Opportunites for Improvement (16 – OFIs) for praise bands

Saturday, March 28th, 2009

My wife Celia and I have spent the last couple of decades traveling around the country providing musical leadership for events and for churches. We have heard and seen some trends that I’ll gently list under the category of “opportunities for improvement” — (OFIs) by praise bands. I could broaden the list to all genres of music– no one is immune to “OFI.” I’ve got a couple of examples I’ll blog about another day.

Of course this is not about you or your leadership, just my observations of the landscape. Feel free to point folks here, even if it falls under the category of “you might know someone else who needs to read this, that you’d like to share it with.” I’ll post this as a draft, signifying my intent to continue tweaking. It is kind of like the trend that some companies list “beta” on everything they generate or maybe I just have commitment issues. If you find yourself nudged or even convicted in one or more of these items, maybe that’s a good starting place. I invite you to pick one or two and commit to giving them some focus and time for improvement in your setting. Maybe it’s a beginning of dialogue for your team. I’m all about improvement, I hope the dialogue generated here is about you and me and our personal improvement and not pointing out the splinter in someone else’s eye.  Here’s my list:

  1. Listen! — Your best friends when you make music are your ears. Don’t ignore what they’re trying to tell you.
  2. Tuning — Tune your instruments. If they have strings, consider checking them often. Though I’ve mentioned your ears in item #1, consider augmenting–pun intended–them with a reliable tuner.  You can play through it, mute your sound and check tuning between songs. If you’re playing guitar and it wasn’t “set up” by a professional, this will probably improve your tuning as well. Changing strings periodically is also a good idea.
  3. Hearing – Can you and others can hear yourself/themselves? This item is listed separately, because your audio monitoring system may be a systemic issue affecting your ability to hear. Do you have the right mixes, placement of monitors and balances of signals in the mix? If you can’t hear yourself, you might not recognize OFIs in your own playing. Does anyone–your drummer, guitarist or anyone else–play too loudly? Almost enough said but if one person is impairing others’ ability to hear, there’s your trouble.
  4. Evaluate – If your services are recorded, listen to the recordings. There may be things you are missing while you are playing that you will hear when you focus on listening. Listen as a group before you rehearse. Evaluate what worked and what could have worked better.
  5. Arrangements – Are you playing off of the same page? Are musical charts clear and correct? Are the songs arranged so that they flow well? Can everyone see them? Does everyone know where you’re headed. Do you have signals to “call an audible”? for example one more chorus, one less verse, etc.
  6. Variety – Don’t assume others learn things the way you do. Some people learn visually, some auditorily, some kinetically. One of my observations of the differences between contemporary and traditional musicians is that traditional musicians learn by reading a chart, contemporary musicians tend to learn more by hearing. I have heard people who are exceptional at one or the other. Does your group makes allowances for learning music in a variety of ways?
  7. Tempo – How well do you lock to a tempo?  Music  is about the movement of sound frequencies through time (and space). If you’re drifting, there are ways to tighten it up. There’s a musical tool called a metronome that generates a “click”. Beats per minute is an absolute reference that is genre-less. Whether you practice or perform with one (in a drummer’s ear), they can be very helpful tools.
  8. Equipment – Do you have an adequate sound system? Bigger is not always better (there’s no mention of a  sound-check in the sermon on the mount), but good audio support makes a difference. It’s also a voice-saver.
  9. Support – Recruit or train capable sound system operators. A critical piece of the system is the operator. A strong operator can improve a weak system and a weak operator can make the best system sound bad. This item probably deserves its own list, (maybe I’ll do that one next). Running a sound board is both art and science–you have to listen with your ears, to watch the room and you have to understand basic signal flow. Have you seen how many knobs are on a soundboard? There’s a story there for another post.
  10. Practice – Remember how to get to Carnegie Hall? Practice, practice, practice. If you are a weak link in the chain (from a musicianship standpoint), consider wood-shedding and you will improve the whole group. You will play what you practice. Practice for success. If you have your heart set on a solo that you get right about half of the time, consider aiming for something simpler that you will succeed at.
  11. Gifts – Do you have someone speaking whose gift is singing or singing whose gift is speaking or teaching class or greeting folks? Sometimes it might be a  mistake to make the setup of a song last longer than the song.
  12. Context – Do you contribute to the overall “movement” of the gathering? Music is powerful, don’t miss an opportunity. I have heard great speakers’ messages, weakened by a mediocre musical offering (and visa versa). It is good to be in touch with the flow of that gathering. Staying in the room and paying attention to what’s going on sometimes gives you a contextual clue that the Spirit is moving and you need to follow.
  13. Selection – If music selection is your job, don’t ignore the lyrics. Context is important and you can help take the listeners to a new place. Plan for a variety of musical styles. That is why we have several stations on our radio dials.
  14. Accessibility – Part of your job as a leader is to make songs accessible. If folks aren’t singing, something should be improved–one possibility is the sing-ability of a song–some melodies are better sung as solos or ensembles and don’t work well as a congregational song. Other possibilities might be your invitation to join in, the sense of grace in the room, the accessibility of lyrics or the ability to hear clearly what’s going on.
  15. Servant-hood – Your role as a leader is to be a servant leader and, like John the Baptist, to point toward Someone other than yourself. Make sure everything about you and your leadership are pointing somewhere else.
  16. Listen (I can’t overstate this one.)

What did I miss or overstate? If you disagree with anything, jump in and talk with me about it. Post your comments and let me know how I can help.