Todd Fields, who is the director of all worship music at a 36,000-person church in Atlanta, North Point Community Church, goes content overload on ways that any church can improve their worship music.
Todd is has teamed up with some superstars to create a resource just for you, called Worship Rocket, that will push you towards experiencing worship as you lead it, and empowering the next generation to lead.
Get your brain in gear and your notepad out. Its about to get good as we talk about 20 ways to elevate your worship music.
1. Lay a Firm Foundation
The very first thing we need to pay attention to laying a firm foundation. We all know what happened to the house built on the sand, right? The drummer we choose will affect so much of what we do in our church music culture. Next to having a fully confident worship leader, the drummer is the most important person. He or she is the foundation or the captain and the pulse and feel for the band. They must have a groove and they must know what in the pocket is. Hours of poor music quality and rehearsed time invested by musicians will ultimately mean nothing if we don’t have a great drummer on the throne. People who are non-musical will not always be able to understand why its important but they will notice when you have the right drummer and when it feels right.
When the right person is on the throng, the feel is great and the dynamic is great. When a non-competent drummer is on the throne, it throws the entire feel and experience off for the band and ultimately, everyone who attends your church so you have to lay that firm foundation.
In addition to the right drummer, adding a computer set up for your drummer adds so many benefits to the band and the people in the audience. Drummers that don’t want to play with a click usually don’t want to because they haven’t done it before and they’re not comfortable but there are so many advantages to using a computer set up.
These are the few advantages. Number one, it provides a tempo guide for the drummer and the entire band. If you’re going to use a computer which I highly recommend I would also advise using any of your monitors. It’s really required so that you and each band member can hear the click as it’s clicking out the tempo to the song.
It also allows the addition of support tracks. We do this all the time at North Point. We will grab string parts or make any additional vocal lines or a keyboard parts. If that player is not able to make it that day or we need the system to be fatter in the house, there are so many support tracks and sounds available now from sites like Loop Community. Finding an instrumental part for songs and adding them as backing track to what you and your band are doing, it makes the sound so much fuller. The other benefit to adding a computer to your set up is it allows additional options. One of the things that we’ve done at church, if we’re teaching a new song, when we are at rehearsal or earlier in the week, we record a whole gang of people singing the chorus. When we play the song, it actually helps people in the room sing along because they’re already hearing a lot of voices singing with it.
2. Find the right drummer.
Your existing drummer may be the right one. They may just need some direction and honesty. You may need to audition more or you may need to hire the right one. Sometimes the right drummer is a professional and even if you contract a studio player for a short season to allow your team and know what it’s supposed to feel like, it’s really a wise use of resources. You could also partner a professional with a volunteer who has the goods and shows promise just to help him get a little bit better.
3. Move to a computer set up.
Most musicians now use Macs and there’s a lot of different programs out there to run click and song samples but I highly recommend the program Abelton. We’ve actually provided an additional teaching element put together by my friend, Reid Greven. He’s going to go through how to set up Abelton with you if you’ve never used it before. Watch that resource and you too can learn how to use a computer and lay a firm foundation for you and your church.
4. Strike the Stands.
The next point I want to make may be one of the biggest ones on how you can elevate your worship experience. I see this in churches all over that I’ve coached and as I’ve been part of watching worship leaders and bands play – music stands are all over the stage. When the music stands are all over the stage what you see music stands all over the stage and people look at them. I want to ask you how interesting it would be for you to watch someone read something on stage, how engaging would that be for you?
I know that removing music stands may be a scary thought but I want to give you some pointers to help you go down that road and see if it might be a possible option for you and your band.
When I was in high school I’ve had an art teacher who went through a book with us about the right brain and the left brain. If you haven’t studied anything about this, let me explain the idea quickly for you. Essentially we use our right brain for creativity and our left brain for logistics. I’ve met musicians who come from both camps. Right brain musicians are the creatives. They like to just feel it and most of them like to learn by ear. Left brain musicians have feel but they usually begin learning music from sheet music at or chord chart and they don’t often break out of the cycle.
There’s a guy that you may have heard of named Eddie Van Halen. He’s the guy that got me into playing guitar and music. I love this quote he said this one time, “Written music exists because people back in the day didn’t have recording machines. They weren’t able to record the sounds so they have to write it to have a way to pass it on.” Now, Eddie is taking it a little bit too far especially, if you’re playing in an orchestra and have all these intricate lines. But let’s face it, most of the time, the song were playing has four chords. Even if we’re doing hymns a lot of those are so easy to play.
I believe that with most worship music, it’s so much easier to internalize it if we start with memorizing it. Here are some of the benefits of striking the music stand for your worship and your worship culture.
Have a cleaner stage.
It just looks better. A clean stage without clutter communicates that you care. It also communicates that you know the music and that you’re ready to engage with people. You’re able to look up and engage with people and worship.
