Help Your Leader Lead (Tidbits For The Band!)

Article by:  Tom Lane

One of the benefits of playing with the same band a long time is familiarity.  The ebb and flow is more natural because you’ve evolved together and predict more instinctively where the others are going.  When you have a revolving team it’s not as easy to rely on your second nature totally. Still most do rely on what we’re accustomed to and treat every situation the same.  One reason I think we hear often that it’s more rigid and performance like than worship leading is because we approach it like we do most bands.  Everyone plays what they want to play, ultimately dictating how and where it goes in spite of who’s leading.  

As a Worship Leader one of the hardest things for me is when I know the band is paying no attention to where I am trying to lead or go.  Not that it’s about me, but it is about leading worship and not simply getting through the songs.  If I have the opportunity to rehearse the band, we can work on what I need them to and not to do.   But if I don’t, quite often I have to settle for the way it is and work within the limitations by changing what I do to fit them.  I don’t let it hinder me from worshipping or leading but may do fewer songs with the band and more alone.   I liken it to being driven down the track like a train, not much you can do to stop it once it’s barreling on.  That may make no sense to some but others will know exactly what I mean.     

I’ll unpack it some just to help give some insight to what a band can do to hinder a leader without even knowing it.  First I’ll preface by saying it’s the leader’s responsibility to lead and instruct and not just presume that everyone’s there to meet his or her needs.  Nor is it a solo venture, if you’ve invited a band to join you, now it’s a team!   Also, a Pro may make it sound better the first time but sounding good isn’t always what it’s about.  The seasoned talent may well miss the point entirely if the goal is simply to execute the song with skill and excellence and not support the leader.   

Speaking from my perspective and experience here only; I have been a support player for many artists and leaders and I have also been a worship leader most of my life, two different roles completely.  When I lead I set the pace, though I love guitar and it’s my instrument, I approach it differently when I lead because I most need the team to follow me.  To do that I typically lead with an acoustic, which helps to provide more of the constant tone overall, whether it’s rhythmic or subtle dynamics.  

So the first struggle typically comes with the Drummer.  (Don’t worry, gonna pick on everybody here equally, and I’ve been the culprit too at some point!)  We’re cruising along the track with the song and we reach a point where in spite of the way we may have rehearsed it or learned the song I feel led to back off the intensity or dynamics to let the people be more heard, wait, or pray etc.  You can’t always give a cue in the middle of singing and leading, and instead of being cued in (*leaders instrument should be predominate in the drummers mix!)  to my guitar and watching, the drummer plows on.  I’m now locked in to having to go the drummer’s way instead of where I may intend to go.  If I fight back for tempo or rhythm it would just embarrass one or both of us, extremely frustrating will say!  I don’t mean this critically but that’s a sure sign of maturity level as a player. The more experienced tend to remain very attuned throughout a song which frees a leader to lead worship and not just the lead the band down the track.  Make sense?  You can still hold the fort down, keep time, but also learn to give time back to the leader by paying attention!  Then you’re best friends forever!

Second struggle and most obvious is the Bass Player.  Nothing stands out like a sore thumb worse than a wrong note on a bass, just hangs there like a hair in a biscuit!  There are two things I deem very important here, play the right notes and play less than you think you should.  Right behind that would be to work with your drummer and not against.  Obvious as it is, bass and drums are the foundation.  If the two are in sync with me as a leader I can still drive without the feeling of having to pull everyone along the track.  Everything else then becomes more bearable. Another tidbit I’ve seen employed by some very in-experienced players, and it makes them actually seem more experienced is; if you don’t know what you’re supposed to play, don’t!   We’ll all think you’re brilliant, trust me!

Third on my rung of groove busters is, (my own tribe) the Guitar Players.  Most noticeable to me is when it comes down dynamically at some point and I’m trying to allow for some space or even better transition to another song.  Rather than lay back and listen to where I may be going the impulse is to play what I’m playing or add to it, now I’m locked in again unless they give me back the space to move.  Not expecting mind readers but it helps immensely when a player listens and compliments versus hinders, which is what happens a lot.  It’s one thing if you’re playing a decided arrangement just as you’ve rehearsed it and that’s the intent, such is the case for most services.  But there are leaders who, when accompanied by a team of sensitive players, can go outside the arrangement and even into totally unplanned places seamlessly with no train wrecks.  (Hard to believe I know!) That’s a great moment!  And it’s not reserved only for pros or very experienced, again just by simplifying and listening more to what a leader is doing you can become a great follower and supporter.  Textures and pads create more freedom and space and come across as tasteful, that’s what gets you asked back more often!

