Three Signs You’re Leading Rehearsals Well

Effective rehearsals have many characteristics. They have a clear leader, they start and end on time, they’re organized, they’re light-hearted, they’re focused and efficient, they zero in on what’s not working, they don’t waste time on over-rehearsing what’s working fine, and the people who attend them are expected, encouraged, and equipped to be prepared for them and to work on their own parts on their own time.

These kinds of rehearsals are an art, not a science. It takes time to learn your own style, and for your team to follow you. Here are three signs you’re leading rehearsals well:

They end early every once in a while
Just because your rehearsal says it goes until 9:30pm doesn’t mean it has to. Or just because you rehearse before the first service doesn’t mean you have to rehearse right up until the first service. If you’re managing time well, if your team is prepared well, and if you don’t waste energy on things that could be skipped, then you’ll find yourself ending rehearsal early from time to time. Even ending just five minutes early sometimes sends a message to your team that you’re confident in them. And it means that the next rehearsal when you use up the whole time, they’ll know you really needed to.

There’s laughter
Everyone loves to laugh. Rehearsals that have moments of laughter, perhaps when you’re poking fun at yourself (or the drummer), or making a dumb joke, are rehearsals that people want to come back to. Musicians can be prone to take themselves way too seriously. Keep looking for those lighthearted moments when people can just relax and laugh. They’ll sit up straighter when you ask them to focus again when rehearsal gets back on track.

The first service doesn’t feel like rehearsal
At my church, I rehearse our instrumentalists from 7:30am – 8:15am (give or take) every Sunday. Then we have a 9:00am and 11:15am service. I know I’ve led a good rehearsal when our 9:00am service doesn’t feel like a rehearsal. We feel ready, relaxed, and confident. But if that 9:00am service has lots of missed cues or rough transitions, then I know I could have done a better job. When your first service starts, and your team is ready to go, then you know you’ve led a good rehearsal.

Perhaps the simplest way to know whether or not your rehearsals are working, is whether or not you and your team look forward to them. People should actually want to come to rehearsals. They know they’ll be stretched, encouraged, and noticed. They know you’ll lead them well. They know they’ll be making a contribution. And they know you’ll honor their sacrifice of time. Who wouldn’t want to come back to that kind of rehearsal?

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.

Having a Good Rehearsal… In Your Head

Did you know that you don’t need a room, a stage, equipment, a microphone, an instrument, or any other musicians to have a good rehearsal? Sometimes, all you need is your head.

Not that having an actual rehearsal in a physical space with real live human beings and some sort of instrumentation and equipment set up can’t be helpful. It’s a good idea to have that kind of rehearsal when you can.

But if you’re going to be leading worship for something, you should be running through the songs, and the transitions. You’ll be going over what you’ll play, what you’ll say, and what you’ll pray. You’ll hang out on the parts where you’re not quite sure what to do. You’ll run through different scenarios. You’ll fiddle with different arrangements. All within the confines of your brain.

This way, when you do have an actual rehearsal, and when it comes time for the actual service, your head will (literally and figuratively) be in the game. You’ll be able to lead your fellow musicians and fellow congregants with more ease. You’ll be freer to worship because you won’t be wondering what you’re going to do.

Find some quiet time to mentally prepare and rehearse for leading worship. You might find it helpful to do this while you exercise (for me, it makes running go by more quickly), sit in traffic, drive to church, stare out of a window, sit at a piano or with your guitar, or just lying in bed. Try to focus and run through things from the beginning. Make mental notes or actual notes if you think of anything that you need to remember. Otherwise, just walk through the songs and transitions and get comfortable with where you’re headed.

You’ll be glad you did when real rehearsal or real service starts. All the time you take in advance of leading worship or rehearsals will pay off. Even the time you spend in your head!

Rehearsing Anywhere

Over the 8 years I’ve been serving at my church, I’ve learned by trial and error, but mostly by necessity, that it’s possible for a worship team to rehearse (a) anywhere, and (b) with very little time, and still be prepared.

