What Are Your Goals?

What are your goals when you prepare to lead worship?  Stop and think about it.  If you are unsure, look at how you prepared and led worship the last week you were on team; those are your goals.

We can talk about preparation all we want, but goals turn talk into reality.

Our goals should not be

  • to learn our part at the mid-week rehearsal
  • to play or sing for the first time that week at the mid-week rehearsal
  • to play or sing for the second time that week on Sunday morning
  • to catch up with friends at the mid-week rehearsal
  • to rehearse some more on Sunday morning
  • to finally “get it right” in the last service
  • to let our minds wander throughout Sunday morning

Our goals should be

  • to learn our part securely and confidently before the mid-week rehearsal
  • to play or sing regularly in the days before the mid-week rehearsal and between the mid-week rehearsal and Sunday morning
  • to use the mid-week rehearsal to make adjustments and put the big musical picture together
  • to begin to worship together at the mid-week rehearsal
  • to end the mid-week rehearsal with a good musical product
  • to reconnect spiritually, musically, and emotionally during the Sunday morning run-through so that we can focus completely on God and the congregation while we are leading worship

What are your goals?

5 Steps to Improve Your Preparation

Do you remember the parable of the talents?  In Matthew 25:14-30 Jesus tells the story of a man going on a journey who entrusts his property to three servants.  Two of the servants invest the talents and double their investment.  The third, however, buries his talent and returns it unimproved.  The master is furious with him, gives his talent to the one with ten, and then throws out the lazy servant.

Until God returns we are to be improving the talents God has given us, not accepting mediocrity.  In Luke 12:48 Jesus tells us that “to whom much was given, of him much will be required.”  Much has been given to us as worship leaders, and Christ expects us to use and improve it wisely.

Here are 5 steps that can help you improve your worship leadership and make the most of the talents God has given you.  When I have followed these principles, I have been able to plan more completely, worship more deeply, and lead more effectively.

Please note that I am assuming that you have an active relationship with Christ through prayer and Scripture reading; without an active relationship these steps will simply make you a better musician, not a better worship leader.

1.  Listen.  I always provide an example mp3 for me and my team members to base our song preparation upon.  Listening well means

  • clearly hearing your part on the recording
  • hearing how you are or are not matching your part on the recording.
  • adjusting your playing or singing to match the recording

The improvisational and seasoned musicians will balk at using recordings as a guide, arguing that we should not be a cover band.  True, but the band that recorded the song has spent countless hours perfecting an arrangement that is orchestrated well and flows well.  We would be wise to make use of their practice and not re-invent the wheel, particularly in an environment where we are teaching volunteers how to play as a band.  Consider the recording a free masterclass with world class musicians.

You can do this while driving, walking, or any number of things; just get the music in your blood.

2.  Read.  The chart you provide for the vocalists and instrumentalists should completely mirror your example recording to reinforce the listening we just discussed and to teach reading skills.  Reading is

  • being able to decode and follow the written music in your preparation and in rehearsal if necessary
  • being able to match the written music with what you hear in the recording to give you a fuller picture of how to prepare
  • being able to notice when something in the written music does not match with the recording so that you can address it before the rehearsal

Part of your preparation should always include sitting down and listening to the recording with the music in hand, followed by playing/singing through the music with the recording.

Did I mention that following these steps will reduce rehearsal time?  Who wouldn’t want that?

3.  Feel.  After you have learned all of the songs you need to personally practice the songs as a set; don’t wait for rehearsal to practice the songs as a set.  Feeling is

  • being able to experience a song well enough to feel and sense how it should connect to the next song, move from section to section, and fit into the bigger picture of the service.

At Lakeshore Community Church the Creative Arts Pastor, Frank De Luccio, refers to the service as a story, and the main point of the service as the moral of the story.  Worship leaders and musicians must be able to feel how a song fits into the story.  When I have made mistakes in worship planning I have often tracked the mistake back to not truly feeling how a piece fits into the big picture.

In order to feel through a set of songs, sit down and listen to them without your instrument or the music or moving; be completely still.

