Sunday, December 13, 2015

That Time We Murdered the Little Drummer Boy

Let me clarify that we murdered the song Little Drummer Boy, and not an actual small child that plays a drum. That would be beyond awkward. That would be a felony.

No, I'm talking about my most botched attempt at playing a song in front of an audience, of which there are many.

It was a dark, cold December night in Wisconsin (shocking), and I was leading worship at Crosspoint Community Church in Oconomowoc. This particular worship set was a challenge. We had planned a 5 songs set, but one of the songs was actually a medley of 3 Christmas carols. Just because it's a medley and you're only playing one verse and chorus of the song, you're still basically learning the song. On top of the medley, we were also doing the Jars of Clay version of the Little Drummer Boy, which has a funky, syncopated rhythm happening. Very cool, but a little tricky and very unlike the standard version we've all heard a million times.

A few minutes before the service, I was chatting with the senior pastor, Terry about how the rehearsal went, the transitions, the amount of material there was that week, typical Christmas work load ramp up, etc. He said something to the effect of I hadn't had any major screw-ups that year, so I had a mulligan coming. Thanks. I think.

We started the service with the medley, which I considered the most challenging part of the set - three embedded songs with transitions. I think it was Holly Jolly Christmas, Jingle Bell Rock and some other hokey, Burl Ives type deal. Anyway, smooth sailing. That was followed by a worship song. Odds are 3:1 it was by Chris Tomlin.

Then the real fun started.

The drummer started the click track for Little Drummer Boy and then began playing his beat. Unfortunately, I didn't recognize it. I tried to focus on what he was playing, but it didn't even seem like his beat was following the click. "This could be a problem," I remarked to myself. Or maybe I said "oh crap." Hard to remember. I tried to fall in line on guitar, but I could not find the rhythm. I stopped playing and stopped the drummer.

I asked the drummer to try again with similar results. It was around this time I started hearing comments from the back of the room. Good times. Turns out it was the senior pastor heckling me about not having a screw up yet. Yes, hilarious. At least the congregation was in a good mood about it.

At this point I was just a bit flustered. I tried attempt number three without drums. I still could not find it. I was hearing the standard version melody and rhythm in my head, which only made things worse. However, despite my anxiety level spiking you could sense the audience pulling for us. Then someone else in the band gave it a shot. Nothing. Still more laughing and smiling and a supportive energy in the room. I can't remember how many restarts there were in what felt like seven and a half hours standing there trying get the train rolling again.

Eventually I remembered a 3 note riff in the verse that brought me back. I started the song on my own and got through verse one, line one. The crowd went wild. Okay, not wild, but they cheered and you could tell they were still rooting for us. The rest of the band fell in and we made it through the song. It was a little clunky. It didn't matter. There was much rejoicing by the band, the crew and the congregation. And the senior pastor.

A few things I took away from that night...

One, be careful about working at or over capacity. Especially in a ministry position at the busiest time of the year.

Two, no matter how bad the train wreck is, church is gonna happen. I've participated in services where the drummer had to cancel at the last second, where a singer lost her voice minutes before service, where we lost power and had to set up in the lobby with no PA system. I can be prepared for lots of things, but not everything. Trust God that it'll work out.

Three, my church family is family. And they love and support me even when it all falls apart. Maybe especially then. And because of that, what felt like a total disaster as it was happening ended up being a unique, funny, touching moment we all shared together. Pretty awesome.

Merry Christmas, all!! And if you'd like to check out Jars of Clay doing their version and not murdering it, here you go!

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Harold and Emma

I'll start this off with a disclaimer. This post is not specific to leading worship or church production. I think it's a pretty good story though.

A few Fridays ago I took my daughters to the airport so they could fly home to visit family. After getting through the terminal very easily, we had some time to kill and went to look for some chairs near the gate. Emma (12) was the first to approach the row of seats, where there were about half a dozen empty ones next to an older black dude who was probably in his mid-sixties. Before we even get our butts down, Emma says "what brings you to Wisconsin", which is where my girls were heading, but confusing since we were in Phoenix, but that's kind of how Emma rolls.

Frankly, I was surprised, because I usually think of Emma as having trouble with social skills, but I may have to reconsider.  Emma sat down next to Harold and I was on the other side of her. Harold smiled and informed Emma he was flying to Indiana. Millie (11) was glued to her phone.

