How am I going to learn all these songs before tomorrow??

We’ve all been there! Whether the set list comes out a week before or a day before in your church, we have to have some tools in the toolbox to carry on when there are unfamiliar songs and not enough time to learn them all.

Stand on Structure
Even when it seems daunting, western music is pretty straightforward when it comes to structure and how it’s laid out. There are only so many places you can go from the root chord that will sound correct to our ears (which is part of the reason you can play 1000 songs with the same 4 chords as “Don’t Stop Believin’”!). So a typical I-V-VI-IV structure can get you through a LOT of songs without changing anything! Use that to your advantage. In the example below, I’m arpeggiating a simple G/D/G/C chord pattern. By itself, it would sound ok, but on top of a bass doing the right notes, it sounds like its own part and would still communicate the song effectively. I’ve included lyrics from the pre-chorus of “Blessed Be Your Name”, but you can sing “Don’t Stop Believin’” if you want to…

Charts and Notes
If you haven’t heard someone talk about the Nashville Number System, it’s worth looking up. Simply put, it’s a way to call chords by their position in the scale. So in the key of G, G would be called the 1 chord because it’s the first note of the scale, C would be the 4, and D would be the 5, with Em being the 6. If you know how to use numbers, then charts can become a very simple way to notate each section of a song very quickly, giving yourself a roadmap for the progressions. (Side note: charting a song in sections is a huge time-saver, since you’re only charting the verse one time, the chorus one time, etc.) If your church uses Planning Center Online for charts, they have an option to create charts using numbers instead of chords; ask your worship director to enable that and try them side-by-side to get used to the process.

I have also made notes about notes this way! For instance, if there’s a specific lead line I need to remember, I can write “1, 2, 6” and remember that, on this song, I have a line that goes “A, B, F#”. It’s enough to jog my memory to remember the rest of it.

When In Doubt, Lay Out
Sometimes, no matter what you do, you might not remember everything. In those rare cases, it really is best to rest! You will be less of a distraction to the band and congregation and more confident on the things you do know well if you take a beat and lay out. Stop playing. Yes, I said it: just. stop. Frankly, if it’s the first time through a section of a song, you’re likely to remember it if you listen as it goes by and pick it up the second time around. And not playing also allows dynamics to occur naturally in the song, allowing it to breathe, then build when you come back in. Plenty of nationally released songs do this anyway; you’re just following their lead.

Of course, all of us musicians would rather have nothing better to do than sit around all day playing our instrument and learning the latest worship record, start to finish. Alas, for most of us, that just isn’t our reality! But hopefully, these tools can become a staple in your toolbox to help you manage the load a little easier and get through Sunday!

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