Teaching Your Vocalists to Sing Harmony

When I was growing up everyone in my Mennonite community sang harmony. We had no instruments in church, so voices filled out the parts.

Today finding a singer who knows harmony can be difficult.

So how can you teach your melody-centric singers to sing harmony?

A lot of materials have been published, but for now here are a few key building blocks for teaching harmony.

1. Always have a recording on which to base your harmonies so that your singers have a quality guide for practice.

2. Clearly notate the harmonies in the recordings. This way singers can learn to read music by comparing the written music and recording as they learn the song by rote.

This step is easier than it seems. Either use a source like Praisecharts or Paul Baloche’s charts, or find a college music student who needs cash and hire them to transcribe the melody and harmonies.

3. Teach these written out harmonies by rote for those who do not read music; those who read music will love having their exact part in front of then and will help you teach the other singers.

If you are a worship leader and do not read music, recruit someone your team who does read music to be the vocal music director for you. Then take a music theory course and beef up your skills.

4. Point out the harmonic choices you or the recording artist made in the arrangement so that your singers begin to understand how you think and what you are listening for.

Example: Please, for goodness sake, do not put a minor 7th in the harmonies unless you are singing southern Gospel or jazz! From the Inside Out is neither of these!

5. Do not just tell your singers to figure out the harmonies themselves unless you are in a hard spot. Even excellent singers who have sung with you for a long time will make different decisions than you would and you will end up wasting rehearsal time getting everyone on the same page.

Winging it and freestyle are nice with pros, but in the minor leagues of worship ministry you need to firmly direct your singers in learning harmonies. The result will be an extremely tight harmonic sound.

How do you teach harmonies to your singers?

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The Difference Between Worship Leaders and Spiritual Leaders

Did you think these were one and the same thing?  Never thought about it?  I have only begun to think about this recently.

Worship leaders and spiritual leaders can be the same person, but that is not a given.  In fact, in my experience worship leaders have to learn to be spiritual leaders.

For instance, I grew up playing on worship bands.  By the time I was finishing high school I was leading worship from time to time, and by the time I graduated college I was the primary worship leader at my dad’s church.  After grad school I took a job at a church and became the primary worship leader there in both the traditional and the contemporary services.

I’ve been leading worship for over 20 years now, but only in the past 5 years have I actually began to be a spiritual leader.

I have noticed some key differences between worship leaders and spiritual leaders.

  1. Worship leaders lead and prepare teams to lead events.  Spiritual leaders lead people.
  2. Worship leaders choose music to propel the theme of a service or fit a particular “slot” in the service.  Spiritual leaders choose music to speak to people’s hearts, and then think about the theme.
  3. Worship leaders hold rehearsals for events.  Spiritual leaders use rehearsals to find out where the team members are in their own walk with God.

Spiritual leaders care most about the people they are leading, not the product.

I have spent much of my life trying to be excellent in music and produce good services.  These are good things.  The problem is, I was pursuing those goals ahead of caring about the people on my teams.

If you want to be a spiritual leader and not just a worship leader or some other kind of leader, here are a few thoughts to consider.

  1. People are most important.  Period.
  2. Because people are most important, you will need to sacrifice other things in order to succeed in keeping people as a top priority.
  3. In rehearsal sometimes we have to let a detail go for the sake of encouraging the volunteer rather than running the volunteer into the ground for the sake of perfection.  Note: This does not mean horrible intonation and sister Mary’s autoharp get to go unaddressed.  This does mean that a missed note here or there is not the end of the world.
  4. Prayer, group sharing, and devotions are critical in rehearsals, not just music.  Note: This does not give you license to hold a revival meeting instead of rehearsal.  This does mean you should take 15 minutes to help your volunteers prepare their hearts and support each other with God’s help.
  5. In a service a slight change on the fly to meet a discovered need is worth a few seconds of disarray.  I have my mentor, Stephen Michael Newby, to thank for this.  He likes to shout “Reggae” and other random musical styles in the middle of a song and expects his players to switch the style.  Needless to say, he only does this when working with higher level musicians, but there always are a few moments of disarray.  The overall result is awesome, though, and Stephen makes these changes when he feels it will help bring people along in worship, not to be “cool.”
  6. If you have to choose between writing a cool new song for the service and having a coffee with a volunteer, choose the volunteer.