It helps with musician engagement.
It allows the musicians the opportunity to engage their heart and not just their mind and eyes. Then they become the worship leader with the rest of the team.
It awakens the ability to learn by ear.
When we’re forced to learn music by listening without instrument in our hand, we learn our instrument better and this new way of learning becomes faster in the long run.
You don’t have to put print charts out every week.
If you’re the music director or the worship director, it would be great to not have to print a bunch of charts out and staple packets of paper every week.
5. Cast vision.
Speak with your team about the benefits of leading your attendees without having to stare at a chord chart or sheet music. Emphasize the importance of them helping lead people by engaging in the music personally. If you have a player who thinks there’s no other way, lovingly encourage them to try with you.
6. Take small steps.
I call it small bites. If you’re feeling bold and you want to strike music stands in one week and require players to know all their music at rehearsal then go for it. That would definitely be trial by fire. On the other hand, a culture that has been reading music for a long time may want to assign one song that everyone could attempt for week one. Assigning a song in a week can overtime lead the team toward music stand freedom. Remember this, it’s hard to lead people to a destination while starring at a map. It’s okay to glance in a map but you need to be able to look where you’re going and leave people where you’re going with your eyes.
7. Learn the Song.
The third thing we can do to elevate our worship experience, sounds super simple but it doesn’t happen in a lot of environments that I watch. Most songs we hear and aspire to recreate at our churches have already been produced by a great producer. Someone paid a lot of money for a producer to put the instruments and sounds together in a working order that takes the listener on an engaging journey. The work has already been done for us. Unless, you have a music producer on your team, you can immediately escalate the quality of you music by having each instrument learn the exact part that’s already been written. Once your culture has done away with charts and your musicians become good ear players, they’ll be able to pick out their individual parts so much easier.
The benefits of these are one, cohesion. Remember the saying, a place for everything and everything in its place. The same idea applies here. Music consists of dynamics, parts, and frequencies. One of the biggest complaints I received from audio engineers is the inability to distinguish instruments from one another in the mix. This usually happens because players are stepping on each other sonically. By learning the individual parts that have already been put in their place, it allows your music to be clear, heard, and felt by your audience.
The second thing learning the song provides is a standard. When we learn the music the way the professionals play it and arrange it, we’re aiming towards a standard that’s already excellent. It takes the guess work out of rehearsal because the parts are already determined. Then, it’s a matter of just being prepared, showing up, dialing in your tone, and playing your part. If this is a big issue for you and your culture, these are the action steps that you need take.
8. Provide the original song in a timely manner.
With the advent of planning center and programs like that, there’s now an easy way to get MP3s to your musicians. Again, communicate lovingly that you want to move toward accurate part learning for the sake of cohesion and experience for everyone. We’re including a planning center tutorial as part of this module as well as the Ableton tutorial. If you’ve not used it before, you’re going to love it. If you have, youll want to watch the tutorial anyway and learn from one of the best planning center geniuses out there that I know.
9. Rehearsal listen down.
One of the things we’ve done at North Point since the beginning, is to listen down to the songs we’re going to rehearse while we’re gathering in the green room prior to rehearsal. Listening down that final time helps us know the individual parts and the song.
10. Use Dynamics.
Dynamics are a major way to elevate our worship experience. I’ve been an Eric Clapton fan for years. I got into Eric’s playing because I knew Eddie Van Halen copied him somewhat and hearing Eddie play, wanted to pick up the guitar. I recently saw Eric live in Atlanta with an amazing band. Steve Jordan was on drums and Willie Weeks was on bass guitar. I don’t remember the exact song but I’ll never forget what happened.
They are playing this blue shuffle groove and as they arrive at the end of the song everyone collectively began to play softer. Then, gradually over about a minute time period, they slowed the pace. The people in the arena erupted in massive applause. Why? Because music is a feeling and when people feel music, they respond. The journey we’re taking them on is a dynamic experience. Unfortunately dynamics are something that often get lost in our current music culture especially with church bands. After years of playing music and working with worship teams, I would say that this topic is one of the most important. It’s the one that’s most often overlooked and yet probably the main key to connecting people to what we’re playing in an emotional level.
11. Don’t play.
I remember when I first started playing guitar in a band, I felt, because I had an instrument, I had to be playing. The magic in music is knowing when and what to play in relation to the rest of the band. It’s far more helpful to play parts that jam with the band in the right time and space within the song than to be bashing out chords during the whole song. Don’t think that just because you have an instrument, you need to be playing at this moment in the song.