4.  Worship.  Worshipping is

  • knowing your music so well (usually by memory) that you can actually worship individually and as a team and not just play or sing on Sunday, in the Sunday morning run-through, or in rehearsal.

We should be at this level before the mid-week rehearsal.  Am I always there?  No, but I should be.  After all, we are here to lead worship, aren’t we?  I am playing keyboards for a multi-church service this week, and writing this post has been a good reminder of what my priorities need to be as I prepare.

Musicians: To get to this place you need to play or sing and feel through your music often in the days before rehearsal.

Leaders: If you are in charge of planning, your team members will prepare better or worse based on whether or not you have the music to them a week ahead of rehearsal or not ahead at all.  You are responsible for their success.

5.  Lead.  Actually, this step is not a step at all.  If we have listened and read well, felt through the music, and worshipped personally to the music, we will be ready to actually lead others in worship.  You have heard me say it before, but it is true: You can only lead someone somewhere after you have been there yourself.

What practical steps do you take to prepare for worship?

Embracing Change

Several days a week I work in masonry with my father’s company, Fran Overholt, Inc.  This week as I was laying block, another mason on the job commented that he preferred to do things the way he was taught rather than to change.  Evidently at one point another mason had tried to show him a faster way to do something, but he refused to do it; the way he knew was preferable to change, even if the change would have made him more productive.

Several years ago I was the worship leader at a church that had two styles of worship – traditional and contemporary – and it had been that way for about 15 years.  The leadership decided we should do an experiment and lead one style of worship during our five week purpose series.  Needless to say, many people from both styles struggled with the decision.  Leading worship during those five weeks, and particularly during the first three, was more difficult than any other I had ever experienced in worship leadership up to that time.  Knowing that people in the congregation were angry and possibly even resentful towards me and the leadership over the song I was leading at that moment was brutal.

Prior to that experiment I had always said I liked change.  I liked to do new things and experiment.  I still do.  But I have made one small change to my statement.  No longer do I simply say I like change; I now realize that I like change only when I initiate the change.  Ever think about that?  Some people do like change regardless of it’s source, but I would wager that the majority of people only like the change they initiate.

When I made that realization, suddenly I had a lot more compassion and understanding for the older members of our congregation who were struggling with all of the changes.  Suddenly I found that I was often just like them, struggling with the change that someone else initiated without my consent.

I like to think that I interact with the older generations in a completely different way than I had before that change, and I like to think that I am much more honest with myself.  Yesterday I talked about learning to know yourself; well, this was a big step on that path for me, and it keeps me thoughtful when I am proposing changes.

Proverbs 3:13 (ESV) states, “Blessed is the one who finds wisdom, and the one who gets understanding, .  .”  Wisdom and understanding do not come to us naturally or by some bestowment from God.  We have to seek wisdom and understanding.  “Blessed is the one who finds . . ., and the one who gets . . .”  We must choose to accept and learn from change, to remain teachable.  God made Solomon the wisest man who ever lived, but only after he requested wisdom and understanding to lead Israel (2 Chronicles 1:7-12).

To dig deeper, read this post by Michael Hyatt: The Primary Difference Between The Wise And The Foolish.

How about you?  How do you respond to change?  How do you remain teachable?

Setting Your Compass

Remember the little girl in The Matrix who could bend the spoon? She told Neo all he had to do was believe that “There is no spoon.”

The other day Seth Godin published a blog titled The Map Has Been Replaced by the Compass, and it got me to thinking about The Matrix.  There is no map anymore.  The job that used to exist doesn’t exist anymore.  The plan that was foolproof isn’t foolproof anymore.  The future that seemed so certain isn’t so certain anymore.  No longer can you pull a textbook off of the shelf and find out exactly what you need to do.  All you have is a compass.

What is a compass in everyday life?  Everyone has a compass, and everyone gets to choose what sets their compass.  Two things trump all other influences: the Word of God and your heart.

The Word of God is eternal, infallible, and God’s direct word to you.  Through study and prayer God leads us through every situation we face.  His Word can calm us when we are stressed, help us set our priorities straight, and give us insight as we make decisions.

