Top 10 Do’s & Don’ts: A Guide for Insensitive Musicians

A Guide for Insensitive Musicians

Bassists, guitarists, drummers, violinists, cellists, pianists, keyboard players, saxophonists: all of you – it’s time to sit up and pay attention.

Yes, although you think you have the monopoly on wisdom in your band/ensemble here’s a harsh reality that you need to understand. You don’t.

All musicians, regardless of their Christianity and their right-mindedness and generous hearts, have a little bit of pride lurking down deep in the soul. Why? Well, it’s because they all have one thing in common: they’re human.

So leave your prejudices at the door thank you very much, and enjoy just a few pearls of wisdom to help your on your way. Singers, you can go. We’ll deal with you later.

1. Do… pay attention and look up.
You’re ploughing away – grinding out your riffs, licks, rhythms and something occurs to you: this song seems to be going on all awful long time.

HELLO…

You look up and suddenly you’re aware that the whole band is looking squarely at you. The worship leader is grimacing because, in short, he or she wants you to stop.

Like now.

Band dynamics rely on communication and there is a tendency with musicians to concentrate solely on what they are doing. With this head-down approach you’ll miss cues instructing you to play tenderly, forcefully, quietly… and so on. If you miss your cues you’ll look like an idiot, and it’s important, for your very being, that those idiot quotients are kept to a minimum.

2. Don’t… just turn up and play.
Churches rely on people to muck in. Sure everyone plays their own individual parts based on their talents but sometimes a little extra care and legwork by can grease the wheels for everyone. If you’ve got a bit of time help the drummer carry his stuff or maybe shift a few amps around. If the soundman is rushed off his feet, give him a hand lugging some speakers or put up a few microphone stands. There might be a few chairs to put out or an overhead projector to assemble. At the end of the service have a look around and offer to clear away some stuff. Clearly, you have your job but your musical skill isn’t the only element to your worship. God likes this approach: it’s selfless and kind.

3. Do… take the practise seriously.
No you don’t want to look like the Grim Reaper during the rehearsal but you don’t want to start behaving like Patch Adams either. There are phases during the practice – particularly when the worship leader is concentrating on one musician’s part – where it’s tempting to start messing about. Usually some smart arse starts playing a Livin’ on a Prayer and like sheep we all join in to underscore this moment of mirth. Don’t do this. It’s dull and boring and crass. Be patient, feel free to have a chat but keep the banter to a minimum. A worship leader doesn’t need to keep you in line like a schoolteacher.

4. Don’t… forget your kit.
Drummers, in particular, have a lot to remember but forgetting to bring sticks does crop up from time to time because it’s just so obvious. One Musicademy drummer confessed to turning up without sticks – a sizeable oversight – and could not find any kind of suitable replacement. A frenzied, yet thorough search in the church’s kitchen yielded two hand mops and this miscreant was forced to play the entire set with said cleaning instruments.

If you wish to make your life easier do a mental checklist when you are packing your stuff. Tuners, sustain pedals, capos, plectrums, reeds, metronomes, drum stools regularly feature in the ‘remember when I forgot my’ anecdote but if you are a saxophonist and you forget to pack your instrument then it’s time to tattoo a picture of it on your forehead and write ‘look in the mirror’ on the back of your hand.

5. Do… listen to the other parts. 
Lead guitarists that don’t listen to acoustic guitarists, acoustic guitarists that don’t listen lead guitarists, drummers who don’t listen to bass players, bass players who don’t listen to drummers.

The list of ‘sinners’ that don’t use the curly things on the side of their heads is seemingly endless. Listening to music, listening to what other people are playing is true musicianship and it’s worshipful too. You can pick up on phrases and lines that the drummer is using, or even the other way around – it all adds to a feeling that you are part of a tight, respectful team and that there are no egos in the way to derail what you are trying to do, which is to lead people to a place of worship. Being in a band is about teamwork and if you are not aware of what the others are doing and how they are doing it, it’ll be fragmented and it’ll sound fragmented.

6. Don’t…. veer away/forget what you’ve rehearsed.
Try to stick to what you’ve rehearsed – that’s the whole point of a rehearsal. Sometimes musicians go off-piste in the service and you’re never quite sure whether they are going to get back on it. Of course, worship leaders leave room for something spontaneous to happen but that’s different from completely changing the basic form of what you have practised. Some of us are absent-minded but try to concentrate and if you know you are prone to this write down pointers as to what you should be doing.

7. Do… note down the running order.
There is a story of a well-known drummer who was reminded of the true meaning of fallibility when he was asked to click in a tune at a major Christian worship event. In a venue packed with thousands, the sticksman counted himself in and began playing a standard 4×4 measure at quite a frenetic pace. This lasted for around 16 bars. Expecting the band to join in he looked up. There was a nod of the head from the worship leader and eventually he stopped. He didn’t write the songlist down and had clicked in completely the wrong tune. You might like to describe this as a trainwreck, of which it was. He was then informed about the song he SHOULD have played and was invited to start again – at the right tempo.
This cautionary tale is there to implore you to adopt this very simple practice. Just write the list down in the correct order and stick to it. If the worship leader chooses to mess with it, that’s his/her lookout.
Also make sure you keep your music in order to ensure seamless song changes – it really does help to keep the congregation stay in an attitude of worship.

8. Don’t… overplay/underplay.
There is a side of us that wants to show off, and there’s another side that wants to climb into our shells. Both extremes come from a place of insecurity – one where we desperately want attention, the other where we don’t want any. Without getting too Freudian about this or feeling to need consider the relationship you’ve had with your parents, simply ask yourself the question: am I worshipping God? Fear of man makes you underplay and fear of man makes you overplay. Be sensitive to God’s spirit, and stick to what the worship leader is asking you to do.

9. Do… learn your parts beforehand.
You might have to badger the worship leader prior to the Sunday service to give you a list and if he or she is notoriously Space Cadet  – and some are – you will be at their mercy. Still, if you are fortunate enough to get a song list early make sure you are familiar with the tunes and the arrangements. Write down the structure and how many verse/chorus repeats there are. This may well change on the day but at least you will have a sense of what is about to happen and there’ll be fewer surprises. Tempos are a big problem for drummers and worship leaders often like to play at completely different speeds to those on the recorded songs because they want to put their own ‘stamp’ on it. That’s fine but take a metronome to ensure you get consistent tempos. Turning up and saying ‘I’ve no idea how this song goes’ and expecting to get a decent handle on it within a couple of minutes never really works.

10. Don’t… be rude to sound people.
This seems to be a vocation for a lot of musicians who, quite frankly, should know an awful lot better. Stupid, up-themselves musicians look down on sound men/women who get little recognition for their efforts, are often engaged in back-breaking activities and are invariably blamed for dreadful sound and ineffective foldback. Poor sound quality is rife in churches, but usually it’s because the acoustics are terrible and congregations cannot afford to purchase expensive sound equipment. For sound people in these situations it’s often a thankless task. If your foldback mix isn’t quite right, wait your turn and try to be as clear as you can. Whatever you do, don’t start huffing and puffing and whispering under your breath if the sound isn’t how you’d like. Keep calm and try to communicate politely what you need. If this doesn’t happen then, y’know, sometimes you just gotta suck it up, and get on with it.

Tim Bowdler is a frequent contributor to Musicademy, where this article origianlly appeared. 
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TimBowdler@churchleaders.com'
Tim Bowdler is a frequent contributor to Musicademy.