4 reasons your music department should hang out regularly

It’s common knowledge to most people that musicians who play together over a period of time start to get tighter and tighter at their craft. After a while watching them play together feels like you’re watching them read each other’s minds or something. This bond- this “gel”, if you will, is something that bands work very deliberately to develop. They do so by practicing together a lot, of course.

But bands have a tendency to do something that other groups- be it a choir, praise team, ensemble or other group- don’t tend to do.  Simply put, band members tend to be a lot more likely to hang out- together socially. I shared with you a while back in another blog how the band at my church and I have developed such a bond that they anticipate what I want when I’m teaching, even when my back is to them. That same cohesiveness extends to Sunday morning when we play together. We have gotten to a place where each member knows every other member’s style, their strengths, their weaknesses- we even know each other’s musical preferences.

Aside from the fact that we have worked together for so many years, I believe a big part of what has created this bond between us is that we regularly spend time just talking and laughing with each other. This usually happens at musician’s rehearsal, but it’s something we always take time to do. Musician’s rehearsal for us is like going out somewhere and just enjoying each other’s company as friends. Sure, we’re there for a reason and we have an agenda we need to get accomplished. But we just enjoy the process itself. We love playing together. But it’s the time we spend just laughing and clowning around that really makes the difference.

So, how often does your choir have a social event, like a dinner or some other outing? When is the last time all the members of the praise team or band got together away from the church?  This is something most ministries just don’t think about, actually. For some- and understandably so- they see it as yet another thing to do, or another place to have to be. But a group that spends time laughing, talking and just spending time together reaps huge benefits in their ministry.

Here are 4 ways your music ministry benefits when the members hang out regularly.

1. The members get to know each other more personally.

Although it’s common for some members of a group to know each other and perhaps even call each other regularly, most of us only see and communicate with each other at church and then at rehearsal. Having regular social gatherings gives members a chance to get to know each other more personally. This often leads to more cooperation in the group, less disagreeing, less jealousy, pettiness, etc.

2. Your members start to develop similar goals and wishes for the group as a whole

There’s nothing like being in an environment where you can talk freely. Groups who hang out find that the members get closer. When people become close they often take on similar views about things that are important to them. When a choir, for example, begins doing things regularly as a group, you’ll find that the members begin to share a common vision for the ministry. A greater sense of pride and “ownership” develops.

3.  Hanging out socially on a regular basis creates a strong bond

When a group starts making a deliberate effort to hang out and do social events together on a regular basis, they quickly start developing that same kind of “gel” effect that most musicians feel. Becoming closer as individuals makes you closer as a group. You’ll soon find the effects of this closer bond showing up not only in rehearsals, but in performances.

4. Having regular social gatherings for fun breaks up the monotony

Most music ministries have a similar routine; Have rehearsal to prepare for Sunday. Sing Sunday. Announce next rehearsal. Repeat. You’re not careful the repetitive nature of it can cause your ministry to slide into complacency or “autopilot” as I discussed in another article. Having regular social events helps keep your group’s ministry fresh and exciting by breaking up the “routine”.

So whether it’s a praise team, choir or some other group, try to make an effort to do some kind of social outing regularly. Do simple things like a “pot luck”, or bowling, skating, etc. Monthly may be too often for many people, so consider doing it every other month or even Quarterly,  even  for example. Any musical group that spends time laughing, talking and enjoying each other socially becomes, a tighter, closer, more cohesive group. And that makes for some powerful ministry.

 

 

How to survive a mass choir rehearsal

As I write this, we’re in the middle of rehearsals right now for our 13th annual Family & Friends Choir musical. This is the one time of year we open our choir up and allow anyone who has the desire to do so to come and join our ranks for one musical. We invite other church choirs we fellowship with, of course. But we also invite friends, family members and even members of our own congregation to come out and participate. Because we open the doors to our choir during this time of year without regard to any previous experience or knowledge of singing in the choir, it’s not uncommon to have members participating who have never sang in the choir before.

