Why Gospel Musicians Don’t Share Playing Tips

So I put out a challenge on my fan page the other day asking all my musicians to do a “1 minute lesson” with someone. The next time someone asked for help or tips, take them aside and just show them one simple thing they could take with them and practice. The idea was to break some of the negative images Gospel musicians have as selfish arrogant people who never give back.

Now, usually if I send a shout-out to the musicians on my fan page they show up in droves, chatting and posting comments, participating in the conversation and really hanging out with me. This time though, all I got in response was the finely tuned sound of crickets chirping. This is not something most musicians care to discuss.

Someone posted and asked me the question “So what is the reason most musicians don’t want to share tips?” I thought about it a while, trying to determine the best way to explain it to her without making the post too long. Well that didn’t work. My answer went on for several paragraphs, lol! But it got the attention of at least one musician who had an “OMG” moment, leaving me a kudos-filled comment generously sprinkled with lots of exclamation points.

So suffice it to say that I thought the answer seemed too important to leave it there on the page to be pushed down until it’s eventually out of sight. So I decided to post my answer as a blog for all my readers here. I hope this offers a different perspective for you to think about the next time this comes up for whatever reason. Or the next time you’re headed toward that organ after the benediction.

“So what is the reason must musicians don’t want to share tips?”

I have to qualify my answer by first saying I’m not at the level of many of the musicians who frequent the page. But while there could be any number of reasons, I think a lot of it has to do with the way people approach musicians about showing them things.

Highly skilled musicians don’t get that way by accident. Their skill represents years of dedicated practicing for sometimes hours at a time. People often approach musicians wanting to bypass that work and just go straight to the cool chords or the great run.

For example someone might hear a great chord and want the musician to show it to him note by note. But the musician knows the chord because he has painstakingly studied theory and learned how to build these amazing chords.

He also knows that most people who ask for the chords wouldn’t really know how to use it anyway. Then of course there is the proprietary aspect of such things as chords and runs, and how they tend to define the signature sound of one musician vs. another one. Musicians often create these chords and runs from scratch. 

They work very hard developing such things, and I think it’s just a matter of wanting to see that kind of initiative in someone else, rather than simply asking for the notes.

One other example just to really illustrate it. Often skilled musicians will do these amazing runs. People hear them do it and then want the musician to just give them the run note by note. But the musician has studied and learned several different types of scales and their application, carefully worked the run out note by note and created it from scratch, then spent hours developing the muscle memory and speed..

So you can imagine he or she might be reluctant when someone walks up and just wants him to give it to them note by note. I think if people were asking musicians questions about practice tips and good resources to learn theory, etc. they’d get much less evasive answers. 

I think you see musicians more willingly sharing with other musicians who have also achieved the same level or similar level. Simply because they know that person is at least as serious and as dedicated as he is.

People say that musicians don’t share because they’re selfish or worried about someone taking their spot, but seldom does a skilled musician have that to worry about, because so few people are willing to put the same amount of work in. 

So this one-minute lesson challenge doesn’t ask musicians to do that. That’s why I called it a “one minute lesson” challenge. One minute or so is enough time to show that guy asking for the notes to the run you did the pentatonic scale, and explain to him that the scale is often used in many runs you hear in church. Then challenge him to learn the scale in all 12 keys.

If you’re trying to really take your playing to the next level you won’t get there asking for quick tips after church. You need some training. Specifically, training designed specifically for Gospel Musicians. The source I use and highly recommend is The Gospel Music Training Center, from Hear And Play. I’ve been a customer for years and they’ve helped me tremendously. Check it out here.

5 steps to effective, productive rehearsals

5Nothing is more frustrating than having a rehearsal and not getting anything done. Over the years I’ve come to understand that there are some very common things that almost always quickly derail rehearsals. I’ve had the pleasure of spending just about all of my over 30 years in music ministry at one church, working with the same music ministry. We’ve tweaked our process over the years, and several of the suggestions I’ll offer here are things that God just showed me were the causes of our own struggles.

Every music department has it’s own challenges and it’s own unique circumstances, but there are some things you find in common in almost all ministries who are having trouble having productive rehearsals. Here are, I believe, the top 5 things every choir, praise team or other group should be doing to help insure they have effective, productive rehearsals.

