“You’re not being artistic; you’re just being lazy.”
You could hear a pin drop. My professor had just verbally punched the kid in the nose. Although Hiro, my friend in Jazz Piano Masterclass, had played a great solo and created a lot of energy in the room, he butchered the melody while playing the head.
Jazz is an improvisational sport. Unlike classical music, where every note, rhythm, and dynamic is meticulously written down, Jazz is written in fakebooks. Fakebooks give you the melody, lyrics, and chords of a tune. This is the foundational skeleton, everything else is improvised and left to artistic interpretation. My professor was angry because many students were failing to learn even these foundational elements – essentially faking the fakebook – and calling it their “artistic interpretation”.
Worship music is also an improvised sport. The most common written music used in modern churches today isn’t really music at all, but lyrics with chords annotated above. There is very little information on these charts. It is entirely up to the musician to be familiar enough with the song (through recordings) to improvise everything based on nothing more than a few chords.
This creates an interesting dynamic. What are the minimum requirements needed to “know” a song? How do you avoid being lazy in your preparation for worship?
Defining Characteristics of a Song
For the purists reading, there are really only two characteristics that define a song in popular music: lyrics and melody. Everything else is the arrangement. “How Great Is Our God” will be “How Great Is Our God” no matter what chords we put underneath it.
With that said, most people expect more. Most people, including worship leaders, expect you to arrive able to play “How Great Is Our God” in a way that is familiar to them.
A good rule of thumb: when playing for a church or an artist, the expectation is you arrive able to play it like the record until told otherwise.
Play it like the record sounds easy enough, but how much like the record? Do I expect my drummer to play every hi-hat tap just like Travis Nunn did on Tomlin’s record?
Worship music is improvised in many ways. To “learn” a song falls on a continuum. It takes good instincts and good taste to know how much is critical to learn, but there are foundational pieces and rules that can be followed. We’ll talk about those in part 2 of this post on Friday.
Question: What do you think the critical pieces are for a band to “know” the song?