As you love people, people will love you and God will bless you.  Worship leading becomes much easier when you are a spiritual leader first, because suddenly people want to follow you where’ve you are leading them.

In fact, musical excellence will thrive when an excellent worship leader is also an excellent spiritual leader.

Your team members will relax and perform better because as a spiritual leader you have demonstrated that you care more about them than you do about whether they are perfectly executing a piece of music.

What changes do you need to make in order to be a better spiritual leader?

How to Change Your Team Culture

One evening I arrived at rehearsal and I was checking in with team members to see if they all had the correct charts. I had recently started working at this church and I was fully engaged in changing the music culture by re-charting every song in the new notated format.

The learning curve was steep, but I firmly believed that because the songs were familiar learning the charts would be easier.  All the musicians needed to do was look at the chart and relate the new symbols with what they heard in their heads from the last time they led the song.  Piece of cake, right?

Change Is Not a Piece of Cake

Change Is Not a Piece of Cake

Wrong.

Here comes Ted (name changed to protect the innocent), his hands empty.  “Hi, Ted.  Did you get the new charts?”  “Hi, Maurice.  You know, I went to download them and when they printed out the font was so small I just threw them away.  I’m just going to wing it tonight.”

Needless to say, I was ticked at his cavalier attitude, but I should not have been surprised.  Change is hard, and I had just learned a lesson the hard way.  I thought that I could take what I learned from my last job, apply it at my new job, and be on my way.  The opposite could not have been more true.

Always assume you know nothing.

I was assuming incorrectly that what I had learned at my previous job applied to my new position.  I was arrogantly overlooking the obvious: the people were new, the mission of the church was new, . . . um, everything was new.  I was rushing ahead completely unaware of how much I was straining the team and my new relationship with them.

I was eventually able to change the music culture, but I had to almost completely begin again.  If you are considering making a change on your worship or ministry team, here are some points to consider.

Honor the status quo.

Ask lots of questions.  Dig through the entire server for every possible related file.  Find out the history of and reasoning behind the current system.  Make certain the team knows you value what has been.  This can be difficult when you really, really dislike the status quo.  Suck it up and be the grown-up in the relationship.

Explain what you are going to change and why.

If possible, do this in a separate meeting.  When I was at Lakeshore Community Church the leadership often made use of 15 minute quick meetings between services to give teams simple updates.  On more weighty issues, like culture change, another venue with no time constraints is better.  Answer questions.  Be kind.  Use “I” statements, and do not ever down the old system.  DO explain where the team is going and how the old system is not able to get you there.

Communicate, communicate, communicate.  This is not a one-time shot.  You have to do this over, and over, and over again.

Take small steps.

Be patient.  It may feel like Chinese water torture, but you will build trust with your team if you work the long plan.  In my case I dropped back to just one new chart per week, which meant that 4 or 5 charts per week were familiar.

My boss, the Creative Arts Pastor, asked me each week if each person on the team had played the newer charts.  This way we knew exactly how much change each team member was experiencing.  I owe him, Frank De Luccio, a lot in learning to consider each person each week.

Communicate.

As you take small steps, continue to ask questions along the way.  In my previous job I had created charts with two staves: vocal over rhythm.  I had also reduced each page to 80% to keep the charts mostly on two pages.

I found at Lakeshore that I needed to create separate, individual rhythm and vocal charts.  I also began reducing the page to only 90%.

I began putting song format in the upper left hand corner of the first page so that musicians could tell at a glance what order the verses, choruses, and bridges came in the song.

Say thank you.  A lot.

Acknowledge the difficulty for the team members.  Listen when they complain and try not to rip their heads off when they buck you.  They are volunteers and life has enough change, thank you very much.

Treat your volunteers with the same respect and grace you want them to give to you.

Keep a humble, grateful attitude, combined with firm forward movement and communication, and you will get there.

What steps do you need to take as you initiate change?

6 Ways Notated Charts Can Strengthen Your Church

If there are silver bullets in worship ministry, notated charts may be one of them. Notated charts have been one of my most powerful tools.  

