Planning the Practical – Set Preparation

I’ve played with a lot worship leaders and one of the experiences that I had will always stick with me as the pinnacle example of unpreparedness. I received a phone call 15 minutes before rehearsal asking if I could play; As we frantically set up the stage and started to dial in the monitor mix, I was running back and forth to the photocopier to grab the 15-20 charts that were printing for me there, most in the wrong keys. Of the 5 songs we practiced, only one of them made it into the set that was still being chosen in the green room as the service started. It was a stressful night, and all of this could have been avoided with some advanced planning.

While most large churches now are placing an emphasis on planning their sets, unfortunately, the above process still seems to be the standard cycle in small churches. Having these things sorted out ahead of time takes a lot of the stress out of the equation so you can focus on leading. Here’s some practical things that I do when leading a service that have helped prevent this type of situation.

Preparing the Set

Have your sets picked and setlists emailed to any musicians playing at least two days before your first rehearsal. If you only rehearse on Sunday right before service, have the set to everyone by Friday afternoon. This gives everyone a chance to learn any new songs.

My day job is software development, so I ended up rolling my own set planning software that spits out PDF charts to email, but many churches are using PCO for planning and distributing their services/sets. I also like to put together a Spotify playlist of the set and email a link to that as well.

I know many like the iPad/OpenSong rigs for stage. Personal opinion; I think they’re tacky. In every instance that I’ve seen them used, the musician tend to lock into staring at them and never look up, or worse, hide behind them.

Personally, I try to memorize as much of my set as possible and only use a paper setlist with song keys and cues noted. A confidence monitor is preferable as safety blanket and I have paper chord charts or lyrics sheets for others.

Know the songs and have solid arrangements before you rehearse with others. Play though the set top to bottom to make sure it’s going to flow. Nothing is more frustrating that working with a leader that doesn’t know where they’re going.

Plan Transitions

Equally as important to learning the songs is having a plan for the transitions between songs. Plan and practice any segues or cues ahead of time and have them noted in the order of service and on the music. Bad transitions will derail your set faster than mistakes.

Plan What You’re Going to Say

I’m not a public speaker. Put a guitar in my hands and let me sing, I’m fine, ask me to talk and I’ll make a fool of myself. I always knew it was bad, but until I saw a Facebook Live video of me dismissing a congregation after service. It was ugly.

Now, I make sure I have what I’m going to say planned out before I say it. Some people adopt the mindset that God only speaks through spontaneity. To that I say, “Your pastor studies and plans what he’s going to say, you can too.”

Communicate

Along with the set distribution, include any special information about the service and any rehearsal times. You may consider having a call time for rehearsals that is a earlier than the start time to give everyone time to set up.

Also, make sure you send a digital, proofread copy of the set to whoever is responsible for lyric projection as well. Frantically trying to type songs into ProPresenter five minutes before service is not fun. Send a set to the sound tech as well, (with an input list if you can). Everything goes more smoothly if they can pre-plan.

Do what you can to keep the folks on your production team happy. They can make or break your service; you want them on your side.

Pack Your Gear

There’s nothing more stressful than getting to a service and not having what you need. A couple days before I’m leading or before a rehearsal, I go through all of the equipment that I’m going to need to make sure it’s accounted for and and pack it up. Here’s a list of the common things that I toss in my bag.

Have anything that’s part of your preparation that we didn’t cover here? Drop it in the comments! Catch you next week to talk about some practical areas of service day preparation.

Selecting New Songs

I’ve been thinking a lot about how I select new songs for inclusion in a worship set. In the past my process was:

  1. Is is Popular?
  2. Yes?
  3. Do the Song.

This doesn’t fly with me anymore. I’ve been trying to distill an informal process that I’ve been putting new songs through into something tangible:

Are the Lyrics Theologically Sound?

I was having a conversation with my pastor and his wife about this topic after my last worship set and someone made the statement, “It’s amazing how much you can get away with saying when you set it to music.” There are some beautiful, singable songs that have some seriously questionable theology in them.

I’ve probably swung too far to the conservative side of this argument, so I’ve been bringing new songs to my wife, who has thorough knowledge of biblical theology, and we work through the theology together. If it passes muster, it goes moves on to the next tests.

Some songs don’t have any observable theology errors in them, but they just don’t say much of anything. What value is there in that?

I was discussing this with a worship leader friend and he made the following statement: “When we choose songs, we’re literally putting words in people’s mouths.” Do we want to put meaningless or unsound words into the mouths of those we lead?

Is It Singable?

There are songs I can’t sing. There are songs I can sing, but I know the majority of our congregation wouldn’t be able to.