Even if you’ve done it for years though, these kinds of “mass choir rehearsals” tend to be very intense compared to your regular choir rehearsal at your own church. There is typically a large amount of material taught at a mass rehearsal. Depending on the instructor, the number of songs being taught and their level of difficulty, these rehearsals can be as long as 2 hours, even more in some cases. As the clinician for our annual musical for the entire 13 years I’ve seen some pretty common problems that almost everyone has at some point or another during these rehearsals. Today I’ll cover the 3 tips for dealing with the most common challenges of these grueling, mass-scale rehearsals.

1. Preserve your voice as much as possible

Choir rehearsals in general are some of the most stressful environments you can place your voice in. This is amplified in mass rehearsals where, again, there is just so much more material to cover. So you should go into these rehearsal with vocal preservation in mind. First, take some time to warm up on your way to rehearsal. If you don’t know any warm-up exercises, simple humming can be a great way to get your cords going and ready for intense use. I wrote about humming in another blog you can read here.

At the rehearsal, remember you seldom need as much effort or “air velocity” as you think. I have a tendency not to ask my choir members to sing hard or full voice while we’re learning the parts. There’s really no need to be hammering away when you’re just trying to get your key. However, many clinicians do want to hear that full, strong sound while they’re teaching the parts. If you can do light tone production while your part is being taught and then sing full voice when the instructor calls for everybody to sing, you’ll do strenuous singing only about half as often than you would normally.

Again, every instructor is different, so if you’re being pushed to sing louder go ahead and use full voice. Just keep the volume and air velocity to a minimum as much as possible. More about that in the next tip.

2. Don’t over-do it on modulations.

If you’re participating in a mass Gospel choir preparing for a musical, there WILL be at least one song that requires the choir to modulate. However most of us exert way more effort than we need, and way too early. For example, if you’re singing a song where you’ll be modulating by rising higher and higher in half-step increments (very common in gospel choir), many choir members will almost double the amount of air velocity or effort just going from the first key to the second key. By the time you get to the 3rd modulation you’re practically screaming on pitch.

Instead, try approaching the next key with no more pushing or volume than you used on the one before it. Depending on how many modulations you have to do, this could keep you singing comfortably all the way up to the last one or two keys. Most of us exert this extra effort not because we really need it, but simply because we automatically think we do whenever we know we’re going to a higher key. Try approaching each new key like the one before and you’ll be surprised at how much more comfortable you are.

3. Be smart with your lyric sheets- don’t lean on them too heavily

By far, the most challenging thing about these kinds of rehearsals for most people is the sheer amount of material that has to be memorized and the amount of time it has to be done in. To help with the process, many instructors provide lyric sheets for all the songs. However, if not used properly lyric sheets can and often do, become more of a hindrance than a help. If you want to read a deeper discussion about why and how they become a crutch that actually hampers the learning process, read about it here.

The short version though, is this: If you look at your lyric sheets the entire night, you will likely leave rehearsal having not retained anything at all. In fact it’s very common for people who do this to be still struggling with even the easiest songs after 3 rehearsals.

The smart way to use lyric sheets is as a guide only. Use them when your section’s part is being taught so you know what the instructor is saying and don’t have to stop him/her to ask. But that’s it. After your instructor has taught your section’s part you should begin making an effort not to look from then on. Remember the instructor will be repeating these lyrics again and again as all the section parts are taught. Take advantage of those repetitions by watching and listening to the other sections and NOT your lyric sheets. You’ll find that by the time the instructor is ready for everyone to sing together you’ll have just about memorized the passage from repetition. That’s a very general explanation though. I definitely encourage you to read the article I referenced earlier about lyric sheets; especially if you participate regularly in these kinds of rehearsals or you use lyric sheets in your own rehearsals.

Got a big event coming up for your choir? Let us help. Book Shena or myself as clinician for your next musical, annual or appreciation. We’ll come in and help prepare your choir for the big day.

