Why Worship Musicians Stop Getting Better


So many worship musicians have peaked in their ability as players and it’s not because that’s as good as they are capable of getting.

 

It’s because so many simply focus all their attention on preparing for Sunday and that’s it.

 

We learn the coming Sunday’s setlist and forget most of what we worked on to prepare for the following week’s set. If our focus is only on getting ready for the next 4 songs, that is all we are getting better at. When we take the week to week approach we also only learn what we need to know, the bare essentials to get by. What each of us really views as the bare essentials varies from person to person, but don’t kid yourself, that’s all you get to do.

If you’re an instrumentalist, you probably won’t have the words ingrained in you (you know that important part of the congregational worship song). If you’re a vocalist, you probably won’t have the intricacies of the structure of the songs ingrained in you. There is a limit to what you can accomplish in that amount of time. The good news is that the only thing that is limiting you to working within that time constraint is yourself.

When your goal is to improve overall, you have to take an approach outside of the week-to-week preparation.

The Sunday setlists need to just be the tip of the iceberg, not the whole iceberg itself. 

Not sure how it is at every church, but at my church, the service is split pretty evenly between the worship and the message. I can honestly say I would not enjoy a message put together with the same amount of time that I have put into worship sets over the years. I am not saying that we, as volunteers especially, need to match minute by minute the efforts of our speakers and pastors. I am saying that we need to be aware of the weight.

 

So how do we do it?

 

First things first, playing is not practicing, and practicing is not rehearsing.

Playing:

Sitting on your couch with your instrument does nothing to grow you or build you, that is the equivalent of having Netflix on in the background. Playing is just that; playing. It’s not bad, it keeps things fresh and maintains your passion. In fact, I would say it is never bad to have an instrument in hand or as near as possible.

Practicing:

This is the time when the most growth happens. The best approach to practicing is finding something challenging to learn and break it down into small chunks. Slowing down the bpm and playing it through until you have it locked in. Sidenote: This specific approach of finding a challenge, slowing it down, locking it in at a slower bpm, and gradually increasing the bpm is one of the greatest ways to learn parts that you otherwise wouldn’t be able to play.

This is also the time to unpack more than the physical act of performing the assigned part, go deeper. 

What scale is this intro lick based on? 

Why does this particular chord sound so cool under that particular melody note?

What is the pattern I see in the chordal movement?

I’ve heard something similar in other songs, why is that?

Remember this isn’t Christian karaoke or Guitar Hero, you should have an idea of what it is you are actually playing.

When learning the ins and outs of an instrument, so many of us see a one-on-one teacher as the best way to get better. While I am a huge advocate for music education and a music school graduate, I have gained infinitely more from seeing something that I am interested in and personally deciding to figure it out with the resources I had around me. 

Your personal dedication on a daily basis will go miles further than an hour a week with someone telling you what to do without you coming to understand it yourself completely. Now when you combine your drive to improve with a good teacher, that’s pretty much a peanut butter and jelly situation, perfect combo.

Rehearsing:

Controversial opinion, rehearing is maybe 10% as important as practicing. If you are prepared and practiced, rehearsal takes care of itself. Rehearsal is not the time to learn your parts or learn other people’s parts. Rehearsal is really for learning how to set yourself within the band. 

Think of it as self-mixing. 

This is the time to adjust your tones, see how your parts align with the rest of the band, and adjust your approach a bit. Should you be more assertive? Should you lay back a bit? How is what I’m playing complimenting other musicians on stage? These are the things rehearsal is for! 

A great musician is prepared enough upon arrival to rehearsal that their headspace is freed up enough to where they are able to give full attention to these types of questions during rehearsal

If you are a leader, be the most prepared so you are ready and capable of helping those that might need extra guidance. If you’re worried about yourself the whole time, you have less of a capacity for others.

 

So if practicing is the most important part, how do I do it? (I also have no time)

 

Proverbs 13:4 A sluggard’s appetite is never filled, but the desires of the diligent are fully satisfied.

First of all, I am sure you have time, at least a little bit every day to dedicate. The harsh reality for nearly all of us serving on our worship teams is that we do not have ample time we assume we need in our life outside of family and work to put towards practicing. We should all work to be the best employees, workers, spouses, parents, siblings, and friends we can be. That takes time, there is no getting around it. But the average American watches more than 3 hours of television a day and spends more than 4 hours per day on their phone. You have 30 minutes.

It’s often not a matter of if you do or don’t have time, but what you’re doing with the time you have.

Galatians 6:4-5 Each one should test their own actions. Then they can take pride in themselves alone, without comparing themselves to someone else, for each one should carry their own load.

Start Small & Commit to Consistency

Practicing multiple times a week, consistently for a short amount of time does way more for your development than once a week for a large chunk of time.

So form the habit! You will not have the most dialed-in and efficient routine right away, but show up and over time it will be a regular part of your daily/weekly rhythm.

Have Goals 

Are you looking to improve your ear? Focus on learning your music without charts. 

Are you focused on improving your tone? Focus on matching the tone of a part or artist you admire. 

When you have accomplished that goal to a level you are satisfied with, pick a new goal. They start adding up quickly, and soon enough you are really growing.

Track Your Goals

Remember what you worked on. Write down how it went. If it wasn’t to your satisfaction, keep working on it. Strive to leave your practice session better than when you sat down, no matter how small the improvement.

Dissect Everything

This may be the most important thing to keep in mind and the most difficult at the start, but like anything you are learning it does get better. Make a point to break down the things you are working on into very small details and apply the principles of having goals and tracking them. 

Make a point to learn the theory and structure behind things, I am not saying you’ll have to develop a deep music theory knowledge (although it certainly wouldn’t hurt). You’ll find quickly that there are patterns and structures that in the grand scheme of music are very simple and can be mastered, it just takes a little time in the beginning. 

Learn Your Material

This is where the Sunday preparation comes in. All of this work is completely for naught if you can’t apply it on Sundays. But let it be the output of your other work on your instrument. Jazz musicians are the best example of this to me. There are standard songs that all jazz musicians need to know, and they are expected to know them in all variations and keys. When they show up to a gig more often than not, there is no setlist. They aren’t worried though, because they know the material that is being picked from. 

Take that approach, if you know the material your team works from, in all variations and all keys, it takes no additional preparation for Sunday. 

Taking pride in your work on your craft as a musician is a lifelong undertaking. There will be ups and downs, periods of discouragement, and times of ease. But as you grow and improve, those difficult times get shorter and further apart. As worship musicians, we have a different well of encouragement to draw from. We get to use the talents and opportunities that the Lord has given us to serve him and his people through a vessel as close to his heart as worship. He is far beyond worthy of our efforts.

I want to encourage you, don’t settle for getting by on Sunday. Steward your gift and become all that the Lord has given you the capacity to become.

Revelation 4:11 Worthy are you, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honor and power, for you created all things, and by your will, they existed and were created.

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