1. Know in advance what songs you will be learning and/or going over at the next rehearsal

Make a list of those songs and insure all musicians, directors and song leaders involved have that list several days before rehearsal. Never come to rehearsal with no itinerary or goal, then simply brainstorm about what to go over once you get there. You will get NOWHERE.

2. Insure that all musicians, directors and lead vocalists have the material in advance and expect them to be prepared to play, sing, teach, or direct it by rehearsal time.

*In order to have productive rehearsals there must be studying, practicing and preparation made before the rehearsal for everyone involved with teaching it to the choir or group. The musicians should not come to rehearsal and begin learning the song then. The leader should not be hearing the song for the first time at rehearsal. The director/minister of music/parts instructor must be prepared in advance to teach or take the group over the material that will be covered.

3. Do NOT play recordings of the song(s) you’re going over or learning at your rehearsals.

This is something God had to reveal to me years ago. When we wanted to learn something new we would bring the tape and play it at the rehearsal. Then we’d spend the next hour arguing about every single little detail of the song and how we’re not doing it like they did it on the record. When we stopped listening to the original at rehearsal and instead started teaching the songs live with the musicians playing the material, we literally cut hours off the time by eliminating all the bickering and comparing everything to the record.

If you’re an organization that depends heavily on playing the cd at rehearsal to learn the song you might be wondering how you’re going to switch to not doing it. For the answer, re-read number 2. 🙂 Seriously, take this step and you won’t believe the difference it will make and the amount of time you’ll save.

4. Assign one person to be in charge of conducting rehearsals and make sure everyone understands and respects that person’s position and authority as such.

That means one person is in charge of taking the group over all familiar material and one person is in charge of teaching all new material. This is usually the same person but it doesn’t have to be. For example, our choir director takes us over old material that we already know. Even though I also direct, I’m more of a back-up or assistant in that capacity. My primary job is teaching new material or correcting harmony/parts on old material.

But when one of us is up, that person has the floor and everyone’s attention. If this is not currently the way things are set in your ministry that person may need to be assigned publicly by the choir president or pastor and given that authority in such a way that it is publicly understood.  But I will say this: Authority must be earned. When I get up to teach now, I have the full and absolute attention of whatever group I’m teaching at the time. There is no debating about what I’m teaching.

But I’ve earned that respect by coming into rehearsals fully prepared and ready for over 30 years now. In short, the members know when I get up that I’m ready and I know my stuff. It’s hard to see you as an authority if I feel like I know as much as you do. That will always be the case when you are consistently unprepared to teach or direct without a lot of fumbling or mistakes.

For that reason the person in charge needs to be prepared for every rehearsal, period. He or she needs to have that list of songs and know them well enough to take the group through them with certainty and authority. Yes, this means you must spend more of your personal time preparing for rehearsal. But believe me when I tell you, you will absolutely get that time back in the form of shorter, more productive rehearsals.

5. Whenever possible, avoid using lyric sheets.

I get a lot of push-back on this, honestly. It’s not a popular idea because people use lyric sheets as crutches and are very reluctant to give them up. But again, this is another concept I’m absolutely certain God revealed to me years ago, and yet another one that resulted in much more effective rehearsals once we implemented it. I cover this in great detail in my blog “why you should STOP using lyric sheets to learn songs asap“. But unless you’re learning 5 or 6 new songs in one night, lyric sheets will actually slow the song learning process, not speed it up. Again, read Why you should STOP using lyric sheets to learn songs asap for a detailed discussion about the subject.

So there it is! These are powerful changes we made at our choir rehearsals that really helped us go to another level. But I use the same approach with the praise team, the youth choir and any other group that will sing at church. I pray they’ll work for your ministry as well. Don’t forget to let me know how it goes!

5 ways learning to play piano will transform your singing ministry

octavesEvery singer longs to be the best they can at their craft. But of all the training, articles, You-Tube videos, books and manuals we consult for help though, the one most powerful thing a singer can do to improve virtually every aspect of his singing is often completely overlooked. That is learning to play an instrument. In particular, learning to play piano.

