In my work as a worship arts director in Seattle, I take a ferry several days a week across the Puget Sound. Yesterday I noticed another commuter was working with a notebook, creating grids that looked familiar. Short version of the story is that she was creating a bullet journal. It’s a way of organizing your time, prioritizing projects, setting goals, etc. Check out bulletjournal.com for info. I’d used the approach last year and was recently reviewing my entries. What I discovered was that I’d progressed in some areas and hit a wall in others.
I thought I’d throw the same challenge your way that I’m giving myself: to be more intentional about the important things in our musical pursuits. As you read through these paragraphs, hopefully something will resonate with you and you’ll consider what you’re making priorities.
First of all, are you practicing? One of the guys at my church is a fine bass player. In our Christmas Eve service, he played Silent Night as a bass solo. Melody clear, root of chords clear, harmonies outlined. He loves funk and indie rock, and writes music for the band he’s in. But he’s also pushing himself to learn a Bach cello piece transcribed for bass guitar. He sent me a recording the other day of himself playing the piece, and I was blown away. I heard measure after measure of 16th notes played with steady tempo. Nice. You may be thinking he’s probably a young college kid with lots of time on his hands for practicing. Nope. His name is Raoul Perez, and he’s executive pastor at our church. He and his wife have 2 boys, 3 and under. His hands are full, yet he’s making a determined effort to grow as a bass player.
So, how are you stretching yourself? Do you find that you’ve plateaued in your musicianship? My challenge isn’t for you to start working on a Bach piece or some funk classic. My challenge is for you to recognize that you can learn more about your instrument. These days that instrument might be a grand piano, something with a huge library of sounds and features like the Montage 8 that I play, or a laptop with a USB controller hooked up to it. The point is, we can all progress beyond our current level.
Think about the last time you played in a worship service or were part of a rehearsal. Did you stumble over a lead part that was yours on piano or synth? Was it awkward to find the particular sound you wanted to use for the song? Did you feel uncertain about what to play in a song driven primarily by guitar?
When you have a lead part that you’re asked to play, like the intro piano melody in “Cornerstone,” or the lead synth line in “This Is Amazing Grace,” do whatever you must to be confident of the part. I know of classical musicians who visualize their hands on their instruments and “see” the music score in their minds. Since more and more worship teams don’t use music during the service, ask yourself how sure you are of the part. Is just your right hand used? Is the part a single note? Are there octaves played? Are you in the middle of the keyboard? Far above middle C? If it’s a synth part, is the sound you’ll use stored where it’s easily found, or are you fumbling through a bunch of patches before you find it?
Challenge yourself. Know the lead part with absolute certainty. Learn how to store sounds in your instrument where they’re quickly accessed, AND learn how to name the sound so there’s no doubt that you’ve found the right one.
In terms of interacting with guitarists on your team, ask yourself if your monitoring system is doing its job. Are you hearing enough of the guitars to respond to what they’re playing? Are you hearing too much of yourself? Some churches use floor wedges, some have in-ear monitor systems. Whatever your monitor setup, you MUST listen well to the rest of the players on your team. And listen well to the vocalists. If you’re noodling with lots of melodic activity during vocal phrases, stop it! Too harsh? Oops. Listen well. Study recordings and note how great arrangements showcase the vocal line. Instrumental activity is generally quite sparse when vocal activity is present.
And when instrumental activity is guitar-based, stay out of the way. Often acoustic guitars play finger-picking patterns that have lots of 8ths or 16th notes. Electric guitar players often arpeggiate with lots of activity as well. If busy parts are rightly being played by a guitarist, find a part that’s complementary to those parts. Pad sounds are especially effective in this case, since they tend to feature sustained notes. Acoustic piano or electric piano can be used for more sustained parts as well. Be an active listener. Respond to what’s being sung AND what’s being played within your team.
Are you comfortable thinking of the chords in your worship songs by number? If not, growing more comfortable with this concept would be a great focus for you in the months to come. There are lots of resources online for learning chord numbers. If you’re a Planning Center Online user there’s an option to display chord charts in numbers rather than chord names.
As I mentioned earlier here, I’ve seen some progress in certain areas of my musicianship through the use of a journal to track my efforts. No need for you to use a journal to make progress, though. Have the humility to recognize that you can grow as musicians. I’m sure a few months from now you’ll see and hear your progress.