OK, Keyboard Players.   Here again the role varies with the situation.  In my case I’m not depending on the keyboard/piano to lead or carry a song because I do that when I lead.  In that scenario a more meat and potatoes approach is best.  Block chords and pads provide more color and texture than conflicting rhythmic oriented parts.  Until you assess what the leader is already providing, less is the way to think.  One beautiful note sustained can be otherworldly, the wrong sound or too busy a part can be annoying.   The wonderful thing is there’s room for us all to explore and be unique, it’s just the time and place that’s key.  Also the frequency range you normally play within covers a lot of ground already, so a chord creates more fullness and a note adds more texture.  On the other hand if you are in a situation where you carry the band and/or lead from keys it’s a different thing, then you’re the glue and have to establish the tone and direction.  That may mean more rhythmic and melodic playing.

For Auxiliary Players, it’s harder and maybe more frustrating because unless there’s room made for you, you often make your own.  The more seasoned the player the better that works usually. There are teams, and I’ve played with them, that just put any and every one on the stage with no parts written out, or road maps of any kind.  It’s one big party and parts are left to the discretion, or lack there of, of each player.  It can be anything from wonderful to torturous!  Unless you’ve learned to improvise and have the chops to do it, not a bad idea to here again, keep it very simple.  Think melody more than riffs and runs.   A melody is like a picture–last’s a lot longer!   It’s a good thing to rehearse some spontaneity as well so when the time comes and there actually is a space you’re more apt to be prepared for it.   Since there’s not normally as much room created for auxiliary instrumentation I encourage some feature spots built around a players particular ability or some time set aside from the service to explore and just play.  (Why should the guitar players have all the solo fun?)

Finally, Singers; thankfully-to God we all sound beautiful!  To human ears however, not all sound good and sometimes it’s just plain bad.  Not judging hearts here just the musicality.  A choir is another element; I’m going to speak more to a group of background singers on a team. Part of my job is session singing.  We come into a studio with 1 to 6 singers and normally it’s more like 3, and we listen to a song and arrange parts that hopefully embellish the song.   We use headphones and most singers prefer to leave one ear off and that’s to be able to blend in the room and not over compensate pitch or tone wise.  So in my book, monitoring and hearing well are a must to even begin to sound good.   Though some leaders and situations intentionally stack a bunch of singers on melody and have them sing from start to finish, that’s not the way I prefer it.  Mainly for flexibility and dynamics reasons, the more singers the harder it is manage unless you’ve had the time to rehearse arrangements.    What I encourage is, knowing the sections of songs and building as you go as opposed to singing on every section.  Determine quickly and ahead of time if possible the parts and the form for the song.  By that I mean, verse, chorus, verse, bridge, chorus etc.  Make notes for each section-what you’re doing or not.  Makes it easier to let the leader set the pace and compliment tastefully and dynamically.  In a choir, a director would prepare and cue you regarding dynamics but in a team/band setting it’s much less controlled that way, which some interpret as total freedom.  Again, our worship is beautiful to God and He sees the heart, but we do have a choice of when and when not to pipe up, step out, cover up, get in the way, etc.   I’ll also say this, when there’s a gifted singer who exemplifies taste and discretion my normal instinct is to ask them to do more!  It’s just the opposite though if they’re clearly not accustomed or geared to be a team singer.

Let me encourage you in this way; instead of being overly sensitive or insecure about your abilities, be honest and teachable.  Until you’ve had the benefit of time with a particular leader, think and listen first.   Until you know what to do, go slow and do less.  These are not hard and fast rules to abide by, nor is worship leading all about the leader as I said.  Just some things that may help you understand more what helps and hinders a leader as he or she is trying to focus on aiming for God’s heart and not only getting through the song!



Be Salty!

Article by:  Tom Lane

Ever feel like you’re losing your saltiness as a player?  We are creatures with habits and sometimes they’re hard to break.  That includes using the same 4 chords we learned years ago in every song, playing the same exact riffs and lines, etc.  It also applies to attitude and behavior; we burn out, feel entitled, deserving, get bitter, jealous, envious, you name it.  

Without a doubt we have developed a whole doctrine around the musical portion of worship and leading.  In some ways we’ve become so people conscious we’ve removed the fun and freedom right out of it.  We can certainly over police it to the point you almost need a seminary degree and an appointment from on high to be on some teams.  I’ve written a lot about the heart and will say again that’s where it starts and what God alone sees!  So that’s the good news and hope for us all.  What I’d like to address here is more the playing with excellence and skill part of the equation.