Today I’ll cover a list of powerful benefits a singer will get from learning to play piano.

1. Harmony becomes instinctive for you

Many singers struggle with learning and remembering their parts in situations where they have to sing harmony with others. Even those who pick it up easily can not often find that harmony themselves without someone teaching them their part. Learning to play gives you a completely new insight into harmony and how it works. You learn how to form chords, how notes harmonize with each other and how to build those harmonies from scratch. As a result singing harmony becomes second nature to you because you now understand how it’s constructed and how it works.
2. You become more creative vocally

Aside from the more common desires we have for more range, better breath control, vocal stamina, power and the like, many of us just feel kinda stuck, you know what I mean? We feel like we’re doing the same stuff all the time. The same vocal inflections, same runs and riffs. Learning to play piano opens your creative mind up in ways you’ve never thought of before. I’ve said before that your voice is a musical instrument and you should think of it that way. Learning to play bridges that mental divide between the physical instrument and the vocal instrument, your voice.

As you get better and better on the piano you’ll find that you get more and more creative with your style choices when you sing riffs, runs and even just normal melody choices within a song.

3. Everything about music comes easier and faster for singers who can also play piano

To learn piano you have to learn some musical theory. You have to learn how music works. Why music always goes in certain directions. Why certain notes work together. Why things repeat in certain places. How music moves in patterns and circles. The more you learn about this in your studies of the piano the more aware it makes you as a singer. Soon you’re learning vocal pieces in half the time. You know what your part is going to be before the director or musician gives it to you. You know what keys you sing all your songs in and how to tell the musician where you want him to go. It’s an entirely new awakening for a singer. You really do become a musician in every sense of the word.

4. You don’t need a musician anymore. You can accompany yourself!!

This is probably the coolest benefit of all. And if you’ve ever been asked to go sing at a church you’ve never been before only to find that the musician (a) doesn’t know the song you want to sing or (b) there IS no musician!) then you know what an incredible sense of freedom that would be. To be able to just sit down and play for yourself. Wow.

5. You’ll start writing your own material

When you learn to play an instrument something happens to your entire creative process as a singer. It makes you think differently. So it’s only a matter of time before you start hearing melodies and getting little phrases to go with them. Before you know it you’re getting ideas for songs. It’s an amazing gift.

There is no other single thing that can benefit a singer more ways than learning to play piano. Contrary to what you might think though, it’s not something that’s out of your reach or too hard to do. Today there not only many home study options available, but several that specialize and focus specifically on learning to play Gospel. When I went looking for some training to improve my own playing some time ago, I came across a company called Hear And Play.

Hear And Play is a Gospel is a piano training company that specializes in learning to play all aspects of Gospel music. These guys have absolutely set the standard by which all other such companies are judged, in my opinion. I’ve learned so much since I started following them and purchasing their training products, and my own playing has improved tremendously. What I like about this company is that no matter what level you’re on; complete beginner who doesn’t know anything at all, or seasoned professional who wants to take his playing to still another level, Hear And Play has training methods and products available for you.

I have been so impressed with this group of young, saved, African-American musicians that I became an affiliate of the company so I can help promote this incredible resource. That simply means that if you end up buying something from them I’ll get a small commission. I don’t mind sharing that with you because I’d tell you about them either way. I highly recommend checking these guys out. Their 300 page course is one of the products I’ve purchased myself and again, I recommend highly.

Click the link below to go check it out.

Take care!

Ron

Why You Should STOP Using Lyric Sheets To Learn Songs ASAP

Act 2 Scene 1Whether you’re working with a choir, praise team, group or even if you’re a solo act, chances are you’re experiencing (or have at some time or other) trouble remembering the lyrics and keys to new songs. This is an especially common issue in Gospel music ministries where sheet music is almost never used. Often it can really take a while to get both the lyrics and the harmony locked in and memorized. Even once it seems like you finally have it down at rehearsal, many groups find that they have forgotten much of it by Sunday morning.