Good notated charts have enabled me to more effectively guide musicians and raise engagement within the congregation.  I have also been able to bring the vision of my senior pastor to life time and time again especially because I employed notated charts with my teams.

Whether I was leading Deathbed by Relient K for an Easter service drama, Who Am I Living For by Katy Perry for a message on purpose in life, or It Was Finished on the Cross by Regi Stone and Kristie Braselton as a response to the message, notated charts have been critical in enabling the church to have truly life changing worship experiences.  

Here is what I mean by notated charts:

  • Notated melodies and harmonies
  • Chord symbols
  • No tab
  • Rhythms notated using actual notes for solos along with a mixture of rhythmic and slash notation
  • Lyrics with the lemony, and only lyric cues for the rhythm part
  • Occasional notated drum patterns as guides
  • Tempo markings (descriptor as well as numerical and note values)

Have you tuned out yet?  Hello . . . McFly?

For those of you who have not studied music, set that aside for a moment and just go with me on this.

For those of you who think I have tuned out the work of the Holy Spirit all together, consider that teaching is a spiritual gift and notated charts are part of teaching your musicians to lead on a higher level.

Here are a few reasons NOT to use notated music with your musicians:

  1. To screen out “lesser” musicians.  You are not running the local philharmonic.  Musicians in church need to use their gifts to honor God and bless others, not live up to your expectations.
  2. To help you achieve your “dream” music team.  It’s not about you.  Period.  Get your musical kicks elsewhere.
  3. To impress professional musicians.  It’s not about them, either.  Oh, and impressing others means you’re still stuck on stroking your own ego, which we just mentioned.
  4. To impress your musical and worship colleagues.  Last time I checked this was not about you.  Again.
  5. To achieve your worldwide mission to restore the arts through the church.
I have been guilty of using every one of these excuses either consciously or subconsciously as a reason to use notated music.  I love to be good at music, and I can be a perfectionist in a moment if I am not careful.

Humans have an amazing tendency to be selfish and arrogant, even in church leadership.  Actually, Andy Stanley has said in a recent podcast Courage in Leadership that leaders are even more susceptible than the average person.  We as leaders have to constantly guard against self-centered-ness.

Christ is all about people, and we should be, too.

Why you should use notated music with your worship team:

  1. Every musician, especially those in the church, should be committed to improving their ability.  In the Parable of the Talents Jesus tells the story of three servants to whom the master entrusts his wealth.  Two servants double his investment, but the third is afraid and hides the master’s money.  The master comes back and is furious with the lazy servant.  Jesus expects us to improve and maximize the investment he has made in us.  We want children to graduate from picture books because they can find a much wider world waiting for them; why do we not want adults to see the wider world waiting for them through notated music?
  2. Notated charts unify worship teams.  One of the reasons I notate the melodies and harmonies of worship songs is to answer questions before they are asked.  Any musician on the team can pull out the chart and know exactly where they are supposed to sing harmony or unison, and exactly what those parts are.  The same goes for the rhythm players.  So much rehearsal time can be wasted arguing over what note someone is supposed to sing.  Good leaders answer questions before they are asked.
  3. Notated charts ensure a reliable experience for your team members.  Musicians love to know what to expect, so when you provide reliable charts that look exactly the same every time you are helping them to learn and feel at ease, and you are also saving tons of prep/rehearsal time for them.
  4. Notated charts help ensure the congregation hears a consistent product.  One of the best ways to annoy your church attendees is to sing a song’s melody slightly different every week.  These are amateur musicians at best, shower singers most often, and they are used to learning songs that are exactly the same every time they hear them.  Do you want to up your engagement in the services?  Sing a melody exactly the same every time.
  5. Notated charts save rehearsal time.  In the long run well written and notated charts can save you tons of time in rehearsal, and who doesn’t love that?  Yes, I said the long run, but it is worth it.  Love your team by giving them more time at home.
  6. Notated charts enable your team to play more difficult music.  Above you see the first page of a chart I made for Paradise by Coldplay.  Lakeshore Community Church in Rochester, NY, used this song yesterday in their Easter services.  This song is too complex to be well adapted from a chord chart.

