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.

There is Always Something to Learn – Pt. 2

Yesterday I shared some things I learned after spending a Saturday at Mariners Church in Irvine, California. It’s a church that is different from my church in many ways, but it is possible (and a good idea) to learn new things even from a church that is completely different from yours, and even when there might be things you’d rather not emulate. There has got to be something you can see or hear that will help you think about how stay fresh.

Here are a few more things I learned:

Don’t rehearse right up to the minute the service is about to start
Mariners builds in enough time to their rehearsal schedule to allow the band to be finished a good 30-40 minutes before the service start time. This gives the band a break and means the congregation doesn’t walk into the middle of a sound check. 

Invest in good equipment
Too many churches own lousy equipment, have poorly designed sound systems, use the wrong microphones, replace a piece of equipment only when it breaks, and replace that broken equipment with new lousy equipment. Whether your church meets in a living room, a cafeteria, a traditionally designed church building, or a 3,000 seat auditorium, make sure you buy the best equipment you can possibly afford.

Train and deploy volunteers in technical areas
While Mariners has a very large staff, larger than many churches in fact, they depend on a large number of volunteers to help in technical areas. I loved this creative way of recruiting volunteers to run cameras: it says “you could be sitting here. We will train you. Ask how at the sound desk or…” Great idea. Who wouldn’t want to wear a cool headset and run a camera? Recruiting isn’t as hard as we make it seem sometimes.

Have fun
All of the rehearsals, production meetings, and run-throughs that I watched were, most importantly, efficiently run and fruitful. But they were also full of laughter and good-natured ribbing. No one took themselves too seriously. This seemed to make the long rehearsal schedule seem less tedious, break tension, and help foster humility. When Tim Timmons introduced me at rehearsal and said we “met online”, he received a fitting amount of roasting and mocking.

Getting a good electric guitar sound is possible
One of the highlights of my time at Mariners was meeting Russell Crain, their electric guitarist. I’ve always really appreciated Russell’s skill, creativity, visible engagement in worship, and musical taste. I also love the sound he gets out of his guitar. His overdrive is full and smooth, his reverbs/delays/echos are subtle and just-right, and his lead work cuts through the mix without being piercing. Russell is a humble guy and was kind enough to show me how he gets his sound. I’d like to do a post later on detailing his equipment and set up, but for now I’ll just say that he uses a Line-6 M13 stompbox modeler, volume pedal, and then one another pedal I can’t remember. This is fed into a Marshall amp that is backstage in a sound-absorption enclosure. They mic this amp in some creative ways that I’ll share later. The lesson I learned was that it is possible to get a good electric guitar if you have a skillful and humble player, the right pedals, the right amp, and the right mics.

Here is a video I took of Mariners beginning their 3:15pm Saturday run-through.

So as you can see, like I said before, this is a different kind of church than the one in which I serve. But there is always something to learn – if you take the time to look.   

There is Always Something to Learn – Pt. 1

This past Saturday I spent the afternoon/evening at Mariners Church in Irvine, California, watching how they “do things”. They’re about a ten-minute drive from my in-law’s house in Newport Beach, where Catherine and I are on “vacation” with Megan and her adoring grandparents.

Mariners Church is quite different from my church in many ways. It’s non-denominational and non-liturgical, while mine is Anglican and liturgical. Its average weekend attendance is over six times ours. All of the musicians are paid, while ours are volunteers. They have a state-of-the-art “worship center”, while we have a civil war-era Historic Church for our traditional services and a 900 seat “main Sanctuary” for our more informal services. They have a sprawling campus, complete with bar-b-q grills, a lake, bookstore, café, and tons of parking. They have a five-person camera crew at each service and project images of the worship leader, band, and speaker during the entire service. There are many more differences.

