How to Fix Music Problems in Rehearsal

The best orchestra, band, or ensemble will encounter problems in rehearsal that need fixing, adjusting, or extra attention.  The question is not if you will have to fix something in rehearsal, but when.

In graduate school I studied conducting, and part of that study included many hours in front of choirs and orchestra leading readings and rehearsals.

I remember the first time I was in front of an orchestra.  I was terrified, over-dressed, hot and sweating in a crowded room full of high class musicians and a talented visiting orchestra conductor.

Not only was I expected to conduct a movement from a Beethoven symphony, I was expected to rehearse it.  When we made it through (if my conducting led us through it successfully) I was also expected to go back and work on problem spots.

I remember very little from that experience other than what I just described, making it through some difficult passages well, and then thankfully sitting down in my chair when I was done!

I am not conducting Beethoven symphonies these days, but whether I am in front of a choir or an orchestra or leading a worship band I am still expected to lead us through the music and then rehearse problem spots.  The better the musicians the more fun it is to play the music and the harder it is to pick out problem spots, but they are still expecting me to help them play and sing better.

Whether you are a beginner or professional, the techniques are the same as well as simple for fixing problem spots in music.

  1. Listen as you lead.  As you go through the music be listening for spots in the music that seem off or that have obvious mistakes.
  2. Stop on purpose.  Before you stop the music, know where you want to go in the music.  Stopping without a destination invites all kinds of chatter and lost time, as well as signaling that you do not know what to do.
  3. Go first.  Particularly in worship bands, after you stop the music lots of people are likely to have suggestions on what to do.  Do not ignore them, but always do your ideas first, even if you are not certain your ideas are the best.  This demonstrates that you are in charge and that you know the music.  After you have worked the section you wanted to touch on, then answer questions and visit requested spots in the music.  If you go with the other suggestions first your rehearsal will lose momentum and your leadership will be eroded.
  4. Break it down.  If you go through a problem spot and you cannot identify the problem, start removing instruments or voices to isolate the issue.  If you have a tempo issue in a worship band, have just the bass and drums play the section and make certain they are together.  Then add the acoustic guitar, the keys, and then the electric guitar.  Finally add the vocals back in.  Use a similar approach in rehearsing vocals.  In orchestra, try the section with just strings or just winds, etc.
  5. Play it in context.  Once you have isolated the problem and fixed it, go back and sing/play the entire section surrounding the problem spot to make certain the musicians can replicate the fix in context.

What about if you cannot identify a problem?

  1. Identify potential problem spots before rehearsal.  If in rehearsal things seemed pretty good, go directly to a potential problem spot you identified.  Break down the parts briefly and work that spot.  Do this for all of the potential problem spots.
  2. Play it again.  Once you have worked your pre-defined difficult spots, play the piece again.

Worship bands, orchestras, choirs, and wind ensembles all have their own cultures, but the laws of rehearsal are the same.

What other techniques have worked for you in your situation?

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The Joy of Generosity – A Story

Sometimes we forget that “It is more blessed to give than to receive.” Acts 20:35

Just yesterday evening I spent time with a worship pastor I am mentoring and his worship team.  I was planning on enjoying myself, but I was not prepared for the experience I received.

This worship pastor and I have been talking about rehearsal effectiveness, training worship team members, music theory, piano, and so many other things, and I was looking forward to seeing how he was doing and how he worked with his team.

I had never been to one of his rehearsals before, though, and frankly, I was a bit nervous.  I have never had the opportunity to speak into someone’s ministry in this way.  Would I freeze?  Would I have anything at all to say?

My mentor, Stephen Michael Newby of Seattle Pacific University, has given me guidance and encouragement many times, and I have wanted to do the same for someone else. Now that I had the chance I felt a bit tentative.

Sometime during the evening I remember praying, “God, give me something to say.”  The human side of me selfishly wanted to avoid looking like I didn’t know what I was doing, but the spiritual side of me really wanted to make a significant investment into this worship pastor’s ministry.  I blog regularly and I meet with this leader because I want to help others with what I have learned, even as I am still learning myself.

