3 tips for choosing great praise team songs

Lemmie Battles & Virginia Mass choirWith more and more church music ministries moving toward using praise teams now than ever before, many people are finding choosing the right songs rather challenging. This is especially true in Gospel Music where praise teams are still relatively new in compared to churches where the predominant style of music is Contemporary Christian music.

In African-American churches where choirs and congregational singing have been the main staples for so many years, newly formed praise teams can find themselves struggling to make the transition to singing a style of music that is quite different. For many music directors the line is between what constitutes a good praise team song vs a good choir song is still rather blurry at times.

I’ve been asked a couple of times myself – most recently on my Fan Page – about how to choose good praise team songs. So in today’s blog I thought I’d offer 3 simple guidelines anyone can use to help identify songs that would be great for the praise team.

 

1. The lyrics should focus on Praising and/or Worshiping God

Here’s the first place most churches who have used only a Gospel choir first get confused. Quite often you’ll hear a great song and you simply can’t decide whether to give it to the choir or the praise team. The simple rule for praise and worship songs is that they’re always about praising and/or worshiping God. For example, the average choir song could be about almost any aspect of the believer’s daily walk. Choir songs often talk about faith, coming through trials, waiting on God, believing and standing on His promises, etc.

Praise and worship songs are different in that they usually speak almost exclusively about the attributes of God, His goodness, power, amazing love and forgiveness. The distinction between “Praise” and “Worship” is often dictated by the tempo- praise songs usually being more up-tempo while worship songs are slower and focused more intently on the loving relationship between us and God.

It’s important to note though, that just because a song is great for a praise team doesn’t mean a choir can’t do it. Hezekiah Walker and Love Fellowship Choir’s “You’re All I Need” is a great example of a gospel choir doing a song that has all the elements of a great praise team song.

2. The song structure should be relatively simple and repetitive

The goal of praise and worship songs is to create an atmosphere that encourages true worship and communion with God. As such the songs you choose should be easy to follow and catch on to for the audience. This encourages participation and minimizes distractions that more complicated songs can somtimes cause. Often the most powerful praise and worship songs are songs that just repeat 2 or 3 simple refrains, only changing a word or 2 from line to line. These kinds of songs really help the audience focus on praising and worshiping God by focusing their minds and hearts on Him.

Simplicity t is also a very important thing to consider because praise teams don’t normally have a director standing in front of them to lead them though the different sections of the song. Choosing simple, repetitive songs makes it easy for the praise team members to follow simple vocal or musical cues to move from one point to the next, so that they too can focus on God without distraction.

3.  The song should fit your team’s skill level and vocal range

One big adjustment you’ll need to get used to when moving from the choir to the praise team is that the songs require a higher level of skill. Praise team songs, while they are often more simple in format, can often be more demanding in harmony and range. The most important thing to focus on when choosing songs for your praise team is not choosing the hottest song out, or choosing the one the team likes. The most important thing is choosing the song that will be the most effective tool for helping create that atmosphere of praise and worship.

As such it’s important to choose songs your team can do well. This does take some honesty, and quite often may lead to your team having to pass on a song they really wanted to do. But in order for a praise team to really be effective they must perform at a higher level of skill. Much moreso than in the choir where there are large numbers, every voice on a praise team is important. Every person has a microphone, so vocal ability, tone, pitch and harmony are all much less forgiving than in the choir stand.

A newly formed praise team may take a while to develop to that higher standard of excellence. In the meantime it’s important to do songs that are easier to perfect. The good thing is that there are many songs like that in Praise and Worship music. Songs with easy, straight-forward harmony and vocal ranges that aren’t challenging for most people.

In summary, choosing the right songs for your praise team doesn’t have to be hard at all, especially with so much praise and worship music available now. This simple guideline along with prayer and unity will help your praise team choose the best songs for you and your congregation.

