How to lead worship musicians with different abilities
By: Todd Fleming
Before becoming a worship leader, I was involved as a bandleader at a couple of churches for a few years. This isolated experience of scheduling, rehearsing, and coordinating musicians apart from leading worship gave me time to learn how to lead worship musicians and, especially how to handle the varying levels of ability that come in a volunteer-driven band. Over time, I developed a simple system for classification. But to solely classify based on musical ability is not enough because it suggests that there are better classes than others, when in reality there are challenges and opportunities represented by each.
Three levels – A, B, and C
These are talented, experienced musicians capable of lead playing and improvisation. Most of them will learn quickly, play reliably, are very familiar with their equipment, and can speak fluently in terms used by both band and tech. However, A’s can also be hard to lead because it’s hard for them to fall in behind a worship leader who is younger, less experienced, or not as strong of a player. Sometimes this takes the form of an assumption that they are doing the leader a favor by being there and don’t really have to listen to direction. Other times their attitude is fine, but habits and styles are simply hard to break when the vision calls for something they are not used to providing.
A’s need vision. When the vision is big enough, and they are a part of it, they lend considerable weight to the effort. They can also be developed more readily as leaders because instrumental competency is already a foregone conclusion. I’ve had some very good success pairing a high level musician with someone less experienced, which actually develops both people – one as a musician, the other as a leader. But just because they don’t require a lot of management as a musician, this doesn’t mean that you don’t need to spend time with them. They probably don’t know a lot about mentoring other musicians, and there’s a good chance that churches have mostly treated them like session players. If they aren’t fed vision, and if they don’t have a way to relate to church other than as a musician, then this is just another gig, and they can do that anywhere. Give them something better than a gig, and you’ll inspire loyalty for years.
B’s are reasonably competent musicians who play a solid part, but don’t really branch out creatively. They typically have a day job and don’t define themselves as musicians. B’s can read a chart (maybe not a numbers chart) but don’t readily transpose on the fly. They need a little time and practice, but they will be fine. B’s are great to have on your team because they create very little trouble, generally being prepared and following instruction. They are reliable, and while they don’t set the tune on fire, they also don’t cause train wrecks.
B’s are easy to take for granted, but you would do so at your peril. I would wager that most worship teams are made up of 50-75% B’s, making them the source of stability in any worship setting. B’s will seldom call attention to themselves with their playing, but need acknowledgement for their time and service. Some B’s might have the potential to be A’s if they are developed, so look for some on-ramps, but also be willing to let them stay B’s, because they can be happy there and you need them there. Take a little time to thank them tangibly for their faithful service so they don’t feel overlooked.
One way that I’ve worked with B guitarists that only play rhythm is to start teaching triad inversions as a path to playing double-stop fills. If they pick that up and want to learn more, then we have something to work with. If they are uncomfortable and keep returning to standard chords, then they are probably best left where they are. In that case, their development path is spiritual, for benefit of both the team and the congregation.
C’s tend to be less experienced. They may have played intuitively or in small settings for years, but lack theoretical understanding or relevant stage experience beyond open mic night. In either case, C’s can be a potential liability in the present. It’s not always their playing; sometimes they are just uncomfortable on a stage, have difficulty sitting in a mix with other musicians, or can’t recover from mistakes quickly. They tend to have good attitudes and be really happy to be a part of what is going on, and are typically the most self-conscious. They aren’t ready to start or stop songs, or handle transitions, because their nerves get the best of them when it’s go time. However, don’t write them off.
C’s are a great opportunity for discipleship. In spending time developing them musically, you can develop them spiritually and deepen your relationship. If you can pair them with a stronger musician to teach them, then you are leading two people at once. You are also giving common experience to your team, one of the most valuable ways to bring people together. When it comes to stage time, just don’t put them in a position to do anything lethal. Sometimes I put a C on the platform and straight up tell them that they are only in their own monitor. I want them to get comfortable with the stage, with the band, and know that if they mess up it’s not cause for panic. They can be a third guitar, second keys, some position where they don’t have total ownership of an area of the song. Use your judgment to know when you can take the training wheels off, and do it slowly. Most C’s can develop into B’s over time, and providing the time to develop will earn you loyalty and strengthen your team.
Using them together
The goal here is never to get a band of all A’s. In fact, if you have this, you’re in danger of an everybody solo, every song, every day. A band comprised of all B’s is reliable, but roughly as exciting jury selection. All C’s is not desirable for obvious reasons. I prefer a mix of all three, with about half B’s holding things together while one or two A’s elevate the overall level of interest. I want a C in there learning and developing alongside stronger musicians, building their confidence and their experience. This works best when it’s done in sections: strong drummer with weaker bassist, strong keys with rhythm only guitar, etc.
The biggest key in how to lead worship musicians is to always provide them with a place to grow. Spiritual development is always on the table, and your most mature players (both musically and spiritually) should be on a path to mentorship. By leading through your stronger people, you are working on multiple levels; you’re not simply using musicians, but developing spiritual leaders.
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