As I said, I was not prepared for the experience I received.  His team was warm, gracious and open to suggestion.  We had fun and they had a great rehearsal.

This morning I met with the worship pastor and we talked for an hour and a half about what is going well and what he could be thinking about.  We talked about how he can figure out the next steps for worship at his church, how to keep his voice healthy, how to encourage the newer and younger musicians on his team, and a myriad of other topics.

By the time we were done I was seriously jazzed because God had given me something to share that was of value to this worship pastor.  I enjoyed giving to him, especially because he is open to suggestion and learning.

This week, ask God for someone you can encourage with what you have learned from your successes and failures.  Giving trumps hoarding every time.

Who are you going to encourage and invest in this week?

[Repost] The Best of 2011-12: How I Got My Team’s Attention

Just over a year ago I began blogging.  This is the third of five posts that will be re-posts of the top five blog posts this past year.  Thanks for making this year great by reading what I have written and commenting.  I appreciate it!

Have you ever talked to your team about a concept until you were blue in the face and still got the feeling they were miles away?  I have, and I have not always been able to get their attention focused where it should be.

Today, however, I want to share an example of something that did work.

Last year I was working with my music team at a Saturday gathering specifically focused on connecting more deeply on a personal level with each other, and on digging into the preparation aspect of being part of the music team.  In the past month I have been posting excerpts from this time.  This past Monday I posted 5 Steps to Improve Your Preparation.  Wednesday we toyed with the question, What Are Your Goals?

Today I want to give you the illustration that helped the team to get involved in the discussion.

After discussing what our goals in practical preparation should and should not be, I introduced the 5 Steps.  If you remember, the 5 Steps were

  1. Listen – spend time with the example recording
  2. Read – spend time reading the music while listening to the recording to make certain you fully understand the piece
  3. Feel – listen through the set of songs without distraction and get a sense of where the songs want to go and how they want to flow together
  4. Worship – get beyond the notes and rhythms and be able to worship individually to the music you will be leading
  5. Lead – be past the rudiments of the music so that you can focus on God and the congregation while you lead.

The Illustration

In order to illustrate the steps and where we were or were not adhering to it, I drew a timeline representing the week a team member would be volunteering to lead worship.  On the right was the Sunday for which they were volunteering, and on the left was the Sunday prior.  In the middle I made a mark to represent the mid-week rehearsal.

Then I asked the team to help me note on the timeline where they thought we presently accomplished the 5 steps.  As expected, steps 1 and 2 were clustered right around the mid-week rehearsal, and 3, 4 and 5 were right on or close to Sunday.  In fact, some of 1 and 2 were also happening Sunday morning, where we were supposed to be simply running through music rather than rehearsing.

Next I graphed out where I felt we should be accomplishing the 5 steps.  We should be completely through the listening and reading stages early in the week.  We should be working through feel and worshipping at the rehearsal.  Finally, we should be completely ready to lead on Sunday at the first service, not the last one.  The Sunday morning run-through will naturally including more time of getting our feel together and preparing our hearts well for worship, but it should not be a rehearsal.

What followed was a lot of meaningful conversation about schedules, what I needed to provide for them so that they could improve their preparation, and many other things.

What successful methods have you used to get your team’s attention in regards to preparation?

5 Awesome Ways to Waste Rehearsal Time

As worship leaders we are always thinking about how to save rehearsal time, or at least I am.

This past week I was not the worship leader; I was a band member.  And it was fun.  I discovered it can be a lot of fun wasting rehearsal time, and so I decided to share some of the ways I love to waste rehearsal time.

Ready?

