When I'm running church music workshops, one of the most helpful things time and time again is discussing the particular roles that the different members of a contemporary worship band play. Here is a quick summary...if you want to find out more, you'll have to come to a workshop!
So who's the most important person or role? God, of course! Yeah, I know it sounds like a Sunday school answer...but we can get so tied up working on the parts and lines and grooves, and forget who it is all for. It would be like working so hard on your harmonies for happy birthday, that you forget who's birthday it is! How are you preparing your hearts for leading worship? How are you practicing humility? Repentance? Dependence? Adoration? How do the songs your going to sing or play express your own worship to God? How are you preparing to make Him look great, not you?
Who's next? Well, let me tell you, they never show up for rehearsals or workshops. They probably never practice. They are a real bunch of amateurs. Its the congregation. Your role as skilled and experienced singers, musicians and leaders is to equip and encourage (generally) unskilled and inexperienced singers to sing and worship with passion and abandon. Some things to think about...
- Are your song choices easy to learn and 'own'?
- What keys work best for them? This is both an issue of vocal range (a general guide is to try and keep it between A at the bottom and D/E at the top) and finding out what works best for the song - ie is the chorus in a good register to 'belt out'?
- Is the structure and leading clear for them to follow? Do you lead them into the chorus, or do they unwittingly find themselves in it a few bars in?!
- Do your musical arrangements lift their voices and hearts?
- Are you leaving room in the musical 'mix' for their voices to fit in?
Next we come to those standing at the front - the song leaders / worship leaders / worship servants / lead worshippers... In the end, they are the ones charged with the responsibility to lead the congregation, and keep thinking about all these issues above - so as musicians, we need to serve them and make their job as easy as possible. We can do this by...
- Making rehearsals great! Prepare in advance, come knowing all the songs, don't noodle when they're trying to direct things, respect and follow their decisions about arrangements.
- Filling them with confidence. Mostly this comes down to you being confident - knowing the songs and structures...but then following their lead if they choose to do something else!
Now to the drummers. You have so much influence. A consistent tempo and groove, and clear structural signposts make it really comfortable and intuitive for the congregation to join in singing. On the flipside, if the tempo is shakey and the structure is unclear, people will feel really uncomfortable...even if they can't articulate it as such! Here's some basic things to be aware of...
- Keep it simple - play what is appropriate for the song, not what shows off your amazing chops.
- Own the tempo. Use a metronome / click if you need to.
- Dynamics and orchestration. This is not just a volume thing - for example, the amount of high frequencies you bring in through the cymbals make a big contribution to the energy of the arrangement.
- Play in the pocket. If tempo is all about bar by bar rhythmic consistency, playing in the pocket is all about rhythmic consistency within the bar or groove.
- Signpost the structure. You, probably more than any other instrument, give aural cues to the structure and where things are going. So make sure you know where you're going! For example, if you open the hats in the last two bars of a verse, everyone's going to the chorus, whether the song leader wants to or not!
- Keep it simple!
- Like a tree with shallow roots will fall over, a band without strong root notes will feel precarious. Make sure you're confident and consistent with the chord changes.
- People often talk about 'locking in' with the drummer - but that sounds a bit lifeless and regimented. I prefer talking about 'dancing' with the drummer (if that's not too weird!). You need to operate and move as one unit. Don't just think about the kick drum either. How can you bring life to the snare drum by when you choose to lift your notes?
- You own the low frequencies - you can create dramatic variations in the arrangement by when you choose to add - or subtract - the low frequencies from the mix.
- Following from above - try thinking about spaces as much as notes - like the musical equivalent of a Henry Moore sculpture!
Now to guitars and keys. Up until now, we have form, but not much colour - this is where you guys step in, adding tones and timbres to the framework set up by the rhythm section. But there's one big thing to watch out for in common for keys and guitars. When you learn piano or guitar, you generally learn it as a 'solo' instrument. Having such a wide frequency range, and the ability to easily play big chords, you can hold it all down yourself - the melody, the bass line, the rhythmic energy and the chords to fill it out. But this is probably the opposite of what you want to do in a band context! Here's some things to be aware of...
- Frequency clashes. This is particularly important in the lower frequencies - two notes a semitone apart can sound OK up high, but the same notes can bring on convulsions in the lower registers...so the basic rule is let the bass player play the bass! Also, be aware of getting too full in the mid frequencies - where the vocal ranges usually fit. This can be a big issue for electric guitars - distorted sounds can quickly become dense and impenetrable Try and avoid close chords - ie stacked thirds...play with how you can spread them out a bit.
- Rhythm clashes. Again, this is a matter of letting the drums own this, and work around what they are doing, rather than trying to duplicate (and muddying) the rhythm. In particular, pianos can try and force the rhythm by heavily emphasising the 2's and 4's - the snare drums role. Also, be aware how the acoustic guitar can sit in the same frequency range, and play a similar percussive role, as the hi hats. One common clash is when the drummer is playing a straight rhythm on the hats, and the guitarists is shuffling it...it can get really messy!
- In general, think about how you can strip things back in order to have more impact. Rather than throw your weight around, chose your notes and moments to cut through. Fight like a ninja, not a sumo! Look out for opportunities to add melodic hooks and riffs. Use your colour to really give life and shape to the arrangements. Its getting late, and my illustrations sketchier, but I think you know what I mean!
So there you go - there's a few of my thoughts for what its worth. But I'd love to hear your tips and suggestions as well...what do you think?