We’ve all been there: it’s late Saturday night. We’ve spent all week listening to, and memorizing, all of the nuances of the songs we’ll be playing on Sunday morning. Thankfully, all of the songs in the setlist were organized in Planning Center by Tuesday, so we’ve had a solid 5 days to really get familiar with the drum parts. Then we get that fateful text from the worship leader…

“Hey guys, I know it’s late on Saturday, but I just spoke with the pastor and we decided to call an audible and add a new song to the worship set tomorrow morning.”

Immediately, we’re zapped from feeling completely prepared for Sunday, musically speaking, to worrying that all of our preparation could be derailed by this one new song. What can we do in these situations, where we have very little time to learn a new song?

I like to think of a song, from the perspective of the drum parts, as 3 layers stacked on top of each other. And I always start at the top-most layer and then work my way down as time allows. I may not have much time to go past the first layer, but by approaching a new song this way, it allows me to do my absolute best to prepare for a new song without the fear or worry of my unfamiliarity turning into a distraction.

So here are the three layers, in the order that I approach them.

Layer 1: The “One-Sentence Description”

At the most basic level, I will listen to a song a couple of times. Then I’ll try to write down one sentence that describes the overall “feel” of the drum part. Within this sentence, I try to describe 3 key aspects of the drum pattern: tempo, dynamics, and feel.

So, for example, I would describe the drums for “Great Are You Lord” by All Sons & Daughters like this: A 6/8 pattern with a mid-tempo feel, that dynamically shifts from sparse, quiet verses, to epic, huge choruses.

Is that one sentence perfect or all-encompassing? Not entirely. But if someone were to give me that one sentence as instructions for a drum part, I might be able to get 70% of the way to accurately recreating the original drum parts for the song. Which isn’t too bad for last-minute preparation!

Layer 2: The Thematic Elements

Beyond a one-sentence description, I might try and establish some core rhythmic themes that are found throughout the song. Is there a rhythmic “hook” that repeats at the end of every 8 bars? Or maybe the overall vibe of the song is very tribal, except for the bridge – where the rhythm “straightens out” a bit.

These key thematic elements can help us get closer to replicating the original song, which will help the other musicians on the worship team feel more comfortable with this new song. Remember- they are preparing last-minute too!

Layer 3: The Signature Parts

Is the verse drum pattern extremely recognizable? A good example of this would be a song like “Hosanna” by Hillsong. That verse pattern is pretty distinctive. Almost every song has at least one section that includes a signature drum part.

If you have the time, spend a few minutes working out where and what those parts might be. While certainly not the most important aspect of a song, having one or two “signature” patterns present in the song is a great non-verbal way of instilling confidence in the worship leader that the team is willing and able to go with the flow and make these important last-minute adjustments!

Just keep in mind: a last minute change to the song list is almost always made to better fit the vision of the worship leader(s) and pastor(s). So even though they provide unique challenges, they are also unique opportunities to support our church body and use not only our musical talents, but our time and effort – which is truly a gift!

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