My last post made the case for the music director position in worship bands. Today, I want to speak directly to music directors.
Have you ever memorized your part to a song, maybe even the lyrics too, only to find yourself at rehearsal, unsure of how the song ends? Is it a two-bar outro or a four-bar outro?
Or the worst, the worship leader tells you twice he wants to start with the chorus, yet you start the band at the verse in the service. I've been there. Being an MD is a tough job, and today I want to give you practical tips for becoming the best MD you can be.
Our job as MD is to serve the worship leader. Worship leaders carry a heavy responsibility, spiritually and musically. We lighten the load so they can focus on what matters most.
Here are practical tips for serving the worship leader:
- Pray for your leader and for your team. The two of you are co-laborers in a spiritual endeavor.
- Keep the worship leader in your field of vision as much as possible. Visual contact allows you to watch for non-verbal cues.
- Keep notes during rehearsal. Do not trust your memory. As the leader makes requests, write them down.
Doing anything well requires hard work, and this is no different. The MD must prepare more than anyone else.
First, you prepare as an instrumentalist. You want to be free of thinking too much about your part. You are no good to the band if all of your mind's attention is on your playing.
Secondly, prepare as the director. You should understand the structure of every song. You don't need to know every part, but you do need to know the song's form and shape.
- Study each intro, interlude, and outro. Here are a few examples:
- How many bars are between the chorus and verse two?
- Are there any time signature changes?
- Are there any moments where the band drops out or holds a chord together?
- Write all of this down as you study. Do not trust your memory.
- For each song, make a list of two or three key things to remember. Here are a few examples:
- Piano only through the first chorus
- Only one bar between C2 and Bridge
- Band drops out after the bridge; back in halfway through next chorus
- Practice calling cues. More on this later.
Depending on the worship leader and your experience, you may lead part or all of rehearsal. Here are a few tips for leading or co-leading the rehearsal:
- Arrive prepared and with notes.
- I suggest that MDs have music with notes on hand. Even if working from memory yourself, you may need to answer questions that come up by referencing the charts. (Note: in this case lead sheets are preferred if you can read music.)
- During rehearsal, if you do not understand what the leader is asking for or trying to do, stop everything until you do. It is your job to be the leader's mouthpiece and brain to the band during the service. Don't be shy about asking until you understand.
- Make sure your monitor mix is good (whether wedge or stereo IEMs)
- Don't mix yourself too loudly. You have to split your attention between yourself and listening to everyone else in the band.
- Don't mix the lead vocal too loudly. You want the vocals just loud enough to inform you where you are and hear a cue from the leader. Mix vocals any louder, and you are not listening to the people you are called to lead (i.e. the band).
- Utilize the pan knobs. For instance, I pan each electric hard left and right (based on where they are standing). The more stereo space you use, the more instruments you will hear.
- Make sure your talkback mic is in your personal mix. This is so you know if your vocal is distorting or not loud enough. Mix the talk back low – force yourself to speak loudly and clearly. Run your mic too loud in your mix, and you will speak timidly.
Your primary role is to call cues, i.e. making sure the band remembers the arrangement and adjustments the worship leader has requested.
- All cues should be called a bar prior to when you want the band to act. The players should have at least three beats to process and execute what you have said.
- When possible, call cues between vocal phrases so you are not competing with the lead vocal.
- Talk only as much as is necessary. We want to help, not distract.
- Remember that wearing in-ear monitors puts you in a different world. I've heard a well-meaning MD in a small room count off a song, rather assertively while the pastor was praying. All heads lifted up simultaneously! Consider your volume and tone.
- If giving cues during a prayer or when a speaker is on stage, speak in quiet tones, mouth directly on the mic.
- But, during a song, you must be loud and assertive. Speak as though you need someone on the other side of the room to understand what you are saying.
- When calling out chords, use numbers, not letters. B, C, D, E, and G all rhyme and sound alike in the heat of a worship set. One, two, three, four, five, or six are a much clearer choice. Numbers are also better when considering guitarists using capos or singers that frequently request key adjustments!
- When counting off a song or section, be aware of the time signature. Do not count off a song in 3/4 with "one, two, three, four"! If you sense there may be confusion, tell the band how you will count it off. For instance, in 6/8 time you might say, "I'll give you six! One two three four five six!"
It can be hugely beneficial to follow a checklist in the moments leading up to a rehearsal. At Pinelake's main campus, we have three services, and it is tempting to arrive at the third service feeling like you have it all in hand. Whether the first or fifth service, you must resist this temptation. For me, the third service is the most likely time for me to forget something because my mind is tired and can drift.
I encourage you to get on stage with three minutes to go in the countdown and go through your checklist:
- Review your notes.
- Go through each transition in your mind.
- Confirm your personal instrument is ready.
- Whether keys or guitar, make sure your first sound is selected and volumes are set correctly.
- Think through patch changes or effects switches throughout the set.
- Confirm the click (metronome) is working. If another person is running the click, have them start and stop it.
- Remind the band how the service will start.
- Encourage and/or give last-minute coaching to the team. Here are a few examples:
- Ask them to pray for the congregation as they wait for the service to start.
- You voice a prayer for the team and congregation over the talkback mic.
- Admonish the players to be physically engaged and sing along.
- Remind the team of a meaningful lyric in the set.
There is a lot here to consider. In no way should you expect to achieve every detail on this list as a new music director. I've done this for almost twenty years and rarely have I achieved everything on this list. This document is the ideal. Work on implementing one or two items each time you serve as MD.
Out of all of these lists, the main thing I want to leave you with is this: assume leadership. People want you to lead them! It does not matter if you perceive them as more gifted than you or wiser than you, if you are in the seat of leadership, the team wants you, and needs you, to lead them. Step into the role God has given you with full confidence. Lead assertively and clearly. You will make mistakes. Better to make a decisive mistake than to lead with ineffectual timidity.
Finally, don't forget the thing that is too easily forgotten by all of us: don't forget to pray. What we do is a spiritual endeavor. There are forces of darkness in the world that do not want our music to inspire someone to worship, consider Christ, or hear the gospel. Pray for yourself and your bandmates. Pray that people won't merely sing a song or be impressed. No, we pray that people will have an encounter with God Himself. That's what this is all about.