One thing choir directors and Music Ministers do to help keep the rehearsal moving along and assist with the learning process is to pass out lyric sheets. Ironically though, lyric sheets do much more to cause the problem than they do to fix it. I’d say the single most effective thing you can do to cut learning time and improve retention is to STOP using lyric sheets at your rehearsals.
Lyric sheets are a “mental crutch” of sorts because they cripple your ability to memorize the lyrics and melodies that are being sung to you. Think for a minute about the way we learned things as a child. Consider the alphabet, for example. Most of us already knew the alphabet way before we got to kindergarten. For a child It’s 26 random letters in no particular order. And most of us never saw it in print until we got to kindergarten. Wouldn’t matter anyway, because we couldn’t read!

So how did we learn the alphabet, some of us before we could even talk? That little song, of course. Our parents sang that little song over and over to us. To our brains, the letters and the melody they were sang over became one inseparable thing. We are only able to recite the alphabet now without music because we learned that song first. If you don’t think so, try saying them backwards right now. You’ll be able to do it but you’ll have to put much more thought into it than going forward. Why? There’s no backward alphabet song, lol!

If you were blessed enough to be a kid during the School-House Rock era you can think of all kinds of things you know today because of those songs they sang to us every Saturday morning. But here’s the amazing thing; you still know those songs decades later! Go ahead, sing “We The People”. How about “Conjunction Junction”? Go ahead, I’ll wait. 🙂

The unique thing about learning songs in particular is that process I mentioned earler where your brain actually uses the melody to memorize the lyrics, and vice-versa. Place a lyric sheet in front of you and the process is interrupted. First of all your brain will not make the effort to memorize lyrics as long as you have them in front of you.

That beautiful process our brain does without lyrics- that marrying of words and melody into one inseparable thing- gets “separated” by lyric sheets. When you’re looking at the words as they’re being sung to you your brain focuses less on the melody so you tend to have a harder time memorizing your part. But you also have a harder time memorizing the lyrics because they’re right in front of you. So your brain just reads instead of memorizing.

Then the instructor goes back over your part again, only now you can’t remember the words without looking at the lyrics. They have a way of switching your brain off. In fact chances are you’ve found yourself looking at a lyric sheet and not even really focusing on the words in front if you. Or tried to follow along on a lyric sheet while you listened to the song and actually having trouble keeping up. Or looked at a lyric sheet when you already had the words memorized, just because it’s in front of you. So lyric sheets actually do much more to slow down the song learning process than they do to speed it along.

Left to do its work as God designed it, our brain uses the melody to teach us the words and the words to remember the melody. So when you get up Sunday morning to sing a new song, nervous because you think you’ve forgotten the words, it all comes flooding back as soon as you hear the band start the intro. Then the director mouths just the first 2 or 3 words and there it is. the whole song, words and parts, ready to burst forth.

To be sure, there are certain situations when having lyric sheets is practical. Mass rehearsals where you must cover a large number of songs, for instance. If you have 10 songs to rehearse it makes sense to have the lyrics just to keep things moving. Even then though, you should be strongly encouraging the group to use them as little as possible and move away from them completely once you’ve gone over all the material enough that everyone should be familiar.

So whether you’re the person responsible for teaching new material or just a member of the choir or group, using lyric sheets as little as possible is the fastest way to dramatically speed up the song learning process and improve retention. Try it at the next rehearsal and let me know how it goes!

If you’re going to stay, be dedicated

“If you’re going to stay, be dedicated”. No, that’s not what I’m telling you. It’s what God told me Sunday evening, driving home from an engagement with the choir. He didn’t say it in those words exactly. Sometimes He doesn’t have to say anything at all, you know what I mean? It’s just that heavy feeling of conviction that you get sometimes. Suddenly things become clear and you get an epiphany without anyone saying anything at all.

Such was the case Sunday evening driving home from a musical where our choir was scheduled to sing.  People were missing. Important people. Musicians. Our director. Tenors. But I was there and Monica, my dear friend and minister of music was there. So I could stand in as director and other musicians there could help her out with the song. And we had a choir.

We  were first on the program. We go up, I stand in as director, Monica plays for us with help from other musicians that were there, and everything goes fine. You must be thinking at this point “sounds like everything worked out, what’s the problem?” You’re right, everything did.