Harold and Emma started to have a conversation about Indiana and Milwaukee and cold and snow and family and the desert and mountains and rattlesnakes and scorpions and mosquitoes. It was pretty awesome.

I joined the conversation the way most introverts that want to be polite do - reluctantly. Over the next half hour or so, I learned that Harold worked for the railroad for 40 years. Harold lost his wife in 2013. He retired in 2009 and has been visiting Phoenix regularly since. He has a girlfriend who doesn't want to live in Arizona. He has a daughter and a son that live in Phoenix. His daughter works for a bank and worked for Fresh and Good Foods until they recently went bankrupt. Harold loves Phoenix, but since his girlfriend Theresa doesn't, he probably won't be moving anytime soon.  Friends told him that he would hate Los Angeles if he ever visited, but he visited and didn't hate it. Harold believes in God. He brought it up several times. Especially when he told me how his son died in 1992 in a motorcycle accident and that he visits his grave several times a week. I shared with him how I lost my wife to cancer in 2009 and that I raise my girls on my own with help from friends and family. We both fought back some tears telling and listening to our stories.

When it was time for my girls to get in line to get on the plane (which is when my blood pressure instantly jumps over 200 for those of you keeping score at home) Harold shook my hand and gave Emma a big hug. Millie was still on her phone. It's okay. She has plenty of her own moments.

I walked my girls to the jetway without any meltdowns. Them or me. Then I stared out a giant glass wall waiting for the plane to inch backward. Harold came over to ask how I wasn't balling right then. I told him hiding it was a learned skill.

After the plane took off and I watched it turn into a tiny dot blotted out by the sun, I started to head out, but not before I walked over to shake Harold's hand one more time. He gave me a hug instead.

I walked back to the parking lot thinking about what had happened. Because Emma struck up a conversation and I was open to it, I ended up connecting with another human being and it was pretty amazing. How many times have I shut down that opportunity because "I'm an introvert" or because there are other things on my mind or because my fantasy football lineup needs another adjustment?

It was a good reminder from Harold and Emma to be open to those connections.

Thursday, October 29, 2015

How (to) I Create Charts

Here's how I create charts.

1. Google the name of the song and the word "chords". Example: from the inside out chords

2. Start clicking links until you get a chart that has all the lyrics and seems to have the chords shown above the lyrics fairly close to where they should be. Do not bother looking at whether any of the chords are in the key you need or if any are correct. Some might be and more than likely, some aren't.

3. Copy and paste into any word processor, or into Planning Center as a chart.

4. Load an mp3 and start playing along. Edit all chords, and lyrics if necessary, as you go along.

I know this isn't an earth-shattering secret, but this works really well for me. I assume the chords I copied are wrong and I'll check every single one, but I'll save time because even though the chords might be wrong, most of the time they are put in the right location.

Another tip you might find useful... if as the band leader you like to do a song very close to the recording, but you modify the chord progression in the bridge, it would be helpful to communicate that to the band. Like with a note on your chart that indicates something like "follow the chord chart for this bridge even though it's different than the recording". It'll save time in the long run.

Got any other tips for creating charts? I'd love to hear them.

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

The Singer Is Always Right

"Well, I have a microphone, and you dont. SO you will listen to every word I have to say!" - Adam Sandler as the Wedding Singer

Okay, I'll admit, having the microphone does not make the singer right, but there is practical application why I adopted this rule of thumb. It has to do with the fact that more attention is being paid to the lead singer, who happens to be holding the microphone, than anyone else.

There are exceptions to this rule and they pretty much fall on the drummer. Sorry bass players, guitar players, keyboard players, percussionists and banjo players. (Banjo is getting HUGE in worship right now. I'm surprised you didn't know that. It's so introspective and worshipful.)

If you start a song and the singer comes in early, then guess what... That's the new start of verse 1. Even if they come in on the wrong beat. Playing along and hoping they catch up is unlikely to work, and will become painful if it goes longer than 1.5 seconds. If they forget the words to the song and need an extra four measures, then four measures it is! Even if they jump to a bridge when it should have been a chorus. Someone's got to drive this train and whether you like it or not, the singer is in the driver's seat.