Knowing your heart is critical.  For many years I did not realize that I could not really sense what my heart was telling me in day to day situations.  Put me on a stage in front of people and I could sense what to do very easily, but with my family and friends I was nervous about what people thought of me and what God thought of me.  After a lot of challenges the past few years I have come to know my heart more clearly.  I can tell (most times) when I am at peace about something and when I am not, when I am happy and when I am putting on a show.  If you are feeling anxious about a decision, you probably should hold off on making it.  If you are facing a lot of difficulty, ask yourself if you need to be working hard or if you are working hard because you are trying to make something happen.  If you are trying to make something happen, you should consider backing off.

Of course, each person is different.  That’s why it is so important to know your own heart and be tuned in to what God is saying through his Word.  Every other influence is secondary.  If you are married, you must first know your own heart and what you feel God is speaking to you.  Then, and only then, can you have a meaningful discussion with your spouse about what he or she is hearing from God and in her heart.  If you reverse that process you put your entire relationship and self identity in jeopardy because you are not fully relating to your spouse; you will end up reflecting what you think your spouse wants to see or hear.  9 times out of 10 you will get it wrong.  Trust me.

Doing the hard and scary work of really getting to know your own heart is worth it, and so is seeking a relationship with God.  True peace can only come on this path.

What sets your compass?  How do you listen to your heart and to what God is saying?

the artistic age and music education

Last fall, as part of an application to an online doctoral program, I wrote an essay in response to the following statement:

“Technological developments over the past 10 years or so hold the potential to revolutionize music education.”

The essay:

To paraphrase Seth Godin, “An artistic age is dawning as the industrial age founders.”  Music educators must pursue new answers to new challenges and new skills for new tools in order to equip today’s students for success.

I have two boys, and friends and relatives always tell me, “They will grow up before you know it.”  The same adage is true in regards to technology and how we live life: “Life will change before you know it.”  Life is changing and the challenges of today require not only different solutions than would have been suggested a generation ago, but also different ways of thinking.

Over the past ten years we have seen immense leaps forward in the power and availability of technology, and in how technology interacts with everyday life.  In 2000 the average computer had a speed of around 500 Mhz; now a new computer usually boasts speeds of at least 2 Ghz, a 300% increase.  In addition a whole new generation of tools has been introduced: iPods, iPhones, iPads, and iCloud, just to name a few.  Perhaps we should call this generation the “iGeneration.”  And not to miss the obvious, I am writing this essay in part to apply for a respected degree offered online, something which was not even possible 10 years ago.

The possibilities for education are massive simply due to the ability to connect over long distances via Skype, Facebook, and many other applications.  No longer does a piano or composition instructor need to find students in their own neighborhood or city.  Now a teacher can simultaneously teach students from around the world while sitting in his or her living room, a bedroom, an office, a park, or wherever they choose.  The Eastman School of Music recently built a state-of-the-art recital hall which has built-in video conferencing technology so that masterclasses can be held across continents, a development possible because of the advances of the past 10-15 years.

This new reality brings new responsibilities to bear on the educator of today and tomorrow.  Schools much build students who know how to use the tools of today.  Educators must also build students into artists rather than assembly line thinkers.  The industrial age brought the ability to mass produce large quantities of identical products.  This new artistic age brings the ability for individuals around the world to create large quantities of unique and high quality products.  No longer is quantity or even quality a measure of potential success; anyone with a few basic tools can produce large quantities of high quality products.  Or, to speak in music education terms, now many more educators can produce high quality students in great numbers because teachers now have access to the entire world.

The question, then, is this: “If quantity and quality are more readily available than ever before, how does a student distinguish himself from the masses?”  The answer comes in whether or not a student is willing to instigate creative and unique ideas and techniques.  A great example is the organist Camperon Carpenter.  His performances and techniques either outrage the establishment or delight the playful, but the most important point is that he has established himself as different, unique, creative.

Now is uniqueness for uniqueness’ sake desirable?  Of course not.  At one of my previous church positions an individual applied for the newly vacant senior pastor position with a cover letter decorated with playful stickers. Unique, definitely.  Effective, no.  His effort completely backfired, to say the least.  Creativity, however, that takes what is known or unknown and extends it to new places with maturity and vision, that will be successful.