 

 

4 ways to make a song work for your choir (that wasn’t meant for a choir)

the no musicLet’s face it, Gospel choirs are pretty scarce in the Gospel music industry these days. It is getting increasingly more difficult to find material for a Gospel choir to do week in and week out. And yet the Gospel choir is still very much a staple in the average African-American church. Invariably choirs have had to turn to the ensembles, groups and praise teams that dominate radio these days for material to sing every Sunday. This can cause several issues though, because these songs aren’t written to be sung by a choir. Quite often the harmony is more advanced. The songs are often more complex structurally too. Most of all though, the vocal ability is usually beyond what the average choir has been exposed to.
However, we have to be on our post week in and week out, regardless of how slim the pickings are for Gospel choirs to sing. So in spite of all the challenges that sometimes come with them, choirs almost have no choice but to add songs done by ensembles, groups and even solo acts to their roster. The good news is that many of them can still be done well with just a few adaptations. Below I’ve listed a few easy ways to modify these songs to fit your choir better.

1. Change the key

Songs by acts like Marvin Sapp and other popular Gospel artists are often out of the range of most Gospel choirs.. It may not even be the whole song, just one section of it. Don’t be afraid to drop the key a half-step or so. For some reason in our culture we really hate to do this. We’ll completely sacrifice the sound, our voices, scream and yell- anything to avoid changing the key. But very often dropping just a half step down would make a huge difference.

2. Eliminate difficult passages

It’s typical to run across a passage or section of songs like these that just wouldn’t work for a Choir. I had such an instance in a song our choir is doing for an upcoming musical. The song, Maurette Brown Clark’s “I Hear The Sound Of Victory”, makes the transition to choir pretty well except this one spot in the bridge where the background singers were simply too high for a choir to do it in chest. I knew trying to get them into a solid, connected head tone for the passage was not going to happen. We would have just ended up in a weak, airy falsetto, which would not be good. So I decided to simply eliminate that passage from the song. It actually tightened the song up and improved the flow, believe it or not. So don’t be afraid to take out a certain verse, bridge or other element if it’s going to bog you down or just doesn’t fit your choir’s dynamics. Take a good look at the passage and decide if its critical to the song’s message or if the song would suffer without it. If the answer is no, then go for it.

3. Omit the lead vocals

Sometimes either you don’t have the personnel to provide the lead vocals for a particular song, or you just don’t have the “right” personnel. But many songs can and do work without the lead vocals. We have more than one that we do with or without a leader, depending on the situation.

4. Simplify complex harmony and/progressions

Ensembles and groups often do some pretty complicated things with the vocal arrangement. Sometimes they may have 4 to 6 part harmony in some spots. Sometimes the entire group will do a riff or something. Don’t hesitate to simplify things like this. It’s often a much better solution than trying to get your whole choir to do it. Even if they accomplish it, it simply won’t come off very well in most cases.

At the end of the day no matter how the Gospel music industry continues to change, we have to continue to adapt if we want to continue having Gospel choirs in our churches. I for one would not like to see them go away any time soon.

Is your choir struggling vocally? Struggling with harmony? Why not book a workshop? Both Shena and myself are available for workshops anywhere in the Dallas Ft. Worth area. I’m also available for travel. Just contact either of us by clicking on the Book Sessions page on the website.

Serving with gladness; finding contentment without the spotlight

Spotlight BeamI’ve served in the music ministry for most of my life. God has blessed me with with many gifts, several of which naturally cause me to gravitate to the front. But believe it or not I find my greatest fulfillment serving behind the scenes. Honestly though, that’s not the case for many people in music ministry. Quite often a member of the choir, praise team or other group develops a very strong desire to be out front in some capacity. Sadly though, that opportunity is not always afforded to everyone that wants it.

There could be any number of reasons someone who wants to come to the front may not be allowed to. It could be that the position or task is just not the best fit for the person for whatever reason. Sometimes it’s just a personnel issue. But the enemy seldom allows us to see things as they really are. Especially in music ministry, where the gathering of so many different personality types, egos and agendas make it an easy target.

Sadly, even in the most innocent of circumstances the devil can make a person believe there is all kinds of hatred and favoritism at work that is keeping you from being allowed to lead a song, or direct, or serve in whatever leadership capacity you’re seeking. We could go back and forth at length about the particulars, and I could give a list of all the possible reasons you’re not being given the opportunity you believe you deserve. I understand that it’s frustrating. It’s hard to have the desire to serve on a higher level and feel like you’re being held back. But honestly, it is seldom as it seems, my friend. The devil knows that music is one of the most powerful and effective tools God has given us for the building and edification of His kingdom. So he is always seeking ways to sow discord and division by playing against our own vanities.