There’s two quick criteria that I use to figure out the singability of a song:

Melody: Does the melody of the song cover a large vocal range, low to high? Just cause I can get those notes out doesn’t mean everyone can. If the range is narrow enough, you can drop the key of the song, but if it’s too wide, you’ll start pushing the melody too low to sing comfortably.

Phrasing: I heard a worship song recently that had run of 16th notes with a new syllable of the lyrics for every notes. Unless you’ve been taking auctioneer speed-talking training, you’re not going to get all those words out cleanly. A great test for this is the “whistle test”. Whistle the melody; if it’s hard to whistle, it’s going to be hard to sing.

I heard the following statement on a worship leading podcast that I’ve been listening to, and it really summed this up: “The voice of the congregation is the most important instrument in the room.” If your church can’t sing the songs you’ve selected, what’s the point of singing them?

Is It Memorable?

Music sticks with us. There are songs I recall from my early childhood that I now sing to my daughter. Conversely, there are songs I’ve forgotten before they’ve ended.

Memorable songs have have a way of popping back into our heads at random moments; and can stick with for years. I’d be hard pressed to tell you the details of any sermon I heard ten years ago, but I can very easily sing the chorus of most of the songs I was leading ten years ago.

However, just because a song is memorable, doesn’t mean it’s a good song. This further drives home the point of verifying the theology of the songs we sing.

Also, It’s a lot easier to sing along with songs you remember.

What makes a memorable song? Typically a great lyrical or melodic hook. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hook_(music)

Can I Pull it Off?

There are songs I love that I’ll never do just because I can’t pull them off. There are styles that outside of my current ability, and I’ve come to be okay with that. I’ll play through a song a few times. If it’s not comfortable or stressed after a few playthroughs, it gets set aside. If I’m not comfortable playing a song, those I’m leading in worship will sense that and will be distracted or uncomfortable.

Is It Culturally Appropriate?

Jamal Hartwell of gospelmusicians.com has a great lesson where he discusses musical “memory banks” and how the music that we are familiar with connects with us. I love his gospel/neo-soul arrangements, but for the environment I’m in, the tritones, passing chords would distract from worship instead of enhancing. (Also, I can’t play his arrangements. No matter how hard I try, I sound like his “White Church” example. See “Can I Pull it Off” above.)

That’s my criteria for selecting songs. Even if you don’t agree with all my points, I’d encourage you to define your own standard to that you use to evaluate, just be sure that you have these criteria in place. Next week I’ll look at some thoughts on introducing songs to the congregation.

Do Something Else

When my pastor first approached me about stepping back into ministry, he caught me off guard. My history as a worship leader and media director had preceded me, and I fully expected to the conversation to head in that direction. I wish I could remember the exact specifics, but it was along these lines:

I was wondering if you would consider praying about stepping into ministry…

…as an usher. I think that it would be a great opportunity for you to serve while getting to know and love people in our church. And “I’d rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God…”

…oh, and if you wanted to pray about leading worship occasionally, that’s fine too…

…but really seek the Lord about ushering. I think that it would be a good fit.

I cringed inside.

I am emphatically not a social person. There was a time where I made sure I was 10 minutes late for church every week to guarantee that I would miss the “turn and greet” segment of the service. I’ve always been drawn to ministries that isolate. As a worship leader, was either on stage or back stage. As a media director, I was well hidden in tech booths.

We all know the often quoted passage:

…not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.

Seems like I had managed to completely neglect the “meeting together” aspect of my faith, despite being front and center in the church.

I knew he was right; if I was going to minister at the church, I needed to love the people in the church. After loving God, this is the second greatest commandment. What do you do when you love someone? You interact with them, you get to know them, you be a part of their life. It’s hard to do that when you’re separated by a physical wall.

After praying about it, I let him know to put me on the usher schedule.

I’ll be honest, I still get nervous in the days leading up to my scheduled weeks, but I think this role has been one of the most fruitful areas I have ever served in; it never fails that I leave those services more encourage than any other time.

Here’s what I would encourage you to do; take one service a month to serve in another boots-on-the-ground, face to face with people ministry. Serve as an usher or help at the info table; take orders at the coffee bar or help with children’s ministry check in. Get to know people in your church, love them, be a part of their lives.

Why is this important?

Trustworthiness: If a stranger walked up to you and asked you to follow them, would you do it? Okay, some of you might depending on the circumstances, but most wouldn’t. Every Sunday, you’re asking people to follow you as you lead them in worship. Have you given the people you’re leading a reason to trust that you’re not going to lead them the wrong direction? If you don’t give anyone an opportunity to know you, it’s going to be hard to earn any trust.