But in the hallway after we exited the choir stand Monica came up to me and said “I was so scared, Ron. I thought I was going to have to try to direct and play in front of all these people. I didn’t see you back there.”

Again, I was there to direct, we had all the choir members we needed and everything worked out. But I couldn’t feel good about it because as soon as Monica came up to me and expressed how upset she was before she found out I was there, it’s like God slammed into my head every instance I had put her in that position before by not being there myself like others weren’t there that time. Even if everyone else was.

You kinda have to be familiar with the traditions and practices of Pentecostal/Church Of God In Christ denomination to really understand how often this situation occurs. In the COGIC denomination it’s very common for these “evening services” to occur several times a month, either at your own church or at someone else’s.  You go to your regular Sunday morning service and serve, get out for an hour or two and then you’re back for a second service, usually dismissing around 7.

So music departments are constantly on the go and constantly going to second services. They make for some very long days. Over the years I’d become jaded with the whole thing to the point I was starting to wonder if it was time to switch denominations. But I didn’t feel like I was hearing that from God. I felt like it was my own frustrations with denominational traditions and whatever else I decided to have a problem with.

So rather than leave over it I decided I would simply find my own balance. I’d go to these extra things when I felt like it, as long as I took care of home events. Over time I became known for NOT going to engagements away from the church and was simply not expected to be there.

I hope you’re getting a better picture of what’s going on here and why this particular Sunday ended up being a defining moment for me as far as my ministry is concerned. You see, today I had made up my mind I was going; first because it was a special request of our pastor that we all be there. Secondly I’d really been trying to make an effort to simply be more faithful about going to outside engagements.

So I was there, and thank God I was. But God wasn’t about to allow me to feel like I had come in and “saved the day” or something, no. When my friend of over 30 years walked up to me in that hallway, looked into my eyes and told me how panicked she was in the seconds leading up to  mounting the choir stand…knowing she didn’t have her band there to help her and thinking she didn’t have a director either…I thought of all the other times she must have been the only musician. Even worse though, I thought “what if I hadn’t came today?”

Our drummer and bass player were arriving as we were leaving the parking lot, over an hour late to the engagement. I was angry. But really all it did was heap more coals onto my own head.
I felt so much personal conviction in that car driving down the highway. I didn’t hear any voices, guys. I didn’t think the words. I didn’t hear a small still voice in my head. I didn’t hear my conscious talking to me.

I just knew everything at once. I knew that whatever issues I was having with COGIC and the way they do things, as long as I was going to stay I was simply going to have to be more dedicated. It’s funny because we had a meeting at work one day about a bunch of changes and all the challenges they were causing us.

The regional manager put it this way. “I understand that things are tough. I’m dealing with a lot of stuff I don’t like and I’m not happy with. But at the end of the day if I don’t like it I can walk. I can vote with my feet,” he said. “But as long as I decide to stay I understand that I OWN it.”.

That’s what I felt like God was telling me in that car, without saying anything to me at all. If I feel like it’s time for me to go then I need to pray about it, get confirmation and start looking for a new church home. But for as long as I feel like I’m supposed to be where I am, I need to be dedicated. I need to own my position and all the responsibilities that come with it. Regardless of how I feel about anything outside of that music ministry, that’s my job for as long as I “own it”.

About halfway home I sent my friend a text message that read:  “I’ll be there from now on, Monica”.

Piano Fingering; which finger goes where and why?

I’ve been playing keyboard for years now, but I’m self taught and I’ve never had lessons. One thing I struggle with often, especially when trying to do some kind of run or something, is where to place my fingers. What’s the proper fingering for all those great piano and organ runs? How do you know where to place your fingers on the keyboard or organ when you’re doing Gospel runs?

Well I found a video that really made it plain for me. I love it when someone teaches in plain, easy-to-understand language. The instructor in this video really did a great job of taking something that many piano teachers over-complicate, and explaining it in very common-sense language. I’ve never heard proper piano fingering explained quite this way. Check it out and by all means, please follow the link over to his channel and subscribe or leave him a comment.