Do I say this because I'm a singer? No. Do I say this because I think the singer plays the most important role in leading the song? No, even though arguably they do. Do I say this because the singer has the most sensitive personality and we need to prop them up every chance we get? No, even though that might be more true than I'd like to admit.

There are times for collaboration and making decisions as a team. The middle of a song is not one of those times. The middle of a song calls for immediate, dictator-like decisions. Even if the dictator doesn't necessarily know what they're doing. And if this is the case, you might want to consider addressing that bigger issue, hopefully not in the middle of a rehearsal. Awkward.

Now, you may have a different philosophy and believe that everyone should follow the piano-playing music director. That's great. I think the most important aspect here is that your what-if scenarios are thought through and then communicated with the entire band so they know what to do when (not if) something goes wrong. Because eventually something will. Knowing who to look at for body language, hand signals or spoken cues before you are in that situation helps you pull out of a nose dive quickly.

I have to admit I don't worry too much about things going wrong in a worship service, and in fact, there are times I enjoy it. You learn a lot about people when things don't go as planned. Plus, no matter how bad us human beings may screw up the plan, church is gonna happen. I'm pretty sure God can handle a singer coming in at the wrong measure or having to start Little Drummer Boy half a dozen times because half the band forgot how to play it. Not that that happened to me or anything.

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Let's Give the Lord a Hand!

Let me start by reminding you all that I didn't grow up in church. I grew up playing in rock bands. On stages. In bars. Where people hang out and occasionally applaud something they hear from the stage when they like it.  That's why when I first heard this phrase in church, I was, um, taken aback.

Maybe you've been there. You're onstage finishing leading a rocking, uptempo, high-energy worship song when the announcement guy takes over the transition while everyone is clapping and says "let's give the Lord a hand!" Huh?

I get where this is coming from. Truly I do. We are doing all of this for God, so let's turn all the focus on Him. I'm not saying we shouldn't do that. What I am saying is that in every other facet of life when human beings (sometimes even animals and occasionally robots) do something that looks, sounds, smells and tastes like a performance, people applaud the performance of those people when they think it's worthy. Yes, I get that the talent of those people came from God so  at church an attempt is being made to acknowledge God through those people. I'm just telling you from my own perspective, it feels so out of place. And I'm a Christian! Imagine what the poor guy that went to see Imagine Dragons the night before whose girlfriend dragged him to church Sunday morning and he decided to check out what this Jesus dude is all about thinks?

Band starts playing...

"Man, this is not at all what I thought Christian music was like. These guys are actually really good."

"Have I heard this song on the radio before? I'm not sure, but I like it!"

"Wow, this one rocks!"

Song ends and Mr. Announcements walks up... Let's give it up for the Lord!

"Wait. What? This band is called The Lord? I thought they were the church band. I'm so confused."

And people think Christians are weird.

I can't be the only one who has ever thought this, right?

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

How to Ruin Your Wednesday Night

Allow me to describe the worst worship band rehearsal I have ever experienced.

Everything actually started pretty well. Everyone was more or less on time, in a good mood, plugged in and ready to go.  The band leader, not me on this occasion, called out the first song. The drummer counted us in. Then something terrible happened. The resulting 30 seconds of sound, I can't call it music, may have been right at home on one of the ghost catching "reality" TV shows, but it was sorely out of place in a church. An atonal un-masterpiece. Musicians playing different songs in different keys at different tempos.

Technically, we were all playing the same song, however about half of us were playing one arrangement and the other half was playing a completely different one. There were at least two different keys, but frankly, it was hard to decipher.

That was just the beginning.

What happened next was, um, uncomfortable. The band leader decided to forge ahead. "Let's hear the correct version through the PA, please." New charts were coordinated and printed. Musicians listened to the song over the PA and tried to relearn this correct, new-to-them version on the spot. No pressure there.

The next 45-60 minutes was spent fumbling, stumbling, and hacking through song number one of the night. Not to mention half the scheduled rehearsal time was burned. People were frustrated. And by people, I mean me.  Especially because I was not in the role of band leader. I felt the best way for me to handle things was to support the band leader, do what he asked and keep my mouth shut. It wasn't easy.

Rehearsal went long and beside my own emotional struggle with the evening, I don't think it's a stretch to say I wasn't the only one looking forward to getting home and having a glass of wine when we were done.