Humility: The unspoken reality of most of us worship leaders is that we all could be taken down a couple of notches. Being a musician on a platform tends to feed all the wrong parts of our self worth. Are you willing to regularly serve in an area of your church that isn’t glamorous or visible? If not, it’s time to seriously reevaluate your motives as a worship leader.

Leadership: This really is the other side of the humility coin. From an outside perspective, there’s a lot of glamour in leading worship. You have a platform, and from it you get to be a “Cool Musician”™. By serving in other parts of the church, you have an amazing opportunity to practically demonstrate that less visible areas of service are just as valuable.

“But, if I don’t lead worship, there’s nobody else who can.” Sure, I get this is the reality of most small churches. However, leading worship for every service your church has is not healthy. You need breaks, you need perspective. Use this an an opportunity to train up another worship leader from your congregation or reach out to like-minded worship leaders in your community to arrange for coverage.

I know this makes a lot of us uncomfortable, but there’s no growth without discomfort. Put down your guitar, spend some time in prayer, and then work a vitally important part of your craft that is often completely ignored.

Buying a Microphone

At the time I accepted the invitation to lead worship at an acquaintance’s wedding, he told me that there would be sound equipment at the wedding chapel that I could use. All I had to do was show up with a guitar. Great! That simplifies things…

The first sign of trouble was the green, spit-bleached foam windscreen cover on the Samson SM58 knockoff. “I can take that off,” I thought to myself as I set up my guitar stand. After giving a copy of the set to the pianist, I finished setting up got a closer look. Embedded in the grill of the mic was dried bits of food.

I was literally singing into someone’s pre-chewed salad.

I stood so far away from that mic, not using it would have been equally effective.

“This must never happen again,” I thought to myself. When I got home that night, I went online and ordered a mic.

Sharing a mic can be almost as bad as sharing a toothbrush. A few of the more thoughtful churches I’ve visited have cleaned shared mics after each service with telephone disinfecting wipes. This is better than nothing, but there’s still a lot of gunk that gets absorbed by the foam behind the metal grill.

Hygiene aside, you may want to consider buying your own mic because you prefer the way it sounds to what is provided. Most churches I’ve visited provide something akin to the Shure SM58, a legendary mic, to be sure, but I’ve always found it dull and uninspiring.

A few notes on mic technology: Most mics are one of two flavors, Dynamic or Condenser. Shure has a great technical write up on the differences, but here’s my thought on the differences in three sentences. Dynamic mics are cheap and sturdy, but have a duller sound quality. Condenser mics are expensive and fragile, but sound more open and sparkly. Condenser mics also require the soundboard to send them power (called phantom power), and will not work if the soundboard can’t provide this power (unless you have an external power supply). This really isn’t as concerning as it sounds as almost all soundboards made in the 20 years have phantom power built in, but it’s worth noting.

Here’s a few of the choices that I have experience with and can recommend, and I’ve listed an alternative in each class that are worth a look too.

Shure SM58

Type: Dynamic
Street Price: ~$100

The Shure SM58 is the industry standard microphone. It’s the Honda Civic of Mics; It’s cheap, indestructible, and doesn’t sound bad. It’s a great first mic. Also, I’d consider this the minimum standard of mic to purchase, don’t bother buying anything less. Beware, the SM58 is the most counterfeited mic in the industry (yes, people make fake mics); only buy from a authorized Shure dealer or you may end up with a low quality knockoff.

Alternative: Sennheiser e835


Shure SM86/Beta 87

Type: Condenser
Street Price: SM86: $180, Beta 87:$250

These are the Cadillacs of the mic world. The Beta 87 might be the second most common mic that I’ve seen in churches, and it was my first introduction to stage condenser mics. I noticed the difference with the first note I sang into it; the mic had a open, shimmery, studio-esque quality to it. I knew I’d never go back to a dynamic mic. That said, I wouldn’t buy one because…

…the SM86 is, in my opinion, Shure’s best kept secret. It’s the lower cost SM version of the Beta 87 and it sounds just as good to my ear, for ~$70 less than the Beta.

Alternative: Heil PR 35 (Note: Dynamic Mic)


Neumann KMS 105

Type: Condenser
Street Price:  ~$700

This is the BMW 7 series of Mics. German engineered, super expensive, probably more mic than anyone needs. I had used Neumann mics in the studio and based on that experience, when I was choosing a mic for myself, their stage mic was at the top of my list. I didn’t have a wife and kids back then and I was leading worship a few days a week, so a $700 mic somehow seemed perfectly reasonable (how things change!). If you’ve got the expendable income, this mic is, in my opinion, unrivaled, but if I had to replace mine now, I’d probably get the SM86 for the best price-to-value ratio.

Alternative: Shure KSM9