Of course there’s the ideal: a dedicated time, a regular time, in a dedicated space, preferably with all your equipment, even more preferably with the same equipment you’ll use for the service, in the same room where the service will be, with the equipment cooperating and being run by experienced people.

If you can have that ideal, then God bless you.

But if you can’t have that ideal, then welcome to my world.

Especially now, since my church has lost our building, and we’re worshipping off-site at schools on Sunday for the foreseeable future. We usually can’t get into these spaces until Sunday morning, and can’t rehearse much in that space because our first service has different musicians (more traditional), so we look for a band room or choir room or something with a piano and some chairs.

This past Sunday we were at a Catholic High School which had promised us the use of their band room, but alas it was locked. We had to improvise. So we found their chapel. No piano, no instruments, no anything, but we had to make it work, and so we did.

I think a lot of worship leaders/teams think that in order to have a good rehearsal they have to run through every song twice, do the entire length of that song, have a protracted time of discussion and/or chaos in between songs, and go past everyone’s bedtime so everyone leaves tired.

I’ve learned a few things over the years thanks to not having “the ideal” that I think have helped me and the worship teams at my church learn to have short rehearsals without all the equipment or conveniences.

Step one: Talk your team through the songs. Take charge. Communicate clearly from top to bottom how you want the song to go. Tell your instrumentalists and singers what you’d like for them to do. Don’t boss them around, but do give them direction. You don’t have all day. Before you play a note of the song, talk through it. Say “here’s what we’re going to do…” and lay it out. Go through the whole song list like this. Talk through all the songs in sequence.

Step two: Play through the songs. Don’t have all your instruments? That’s OK. Your drummer can play drums with his hand on a chair. Your guitarists can bring their guitars in unplugged. Just have someone give you the right key to the song and lead them vocally. If you have some instruments, make sure everyone plays quietly so everyone can be heard. Before you play through the songs, recap what you said earlier when you talked through them. Then play through it. Then review it. Was that good? What wasn’t? People aren’t idiots. They know when something isn’t working.

Let me just pause here and say that you don’t need to rehearse the entire song. Rehearse what needs to be rehearsed. You can save time on some songs by singing the first half of verse 1 and then skipping to the second half of verse 2. Or just stop the song and say “OK, now let’s pretend we’re all the way through the song and let’s practice the accents on the last chorus”. People will go with you and thank you for saving them time.

Step threeStop and pray. Not-ideal rehearsals are a priceless opportunity to remind your team how much they need the Holy Spirit’s help. So, first, stop. Don’t drag out the rehearsal. Stop it when things are good enough. Then pray. Everyone in a circle. Then you’re done!

Few things will burn your team out more than ineffective rehearsals. And few things will burn worship leaders out more than feeling the need to have everything perfect at rehearsals. In a sense, lower your expectations for rehearsal and just make it work. An hour and fifteen minutes should be your max, in my opinion, unless you’re recording a CD or rehearsing multiple song lists or tricky songs. On average, though, 75 minutes is more than enough.

Honestly, most worship songs are about 4 – 5 minutes long. And most churches do about 5 or 6 songs per service. A liberal estimate puts that at 35 minutes of music per church per service. So since you don’t need to rehearse each song full-length, you should technically be able to rehearse for a service in 30 minutes. It’s possible!

Encouraging Your Team to Be on Time

On Monday I shared Ten Ways to Make Rehearsals More Fruitful. One way is to not tolerate persistent tardiness. It’s normal for people to be late from time to time, since people have busy lives and traffic gets in the way. But when it’s persistent and not just a problem with one person, it can be helpful to gently remind your worship team that it’s important to be on time.