The truth is, you will always be an easy target for his tricks and manipulative ways until you find a place of contentment in your service. To thwart the efforts of the enemy you must get to a place where you are completely happy and satisfied just serving in the music ministry. That’s easier said than done, I know. Because it takes some serious renewing of your mind. One thing I’m always teaching on some level or another, no matter what aspect of music ministry I’m talking about, is understanding the bigger picture. How your efforts contribute to the success or failure of the ministry, and how the ministry as a whole affects so many other things and touches so many people.

It’s learning to look beyond your own limited field of vision. This is the secret of those who are always content no matter what they’re doing in the music department. I know people who can sing until the hairs on your neck stand up. They are accomplished leaders and soloists. Their names around our church are synonymous with really good singing. And yet if we go for months without ever calling them down front to lead, you’ll see them smiling and singing and praising God right there in their section.

You can only reach that level of pure contentment in service when you really understand how important every single person is to a music ministry. You see my friends I just mentioned know that even when they’re just singing in their section they’re making a very important contribution to our ability to serve effectively as a unit. But being happy in the background goes even deeper than that.

The bible tells us in scripture after scripture to avoid doing things to be seen of men. Or to be praised or glorified of ourselves. Look at this example:

Collosians 3-23 Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters, 24 since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward. It is the Lord Christ you are serving

This is just one example of a theme we see recurring throughout the bible. A message of being content in your service and not seeking to be seen or praised by men. To reach that place of contentment in music ministry you have to see the importance of what you do as an individual to the success or failure of the music ministry. I spoke at a choir annual one year and I referred to this concept as “The Ministry Of Me”. I told the choir that year that even though only one person wears the official title of “Minister Of Music”, every single person that is involved in a music ministry is indeed a minister of music. It’s a very sobering and powerful thing to think of yourself that way. Not just as a “member” but a minister of music. What you do is not “just” singing or just playing. It’s ministry. It’s YOUR ministry, and your calling right where you are.

Just like the ministers who sit on the pulpit but never bring the message, every person in the music department plays a critical supporting role in it’s success. If for some reason I became unable to play keyboard tomorrow I’d sure miss it. But the very next Sunday I’d be up there in the Tenor section rocking it out and singing to the glory and honor of God. I’m a leader too, but I go for months- sometimes years- without leading a song. And I’m completely happy and totally content with that. Because you see, when you have a deep, unwavering passion for music ministry, you just want to be a part of it. If your reason for being there is genuine that’s enough to make you happy. I encourage you to seek that place of contentment.

By the way, I know another young lady who, for many many years, has sang alto for our choir. She has never wanted to lead a song. We’ve asked her many times over the years. But she was much more content just singing alto. Only she doesn’t “just” sing alto. She’s one of the strongest, most consistent, most reliable, most depended on altos up there. And every Sunday you can find her singing right there in the alto section, her hands going up, tears flowing, completely and utterly happy without the glare of the spotlight. And it is because of her years of happily serving God, never seeking leadership or accolades, that God favored her and elevated her to the position of choir president.

She runs the whole choir but you’d never be able to pick her out if you didn’t know her. Because every Sunday she’s standing right there where she’s always stood. In the choir stand, singing alto, hands going up, tears flowing, completely and utterly happy…without the glare of the spotlight.

 

Should your choir or praise team hold auditions to join?

I’ll never forget the first time I went to band class in junior high-school. Where I grew up the elementary schools didn’t have a band, so I was excited to move up to junior high because I knew I’d be able to finally be in the band. So we’re all sitting there in our little chairs listening to the band director give his welcome speech, and then comes the time to start finding out what instruments everyone wants to play. Looking back I’m sure he did this next move just to save time because he already knew what would happen. But before he asked anyone anything about what instruments they wanted to play, he made the following announcement: ” Everyone that wants to play drums go stand by that table in the back of the room”.

