Afraid of a Train Wreck?
Allie was singing (no, belting) the last chorus of a What a Beautiful Name, her band was killing it (in the best way possible), and she felt the Holy Spirit was at work in the hearts of her congregation.
This song was supposed to be the end of the set. But she felt the urge to extend it and move into a quiet, responsive moment at the end of the song.
Allie knew her senior pastor trusted her and had given her his blessing to “stay in those moments.” As Allie was singing, the words to the old Keith Green chorus came flooding into her mind: “O Lord, you’re beautiful / your face is all I seek…”
Her parents loved Keith Green, and she grew up singing that song. She knew it was in D and she could flow right into it. But…
What if her band and vocalists didn’t follow her lead? Or what if they weren’t sensitive to the moment and overplayed/oversang? Or worse yet, many of them didn’t even know the song—would they give her that “what the what!?” look that would no doubt be noticeable to the congregation?
Allie always wanted to be more spontaneous in worship, and the Holy Spirit seemed to be leading. But she just wasn’t sure what her team would do. So she… (to be continued).
You might be like Allie: wanting to be more spontaneous, but afraid of the ensuing train wreck that could follow.
Or maybe you’re the kind of leader who just goes for it. But you’ve noticed your band and other vocalists just aren’t as comfortable as you with going off-script.
So what you can you and Allie do to get your team members to a place where spontaneity isn’t a sonic free-for-all that turns into a musical dumpster fire?
Following the Spirit’s lead off the beaten path can be scary, but you can prepare your team to take that journey with you. Here are five tips that will help:
1. Learn Songs in Sections
Sometimes a spontaneous moment is as simple as repeating the section of a song. Maybe it’s another chorus or a quiet reprise of the bridge. The problem is that too many musicians view the song as a “linear whole.”
That is, they learn the song as Intro,V,C,V,C,B,C,C,Outro. To them, the sequence is cement. So teach your team to learn your songs in sections and treat them as “modular” pieces they can move around.
2. Know Nashville Numbers
Nashville Numbers is a chord shorthand system—essentially a “universal translator” to easily play songs in any key. But these numbers can also be called out or even hand-signaled on-the-fly.
Teaching your team the Nashville numbers is not a quick fix for instant spontaneity. But if you’re serious about being able to do impromptu musical worship, invest in learning the chord numbers.
3. Practice the Unplanned
It sounds like an oxymoron—preparing for spontaneity—but it’s not. During rehearsals, talk about and practice potential scenarios—everything from repeating a chorus to adding a whole new song to the set.
If you nose-dive off a musical cliff, no worries: it’s just rehearsal. Laugh about it. Learn from it. Try it again.
4. Memorize Your Music
Memorization gives musicians the confidence and the ability to be expressive and engage better. And that same confidence will allow you and your team to be spontaneous.
If you’re tied to the music stand for the basic form and chords of the song, you’re going to have a hard time breaking free for an extemporaneous moment of worship.
5. Schedule Your Spontaneity
Too many musicians and artists assume that Holy Spirit = Spontaneity. But the Holy Spirit can work through our planning three weeks before the service as powerfully as He can in the middle of it.
So what does scheduling out our spontaneous moments look like? As I’m planning worship, I often get a sense of where moments (as Tom Jackson calls them) might occur.
I put those moments into my PCO Service Plan, usually by just calling it a “response time” and building in an extra three to five minutes. I also tell my team at rehearsal that we might go off-book at that spot. Sometimes I have a sense of where I might go. Sometimes I don’t.
But here’s what I’ve found: when the team is expecting something, they’re more ready for anything.
So, back to Allie. When we left her, she was considering a spontaneous addition of a song that her team may or may not know.
She decided to trust her team (and really, trust that the Holy Spirit was leading them, too) and she went for it.
Was it perfect? No, but it was a blessed moment during the service that day. AND her team is now more eager to learn how to be spontaneous.
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A version of this article first appeared in the April 2018 Issue of Worship Musician Magazine.