Follow The Leader: How To Surrender To The Holy Spirit During Your Choir Performances

One thing I tend to stress often with you guys is the importance of really knowing your songs. I mean moving past that “I know it well enough to follow the director” stage we’re all content with. I mean really knowing the song. I’m talking about having the lyrics memorized, not this thing where we’re nervously depending on the director to feed us every line. I’m talking about really understanding the format of the song and how it moves from one section to another one.

But perhaps I haven’t really made a strong enough case for why that’s important and how it benefits your ministry as a whole. Quite simply, the more thoroughly you know a song the more powerfully you’ll minister that song. Something happens when everyone in the group is absolutely certain about every part of a song they’re about to sing.

There is this cohesiveness there. This sense of unity. Everyone is with one accord. And we know the Holy Spirit moves when we’re with one accord. So in moments like these powerful, anointed, spirit-led moments of music ministry tends to happen. But they only happen because we’ve eliminated all mental distractions that normally hinder our spirits from really surrendering completely to God.

When we’re unsure we’re really too distracted with the task of getting through the song without mistakes. So nobody can really follow the leading of the Holy Spirit. The director can’t, the song leader can’t, the group members can’t. Because we’re all too busy nervously getting through one section after another.

We become locked into predefined repetitions and formats that we can’t deviate from because everyone is so unsure that if we do there will be some kind of mistake. But when everyone is absolutely on point with every part of the song, there is a freedom that takes place spiritually. In moments like these the Holy Spirit often takes over and leads the director or the song leader.

We did a song Sunday morning that we’ve done many times, called God Is Able. One of those churchy, hand-clapping, foot-stomping songs. So we know it very well. I was directing the choir. We came up to this one part in the song where we would normally repeat it a couple of times and go back to the chorus.

But this time the Holy Spirit started dealing with me and I just didn’t feel led to move from that spot. . So I just kept having them repeat that same two lines, right where we were:

“He’ll be there when you call Him/
He’ll be there when you need Him”

I just kept repeating it and it seemed like the more we repeated that phrase the higher the spirit got in the sanctuary, until everyone was just going in. Well, the whole format changed from there, because at that point everyone was following me, but I was following the leader. We never went to the real vamp of the song. That became the vamp and I just let God have His way right there; with me, the band, the leader and the choir.

We didn’t do anything that morning the way the song normally goes or the way we rehearsed it. But I had the freedom to allow God to just guide me in the direction He wanted the song to go because I know the choir and musicians knew it well enough to follow. I also knew the leader was skilled enough to just flow in the spirit right there, and would have no problem ad-libing as long as the Holy Spirit needed us to. So we all followed the leader. The ultimate leader.

Have a great week!
Ron
Ps. What if you were leading the spirit took over? Could you keep going as long as the spirit needed you to? Would you run out of words, or become anxious or irritated that the director got happy and won’t stop? If so, I have something I’d like you to see. Take a look here.

The Truth About Hard Keys (And What They Can Teach You About Life)

Like a lot of Gospel musicians, there are keys I’m not too fond of. They’re usually “white keys” like A, B, D E and G. Many Gospel singers feel the same way about these keys in particular. What makes these keys so unpopular with many Gospel singers? Well, most musicians, myself included, would tell you these keys are harder to play in. But I was watching a training video one day that kinda changed my whole perspective. Not just about “hard keys”, but about anything I find difficult to do.

So anyway, I was logged into the Gospel Musician Training Center (aff. link) looking at one of the many song teaching videos they have there. It’s an amazing membership site where you can go to watch instructional videos of instructors teaching you some of the most popular songs in Gospel music, step-by-step and chord by chord. Amazing resource for learning to play real songs real fast. Check it out here.

Anyway this particular song happened to be in one of those keys I really find hard. And because the instructor himself is a Gospel musician he already knew there would be many watching that video would would cringe when he told us what key it was in. So he mentioned it right up front. But what he said was so simple yet so profound that I never forgot it.

What he said basically is that the particular key in question wasn’t really harder than any other key. That, he said, goes for all the keys musicians find difficult to play in. We only find them difficult, he said, because we’re not used to playing in them. Spend some time playing in these keys and getting used to them, and you’ll eventually find them as easy as any other key.

These keys are perceived as harder to play in simply because we don’t encounter them very often in Gospel music-even less in our local churches. So it’s not that they’re any harder, it’s simply that we haven’t developed the muscle memory in those keys because we don’t play in them often. In fact if we’re honest many of us will actually change the key of a song if it happens to be in one of those “hard” keys. So they continue to be hard keys for us because we never really spend as much time deliberately playing in those keys as the ones we like.

I kept thinking about that and God kept revealing to me how that works in so many other areas of my life. How many things have we labeled “too hard’ simply because it was awkward the first time we tried it? How many things could we learn to do if we simply spent some time practicing it?

Pretty-much everything in life we find challenging can be mastered by developing the same “muscle memory” that enables a musician’s fingers to automatically go where they need to go in any of 12 different keys and hundreds of songs. Think of all the things we do now on auto-pilot, without even thinking.

When I get in my car, for example, I unlock it, get in, adjust mirrors, the seat, put on my seat belt, put my foot on the brake, put it in gear, put my foot on the gas and take off….all simultaneously, in seconds and without thinking about a single step. challengesRemember how hard and complicated and cumbersome that process was when you were first learning it though? So what if you thought about every difficult or unfamiliar task that way?

What are the “hard keys” in your life? In your ministry? Identify them and you’ll probably realize that just like the hard keys on the piano, they really aren’t harder than anything else you’ve learned to do.

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!