You may have noticed by now that every one of these reasons have to do with improving the worship experience for either the congregation or the musicians.  Embracing notated charts can open up great possibilities for unifying your musicians, engaging your congregation, and realizing your senior pastor’s vision.

How could your church benefit from notated charts?

How to Value Your Volunteers and Avoid Being an Ostrich

Have you ever volunteered for something and come away feeling used?  Or have you felt burnt out working for someone because you did not feel appreciated?

Whether you are a volunteer or a staff member, feeling valued in tangible ways by the leader makes all of the difference.  An easy work load or a tough one really do not make the difference so much as the atmosphere in which you serve.  And, yes, even as an employee you are serving your boss.  Emplyees volunteer to work for their boss.

If you have a high turn over rate in volunteers or employees, ask yourself whether or not they are feeling valued.  Do you have exit conversations or interview with people who are leaving to ask them why, or do you let the door hit them on the way out?  If you do not know specifically why people are leaving, you cannot improve your chances of keeping the people you have.

You’re sticking your head in the sand.  Like an ostrich.

Recently I noticed that a choir member was no longer coming to rehearsal and singing.  Because I am in a retiree area, having people miss from time to time is not unusual, so it was not until after a few weeks that I called and left a message for this person asking if everything was ok.

Note: do not ask if everything is ok unless you want to hear the answer.

I got a detailed email back outlining not only the crazy life things they were dealing but also the issues they had with the way I direct the choir.  Their tone was not mean, just honest.  I sent a note back genuinely thanking them for their response, I told them I would be praying for them, and then I told them what I learned from their email.  I did not guarantee I would  do everything as they liked; I just said (honestly) that I was going to try to learn from their poor experience.

In response this person said they may come back, and they appreciated my inquiry.  I wish all of my interactions went this well.  I do not know if this person will actually come back, but I have repaired a bridge I did not know was broken.

Here are a few suggestions for making volunteers (and staff) feel valued.

1.  Ask them how they are doing, about their family, about their hobbies, and then listen.  Just asking = no kudos.  Asking and paying attention = major kudos.

2.  Ask people who have quit why they are quitting, and then listen.  The people who still volunteer for you will see this as maturity and a willingness to grow and will respect you.

3.  Cancel staff meeting or rehearsal and take them someplace fun.  At one church the senior pastor bought us all tickets to the minor league team in town and we skipped staff meeting that week.  Talk about a morale booster!

4.  If a volunteer or staff member mentions a struggle, pray with them right then and there.  Being a spiritual leader has very little to do with words and everything to do with actions.

5.  Follow up with them on prayer requests and concerns they have shared.  If a volunteer or staff member mentions a struggle and you pray with them, they are appreciative.  If you follow up with them a few days or week later, they begin to feel valued and safe.

6.  Be straight up.  In my last interim position, I felt a little like Wesley in The Princess Bride.  “Good night, Wesley.  I’ll most likely kill you in the morning.”  The pastors said very clearly they were looking for a younger person and a guitarist to be their music pastor, both of which I was not. Every week they would say, “We love what you’re doing, and here is where we are in the search for the right person.”  Oddly enough, I felt very secure because I knew exactly where I stood with them.  Ultimately they adjusted their view and I got the job, but that is another story.

7.  Ask their opinion, and then incorporate their advice.  If you always dictate what should happen and never ask for their input, volunteers and staff will feel unneeded.  People want to be needed, and you should be humble enough to know that you need them.

8.  Don’t rush.  The “Putting Out Fires” syndrome is one of the biggest diseases in church.  Leaders think that they are saving their church when they run around putting out fires, when often really all they are doing is servicing the tantrums of children.  When pastors service the urgent “fires” first, they neglect the important work of spending significant time with their staff and volunteers.  Rarely are urgent and important the same thing.

Patience and time are two of the most valuable gifts a leader can give to their volunteers and employees.  (The same is true for your family, incidentally.)

The only “fires” that are truly “fires worth putting out immediately” are serious illness, actual fires, public sin, and aggressive malicious behavior.  “I don’t like the music,” or “Brother Jerry hurt my feelings 10 years ago when he stopped wearing a tie,” are not fires.

How do you tangibly value your volunteers?

How I Got My Team’s Attention

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?

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?