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The good music guide ::

There’s more to making contemporary church music sound good than throwing together a few musicians! Mark Cooper-White offers this practical guide to training your church band…
Source: Perspective Vo6 No3 & 4 © Pearl Beach Press 1999

There’s no doubt that what we sing is more important than how we sing it, or even how we play it. But having said that, we should still strive to make our music as good as we possibly can, while keeping the main thing the main thing. It’s surprising how much your church music can improve when you put in the thought, practice, and prayer. It’s very sad – but not uncommon – to hear people say “Oh well, it doesn’t matter if we make mistakes – everyone will understand – because we’re in church.” Aim a bit higher, do some work and you won’t believe how good you can sound!

Playing church music falls into two main areas: playing together in practice sessions, and subsequently playing while the church family sings. For this article, we’ll focus on these two different playing fields as we think through the practicalities of how to have good music in church.

Practice Sessions:

What’s your aim?
Practice is crucial if you want to lift your music out of the ordinary rut. Good music doesn’t just happen. Practice is the only way. Going over songs so that you know them well makes for a good band. For this reason practice should be compulsory for any church band, and every musician. People who want to serve others with their musical gift should be ready to give priority to practice. Was it the Apostle Paul who said “If a band will not practice it should not play”? Make it priority.

Quite often time seems to run out when you’re practicing, especially when you’ve just had an impromptu performance of Knocking on Heaven’s Door for the tenth time. To overcome this live performance bug, get yourself an aim for your practice sessions. Make sure everyone knows what you’re there to do! And make sure you stick your aim. So many sessions are aimless – no one knows what to do, and before you know it the jam session has started!

Before you get there, think things through. What songs are you practicing? Is the goal of the practice session to simply play over songs you already know, or are you there to learn new songs from scratch? Having a clear idea of what you need to achieve helps you see where you’re aiming when the Band gets together.

Is time short?
Before you strike a note at your practice session, pray! Thank God for his wonderful love shown in the cross of Jesus. Ask for focus, humility, servant attitudes and co-operation. It’s part of the practice.

Usually people don’t want to spend a lot of time working at practice sessions. One of the greatest ways to make sessions more productive is to have all the necessary music ready for your playlist. So much time is wasted in looking around for books or bits of paper!

And speaking of playlists, when you’ve worked out your list, stick to it! Don’t practice anything you’re not there to practice. That may sound obvious, but it’s as bad as a jam session for wasting time. If you’re really pressed for time, just practice the introduction, a verse, the chorus, and the end. Most songs repeat the same structure over and over. But pay attention to any peculiar things in the music – things like repeats that sneak up on you, second time bars that have a different chord pattern, and key changes. Unless you have plenty of time, you don’t have to play every song from start to finish. But it’s crucial, no matter how well you think you know the song, to work through the features I’ve mentioned.

Intros, endings and ‘turn-arounds’.
Before you strike a note at your practice session, talk through each piece of music. I know this sounds weird, especially if you’re busting to play. but discipline yourself to do it and it will pay dividends. Someone will need to think through all your beginnings, ends and middles before the rehearsal, then talk through each song; have all the players listen and make notes on their music. Mark the bars the introduction uses… and make sure the drummer is listening too! This kind of preparation really does lift the overall ‘feel’ when you play because (hopefully) everyone will know where the song is going, and will therefore be less likely to get lost.

How many verses?
Another question that gets overlooked too often is “Will we play all 16 verses?” Try to keep songs to a reasonable length, without butchering them! Most often three or four verse will do just fine. Think about the words – some songs have verses that deserve to be left out, while others have a flow of logic that demands certain verses be left in. Whatever you decide, don’t forget to note it on your music. This helps prevent that embarrassing situation where you get left ‘hanging in the breeze’ – playing on your own when everyone else has stopped!

Arranging: who plays what, how and when?
If you are blessed with a few different instruments in your church band, have a think about how to employ them to make the music sound more interesting. If you have flutes and trumpets and guitars and pianos and drums you need to think hard about how they can play at different places in each song to add interest. DON’T have all the instruments playing all the time! Maybe the trumpet can take the melody in one verse, then the flute in the next, and both in the one after that. Lots of ‘colour’ can be added this way. It might be hard to convince your musicians of this, but just getting one instrument to STOP PLAYING for a verse can add hugely to the overall picture.

Use your ears!
The most important ingredient in a successful band is the EAR! You cannot over stress the need to listen to one another as you play. It’s easy to get into the “solo muso” way of thinking, especially if you are used to being the main instrument – like the organ or piano. Make sure every player learns to listen to the overall sound of what everyone is playing. Try to not concentrate so hard on your own music that you miss hearing what’s gong on around you. Try not playing for a verse or two, while you listen to the others. This helps a band play well together, and that’s one of the most important things for any band to work towards. Being tight, on the ball, listening and playing off one another… it all sounds so much better when you ‘play it by ear.’

Having a leader by design.
One thing that really makes music go better is to appoint somebody to be the ‘band leader’. This person is like the foreman for the band; someone who can say that the guitar’s too loud, someone to have the playlist organised with the minister or the song leader, someone to call practices, get songs organised with introductions, middles, ends, and arrangements. Generally speaking a group playing together needs someone to keep an eye and an ear on how things are going. So if you’re blessed with a band, make sure someone is the appointed, accepted leader.


It’s not a performance!
When you play at church, in front of your home crowd, pray for an attitude of service. Some people shrivel up when playing live, and others puff up. Neither is appropriate! Playing in church is NOT a performance, and the church family is not an audience that you’re trying to impress. You, as a band, are there purely and simply to help people sing about what God has done for them in Jesus Christ. The better you play the more they enjoy it – that’s fine. But remember, you are only the background to something much more important – the words of the songs. When you’re not playing, it’s a great thing to leave your instrument and sit with all the other people during the bible talk. It’s important to demonstrate that we all sit under the teaching of the bible – even band members!

Be ready. Be ready. Be ready!
There’s nothing sadder than turning up at church with just five minutes to spare and finding you’ve left your electric guitar leads at home, or the mat that goes under your drum kit isn’t in the back of the car where you left it, or your music isn’t under the piano seat! Be ready. I’ll say it again, be ready. Get to church with plenty of time to spare. Make sure you have everything you need. Being ready yourself is important too. Remember how important practice is? If you haven’t practiced you aren’t ready and you shouldn’t be playing.

Little things are important. Make sure you have your guitar tuned up BEFORE it’s time to play. When you finish one song, just before you go to sit back down with the family, turn the page to the music for the next song so it’s sitting there waiting for you to play. Be ready.

Starting well, finishing well.
One thing that helps people to enjoy singing songs is an accompaniment that starts confidently, knows where its going all along and finishes in a together kind of way. Make sure you’ve got all the arrangement written on your music. Your band leader will count you in, and you’ll all start together confidently.

When playing, be flexible – especially in terms of the speed of your music. You must listen to the people singing and be flexible so that if necessary, you can change the tempo. Usually you have to slow down a little. Listening to the people sing – even singing along yourself works wonders when the words can’t be spat out quickly enough, or the little old ladies are beginning to go blue.

It’s not that hard really!
It’s not that hard to have really good music. Whether your band is made up of one person playing the guitar, or a full orchestra, all you have to do is be prepared to is spend some time thinking beforehand about the music, be committed to practicing well, and learn to listen as you play your instrument with other people. Don’t settle for the usual fumbling church music approach. Doesn’t Jesus deserve better than that?

Mark Cooper-White is pastor of Yamba Presbyterian Church, a professional bass-guitarist, and the Music Director of the North Coast Christian Convention.

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