Piano Fingering: Which Finger Goes Where, And Why?

http://www.playpianocatalog.com Piano Fingering: Which Finger Goes Where, And Why? There are some excellent reasons to use the fingering that is recommended …

Maximizing Defining moments in your ministry

ID-10094994If you’ve been serving in music ministry any length of time- especially in a leadership or “simi-leadership” role, chances are you’ve had something happen that changed your view of where you are. Something that made you say “wow, I wasn’t ready.” Or “Oh wow, if I had known how to do this or that, we would have been able to do this or that”.

I may not quite be making sense here just yet so let me give you a couple of examples. I often talk about my dear friend Monica, the minister of music at my church, and the lifetime of friendship and service we’ve shared working side by side in the music ministry there.

One year on the first rehearsal of our huge annual Family And Friends rehearsal with a house full of participating visitors, I walked up to the front of the room to begin  teaching my first song. I was waiting for my band to begin playing like they always do, but they were struggling with the music.

After several uncomfortable minutes of that I suggested we go to another song. It was pretty-much the same thing there too. I was NOT happy, and I shared that very candidly with the guys later. I can’t believe, I told them, you guys had me out there like that in front of all those guests. Monica has shared with me many times since that incident that she vowed from that moment on to never ever be caught not ready for another rehearsal. And she hasn’t.

I recently shared with my followers on the fan page a story about how, after years of saying I can’t play and sing at the same time, a situation that the devil was using to try to undermine the ministry of the praise team forced me to have a similar epiphany. There I was, sitting there with the talent and ability to fix this issue simply by DECIDING- because it’s always our choice whether or not to do what it takes to go to the next level in our ministry- to start putting forth the effort to start singing and playing. It was a defining moment that caused me to make changes that have helped the praise team thrive and become more and more powerful each Sunday, it seems.

Recently our choir director accepted his call to the ministry. Shortly after, and without any notice at all, he decided to step down, leaving us scrambling for solutions. Well everyone knows I direct, but everyone also knows that I teach 4 groups, play for everybody along with the band and everything that comes along with preparing for all that.

I was frustrated, to say the least. But even when Monica told me the news I decided (after I exercised my 5 second rule of music ministry, lol) to just be positive about it. But I’m human, and I was feeling frustrated and a little overwhelmed even. So much so that I actually sat out one Sunday to get my spirit right ( let’s just say sometimes it takes more than 5 seconds).

While I was out though, God began to show me things. You see Monica’s daughter Tiffany was in the choir for years and had left. She recently came back, joined the choir and the praise team and has been an important and productive member since then.

And it just so happens that Tiffany is an awesome, anointed, energetic director. So I’m thinking about all this and as I’m doing so God is showing me that He was in the plan from the beginning. That He was going to use the two of us working together to reignite a fire and enthusiasm in the choir that had been missing for a while.

These are just a couple of examples but I could go on and on. Because defining moments are always happening. In music ministry and in life, God always presents us with opportunities that show us very honestly where we are. Then He just kinda waits and watches to see what we’ll do.

It is at those moments that we can choose to be victims, blame others, make excuses, be negative. Even when we’re absolutely justified in our feelings,  there is usually a path God wants us to take that would put us on a direct course to a higher level of service and excellence in music ministry.

It is never without sacrifice. More time. More learning. More stretching. Being pushed out of comfortable places. But when we allow God to show us ourselves in these defining moments and then take steps to maximize them, God takes us higher. A year ago you couldn’t have told me I’d have my own dedicated microphone in front of the keyboard and I’d be singing and playing through much of the service. Or that I’d actually be excited about directing again in ADDITION to everything else I already do. But it’s not me I’m excited about. It’s what taking these steps will mean for my personal ministry and how positively they will impact the ministry I serve in.

Well, Tiffany stepped right in with only days notice and has been doing an amazing job as director. This past Sunday though, was the first Sunday that we both directed. It was one of those things I think everyone felt but nobody had verbalized yet. The paring of these two was going to be a good thing for the choir and God was in the plan.

After church we looked at each other and gave each other a high five. “I think we make a good team”, she told me. I smiled and said “This is the new era, T. We got next.” “We got this”, she said smiling back at me.

Have you had a defining moment in your own ministry? How did it change you? Leave a comment below. I’d love to hear your story.

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles / FreeDigitalPhotos.net