  • Practice your favorite riffs.  Isn’t it a blast to pull out your favorite lick from your favorite song and just blast it through the sound system?  I love testing out the really deep movie soundtrack pads on the synth to see what rattles from the low frequencies.  Or how about a bit of The Maple Leaf Rag on the piano?  Definitely fun.
  • Brag about your new girlfriend.  Um, yeah, this is a blast.  It’s not like I’m going to leave my life at the door.  My week and my life walk right in with me and I love to share it with those around me.
  • Tweet pictures of the band.  This is a new favorite for me.  I am a latecomer to the world of Twitter, but I love the idea of sharing my life with my friends and followers.  On Sundays I love to tweet comments from the message and text thoughts to friends who are not in town because I feel like I am getting to go to church with them.
  • Show off your new favorite chord voicing.  When I find a very cool voicing for a chord I love to play it.  A lot.
  • Break into a jazz improv session.  Sometimes a particular line of music will strike me and at an opportune moment I will goof around with it.  Sometimes the drummer and bassist will jump in, too, and we will all end up laughing.

About now some of the musicians who have worked with me are probably scratching their heads and wondering, “Where in the world is Maurice?”

Too much distraction can derail any effort to have a productive and timely rehearsal, but ultimately these are the things that make rehearsal fun.  Talking about your husband or the cute thing your son did or some rough thing at work takes time, but those conversations are the building blocks of relationship.

Dare I say we should encourage these things?

I have led plenty of rehearsals that were tight and efficient and which were not personal or relational.  I have also attempted to lead rehearsals where there was too much relating and personal stuff going on.

I would rather end up on the side of relating too much than on the side of being too efficient.  Life is about people, and so is worship leading.  Music is secondary.

If you want to make your rehearsals a little more relational, try one or more of these things:

  • Begin rehearsal with a 5 minute devotional followed by prayer for each other.  Keep the devotional to a thought, and then pray for any prayer requests the team members have.  Include the technicians.
  • Cultivate a structured but loose rehearsal.  Know what you want to do and how you want to do it, but allow room for laughter and life.  At past churches little impromptu jam sessions have turned into tunes we used as instrumental pre-service music.
  • Stop in the middle of a song and ask someone what the lyrics mean to them.  Create opportunities for people to insert their lives into the songs.  As a result the musicians will play and sing more from the heart, drawing the congregation in.

There are many ways to make rehearsals more relational without giving way to anarchy.  What has worked for you?

Too Many Chiefs and Not Enough Indians

Too many cooks in the kitchen.

Chances are you have heard these sayings more than once.

Chances are you laughed and forgot about them.

Nothing could be truer, however, in leading music rehearsals.

The guitarist thinks the tempo is too slow.  A bass is certain the tenors are flat.  The first violinist insists that the phrase should be played “just so.”

You are the chief, not them.  And they know it.

Just remind them and move on.

Your blood pressure and the quality of the music will improve immensely.

How do you lead when your leadership choices are being challenged?

Rehearsal Leadership for Beginners

Learning to lead a band rehearsal can be a hazardous process.

First of all, accepting the title of “leader” can feel like taking a target and taping it to your shirt.  You get to answer all of the questions and settle all of the disputes.

Once you have accepted that reality you must become comfortable with sharing your heart with people who are not always in your inner circle of friends.  This experience can feel much like undressing in front of strangers (not that I have, but just saying).

Deal with that and you still have not even begun deciding how to structure the rehearsal.

Help?

If you are feeling overwhelmed, let me tell you that I constantly deal with the first two issues.  If you are human you will need to occasionally revisit those things.

What you can do, however, is develop a rehearsal process that is clear and does not add stress to an already challenging experience.

Here are a few suggestions.