I learned a few lessons that night that I found to be helpful for leading a band rehearsal.

1. Start with the easiest or most familiar song. This can get tricky as band members will be at different talent levels, experience, etc. But there is usually one song in your set that's kind of obvious. If in doubt, let the singer decide. Seriously.

2. If you get into a situation where the song is a train wreck, bail on it. Either cut it completely, or at least put it off until the weekend with a stipulation that if it doesn't come together quickly at the next rehearsal, it will be cut. No pointing fingers, no pressure. If it works, cool. If not, cool.

3. Stay organized. The reason that song derailed that night was because of sloppy organization of song assets in the software used to coordinate with the band.  Multiple files where there should have been one. MP3s and documents not labeled clearly. It could have been avoided.

4. Communicate. Especially if there is any doubt about which song/arrangement/key a song is being done in. My preferred method is to email the band with notes on each song in the set. Something like:

I Am - Set opener. We are using the recording as a road map, however the recording starts with piano, but no keyboard player this week, so we will start with acoustic guitar instead. Watch the timing going in and out of each chorus. During the bridge breakdown, Ryan please come up with a simple electric guitar lead part to help fill. For backing vocals, Bill please sing unison on all the choruses, Jane please sing unison on chorus 1 and a harmony above on the rest. A harmony part on the second half of the bridge could be cool too.

5. Lower expectations. In the last few years, every rehearsal I have lead starts with me stating the purpose of the mid-week rehearsal. That purpose is to make sure we are all playing the same songs, in the same arrangement and the same key. We will not be practicing transitions or ironing out wrinkles. Any wrinkles identified should be worked on between after this rehearsal and before the next. My aim is to get through the rehearsal as efficiently as possible and be done as soon as that purpose has been fulfilled. I can't recall a single time where we got to the weekend set and I regretted not having a longer mid-week rehearsal to prepare. Not one. People became more relaxed at that first rehearsal and everyone knew I would not waste their time. On the rare occasion that I really felt we needed to hit something more than once, I think most of the team respectfully obliged and often were in agreement that we'd benefit from that effort.

This works for me.  Your mileage may vary.

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

My Monitors - Worst. Mix. Ever.

Stage monitors, whether wedges or in-ear type, are meant to help you hear instruments and vocalists on the stage.

Some musicians love to dial in their monitors like they are mixing the master recordings for the Beatles White album. I have seen friends onstage meticulously tweaking and dialing in every instrument on stage. They'll ask the sound engineer to adjust EQ and compression on the bass guitar and request that the noise gate release time on the kick get turned down 14 milliseconds. God bless them. Trying to get that perfect mix that will inspire them to perform better. (Sorry, did I say "perform"?)

This is pretty much the opposite of how I dial my monitors in. Join me on a little tour...

My vocal is going to be the loudest channel by far. Why? Because I'm just that good and I love to hear my voice. Or because I need to hear myself to stay somewhat in tune. I forget which. Anyway, on a scale of one to 10 for loudness, my vocal is going to be at 8. Why not 10? Because I like to have a little room in case I want that last little push over the cliff, and I have not seen an Aviom that goes to 11.

My guitar is next at about 6.5.

Drums are at 4.

Click track is underneath that. I like it to almost disappear when the drums are playing. If I'm starting a song and nothing else is playing, it's very easy to hear that click even at low volume.

All other singers and instruments are at 1 or 2. I might make an exception if there's a keyboard  or guitar part I really need to hear, but it's pretty rare I'll go above 3.

If the average person plugged in my in-ears to take a listen they might be appalled. It can be a truly awful sounding mix if you are trying to enjoy the music. But that's the thing... the purpose of my mix isn't to enjoy the music, it's to be able to sing and play my parts right.

I'm not saying this method is going to work for everyone. It takes some getting used to, but once you do, your tolerance for a less-than-perfect mix will build and you will save yourself, and the band, a ton of time and aggravation.

There is one practical drawback to this method. If you are in a position where you need to be listening to everything and making sure everyone's parts are working and being played how you want them to sound, it's going to be tough if you can't hear everything. However, in my opinion, leading the band, especially while singing and playing an instrument, is enough of a responsibility without having to also pay attention to the big picture. Something's got to give.

I'd be interested in hearing how other's approach their mixes. Chime in!