Every male child in the room, present company included, bolted out of their chairs and ran to the back of the room. The why is obvious. I mean, to a young boy the drum section was by far the coolest section to be in. So, as I’m sure he’d done year after year, the band director had to come explain to us that not everybody can be in the drum section, or the band simply won’t work. Other sections must have members or we can’t be effective as a band. Through a process of discussion and interviewing, he eventually coaxed most of us away from that back table and got us interested in other instruments. But there were a handful of guys that stayed at that table. Because it was about more than “cool” for them. They were the ones that were supposed to be there.

I started today’s blog with that story because in a sense, church music ministries have the same problem. It’s the biggest, most visible, most “glamorous” ( or so it seems on the outside, lol) “coolest” ministry to be a part of. So much so that often people who would be much more effective in other ministries still gravitate toward music ministries. This presents a problem for directors and music ministers who are faced with the challenge of developing-then maintaining- a standard of quality and excellence in the music department. We’ve already discussed in great detail (and with scriptural proof) why that’s not just important for vanity sake but for effective ministry in our churches.

So at some point music department admins have to start thinking about some kind of evaluation process for new members wanting to join one of the groups in their music department. Auditions come to mind for most. But although they’re pretty common and almost expected in large churches, auditions have always been something mid-to-smaller sized churches have avoided. I had a very enlightening conversation on the subject with my friends on The Music Ministry Coach.com’s fan page . I asked them to discuss with me how they felt about church music ministries holding auditions and specifically, whether or not smaller churches should do so. Some of the group members who do attend larger churches that already have audition processes in place also shared a little about how their process works.

Using the great feedback I got from everyone who participated in that conversation (thanks guys!) let’s break this down to three main categories that will hopefully help smaller churches decide if, when and how they should implement some kind of audition process.

If:

As I mentioned, most large churches- certainly almost all mega-churches- already have some form of audition process to join most groups. But smaller churches struggle with deciding whether or not they should implement such a process or not. When I posed the question to the group, the answer was overwhelmingly “yes”. Group participants felt like pretty-much all churches should have some kind of process in place to help determine if the music department is the best ministry for the person wanting to join, or if they would be of better service in one of the other ministries. It’s not about elite-ism or rejection. It’s about taking steps to to avoid the “drum section” syndrome I described at the beginning of the blog. Everyone “wants” to be in the choir but not everyone should. Same with the band, or the praise team. And sometimes they simply don’t know that. So every music department should have some kind of evaluation process in place for new inquires wanting to join.

But smaller churches have some unique challenges that larger churches don’t have. Like a shortage of members. Very small churches for that reason don’t have the resources or the luxury to pick and choose. When you’re trying to get established from the ground up you welcome anyone willing to participate and you simply work with what you have. “RevTanya” referred to it in our facebook conversation as a “whosoever will let him come” mentality. And it’s one that is definitely needed at the earliest stages. So for very small start-ups it’s less about a matter of “if ” it should be implemted. It’s a matter of:

When:

So we’ve established that every church music ministry should in fact have some kind of evaluation process in place, even if it isn’t a formal “stand-up-and-sing-for-me” audition. Mega-churches already do it, start-up churches can’t afford to yet. So the question is when should such a thing be implemented. Frankly I’ve been thinking about this a great deal for my own church’s music ministry. Ours is what I’d call a mid-sized church. We’re at a stage of transition right now. We’re well over 300 members now and the music department is pretty-well established. Our music department is well-known in the circles we fellowship with. I strive for a level of excellence in every choir and group that ministers there, from the junior choir to the sanctuary choir and everyone involved with supporting them.

So our music department, I believe, is at the stage where I might be submitting a plan to my choir president and pastor within the next year or so. So the “when” has to be based on an individual assesment of your own music department, for sure. But every church that has reached a similar place of growth should start seriously considering implementing something. If your choirs are singing in 3 part harmony, your band is rehearsing separately, you have an established praise team, different choirs singing on different Sundays, I’d say you’ve reached a place of growth where it’s time to start thinking about it.

Speaking from experience though, this can be a hard place to be. After all if we’re honest about it, isn’t it the “whosoever will let him come” approach that got us here, to a great degree? Sure it is, and that’s why so many of us have a hard time letting go of it. But with growth must come change, or growth can’t continue. Growth without change is actually regression. So if we don’t make changes to maintain the standard we’ve worked so hard to attain we are destined to see that progress began to deteriorate.

