldn’t feel like your hands are tied.

When you lead a song, you need to own the song. You might not own the copyright, but you need to own the structure of it. Take ownership of it.

Where is it going? Where is it building towards? What is being emphasized? If the answers to these questions are different every time, then maybe your arrangements should be as well?

Waiting Until the Song is Really Finished

There are two extremes when it comes to leading songs in corporate worship. One extreme is to spend too much time on a song and sing it for so long that people are sick of it. Another extreme is to plow straight through each song and hurry along without any consideration of whether the Holy Spirit might be giving different directions.

I shared some thoughts a few months ago on how to protect against the first extreme. Today I’d like to offer some encouragement to you if you seem to experience the latter problem (i.e. plowing through songs) instead.

As a worship leader, I notice this on my worship team when I hear the rustling of pages behind or beside me when we’ve finished the last verse or chorus of a song. I know that my fellow musicians are just trying to be ready for the next song, but many times they’re jumping the gun. I’m sensing the Holy Spirit directing us to linger on the song for a while, to go back and do a certain section again, and when I start to do that, my team isn’t with me. They’ve moved on before the song was really finished.

I notice it in myself too. I can get in a hurry when I’m leading, or get anxious, or be so focused on how we did it in rehearsal, that when the last verse or chorus of a song is done, my mind and my fingers and my heart have moved on. We launch into the next song and miss an opportunity to respond to God’s leading.

So I’m guilty of it, my worship team is guilty of it, and if you’re a worship leader, then you’re guilty of it too. Sometimes we have good reasons to move on quickly (i.e. honoring our pastor’s request to keep to a certain time), but most often we don’t have a good reason at all. We aren’t paying attention to the Holy Spirit’s leading.

Stop talking and listen
One way to be really bad at having a good conversation with people is to be thinking about what you’re going to say next as opposed to listening to what the other person is actually saying. The same principle applies to worship leading. Of course we know what song comes next and we’re thinking through how we’ll get there, but are we listening to the Holy Spirit at all? Sadly, sometimes the answer is no. Effective worship teams and worship leaders learn how to lead/play/sing while at the same time listening to the Holy Spirit.

Practice spontaneity
If you lock all your arrangements down 100% at rehearsal, then you probably will need to plow through it during the service. There are times this is necessary, and the larger your team (i.e. if an orchestra is playing with you) or the more complex your situation (i.e. a video is accompanying the song) the more likely you’ll need to stick with the script. But I hardly ever tell my worship team that we will absolutelydo a song a certain way. I might say we’ll most likely or almost certainly do it a certain way, but I try to resist locking everything down too tightly. Rehearse well and talk through how you’ll most likely do things. Leave yourselves some wiggle room, practice being spontaneous, and talk through how you’ll cue them to where you’re going. They’ll get used to it.

Don’t try to squeeze in a ton of songs
If you have 20 minutes and 5 songs, then there’s not really any room for lingering. 4 minutes each and you’re done. Picking too many songs for a certain amount of time usually results in plowing through them. Pick 4 songs instead and then you have 5 minutes for each one. Or try picking 3. You might not take 20 minutes, but maybe you will. You’ve left some space and some freedom for not having to rush through the songs.

Learn to savor
When I eat vegetables, I eat them as quickly as I can. This is because I hate vegetables. But when I eat a really good steak, I savor it. I eat it slowly. I don’t want it to end. I’m sad when I’m done with it. Why would I rush through a meal that I love? What’s the hurry? Well, maybe dessert, but you get my point. Worship leaders and worship teams that savor (or “enjoy”) God’s presence, will be more able to sense his leading.

As an aside, this is why monthly or bi-monthly worship team gatherings are such a necessity, and why having an unhurried time of singing and “practicing the presence of God” at those meetings will benefit your team immensely. If you’re learning to savor God’s presence and discern his leading when you’re not up front, you’ll be more comfortable with it when the weekend services come.

See it modeled
Some things can be taught and other things need to be caught. If you aren’t comfortable arranging songs loosely or throwing in unplanned repeats at the leading of the Holy Spirit, I would encourage you and/or your team to see it being modeled. The Sovereign Grace Worship Conference is a great place to see this and learn how it can be done effectively. Or find other worship conferences or worship leaders who seem to “get” this.

Relax
Few things will hinder you more as a worship leader than being in a hurry. The major reason why a lot of worship leaders hurry and rush through songs is because they’re afraid that if they leave space, or even a few moments of silence, people in the congregation will get impatient or start looking around at each other like the worship leader has no idea what’s supposed to happen next.

Relax. They aren’t going to think that. (If they do think that, it doesn’t make any difference, by the way.) Take a few moments, or even longer, and before you move onto the next song, listen to whether or not the Holy Spirit is telling you to go back. These can be some of the sweetest times of corporate worship, so let’s try to avoid plowing through them if we can.

Not Hitting People with a Wall of Sound

On most recordings of congregational worship songs that you find these days, every upbeat song starts with the entire band playing all at once. There might be a measure or two of an electric guitar or drummer on his own, but eventually, the whole band kicks in at full blast.

This sounds great on a CD. And it can work well on a Sunday morning. But sometimes it can be compared to hitting your congregation with a wall of sound.

One minute the pastor is welcoming people and opening the service in prayer. Then when he’s done and it’s the worship team’s turn – KABOOM! – the song starts.

I’m not against starting songs this way. But I’ve found that if you’re going to hit people with a wall of sound, it’s not so jarring if you do that kind of introduction when there’s some level of sound (i.e. people talking and fellowshipping) already present. I might start a song like this after we’ve encouraged people to turn around and greet someone they don’t know and then there’s a buzz of noise in the room.

But when you’re coming out of a moment in the service that’s quiet (i.e. the pastor finishing an opening prayer or an 8:00am service) and there’s no sound in the room except for the air conditioner humming or kneelers clomping against the church floor, it might work better to ease your way into the song, and arrange it in such a way that you’re gradually adding more energy and sound before you eventually kick it up the level of KABOOM.

I did this a couple Sundays ago with Tim Hughes and Nick Herbert’s song “Jesus Saves”. We were coming out of an opening prayer, after which there was relative silence in the room. Instead of hitting people with the wall of sound that the recording starts off with, I decided to come into it a bit more gradually.

Here’s how Tim Hughes’ live recording does it, starting a few measures into an electric guitar riff:

And here’s how we adapted it.

When you’re leading your congregation in an upbeat song, think about whether you should come into it full blast or ease your way into it. Get comfortable enough with it that you and your team can make it your own. Move bits and pieces around and experiment with ways to help your congregation engage with God and celebrate, instead of reeling from the sudden onslaught of noise.

Be sensitive to your congregation and to the Holy Spirit’s leading, and if coming in at 100% seems to be the best fit, then go for it. But if you think it might serve them better to start off at 50% and slowly increase power, then I would encourage you to trust your instincts.