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About Stuff I Had to Learn: I’ve been leading worship for almost two decades now. I started out thinking I knew everything, while actually knowing very little. Now I’m painfully aware of how little I know, even though I know much more about my craft than I did seventeen years ago. Along the way there have been a host of people, circumstances and difficulties that have taught me invaluable lessons. Stuff I Had to Learn is a collection of lessons I’ve learned – from the mundane and practical, to the sublime and spiritual.
Over the years I’ve played and sung in dozens of choirs, orchestras, and bands – of both the concert and rock ‘n’ roll variety. But I never appreciated how difficult it is to lead one of those ensembles until I had to do it myself. The first rehearsal I ever led was during my sophomore year of high school. I had been elected to direct our student-run men’s a cappella group, the Noteworthys. (They tried for the Testoster-tones, but that didn’t fly with the school administration.) I remember the sinking feeling as we began to rehearse the first song and I realized that I had to be able to sing everyone’s part, not just mine. It was an eye-opening introduction to the art of the rehearsal.
Since then I’ve sung or played under quite a few people who have shown me what a good rehearsal is like. Probably one of the very best was my college choir conductor, Dr. Jeff Wilson. He is quiet and mild-mannered – the very opposite of the bombastic caricature of a conductor. He conducts with precision and elegance and is meticulously well prepared. Every moment of one of Doc Wilson’s rehearsals is prepared, purposeful, and productive. From he and the many other wonderful musicians I’ve worked under, here are a few things that make for a great rehearsal – whether you’re leading an a cappella choir or a worship band.
- Don’t fix everything – but DO fix something! Worship leaders, you know you often don’t have time in your rehearsals to fix everything that goes wrong in a song. But don’t let that impossibility prevent you from fixing anything when you run through a song. Make sure you have enough time in your rehearsals to run through the songs more than once! Then prioritize the issues you hear on the first run-through and address the most important ones. Pay special attention to entrances, cutoffs, and transitions – both between sections of the song and between the songs themselves. Those are places where mistakes will be most glaring.
- Be specific! This one is definitely a discipline that has to be practiced. Get into the habit of saying exactly what you mean, and not leaving room for interpretation. It’s much better to say, “In the last bar of the chorus everybody lift on beat four and come back in on the downbeat,” than to say, “Hey, at the end of the chorus everyone pause for a sec and then come back in.” Specificity gives your musicians more confidence and trust in each other, and everyone plays better when they trust the other musicians enough to focus, instead of listening for mistakes.
- Learn the Language. Music has a language. It’s how musicians communicate effectively with each other. If you’re unclear on the fundamental language of music – types of notes and rhythms, terms for various musical expressions and dynamics – take the time to learn. Make sure you’re comfortable with the number system, where each note of the scale is assigned a number instead of just a note name. (And if you have no idea what that sentence meant, you need to learn the language!) And it doesn’t end there. Every instrument has its own lingo – the terms that musicians use for the various techniques and approaches that each instrument can employ. Take the time to learn the terms that will communicate well with your musicians. If you don’t feel as comfortable as you’d like to with the “language” of a particular instrument, ask questions of your musicians. Listen to them talk to each other. Learning their language will make you a much more effective rehearsal leader.
- Be an encourager. This one is a hard one for me to remember because I’m always so task focused. Your musicians need to be encouraged. They need to be affirmed when they do a good job. In rehearsal I will often do this instantaneously upon hearing something I like, usually saying something into the microphone to call out the musician for a job well done. It keeps me from forgetting to say something whenever the next stopping point occurs. And remember that encouragement is best when it’s specific. “Great job,” is not sufficient. Do your best to affirm something specific – a tone, a patch, a solo, a fill, an ad lib, a section of the song. Encouraging your musicians is one of the best ways to build a relationship with them, and to let them know that you value them as people – not just the talent they can bring to the table.
These are just a few of the things I’ve learned along the way – and I’m still working hard to perfect the art of leading a good rehearsal. I would encourage you as worship leader to take a step back and evaluate the way you lead rehearsals. Find someone you respect and go watch one of their rehearsals. If you’re really brave, ask a couple of your musicians what you could do to be a better rehearsal leader. I can promise you this – if you invest time and effort in improving your effectiveness during rehearsal, you will reap the benefits, both in the quality of your band or ensemble, and in the relationship you have with your musicians.
I’ve given you my thoughts. Now it’s your turn. What are some other techniques that make for a great rehearsal?
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