As a guitarist, I’ve been playing music in bands for more than a decade. More recently, I’ve had the opportunity to lead a number of youth bands for several churches. Working with kids who are often new to the world of music means explaining a whole lot of music theory and teaching a lot of chords. And while learning an instrument can be a daunting task in and of itself, learning how to be in a band can be an even bigger investment of mental energy and determination. But to quote a rather famous Jewish rabbi, “Fear not!” Throughout my years of playing with and leading for worship bands, I’ve found that following a few simple tips will shine some light on these musical monsters and help you realize that they aren’t so scary after all.
Learn to play with click.
Click? If you’ve been to a church that has a relatively modern worship band, you’ve likely seen the band members wearing earphones, and you may wonder, “Why?” I’ll answer that with an anecdote: One Sunday morning, a sweet soul came to the front of the stage at the end of the service to thank the band. After talking with us for a few minutes, she mustered up the courage to ask why we all wore earphones. Her guess was that we were listening to the same songs we were playing, just a few seconds ahead so that we knew what to play next.
If I had enough magic in me to perform that amazing of a feat, I’d probably be using it to create zero-calorie M&M’s. The earphones actually allow the unsung hero of the band, the click, to do its job. The click is essentially a metronome. It clicks.
Click. Click.The Click
Music is divided into measures that have a certain number of beats. Staying on the beat is very important. It allows the band to sound like musicians instead of like a garbage disposal; it turns noise into a joyful noise. And musical cohesion is very difficult without having something keeping you together.
Have you ever been on a bicycle riding down a hill that is suddenly very steep? If you’re like me (read: not good at riding a bike), you find yourself accidentally flying down the road at bullet train speeds. On the flip side, have you ever been in a golf cart or some other electric vehicle that you know wasn’t charged the night before? As soon as you take off, you realize that your top speed is less than impressive, but very soon, you notice that people are walking past you without breaking a sweat. You’ve eventually slowed to a crawl.
Playing music without a click track can lead to situations just like this. Fast songs get faster, slow songs get slower, and no one band member can do anything to fix it. You just hope you can collectively pull it together. To play at a “professional” level, click is a necessity. I can’t overstate how important it is to learn how to play music on the beat for the entire duration of each song.
How can you learn this? Just practice. There are plenty of free metronome apps that you can play along with, and if your church uses Planning Center, a metronome is built right into the media section of the app. If you are in a band or plan on joining a band and you don’t have experience playing with a click, help your bandmates keep their sanity and learn this invaluable skill!
Learn your parts.
I’ve been dumbfounded a number of times when I’ve shown up to a rehearsal and nobody knows what to play! Rehearsal is not the time to learn songs; it’s the time to rehearse them. That’s why people call it rehearsal, not “hearsal” (I’m pretty sure I made that word up, but it almost makes sense!). I’m a firm believer in the idea that a band is only as good as the weakest link. If everyone in the band refuses to be the weakest link, you’re going to be a pretty darn good band. So refuse to be the weakest link by learning your parts!
The most important part-learning practice to develop within a band is frequent and open communication. Most bands have more than one guitarist, and some have multiple keys players, too. If everyone shows up ready to play the exact same thing, your songs are going to sound flat and boring. Talk to your bandmates and decide who is going to play the lead parts and who is going to play the rhythm parts. Then when you all show up for rehearsal, you won’t waste time trying to designate parts, or even worse, trying to learn parts that were left unlearned by everyone. Trust me; there are some days when you need every second you can get to make it through both technical difficulties and difficult songs. Don’t let not knowing your parts slow you (and the band) down even further!
Learn to sacrifice personal “creativity.”
When you are in a band, you naturally want to sound cool. If you’re able to shred a solo, it’s hard not to. Restraint is a virtue, but an oh-so-necessary one. Sure, you could add flurries to every phase. But should you? Probably (definitely) not.
There are two underappreciated qualities of music that are worth addressing: space and tension. When musicians talk about space, they’re talking about the beats that really don’t have much going on. Leaving space in your songs creates “room to breathe.” Space leaves you wanting something more in the best way possible. Which is where tension comes in. Tension in music has to do with to the sense of excitement that builds when you can feel the music heading a certain way. Eventually, there’s some sort of crescendo in the music that fulfills that sense of need, and the listener feels rewarded and even relieved. In scientific terms, building tension within a song releases dopamine, a neurotransmitter responsible for pleasure.
If you are so focused on showing off your mad skillz in every beat of the song by filling in all the extra space, you can inadvertently make the song worse by stripping it of any tension that might exist. A nuanced, stimulating song with tension and balance becomes a flat, uninteresting snooze-fest. Your time to shine will come, I promise! But when you’re playing in a band, remember to respect the band and the music enough to step out of the spotlight when it’s not your turn. Do what sounds best for the band, even if it means playing with only 10% of your talent 90% of the time.
If purposefully backing off just doesn’t seem right to you, I’ve got an example for you from the best band in history, U2 (don’t @ me, you know it’s true). In this live version of their 2001 hit “Elevation,” the band crafts an atmosphere of overwhelming tension that doesn’t pay off until the 1:45 mark. For almost two whole minutes, the audience is teased with a simple, two-note guitar riff under the vocal melody, a far cry from the upbeat studio version of this same song. Even still, there’s a sense of certainty that the music is taking them somewhere higher. Things are about to get… elevated, and they know it. Listen for yourself:
Could you feel the tension? Those drums are begging to bring the beat in, but they make you wait for it. They build the tension to a breaking point, and when they finally come in with the full band, BOOM. Dopamine explosion.
Save your best work for the best moments, because when you make every moment a best moment, there are no best moments.
While theirs is an exercise in extreme restraint and quite obvious tension-building, there are far more subtle ways to create tension within music. For the most part, just choosing to hold yourself back until the song really calls for something spectacular will do the trick. Save your best work for those best moments, because when you make every moment a best moment, there are no best moments. Did I say moment enough there?
While there is far more advice to be given on this topic, I’ve found that these three practices can turn a musician into a band member, and when followed by all band members, can take your performance to the next level. A band is like a team, and each member of the team needs to be committed to playing the game together. As I’m sure you’ve heard, teamwork makes the dream work. Dream out loud!UMHB Spiritual Life provides relationships, communities, ministries, and events that communicate and cultivate Christ-likeness through service and leadership on and beyond the UMHB campus. Visit our website to learn more about how you can get plugged into worship ministries on-campus and in the community!