Honestly though, most of us just don’t want to think about an audition process or anything that looks like one, because we don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings or embarrass anyone. For a short time we held auditions for lead parts-for new leaders who had never lead a song before only- and I can tell you first hand it can be heart-breaking to tell someone no who really wants to do it. But with some thought, advice and planning, most music ministries can implement some kind of program to help maintain a certain standard of excellence and still not feel like they’re constantly turning people away. Which leads us to:

How:

So once you’ve decided it’s definitely time to put something in place it’s time to figure out how it will work. What does the audition or evaluation process consist of? Do you put it in place for every department or just some of them? My good friends Stacy and Ve’Ronica, who both attend large churches where audition processes are already in place, shared some great insight on how they do it.

Stacy explained theirs this way. “It’s usually Amazing Grace that has to be sung for the first round of auditions. If you make it to the second round then you have to do a vocal test…. a key is played on the keyboard and you have to sing back what you hear. Once you make it past that part, then you have to have an interview. They need to get to know you. Being in a choir isn’t singing only, it’s ministry and it’s more than just knowing how to sing or having a love of singing”.

I love this. It’s very simple and it establishes the presence of key attributes people should have if they want to be a part of music ministry. Like a basic level of vocal ability. The new member is asked to sing a simple song, and then they’re tested for the ability to match pitch. In my own evaluation process I might do the pitch test as the first round, and then if they can do that, ask them to sing a simple song. But the interview is something all churches can certainly do. It’s important to try to understand why someone wants to be a member, and that they understand the work and commitment it takes. They should understand that it’s ministry, and that it goes way beyond just singing every Sunday. In fact in the interview process it’s probably a good idea to try to “un-glamorize” being a part of the music ministry as much as possible. New hopefuls need to understand what it really takes behind the scenes to produce what they stand up and clap to on Sunday morning.

Ve’Ronica explained how her church only holds auditions for certain departments or positions, which is another great idea: ” I am in a large church and yes you do have to audition for the praise team, band, and all soloist. But anyone can be in the choir.”

If your choir is large enough that every section has several members, this method makes a lot of sense. It insures key positions like the band, the praise team and lead vocals all have qualified, capable people in them. But it also insures that your ministry can still continue to have some aspect of an open door policy and keep growing. Something as simple as a quick pitch test may be all that’s needed as your audition process to simply be a part of the choir. But if your choir is large enough you may decide you don’t even need that.

I mentioned earlier that a few years back at our church we held auditions for new leaders who had never done lead vocals before but wanted to lead a song. The process taught us a lot. It was a trying experience, honestly. Having been the one charged with making the final decision it was tough when that decision needed to be no. But it was even harder on the person who had to audition. Auditions are hard enough, but when you’re told no it can be pretty heart-breaking. We all hated the feeling it left us with afterward.

So after putting my head together with my minister of music and my choir president we decided to make some changes to the way we approach the process. We decided that rather than say “no” to people who were not quite there yet, we would simply say yes with the condition of personal coaching with me. This way we can allow people are already in the choir to step up and lead songs and still maintain some standard. In fact we stopped even calling it an “audition”. Then we went back and gave coaching to everyone we originally passed on and they all went on to become song leaders. If your’re in a similar position at your church, where you know you need to do something but the thought of holding auditions and saying no to people just doesn’t feel right, this is a valid option to consider.

For joining the choir could do a simple pitch matching test like Stacy’s church. For graduating to leading a song you could require an audition if the person is new to leading songs. Assuming the person was good enough to get past the pitch test and join, almost everyone can be coached to lead a song. So if the person is on pitch but not quite where they need to be for lead vocals you could simply say yes with the condition they take a couple of hours of style coaching with me to work on the song. In this way I can help support your church’s music ministry by helping you keep growing while still maintaining the standard of excellence.

No matter what stage your church’s music ministry is at right now, the quality and standard of excellence in that music ministry is something you have to think about and address if your music ministry is to effectively and positively impact your church’s ministry as a whole. Does your church music ministry have an audition or evaluation process? Please comment below and share it with everyone.

Special thanks to my Facebook Family for their insight on this one. Love you guys!