I work with church bands on a regular basis, both as a coach and a participant.  The one thing I see over and over, the one thing I see constantly, consistently messing up musicians, bogging down rehearsals and frustrating everyone to the point of arguing and disagreement is this:

People don’t understand what they’re playing. 

They either literally don’t understand what the sheet of paper is telling them, or they don’t understand how it fits together.  It’s too much to remember and it’s too hard to keep straight, so instead of playing musically and intuitively, they just struggle to keep up.  I have watched over and over at rehearsals as musicians stare blankly at the page.

Maybe it will help to think of it like this:

Let’s say you’ve heard me talk about how much fun it is to drive to Chicago and hang around for a day.  I’ve raved about Gino’s East Pizza, Virgin Records, the Water Tower Mall, the Theater District, the Millennium Cloud, Navy Pier and on and on and on.  It sounds like fun!  Except…you’ve never done it.  You don’t have it straight at ALL, what Chicago looks like, or how it’s laid out.   You have no idea where to start.  So I give you these instructions:

  • Park in the parking structure on the corner of State and Ohio, the entrance is on your left.
  • Take a ticket from the machine.
  • Find a parking spot near an exit so you can find your car easily again.
  • Be sure to keep the ticket where you won’t lose it.
  • Take the south door out of the parking garage, turn left, and walk two blocks over to Michigan
  • Turn left and walk a hundred yards…

This set of directions runs four pages, single spaced.

There’s no sense of adventure.  There’s no energy of discovery moving you to see what’s around the next corner.  Your head is buried in a complex set of instructions.  You’re worried about messing it up, so you don’t see Chicago at all—you just move along in a blur of instructions.

Or worse—a one-page map with arrows and lines everywhere, notes in the margin, places circled with lines running between them, times and distances scribbled in the margin.

Or even worser—”Hey man, don’t worry.  It’ll be cool.  Let’s just head south and see what happens.”

Better:

  • Take the Ohio Street exit (50B)
  • Follow Ohio street to Michigan Ave.
  • Find a place to park
  • Walk south on Michigan Ave, across the river, and look for Millennium Park.
  • Walk back north, and along the way, see stuff.
  • Get to Gino’s at about 4:00, so you’ll miss the crowd.
  • (Gino’s is at the north end of Michigan Ave, half a block east on Superior)

Do you see?  The goal is to get to Chicago, see a few things and enjoy the day.  The first time you go there, just keep it simple.  And listen—if you can’t follow those simple directions, and you’re not comfortable finding a parking structure, maybe you shouldn’t be driving to Chicago.

My point:

Most of the time in a church band this is exactly the position you’re in.  It’s your first time with a new song, or the first time with this exact configuration of players and singers.  You have only a few minutes to prepare any one song.  The goal is to play a compelling, listenable version of that song.  Anything that gets in the way has to go.

So do you see?  The instructions are critical.  Pardon the following short rant:

STOP USING COMPLICATED, MESSED UP INSTRUCTIONS!!

Just don’t do that to yourself and the band.  I’m talking about the chord chart or whatever written directions you use for music.  So take the time—whether you’re leading or following—to simplify the music.  This is not time wasted, because the payoff is huge.

  • You’ll feel comfortable with the song
  • You’ll have a chance to listen to the other players
  • You’ll have the elbow room to add one or two cool things from your own personal toolbox
  • Everyone can look at each other and play like an ensemble
  • Much of the tension will drain out of your rehearsals
  • You won’t be stopping every five minutes to say:

“No, it’s two verses, THEN the chorus”

“A C13 chord is…well, never mind—cross it out and just play a C”

Don’t leave ANY of this to chance.  And this applies whether you’re leading or not.  If you’re given a song sheet and it’s overly complicated, un-complicate it before rehearsal, even if it’s just for you.

Having said all that, would I leave you without help?

I have a set of eleven free videos you can watch that will walk you through the process step by step.  They’re short videos, so you can watch them on a lunch break or when you have a few minutes free in your day.  Do this, and it will change your onstage life.

Below is the first video, the introduction, and the rest of the videos can be found here.

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