Unfortunately, educational systems today are based on an industrial, assembly line approach to life and success.  This approach is dying or even gone.  More than ever schools and colleges have the responsibility to unleash young minds to think creatively.  Survival for a student in the artistic age must include excellence and the ability to produce, but success and distinctiveness for today’s student require an entirely new ability to dream and create what has not been and revise what once was into something new.  Schools, and not just students, must change, which means that the change must begin with teachers if it is to begin at all.

staying current

If you lead a modern worship ministry, you are probably concerned about staying “up” on current musical and cultural trends.  Churches particularly focused on reaching people through modern culture have the unique challenge of keeping a finger on the pulse of society, and the worship pastor or creative arts pastor carries a large amount of that load.

Incidentally, if you are not concerned about being aware of pop culture and music, I would guess (I could be wrong, of course) that either you are at a church which does not engage culture or you have yet to realize the value of being relevant.  For more on the differences in how churches treat culture, read one of my more popular blogs, “two kinds of churches.”

Over the past 10 years working at both Browncroft Community Church and Lakeshore Community Church in Rochester I faced the challenge of somehow staying current while managing all of my tasks.  I do not have it figured out completely, but here are some things that have worked for me.

1.  If you haven’t already, clarify the top style(s) of music that fit your church.  For some churches this choice is easier than others.  The senior pastor, worship pastor, creative arts pastor, and elders, if necessary, must agree on where you are headed.  When I worked at Browncroft this choice was much harder because we had both classic and modern services, and both were in transition.  Isolating where we needed to focus musically was hard.  When I worked at Lakeshore, a seeker focused church that unashamedly said it was a rock ‘n’ roll church, we still had some clarifying work to do.  Here is a chart I used to help me.  You may want to create your own.  In the end having clarity will save you a lot of time.

Worship Genre Worksheet

2.  Visit the Billboard website.  Today, Sunday, when I am writing this blog, Kelly Clarkson’s tunes Stronger is at the top of the Hot 100.

3.  Cruise iTunes.

4.  Start a suggestions group made up of people from your target demographic.  At Lakeshore I needed to get in touch with where the teens and early twenties were at, so I created a private Facebook group where I could interact with them.  Then I asked them about their favorite albums and songs to get a start.  After that I would occasionally post a topic I was researching and see if they had a suggestion.  Usually they had very good ideas.  Two things are important with groups like this. 1) Make certain you choose the right people.  2) If they make a suggestion, do everything you can to use it.  Only say no if the idea is completely off base.  If you choose the right people, you will be able to have a high rate of success.  If you say no often, you will burn them out and they will pay no attention to you.

4.  Check out Relevant Magazine.  Relevant is very good at staying on top of what is happening musically and spiritually in the younger generations.  Here is a recent article on Cultural IQ.

5.  Watch new movies.  Lots of them. In a brainstorming meeting a year ago we were discussing the upcoming series on EGR’s, or “extra-grace-required people,” which is Lakeshore’s kind way of describing difficult people.  The first message was going to be a on people who are just mean, and I immediately thought of Despicable Me.  Lakeshore was nuts enough to begin the first service with the opening clip to this movie.  If you have seen the movie, you know that it is a spectacular and hilarious portrayal of someone thrilled with being mean.

6.  Pay attention to news topics.  ‘Nough said.

What do you do to stay on top of current musical and cultural trends?

don miller and life as story

Today I am deferring to a much better writer than myself.

Today I am inviting you to view your life as a story with ups and downs, twists and turns. Several years ago at a Willow Creek Arts Conference, I heard Don Miller speak about life as story. Our lives as stories which are either interesting and worth re-telling, or banal and ineffective. What kind of life are you living?

Here is a link to a post Don made on last Friday, February 9, called The Power of Knowing Your Story, about one of the exercises they do at the Storyline Conference. Read the post, then go get his book A Million Miles in a Thousand Years, which is about how this idea impacted Don’ own life.

Incidentally, several years ago my personal counselor had me do a similar exercise, and I was amazed at what I learned. I’m looking forward to doing this exercise again.