  1. Begin on time.  No matter who is there always begin on time.  The key to valuing volunteers is valuing their time.  Those who are late should not penalize those who are on time.  Later that week (NOT after rehearsal) call those who were late and ask them to step up.  They are holding everyone else back.
  2. Always begin with prayer and a brief devotional.  By brief I mean 5-10 minutes maximum followed by 5-10 minutes of sharing and prayer.  The goal of this time is two-fold: 1) to enable everyone to deal with the baggage they bring with them, and 2) to emphasize that our focus is on Christ and worship and not on ourselves or perfection.  Treat your worship team like a small group.
  3. Deal efficiently with sound checks.  One of the most frustrating parts of a rehearsal can be getting the technical issues straight.  Cut this one off at the pass and meet with the technicians ahead of time to decide how you are going to handle set up and sound checks.  Set a time limit that is reasonable but preferably short.  I prefer to have my musicians arrive 15 minutes before rehearsal begins to set up and plug in so time is not lost within rehearsal.  Do not assume anything; communicate, communicate, communicate.
  4. Methodically go through each congregational song. 
    1. If the band has had a recording to work with in preparation, or if the song is familiar, play straight through the song without stopping.
    2. As soon as you end direct them to any major meltdown areas and play through those areas until they are comfortable.
    3. If things sounded fine to you, ask if anyone has an area they want to revisit.
    4. Finally play through the song once more without stopping.
  5. Play congregational sets through.  After you have worked through each congregational song individually, play through any groupings of songs in the service in order to get the transitions figured out and to get the feel of doing the songs as a group.
  6. Work up the special or performance tune, if you have one.  Leave at least 30 minutes for this.  You may even want to play the recording through once before you start, if that would help.
  7. End on time.  The best way you can value a volunteer is to end on time.  If you find you are consistently running over in time, ask yourself several questions:
    1. Am I leading the rehearsal effectively?  Usually there is something we as leaders can do better.
    2. Is the music too hard?  Quite often I have found that I want to do too much hard music for my team and I have had to pull back.
    3. Are we trying to do too much music?  Playing 4 songs well is much better than playing 6 songs moderately well.
    4. Have I allocated enough time for rehearsal?  2 hours should be a given.  1.5 is too short, and 2.5 is really long.
    5. Can we improve how we work with the technicians?  Sometimes the key to improving rehearsals is working more closely with the sound technicians to prepare more effectively for rehearsal.

Ultimately leading rehearsals is a lifetime learning process.  Hang in there.  You can do it.

What rehearsal leadership tips do you have for beginning rehearsal leaders?

How (Not) to Initiate Change

I saw this sign at a restaurant and I just loved it.

Sometimes the best example is failure.  Nothing speaks louder than, “Well, that didn’t work!”

The same goes in life; we learn the most from our failures, as long as we are willing to re-visit them in a healthy frame of mind.

With those thoughts in mind, here are a few ways not to initiate change at your church.

1.  Sign your notes to the pastor, “Your thorn in the flesh.”  I kid you not.  I had one lady in the choir who would smile and give me “suggestions;” then she would sign the note just that way, as if criticism was a spiritual gift.

Why not send your pastor an encouraging note and thank them for what they are doing right?  If you have a concern, take him or her out to lunch and have a healthy conversation.

2.  Yell.  Loudly.  In.  Your.  Leader’s.  Face.  This happened to me once.  One of my older musicians got up in my face because I refused to allow them into a confidential meeting I was preparing to lead.  I am not a superhuman.  I left the meeting in the hands of my elder and went home crying.

The best way to get your leader’s ear is to speak more quietly and sparingly than anyone else.  Leaders become masters at tuning out noise because they deal with it all of the time.  I take notice of the people who listen well and then interject thoughtful comments.

3.  Pass around a letter to gather support for your cause while the pastor is away.  Several people used this ploy in different ways during my tenure at one church.  Nothing does more to support Satan’s work and spread division.  Unless you make the letter anonymous, which is like lobbing a grenade into an unsuspecting crowd.

In contrast, Matthew 18 gives us a model for resolving conflict.  First, go by yourself to the person with whom you have an issue.  Deal with it directly rather than mulling it over with a few sympathetic friends.  If you cannot resolve the issue, then go again and bring one or two godly friends (not bouncers!).  If that still does not work, involve the key church leaders.  Finally, the last resort is to involve the church body as a whole.

4.  Leave in the middle of a rehearsal or meeting because you do not like a decision or comment the leader made.  Instead of punishing the leader for their supposedly errant decision or comment, you are emphasizing your inflexibility, self-centered-ness, and resistance to constructive criticism.

Instead of leaving the scene of the conflict, walk through it together.  Even if you come out agreeing to disagree, you will come out unified and stronger.  Few things in life outside of a bathroom emergency require an immediate exit.

How have you successfully initiated change?