How Prepared is “Prepared”?

How Prepared is “Prepared”?

“Practice, we talkin’ bout, practice. Not a game. We talkin’ bout practice.” (Alan Iverson)

I have to admit, every time I hear someone say the word, “Practice,” I think of that interview with Alan Iverson. (IYKYK).

Practice Matters.

But there is a difference between Practice and Rehearsal. Practice is our own individual preparation time prior to rehearsal. At we use the phrase “Practice is Personal, Rehearsal is Relational.” Rehearsal is where we put together the combined efforts of everyone’s individual Practice and develop a unique & unified sound. But how prepared is prepared?

You’ve probably said this to your team or heard this from your leader: “Everybody needs to practice and come to rehearsal prepared!” But how prepared is prepared?

Well, we use the Practice By Numbers system. (Some of you probably just thought of the Paint By Numbers system for Van Gogh paintings, this is a little different.)

The Practice By Numbers system gives everyone on your team a clear understanding of how prepared they should be for each song. Here’s a snapshot of the system:

During the LEARNING phase (1-2), “we know that we don’t know it.” 

  • You’ve received a new song and you’re preparing it for rehearsal.
  • 1 = You’re starting to learn it.
    • The song’s chord structure, the lead riffs, what the harmony parts are, where the drum fills are, what the arrangement is, etc.
  • 2 = You can sing/play most of it with a few mistakes.
      • Tip: Just because you can sing/play it along with the recording doesn’t mean you’ve moved to a 3. The real test is playing it with a click or guide track, without the recording as a crutch.It’s important to recognize when you’re still in this phase. Worship musicians often overestimate how well they’ve learned a song. If a player/singer is still in this phase during rehearsal, the unlearned areas of the song will be obvious (to themselves and to others).

The KNOWING phase (3-4), “we know it, but we’re still thinking about it.”

  • Early in this phase, you can sing/play the song with few mistakes, but you’re relying on the chart. By the end of this phase, you’ve nearly got it memorized.
  • 3 = sing/play with the chart; no mistakes.
  • 4 = sing/play without the chart; still consciously thinking of the notes, lyrics, and/or chords.
  • Achieving a Level 3 by rehearsal allows you to sing/play with the band, contributing your part to the whole.
  • Working towards a Level 4 before rehearsal allows you to listen more freely to the other players and singers. This let’s you adjust your part to complement the rest of the team.

The MASTERY phase (5), “we know it, and we’re not thinking about it.”

  • Mastery moves beyond basic memorization. You not only don’t need the chart, but you don’t even have to think about what you’re playing or singing. It’s second nature. (You know it so well that while you’re playing it on the platform, you can be thinking about what you’re going to have for lunch after the service; not that you should be thinking that, but you get my point).
  • Most worship team singers and instrumentalists won’t achieve a Level 5 until ​​they’ve played or sung it during several services.
  • Level 5 Mastery and Level 4 Memorization will likely be imperceptible to the congregation. However, it takes significant work to move a song from a 4 to 5.
  • It’s probably better to spend your time focusing on moving Level 3 songs to a 4, rather than trying to move a Level 4 song a 5. Again, you’ll accomplish Level 5 Mastery with repetition.

Determine Practice Standards

So, how do you determine your practice number standards?

A few questions to consider:

  1. Do you have a memorization standard that your team adheres to (i.e. no music stands during services)?
    If yes, go to question 7.
  2. If you don’t have a memorization standard, what are your guidelines you have for music stands or iPads.
    (Examples: “Low and off to the side.” or “Only to be glanced at.” or “Only used by instrumentalists; vocalists memorize or use the confidence stage monitor.”
  3. How can you use the Practice Numbers to express those guidelines?
  4. When a team member arrives at rehearsal, what’s the lowest acceptable preparation number he/she should have achieved for each song?
  5. When a team member arrives at rehearsal, what’s the ideal preparation number he/she should have achieved for each song?
  6. What are some ways you can use the Practice Numbers to raise the level of preparation within your team? (Jump to question 9)
  7. If songs should be memorized by Sunday, what’s the lowest acceptable preparation number he/she should have achieved for each song by rehearsal?
  8. If songs should be memorized by Sunday, what’s the ideal preparation number he/she should have achieved for each song by rehearsal?
  9. How will you use this Practice By Numbers guide during your audition/qualification process?
  10. How will you use this Practice By Numbers guide during your new team member orientation (or onboarding process)?
  11. When/how do you plan to discuss this with your team members?
  12. What objections or complaints do you anticipate from your team members as you discuss this?

If you don’t have a system of standards for preparation, then you’ll probably continue to be frustrated with your team members, and yourself. A system allows you to be specific with each song for each week. My team knows that each song needs to be at a Level 3 by rehearsal and a Level 4 by Sunday morning. We generally take songs to a Level 5 after we’ve played the song for about a month of services. This way it lets everyone on the rotation have a couple cracks at it before we expect memorization. The week that we take a song to a level 5 we will rehearse it without music stands or confidence monitors and play it standing in a circle interacting with each other. You’ll find out real quick who knows it, and who doesn’t. This isn’t overbearing, it’s accountability. 

Obviously, we have to have grace with our team members when it comes to preparation. Many of our teams are full of volunteers; therefore, we as worship leaders have to be the most prepared person in the room. If we’re staring at a stand or dropping lyrics, our team will be even less prepared. 

If you’d like to have a team that comes prepared every week regardless of who is on the platform, then click this link to check out our course Practice Matters.

“We talkin’ bout practice!”


This article was originally published in Worship Musician Magazine, September 2023 issue and has been modified from the original. 

Matt Miller