I recently sent an email to the worship team at my church with the subject “a little bit of gentle prodding…” I thought you might find it helpful to read how I communicated this to my team, so here is what I wrote:

Hi everyone,

I just wanted to send a quick note in the hopes of encouraging all of us to try to make more of an effort at starting our rehearsals and pre-service huddles on time.
I know two things apply to everyone on this list: First, your lives are incredibly full and your schedules are incredibly busy. You have jobs, families, other responsibilities, and unplanned events that spring up. Second, you are at the mercy of Northern Virginia traffic. I don’t need to say any more about that last one!
But I’ve also noticed a gradual trend over recent months that if a rehearsal is scheduled for 3:00pm, we’re not actually ready until 3:20 or later. Or if a pre-service huddle is scheduled for 10:15am, it never really happens. We end up missing out on valuable rehearsal time, prayer time, and preparation time.
Because I know how busy your lives are, I always schedule a rehearsal or pre-service huddle at the latest possible time I’m comfortable with. I’d probably prefer an earlier time, but I want to give you as much time at home as possible, so I pick the latest time I can see working.
I would be incredibly grateful if we could all make a renewed effort at being ready to start rehearsals and meetings on time. This means planning on arriving 10-15 minutes early for rehearsal to set up and tune, and arriving 5 – 10 minutes early for church to park and get to the vesting room in time for us all to be ready at the same time.
This note is just as much for me as it is for anyone else! And please know I understand there are just going to be times you’re running late. I want to be full of grace. But having said that, we can all do a better job of being on time and I hope this little note provides a little bit of gentle prodding for all of us.


Ten Ways to Make Rehearsals Fruitful

Rehearsals are complicated things. No two are ever the same, you can never quite know what to expect, you’re dealing with real people with real personalities, you’re at the mercy of equipment and the operator(s) of that equipment, you’re working with volunteers who (perhaps like you) have other full-time jobs and responsibilities, and you’re trying to accomplish several different goals.

For me, those goals include: chemistry building, musical preparation, spiritual calibration, arrangement tightening, sound checking, monitor mixing, prayer, worship, creativity cultivation, transition smoothening, potential train-wreck spotting, and many more.

Some rehearsals go really well. Some don’t. This will always be the case. But if you’re not intentional, careful, prepared, relaxed and confident, you run the risk of having worship team rehearsals that are ineffective, counter-productive, and draining. They’re incredibly important to your worship team’s effectiveness in serving their congregation.

Here are some practical suggestions for fruitful rehearsals:

Get the songs to your team at least 48 hours ahead of time
Rehearsals are for rehearsals. Practice belongs at home. Get your team the song list, music, and recordings at least two days before rehearsal, or sooner if possible. The more time people have to listen and play through songs at home, the more fruitful your rehearsal will be. (For legal ways to get recordings of music to your worship team, see this post on Worship Matters.)

Pray before and after
J.S. Bach would write “J.J.” (Jesu Juva: “Jesus help!”) on top of each of his works. At the end he would write “S.D.G.” (Soli Deo Gloria: “To God be the glory”). This is a good model for what to pray before and after our rehearsals too.

Keep it moving
No one likes sitting in traffic. People would rather take a longer route if it means they’ll at least be moving. The same principle applies to rehearsals. No one likes a rehearsal that moves slowly or is stop-and-go. Keep it moving and your team will rise and call you blessed.

Know where you want to go
Staying with the car analogy for a moment: Have you ever followed someone in a car who keeps making u-turns and getting a bit lost? You’re willing to grant them a few u-turns, but if it keeps happening, you’d rather not follow them anymore and just follow your own directions. Same for your team.

Have the music ready
Few things will annoy your worship team and limit your rehearsals’ fruitfulness more than not having the music ready when rehearsal starts. If your team brings their music from home, then this burden lies more on them. But if you provide chord chart packets for your team, make sure they’re ready and in order for everyone. And pay attention to the details: are the words right, are the chords right, and are the chords in the right place? This will save you and your team a lot of time at rehearsal.

Make sure everyone can hear each other
If you rehearse in a living room, garage, or some other practice room, spend some time and/or money to ensure things aren’t just going to be loud and messy. Make sure everyone can hear themselves and each other. If you’re practicing in your actual worship space, always have a sound engineer present. If you can’t hear each other, you might as well not rehearse.

Foster a light-hearted atmosphere
People love to laugh. Make little jokes, poke fun at yourself, tease people, and leave space for people to be themselves. While you want to keep things moving, if you allow pressure and anxiety to build, you’ll be working against yourself.