 

 

Tricked into worship? The great “manipulation” debate

The godfather like stencil reading The ChurchThis is something that has been on my radar ever since I came across a rather spirited (no pun intended) conversation about it in a worship leaders group on Linked In. To be honest I’ve avoided writing about the subject because I really couldn’t wrap my mind around the whole notion. I’m speaking of the rather “secret” debate going on among certain social circles, networks and blogs that suggests that praise and worship music “manipulates” audiences by creating atmospheres that encourage a strong emotional response.

I confess, I was absolutely blown away the first time I read about this. I had no idea. There are so many angles, philosophies and positions on this subject that I could write endlessly and aimlessly in circles if I tried to touch on them all. But some of the most jaw-dropping things I came across as I started doing a little more research on the subject were things like the following;

1. Many people apparently believe that musicians deliberately choose certain chord changes and progressions specifically to manipulate the audience emotionally. Other musical changes like swells in volume at certain points are seen by some to be designed to encourage a certain emotional response that is “artificial” and not real worship.

2. Worship music as a whole is being seen as “emotionally manipulative” by a growing number of people.

Let me say right off the bat that there are some valid concerns that all of us who work in music ministry should take note of. We must at all times be sure that it is God we are worshiping and NOT the music. We must be able to separate a real worship experience where you are having an encounter with the presence of God’s holy spirit, vs. something that is not much more than an “emotional high”. So I do get the concern that fuels this debate.

But the problem I’m having with the whole issue is that there seems to be this belief that any kind of musical stimulation that enhances or encourages an emotional response is a bad thing and should somehow be seen as manipulation. The more you read about it the more hopelessly convoluted the whole thing becomes. For example, there are those who argue that worship songs with beautiful chord changes and progressions create this atmosphere that manipulates the audience’s emotions.

Yet there are others who argue that it’s those simple, repetitive songs that are the worst. They “hypnotize” you, or put you in some kind of trance that makes you think you’re having a spiritual experience when you really aren’t; at least that’s the argument.

Then there are those that constantly scrutinize the lyrics themselves. Apparently for many people a worship song should lyrically describe their entire theological doctrine to be authentic. Simple songs that repeat a certain phrase like “Jesus Saves” are not theologically sound because they don’t also describe in detail “how” He does it. I hope you see what I’m getting at here.

It all goes on and on, but I guess the biggest problem I have with all of it is the notion that true, pure, authentic, transparent worship only happens when there is no external stimulation whatsoever. I have a problem with that for several reasons. My biggest one though, is that I believe with everything that is in me that God gave us music specifically for that purpose. The bible is full of scriptures encouraging us to use music in our praises to Him.I believe He gave us music specifically because it DOES help us get into His presence.

Just Sunday morning, for example, we had a special prayer service. The prayer carried over into the rest of the service and the holy spirit was just powerful throughout the service. At one point we were all worshiping and praying to God and the musicians were just playing softly. There was no real script, or program. It was all just happening in a very organic way. At one point I switched over to a lush string sound, and there was just something really sweet that it added to the atmosphere. The worship seemed to get even more intense, in fact.

But was that because people were worshiping the strings? Or because the sound caused some kind of artificial emotional response that everyone was mistaking for an experience with the Holy Spirit? I really don’t think so. Anyone who was there can tell you that if we had completely stopped playing the intense worship would have simply continued. In fact that’s exactly what we did do, more than once. But believe it or not I’ve even seen one or two people refer to that as “a dramatic silence” that is also designed to manipulate your emotions. Are you rolling your eyes in your head yet?

You see what we’ve always known that to be was simply “setting the atmosphere” for worship. Creating an environment conducive to worship and praise God freely. But what we’ve always known as setting the atmosphere is now being seen by many as emotional manipulation.

But here’s the most puzzling thing of all for me about this whole debate. It is true that we are in covenant relationship with God, right? We are His children, He our Father. He loves us, and we love Him. I mean this, in every sense of the word, is a relationship. How can we worship Him, or commune with Him without emotion?And if we use music to enhance that experience, then how can that be seen as manipulative?