12. Pay attention to sonic space.
Keyboard players, if you’re a keyboard player in a band, you should rarely need to use your left hand. Make sure your parts aren’t blurring the bass guitar player’s space. It’s not needed. Remember, simple is often best. Guitar players, rhythm guitar usually plays a little around the neck. Rhythm provides the foundation. Lead guitar provides the interesting parts that are sometimes melodic. One player up, one player down. Rhythm down, lead player up. For any audio engineers who are listening to this, lead guitar does not mean louder in your mix. Remember, when compared to rhythm, rhythm guitar is so important for what the band is communicating on stage and the lead lines are just be something to carry the melody. It should not be the main thing you’re hearing in your band mix.
13. Swell the intro.
This is a great dynamic tactic. You don’t have to start out guns blazing all the time especially if you’re going to communicate something over it. You got to create a gradual crescendo into what you’re about to do. To swell the intro maybe begin with the keyboard pad and gradually build into the start of the song. Often times, where you use kick two and four, symbols are going, that’s a great tactic just to gradually get in to what the music is about to say.
14. Do a big intro.
One of the things that’s great once you’ve done a big intro as a band then lean in to verse one by pulling back. A full band intro played well is engaging and once you get people engaged, it can be extremely helpful at times for verse one to be minimal. Become a student of well-produced music and you’ll see that great producers taking on a journey of loud and soft, highs, and lows. Really pay attention to that.
15. Sketch out chorus one.
Examples of this concept are all over many worship songs. Once a song has begun, intro through verse one, allow the band to pull back intensity to sketch out the chorus for people. This usually means the adrenal pull back in groove and play kick on two and four with some cymbal splashing going on. They keyboard will hold down a simple part and guitar is diamond which means just sit a note, hold it out so that people can hear each other and the worship leaders and singer sing the chorus.
16. Make verse two interesting.
I’m going to bring Prince into the picture because he’s a great example of this. If you listen to any Prince song, he gets you into this groove. He gets you into this journey and all of a sudden something happens in the second verse that’s just unique or it’s noticed. Maybe you stripped out the guitars and it’s just drums and bass. I love this idea. If you haven’t used the sketch concept above and need a break from the intensity in a song, it’s easy to change things up in the second verse. Strip the drums to a hi-hat and snare or pull them out completely and let base and keyboard pad carry what you’re doing or take bass out and focus on the drum groove without any other instruments.
There are so many possibilities to try with dynamics. Remember, people always respond to dynamics. We’ve got to take them on a dynamic journey.
17. Properly Plan Transitions.
The last thing that you can do to elevate your worship service is have properly planned transitions. There is nothing that will disrupt the flow of your musical journey like a bad musical transition. We talked about how we start songs previously but what we do between each song matters. Dead space and lack of planning between songs can make or break the feel of the moment. We’ve all been involved in an experience where we’re totally engaged in a powerful song. The songs come to an end and there is this awkward silence while the leader changes his capo, the drummer counts in the next tune or drops something. There’s a better way but it involves preparation on the front end. The benefits of preparing and planning your transitions are to keep the audience engaged in a musical journey.
Remember the music is a feeling. The songs we sing and the music we’re playing is connecting feeling with truth and ushering a response. We need to keep the ride smooth and engaging for our passengers. The second benefit, it elevates the band’s confidence. Properly planned transitions give the players a sense of participating in that musical journey together. The song, the lyrics, the melody, provide a script and they are backing it with a score that leads harps. When rehearsed properly it allows the player to rest in the music at the moment because they know what to expect. Here are some action steps.
18. Connect to the song key when possible.
Keeping connected songs in the same key is always a win and just feels right. Same key set playing can be taken too far and we’ll talk about this in a later module.
19. Connect songs using the 4 or 5 chords in the next song.
If you can’t keep songs in the same key or if youre dealing with male and female vocal ranges with different songs, see if you can end the proceeding song on the four or five chords as that key is lead into the next. For those of you who don’t understand numbers or the numbers system, just do a search for the Nashville Number System online or on the web. You can get caught up. It’s essentially making playing songs a whole lot easier than actual chord names.
20. Shorten the intro or outro.
I see churches make this mistake all the time. Remember, that when you’re on stage and you’re playing music blazing away in sonic frenzy, people are not singing. It’s okay to do that but just remember when we’re not playing music, people are standing there. Often times it’s great. Just do a four bar intro. Get them into the singing or if there’s a musical thing in the middle, if it’s interesting and there’s something to follow, do that but on the back end of the song when you’re ending it, you don’t have to play all 12 bars on the outro and just stand there and bang your head around. Get the song over and get into the next song. Your job is to make people sing, not make them not sing.
We’ve gone through 20 different ways to elevate your worship experience and what we want you to do now, as you’ve been taking notes, as you’ve been thinking about these things, get with your team and talk about each one of these and see what might be common for your environment. Take the instruction that we’ve given you for each of these elements and elevate what you do with your worship team.
Like what you read here? We have so much more content geared toward growing you as a worship leader while you work to grow your worship service. Check out Worship Rocket (and then Worship Rocket 2.0) for more!