Don’t tolerate persistent tardiness or bad attitudes
Two or three times a year, I send a gentle reminder to the worship team to be on time to rehearsals. This is usually because two or three times a year I notice the worship team is coming late. If, after these reminders, someone continues to come late, you need to talk to them personally. If, after this, nothing improves, you need to give them a break from the worship team and kindly ask them to tell you when they have some more space in their life to honor the time commitment to the worship team. If you choose to keep kicking this can down the road, you choose to limit your team’s effectiveness and growth.

A year ago I wrote a post called “Loosing Your Cool Isn’t Cool”, and I compared the worship leader’s role to that of a flight attendant. If your flight attendant looks worried, then you should look worried. If they look relaxed, then you won’t mind the bursts of turbulence. Your team is watching you. Stay cool and relaxed even when there is turbulence.

Leave them wanting more
Rehearse only what you need to. New songs, new arrangements, transitions, dynamics, etc. Whatever you and your team feel unsure about. But when you rehearse what you are all comfortable with (i.e. playing through entire songs instead of just a chorus), or rehearse too long (i.e. past 9:30pm) you’re spending energy you’d be better off saving for later. I’ve recently begun giving my team a break after an hour or so. Taking ten minutes to use the restroom, check voicemails, get some water or something small to eat, or just take our instruments off, has been a big positive for our rehearsals.

Never stop evaluating your rehearsals and how you lead them. Look at how other worship teams rehearse and take their good ideas. Ask for input from your team. Whatever you do, don’t make the mistake of thinking rehearsal is just a time to get together and play through some songs. It’s not. That’s what a campfire is for. Rehearsals are for the congregation. So make them as efficient and effective as possible, for the sake of your congregation, the health of your team, and all for the glory of God.

Say No To Winging It

Yesterday I shared a summary of the first thing I pressed my church’s worship team away from at our Monday tune-up night: sameness. The second thing I suggested we should “say no” to is winging it. Here’s a summary of what I said:

Say no to winging it!
The goal is not to be scripted, flawless, flashy, or impressive. The goal is to be ready.

There is a difference between being expectant, open and obedient to the spontaneous direction of the Holy Spirit – and being unprepared, under-rehearsed, and messy. Not being controlled by a script is wise. Not being ready is foolish.

When we “wing it”, we can end up doing things the same way we’ve always done them, sacrificing the level of excellence, raising the risk of distractions, and increasing the amount of stress and anxiety. Sometimes this is unavoidable, and we just have to do our best, humbly and prayerfully. But most of the time, we’re winging it by choice.

Let’s choose to say no to winging it, and step up our pursuit of humble excellence across the board. Here is how this might look:

Before the weekend:
Musicians: rehearse at home. Once the songs are posted (Thursday night at the latest), make time to listen to them and practice them.
Sound engineers: listen to the songs (either once they’re posted, or download them somewhere). Get a feel for their arrangements, and if the song is mixed well, let that influence your mixing once the weekend arrives.

Weekend rehearsals:
Start on time: Rehearsal shouldn’t start 15 minutes after it was scheduled. Technical volunteers should arrive early enough to have equipment set-up, plugged in, and turned on by start time. Musicians should arrive early enough to be able to start making music at start time.
Start earlier: Unless we give ourselves enough time to rehearse and prepare, we won’t be ready. To avoid “winging it”, we need to have longer rehearsals.

Rehearse fully: After figuring out arrangements, we’ll aim to run through each song once, with the lyrics operator running lyrics, and sound engineer finalizing the front of house and monitor mixes.

Pursuing a “stepping up” of excellence in all areas – musical and technical – requires a sacrifice of each of us, namely our time.

I always want to honor and value all of the various volunteers by not burning them out or taking their precious time for granted. If either of those things start happening, please let me know! But just as we slide towards sameness without being pressed towards growth – we are also at risk of sliding towards sloppiness without being pressed towards excellence.

Let’s go into our services ready, rehearsed, and prayed up – listening for and responding to the leading of the Holy Spirit.