I guess I have a hard time thinking of the word “manipulation” in context with something as awesome and wonderful as worship. A lot of things come to mind when I hear the word manipulation, but worshiping God or the feeling I get from it isn’t one of them.

And if I can’t tell an emotional high from a real encounter with the Holy Spirit, who really has the issue here? I’ve never once in my whole life been in the presence of God, crying and praying with my hands lifted, pouring my soul out, and right after it was over felt like something bad or dishonest had just happened to me. I’ve never at the end of a powerful worship experience thought “haay, you guys tricked me!!” No, usually I feel new. Cleansed. Refreshed. Like a weight has been lifted. Like I’ve been in His presence. And if music helped create the atmosphere that helped me get there, I’m having a tough time seeing that as a bad thing.

Personally I think we can analyze, scrutinize and question every little detail of every little spiritual thing until none of us believes anything we feel is real. But then maybe that’s the plan, hunh? Think about that.

 

 

 

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.

One kind of song every Gospel choir should avoid

I have no idea of what to title thisThe Gospel choir is one of the most powerful ministries in the Gospel music genre. And even though we seem to be at a place in music now where they’re becoming almost extinct, it seems, they still play a vital role in churches across the nation and beyond. The choir is usually the largest organization or auxiliary in the church. As such, choirs deal with a lot of challenges that can be detrimental to the effectiveness of their ministy.

Because there are so many people to deal with, all with their own personal lives and schedules to attend to, personnel issues plague choirs more than anything. This can quite dramatically affect what songs a choir can sing from week to week. You may have rehearsed two songs and got them down at choir rehearsal, only to find out the leader isn’t coming Sunday. Or there aren’t enough sopranos. Or a key musician is out that day. But regardless of what happens, we must be on our post and perform our duties, amen? So Sunday after Sunday we adjust. When we can’t sing what we practiced, we sing something else. It’s that simple, right? Well that’s kinda what I want to talk to you about in today’s blog.

Every choir deals with this on some level, week after week. And as we find ourselves in these predicaments there are songs that become our bail out songs. You know the ones. The songs we can sing even with a skeleton crew there. They end up being the songs we turn to every time we find ourselves in a bind. Limping. Crippled, so-to-speak. We call these songs “crutch songs” for that very reason. Crutch songs are necessary, to be sure. We must have songs that are easy, that we can do any time without a rehearsal, that require no leader, that anybody in the band can play; you get the idea.

But even though crutch songs provided much-needed flexibility and give us options when we’re short-handed, crutch songs can become a kind of “spiritual wet blanket” if we aren’t careful. The unfortunate thing about songs that get relegated to this category is that our attitude toward them starts to change. That’s because most choirs eventually get to a point where they only sing these songs when they’re in a bind. Pretty soon you get to the place where you don’t like the song anymore. Any time you hear that music start you roll your eyes into the back of your head, thinking “Oh God, not this one again”.  And that’s a bad place to be spiritually about any song you’re about to use to minister before God’s people.

Oh yeah, miiinistry! That is what this is about isn’t it? We get to a place sometimes where we forget that, don’t we? We start focusing more on what we want to sing rather than what, perhaps, God wants someone to hear that showed up that day.  That’s what makes crutch songs such a dangerous thing to a choir’s ministry.  When a song gets relegated to the category of “crutch song” it loses it’s importance. It loses it’s power for the choir. The message doesn’t touch you anymore. You don’t think about the message anymore because all you can think about is how you’re really tired of doing it.

But what can you do, right? I mean isn’t it just natural to have a change of heart about a song when you’re doing it only when there’s some “issue” going on? Absolutely it is. So how does a choir avoid having “crutch songs? Well let’s examine that for a moment. Think about one of your choir’s “crutch songs”. Get it in your mind. First think back to when it was new. Think about how you felt when your choir first performed it. Remember how powerful the message was for  you  back then? Now think about the lyrics and what really grabbed you about the song.