The level of musicianship has been improving in the Church the past 10 years and we now have a crop of young talents playing circles around some of us old guys.  I was teaching a seminar for guitar players not long ago and heard a 13-14 year old kid playing in the hall during the break-almost asked him to come teach the class!  Putting aside competition, which is not what it’s about, we can become too comfortable and satisfied with where we are.  And reach the point we stop learning or even trying to be better.  I never want to diminish or judge another’s efforts or heart to serve in worship.  The hope is that you’ll read and feel inspired to simply do what you can to become the best player and help to your team that you can.

5 tips to sharpen your skill:

1.  Improve you chord and scale knowledge:  With good reason most worship songs are simple and have just a few chords.  Still every chord can be played in more than one way or position and inversions are good to study and know for that reason.  It’s not simply knowing a bunch of chords, but playing the same chord different ways.  A chord is made up of a triad; root, third, and the fifth.  Inverting it just means playing the triad in a different position e.g. third, fifth, root.  There are many resources for you to learn inversions and it will help make your parts more interesting for sure.  Also helps you voice your chords opposite what other players are doing which is more like layering than duplicating.  Scales help you develop better dexterity and facilitate melody.  Try singing and playing a scale at the same time as an exercise.  The more scales you know and can play with ease and freedom, the more second nature it becomes allowing you to contribute more readily.

2.  Improve your reading skill:  While good that most worship songs are easy enough to follow along with just by reading the words with chords above them, many have no idea how to follow a real chord chart.  Even if you’re not a schooled reader you can follow a chart if you can count.   By chart I mean a road map of the arrangement, as it’s supposed to be played.  With bars, rhythmic notations, repeats, time signature, etc.  There are books galore with charts of your favorite songs.  The difference is your following along every bar and not blindly hoping you place the right chord over a lyric you may not know.  Many with good ears just rely on hearing once then repeating which is fine; again we’re not being legalistic.  But it is frustrating when players “hunt and peck” around.  Till they learn a song it sounds like a mess and even if they know the song they never play it the same way twice.   Especially if you hope to work as hired player, reading will always help!

3.  Learn to construct parts:  Yes, less is more sometimes, but you can be tasteful and inventive without stepping on an arrangement.  Take a song and think about it in sections.  Do something different in each section.  It helps to first listen to what everyone else is doing, and then find your voice within the mix.   An intro may mean a riff or melody for a guitar or solo inst., pad for a keyboard player, and nothing for the bass player.  Decide ahead of time, which player if any, will take the fills for the verses-great way to incorporate all the band members and not hinder others playing.   Instead of an “All Skate” approach to a song where all guns are blazing from the top to bottom, leave spaces and holes.  Find your parts for the sections, commit them to memory and/or chart them and get used to playing them that way every time for a season.  Tweaking as you go to fine tune and building from there.  I promise if you come up with one cool line, even a single note part that’s tasteful-that’s what others will remember most.

4.  Spend time with your gear:  The better you know your instruments and gear the more prepared you are and you’ll spend less time taking up “valuable” time to tweak.  An example for guitar players is; if you use effects; experiment at home with running your time-based effects (delays, modulation efx, verbs) through your effects loop.  It’s quieter and sounds different than putting them in the chain with your distortion and overdrive pedals.  You may find you like it and get better tone.  Google “Effects Chain!” 

Keyboard players almost need a rocket science degree to operate some synths.  As you learn your particular synth, create 5-10 staple sounds and store them in a performance patch so you can recall them live at the touch of one button instead of tweaking on the fly.  

Bass players, learn the difference in application between a fretted and fretless bass.  They’re not necessarily interchangeable for every song.  Fretless is a bit like slide for guitar players-not everyone can do it well.  Intonation is key.  Practice first!   Buy a compressor and learn how to use it, it’s the main effect you’ll see used by most bass players. 

Drummers, can’t say enough how helpful it is to most drummers I know, to understand electronics, computers, and be able to use them live as adeptly as you use your sticks.  It’s a matter of using technology to your advantage and making you even more useful to the team in many cases. 

5.   Study Up!  Pick two players who do some of what you’d like to do better and study them for your homework.  Find out what you can about their influences, learn to play some of what they play till it sounds like them.  I’m not saying we become copycats but we can learn from others.  Ask one of your friends or a good player you have access to spend 5 min, 30 min, or 1hr-just one time and show you 5 things they work on or do well.

Finally, sometimes we actually need to take a break from the routine to refresh. It can be a healthy pattern to develop and makes room for others to grow as well.  Prayer and Google; also wonderful tools of the trade I think.  Add back some salt to your playing, you’ll never regret it!