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!