Got all that in your mind? Good. Now, ask yourself what changed about the song. Well, nothing right? The message certainly hasn’t.  You see, songs get old, but the message doesn’t. I told my choir recently “every time we sing “It’s Only A Test”, there is someone in the audience going through trials. They need to know that  what they’re going through won’t last. It’ll be over real soon.” Every time we sing “He’s Still Good”, I told them, “He still is”.

And that’s where we need to be spiritually every time we sing those songs.

I think what I’m trying to get across here, is that every choir needs to have songs they can deliver well in a pinch. But no choir should allow any song to become nothing more to them but a crutch song that’s only used to “bail them out”. So here are a couple of suggestions for keeping songs on your choir’s list from being relegated to “crutch song” status.

1. Sing these songs at times when everything is going well and everyone’s there.  This helps keep it from being seen as one you sing only when things aren’t going well.

2. Re-connect with the message. Remind yourselves both personally and as a group what it means, what it meant to you guys when you first sang it. Talk about the message of the song at rehearsal. This helps keep your choir spiritually connected to the song.

So in summary, all choirs need songs that give them flexibility and options when key people are out. But no song that was good enough to make your song list in the first place deserves to be given the title of “crutch song”. Every song your choir sings deserves your best performance of it every time you sing it.

Has your choir had a workshop lately? Contact us me!

 

What do you do when the song gets old?

I have to be honest with you. I’m not sure many people really know what they’re asking for when they’re seeking God for a hit song. A song everyone wants to hear you sing, everywhere you go. Sounds really glamorous doesn’t it? Well, as someone who has been there, let me tell you it isn’t.

I was asked to lead a song a few years ago that I liked ok enough, but I didn’t have a real spiritual connection with. It didn’t really resonate with me deeply. But it was churchy and up-beat, and I was a good fit for the lead. Besides, there was really nobody else at the time that could, so I stepped up to do it to keep us from having to scrap a song that everyone in the choir wanted us to do.
Well, I gave it my all and God came in and really blessed. And then something happened I wasn’t prepared for. The whole congregation fell in love with the song, especially the pastor. You see every time we did the song we were guaranteed some high-spirit churching. So for the next couple of months at least ( it felt like a couple of years) that song was requested at least 2, sometimes 3 times a month. And each time they expected me to do everything I did the first time I sang it.

It got to the point I was just really sick of doing the song. I still can’t bring myself to do it when they ask occasionally. But this brings up a pretty serious delimma, doesn’t it? I mean after all, this isn’t just any music, this is the Gospel we’re talking about. Songs might get old, but the Word Of God is timeless..right? The message doesn’t get old.

Still though, this is a very, very real issue that should concern you if you’re a serious vocalist working toward a full time ministry. You’re definitely gonna have to sing songs again and again again; unless of course you don’t plan on having any hits whatsoever.

How do you deal with that? What do you do when the song gets old?

Honestly, there’s not much you can do. And that is why you must never allow it to. How do you avoid that? By very strictly and adamantly avoiding singing any song that you don’t have a strong spiritual connection to. Any song you’re going to sing must resonate with you on some level. There has to be something in that song that is for YOU.

When you’re singing a song that ministers to you on a deep personal level, that song will never get old. Because first of all, it will always speak to you that way, even if your situation changes. In that case the message goes from “where I am right now” to “where God brought me from”.

But the most important reason of all to make sure you do NOT sing songs that don’t resonate with you on a deep spiritual level, is because if you allow yourself to do so, then every time you sing it you’ll be singing from a place that isn’t true, honest and authentic. And no matter how many accolades you’re getting, that’s gonna get old real quick.

So no matter what the situation is, if you’re serious about your ministry as a singer, you must say NO if you don’t feel it. Yes, that’s gonna be irritating to some people sometimes. Yes it’s gonna put your choir or praise team or group in a bind sometimes. But this is simply NON NEGOTIABLE as a Christian or Gospel singer. You have to sing from a real place. If you don’t, you’re just performing. And that gets old.

Take care!
Ron Cross