But while my church does differ from Mariners Church in some of our approaches to ministry, our facility, theological emphases, size, and cultural setting, we still share a love for Jesus, an evangelical and orthodox understanding of scripture, and a mission to preach the Gospel. And while my worship team looks and operates differently in many ways from Mariners’, there is always something to learn. I learned a lot on Saturday by sitting in on their sound check, rehearsal, production meeting, and evening service. They made me feel at home, gave me an in-ear monitor pack to listen in, and let me look “behind the scenes”. It was a blast. Here are a few things I learned:

Monitors, monitors, monitors
Mariners Church has a separate sound board to run separate in-ear monitor mixes for each band member, and an engineer whose only job is to run their mixes. Not every church can afford this (!), but most churches and worship teams would be well-served to devote more money and energy to making sure they have good monitor equipment and competent people running it. I have a renewed dream of having in-ear monitors for the entire worship team at my church, and having a separate person taking care of these mixes to free our sound engineer to worry about the main mix exclusively. This will take money, time, and patience.

“Rehearsal” shouldn’t be a bad word
Here’s Mariners’ typical rehearsal/service schedule:

– Evening rehearsal (musicians and monitor engineer) to get a feel for how they want to play the songs. This rehearsal is recorded and posted online for the band after rehearsal is finished.

– 1:30pm: Band members arrive, tune, and plug in. Sound team is ready and equipment is in place.
– 1:45: Band plays together (ad lib) for five or ten minutes while monitor mixes are set. Note that they are playing continuously during this time, speaking to the monitor mix engineer through individual mics that are fed only into the headphone mix.
– 2:00: Rehearsal begins. Band plays through each song, stopping occasionally to correct chords, tempo, repeats, etc. Lyric operator runs lyrics concurrently to see if there are any errors and to get a feel for how to project them best. Camera and lighting operators are also in place.
– 2:45: Band takes 15 minute break. Worship leader takes part in a production meeting at this time which is attended by the directors of the different components of the service (video, lighting, audio, etc.) the “producer”, and others involved in the execution of the service. They talk through the service, what is happening and why, and what needs to happen before the service begins.
– 3:00: Everyone involved in any aspect of the service gathers to pray together.
– 3:15: First full rehearsal of the entire service (minus sermon and announcements).
– 3:40: 5 minute break.
– 3:45: Second full rehearsal of the entire service (minus sermon and announcements).
– 4:20: Break.
– 4:30: Scrolling announcements begin on the screens.
– 4:45: Church events slideshow projected on the screens.
– 4:57: Band plays musical prelude.
– 5:00: Service begins.
– 6:15: Service ends.
– 6:25: All the players from the earlier production meeting gather again to debrief. What worked? What didn’t?

– 8:00am: Full rehearsal of the entire service (minus sermon and announcements).
– 8:30: Break.
– 8:30: Scrolling announcements begin on the screens.
– 8:45: Church events slideshow projected on the screens.
– 8:57: Band plays musical prelude.
– 9:00: Service begins.
– 10:15: Service ends.
– 10:30: Scrolling announcements begin on the screens.
– 10:45: Church events slideshow projected on the screens.
– 10:57: Band plays musical prelude.
– 11:00: Service begins.
– 12:15pm: Service ends.

Most worship teams/tech teams can’t (and shouldn’t) take on a rehearsal schedule exactly like this. Mariners Church does it because they have 9,000 people attending on a weekend, paid musicians, and have gone for a more highly-produced service. Don’t think I’m saying that every church should do three full run-throughs before its first service! If you’re not careful you can over-rehearse and burn out your volunteers.

But there are also problems with under-rehearsing, and I suspect most worship teams/tech teams (my church’s included) might be guilty of it quite often, if not every weekend. If your rehearsals are efficient and effective, most people won’t mind giving up their time to be there. You’ll be better equipped, your worship team/tech team will be better prepared, and your congregation will be led with better skill. Mariners Church rehearses often and well. That combination is key.

Keep arrangements fresh
I’m guilty of using the same chord charts for years and years. Once I have a chart for a song, I’ll use that one every time we sing it. One thing that Mariners does really well is keep their arrangements fresh. They’ll change a chord progression, try a different feel, slow it down, speed it up, use a different electric guitar or synth sound, drum pattern, etc. They’re always looking for ways to keep their songs from feeling stale, and that’s something most worship teams (again, mine included) could improve on.

