Pursuing Lyrical and Musical Flow

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


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 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.

Ten Questions for My Worship Team – Pt. 1

growthThis past Monday night the worship team that I have the privilege and joy to lead at my church gathered for our October “tune-up night”. We typically begin at 7:30pm with pizza, drinks, and snacks, and then around 7:45 move into a time of extended and unhurried singing and prayer. After that, I’ll share some thoughts either on the practicalities or principles of worship leading, and then we’ll close by praying for our ministry together. We’ll wrap up by 9:15 and people will hang out for a while afterwards.

We started these meetings about three or four years ago and they have made a tremendous difference to our effectiveness as a worship team. It’s taken me a while to figure out how best to lead them, what night to have them on, what time they should be, what room to have them in, and how to structure them – and I’m sure they’ll keep evolving – but overall, they’ve been crucial to our growth and maturity as worship leaders.

I’ve learned that only the worship team that worships together is able to lead worship together.

For this reason, I expect every member of the worship team to make these “tune-up nights” a priority. Occasionally, because of work or family commitments, sickness, or travel, people have to miss them, but if someone is committed to serving on the worship team, their regular attendance is the primary way of displaying this commitment.

Last night, after our time of singing and prayer, I asked each member of the worship to share how and when they came to The Falls Church, when they joined the worship team, and why. It was great to hear from everyone, and I expressed my genuine appreciation for their humility and passion for God’s glory, and my gratefulness for the health of this worship team. I meant it! Then I said I wanted to challenge everyone – and I meant that too.

If we’re not intentional about growing in our gifts, dealing with our pride, and prioritizing God’s glory, we will just spin our wheels as a worship team over this coming year, and slowly lose effectiveness. We’ll go through the motions when we lead worship, our services will feel the same, the songs will feel the same, our tune-up nights will feel the same, we’ll eventually burn out, and our worship team will become unhealthy. I don’t want to see that happen, so I posed ten questions for everyone to seriously consider. If a particular question made someone uncomfortable – that’s fantastic. If not, that’s fine too.

Here are the ten questions I asked the team (this is taken from a summary I emailed to the worship team afterwards):

Do I see myself as a worship leader – or backup to Jamie?
I am not interested in leading worship with musical back-up, but with a team of worship leaders. Each member of this worship team should think of him or herself as a worship leader. This will radically change the dynamic of our team and the services in which we lead. Our priority and passion must be, along with the congregation, magnifying and encountering the greatness of God. If you’re on this team just to play music, you’re in the wrong place.

Do I sing?
This is a direct, but loving, challenge for every instrumentalist, every sound engineer, and every lyric operator on the worship team – particularly the men. If you’re consistently not singing, you’re inadvertently sending two messages: First, singing is for girls. Secondly, what we’re singing isn’t important. Shame on us if we’re sending any of those messages. We need to be sending a message, loud and clear, that we are here to proclaim and celebrate the glory of God in Jesus Christ, and that what we’re singing about has changed our lives.

I know it’s hard to sing and play an instrument at the same time. There may be times, during a particular section of a song, when you have to stop singing in order to concentrate. I understand. But try to grow in this area, however incrementally. If it means we are a little less “tight” musically for a time, I’m happy with that.

Ultimately, don’t sing because I’m making you sing. Sing because “(God) has done marvelous things!” (Psalm 98:1)

Are there physical expressions of worship encouraged in scripture that I do not display? Why?
I first heard this question phrased this way by Bob Kauflin in his seminar at the 2008 Worship God conference titled “Praising God with the Psalmist.” It’s a good and necessary question to ask. We don’t want to elevate physical expressiveness to the point where it either becomes an idol or a gauge of whether or not someone is worshipping – since we know God is first and foremost concerned with the heart (1 Samuel 16:7). But we also don’t want to ignore the overwhelming biblical support of expressiveness as being normal, appropriate and healthy as if it doesn’t matter to us at all. It does. Each one of us needs to grow in this area. If we don’t, neither will the congregation we serve.

(For your own personal study, here are some helpful scripture references dealing with different physical expressions of worship.)

  • Clapping: Psalm 47:1, Psalm 98:9, Isaiah 55:12
  • Lifting hands: Nehemiah 8:6, Psalm 28:2, Psalm 63:4, Psalm 134:2, Psalm 141:2, Lamentations 3:41, 1 Timothy 2:8
  • Dancing: 2 Samuel 6:14, Psalm 30:11, Psalm 149:3, Psalm 150:4, Ecclesiastes 3:4
  • Kneeling/bowing: Genesis 24:26, 48, 52, Nehemiah 8:6, 2 Chronicles 20:18, Psalm 5:7, Psalm 22:27, Psalm 66:4, Psalm 72:11, Psalm 95:6, Matthew 2:11, Revelation 5:8
  • Lying prostrate: 1 Kings 18:39
  • Shouting: Joshua 6:20, 2 Samuel 6:15, Ezra 3:11, Psalm 20:5, Psalm 27:6, Psalm 33:1, Psalm 33:3, Psalm 42:4, Psalm 47:1, Psalm 66:1, Psalm 71:23, Psalm 81:1, Psalm 126:2, Psalm 126:5, Psalm 132:9, Isaiah 12:6, Matthew 21:9
  • Smiling: Psalm 34:5
  • Jumping: Acts 3:8

Do I base my value as a person on how often I’m scheduled on the team?
If you’re not scheduled to sing over a four week period, do you feel crushed? If you’re scheduled to play an instrument every weekend, do you feel puffed up and validated? If the answer is “yes” or even “sort of” to either of those questions, it might be a sign that your understanding of who you are is frighteningly tied to how often you’re asked to serve on the worship team. Read through Ephesians 2 where Paul tells us how we were once “dead in (our) trespasses and sins”, “children of wrath”, “without God”, and “strangers”, – “but God… rich in mercy… lavished his grace on us.”

Our identity and value has nothing to do with how often we’re asked to serve. It has everything to do with how God gave us Jesus Christ who bore our sins, died our death, and raised us to life, and sealed us with his Spirit.

Am I comfortable (and faithful in) attending services of The Falls Church at which I am not scheduled to be on the team?
When members of a worship team begin to think that they belong on the worship team to the point that they are uncomfortable not being scheduled – or to the point that they won’t attend services unless they are – the worship team ceases to exist to serve the congregation and begins to exist for its members’ personal gratification. A worship team will only remain as humble, Christ-centered, and congregation-focused as its members.

I’ll post the last five questions tomorrow.

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.