Don’t take input personally. Musicians should seek to serve the song
At one point during rehearsal, Tim Timmons (the worship leader – a great guy) asked the drummer to change the feel on the chorus of one of the songs. The drummer said “OK.” It was that easy. Throughout their rehearsal, ideas and suggestions were offered freely and no one was defensive or took it personally. That’s how a healthy body works.

Have the lyrics operator at rehearsal
I am now convinced that this is crucial. The role of the lyric operator is so critically important to the skillful leading of a service, that to expect it just to “work” with no rehearsal, and with the person showing up ten minutes before the service starts is dangerously negligent. During the first run-through at Mariners, Tim realized the video for “God of Wonders” that projected the lyrics was about one beat behind, meaning the lyrics were “following, not leading”. They adjusted things so that once the service started, the lyrics were put up about 2 seconds before they were supposed to be sung. I’ll be talking with our technical director and discussing how we can get our lyric operators to attend rehearsals as soon as possible.

Walk, talk, and pray through the service with your team
Tim took time to walk through the service with the musicians and volunteers to explain why he had chosen certain songs for specific points, what would be happening at particular moments, what he was going to say in between a song, etc. Then they prayed over the service, including many of the specific moments Tim had said to look out for. This not only helped the team feel connected and on the same page, but it also helped Tim think through and articulate what he was going to say, why he was going to say it, and what his goal was. Great idea.

I’ll share some more things I learned tomorrow.

Serve Your Worship Team: Have the Music Ready

hourglassFew things frustrate volunteer musicians more than arriving to rehearsal on time – only to spend an hour or more waiting for the worship leader to find, copy, and organize music. It’s even worse when the music has wrong/misplaced chords, missing verses, wrong keys, etc. This not only leads to long (way too long) rehearsals, but to volunteers who are reluctant to commit any time to serving on the worship team since their time doesn’t seem to be valued.

I try hard to have the music printed out, correct, and organized for the worship team when they arrive for rehearsal. Whether I’m leading with a large team or just one other person, my goal is to have everything ready for them – not so that they’ll be impressed – but because I’m asking them to give up time away from their families, homes, and other responsibilities.

I encourage you, if you’re a worship leader in your church, to develop the habit of having the music ready at least a day before rehearsal. Whether you’re full-time, part-time, or volunteer, don’t procrastinate (even if you can justify it) and tell yourself it can wait. Usually that will mean your worship team will end up waiting – and that’s usually not a good thing.

Have the Music
Even if you encourage your musicians to bring it with them from home, it’s still a good idea to have music ready just in case they forget it. A ten minute run to the copier is a waste of everyone’s time. My guess is that my bass player would rather be at home with his wife than waiting for me to copy music for someone.

Have the Music in Order
Make it easy on you and your team and have everything in order. Having nine stacks of different songs lying around, yelling out the order numerous times, trying to find a song that got hidden under another song, etc., are all completely avoidable time-killers.

Have the Music Right
“Oh wait – that should be an A minor, not an A major.” “Which A major?” “The A major on top of the word ‘sing’ in verse three.” “Where?” “On top of the word ‘sing’ in verse three”. “Oh. In the first line or fourth line?” “Oh. I didn’t notice there were two A majors. I guess both times.” “Are you sure?” “Yes – both times.” “Oh, I was looking at verse two. Never mind.” “Here – bring me your chord chart and I’ll fix it.” “Ok, let me unplug my guitar and come over to you.” “It’s OK, I’ll come do it.”

If you had noticed the A major before you had copies it fifteen times, you would have saved everybody two minutes of confusion. Make sure the words and chords are correct, and make sure the right chords are on top of the right words!

Have the Music Ready
It’s probably not a good idea to be picking music the day of a rehearsal. I try to have my draft song list done by Tuesday, come back to it and finalize it on Thursday, get the song list and charts to my team that afternoon, and have a rehearsal on Saturday. There are times I change songs last-minute, but the bulk of them are chosen two days before rehearsal. Everyone’s timeframe will be different, of course.

Your worship team will thank you, their spouses will thank you, and you will notice a difference in morale at rehearsal.