Leading well – a few basics

The below are answers to the 8 most common questions we get asked regarding leading and arranging songs in church . Regardless of our church size or capability, it should hopefully help us all to think them through a little, even just as a basis for how we plan our services and run our practices.

Our aim is to have congregations who know what is expected of them and when, so that even those who don’t feel very naturally comfortable singing, can hopefully feel relaxed enough to focus on the words being sung, and join in to praise our God.

1-What pitch is right to suit everyone in our churches?
It’s worth noting that over the years, voices have changed. Weird as that seems, along with people growing taller than they were a few hundred years back, general voice pitch has lowered a little. This means that any hymns in the older hymnbooks are pitched a bit uncomfortably high for the modern human.
On top of that, many newer songs are pitched to fit the voice of the songwriter, and it turns out the likes of Chris Tomlin, Matt Boswell, or a lot of the Hillsong males, have higher than normal ranges, and your congregation will be shooting you death stares for attempting them as written.

So basically don’t assume the key you’re given in the sheet music is the best fit for your normal church. Here is the golden rule of pitch. The songs we sing should go no lower than A below middle C, and no higher than D an octave and a half above that.

Now sometimes you can get away with one or two notes either side of that, if there isn’t a massive jump to get to the offending note, or the melody isn’t super sustained up (or down) there. But that is your general rule of thumb. If transposing isn’t your happy place, often you can find transposed versions online, or get in contact with us and we can help you source/notate stuff for free.

2-How do we get the overall volume right to keep everyone happy?
This will vary depending on your congregation, but if we believe that singing together is as much horizontal, (‘teaching and admonishing one another’ as we sing truth to each other,) as it is vertical in praise to the Lord, then we need to be able to hear each other.

Also, personally, I think people sing better when the music isn’t too quiet either, so it’s a balance. But basically, listen to feedback from your trusted people on this, and train your PA team well, and avoid the extremes of loud and quiet.

3-Any tips on helping my band to blend?
This is a blog post in itself, but if you are playing with a band, think about how you’re all fitting together. Rhythm section (bass, drums and guitar, and to a certain extent keys), listen to each other. Make sure you’re playing the same groove.
Keys and guitar, less is more if you are both there. And Keys, if you have lead singers and/or solo instruments, there is no need to play the melody line. Think even just one chord a bar, or a little doodle to fill spaces between phrases.
Solo instruments, try and avoid playing the exact same as the singers (unless you are teaching a song for the first time maybe). Long notes are your friends.
Basically the church band not a place for anyone to have a starring role. Less is more and muddiness is to be avoided if at all possible.

4- How can we better use the band to build and layer?
To that end, don’t all just play all at once the whole time. Build in and out, make use of space, try and fit your dynamics with the words of the songs. Again personally I’m not a fan of more than one (and definitely not more than two) solo instruments. Unless you have a lot of time to practice and figure out how to fit together, it can become messy and distracting too easily. Better to make it easier for yourself and stick to fewer.

5-How do I make intros and links more clear and also interesting?
For the most part, the intros we hear on recordings are to be ignored. We want to be clear, so that people know when to come in and on what note, even if that means something pretty dull, like playing the first two lines. Also people don’t love standing listening to the band solo for 3 minutes between verses, so try and keep long links to the minimum too.

6-Do repeats add anything? And how do we do them well?
Go for the odd repeat or two by all means, there can be nothing better in a wordy song with lots of content than having a second run over some of the words. But just make sure they are clearly cued so people see them coming, and that your AV team are ready for them.
However, there are a couple of examples of repeats that do annoy me, like for instance, ‘Behold our God’– Sovereign Grace. A fab song, but the most common way to repeat the chorus in it seems to be to jump in before the end of the last line ‘come let us adoooorr—- behold our God’. etc. This is not kind to our congregations. They are at the high of the climax of the song, they can’t hear the leader try and start again at the lowest part of the song pitch-wise, and it ends up being a bit of a shamozzle. (I overstate, but you get the picture). Far better to end the chorus, have a bar or two, and run back into the chorus that way if you really want to.
The general rule is that trying to throw a repeat in only works if the congregation aren’t singing at that point so can hear/see instruction, and that the worst thing is to do something unexpected at the high point of a song. Recently I was in a church where they tried to repeat the first two lines of ‘praise to the lord, the almighty’, before singing the last two lines, and it didn’t work. The congregation had already prepared themselves for the higher second two lines and were off with gusto without realising the band had gone back to the beginning.

7- How do we balance song choices musically and theologically? Particularly with a non musical pastor having a say?
Personal choice kinda goes out the window here. We want to fit the service and the sermon as well as we can, even if it means, as musicians, playing the most musically dull songs we know. My old vicar used to remark that if everyone in the congregation (made up of old and young, contemporary lovers and hymn lovers), had half songs in a service they loved, and half they didn’t, then you’d done a good job. We are there to serve our people, as diverse and complicated as they may be, as well as we can. And we are definitely there to serve the sermon, if you will. So that people go home humming a song that will help them remember what they have heard.

8 – How do we make best use of our Lead singers?
Lead singers are as much a visual aid as anything else. Especially in well known songs, all the congregation really need from you is knowing when to come in. So use your mic, lift it (step towards it) as the song begins. Look encouraging, look up at your church family! Be confident so they can feel confident. (Because even if you come in the wrong place, if you do it with confidence, everyone will follow you!)
And by all means, if people are singing well, step back from the mic! Your job is done, you don’t need to be heard more than anyone else.
BVs, you need to see yourselves as like solo instruments too. Don’t sing harmony the whole way through, use it as a tool to build a song and create variation.

So there we go! Hopefully those help a little. Obviously we have overstated some things, and you must measure everything up in terms of your church size and musicality, as well as the musicians and equipment you have at your disposal. But hopefully if we go in with our congregation’s needs at the forefront, rather than our own musical tastes or aspirations, we’ll end up in a happy and helpful place.

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This Post Has One Comment

  1. Andrew Collier

    I don’t see why publishers even bother to publish scores that are in keys unsuitable for congregational singing. These days I generally seem to have the choice between a nice compact 2-3 page copy from Songs of Fellowship that goes up to about a G, or download from weareworship an unedited transcription of the recorded version which goes on for eight or nine sheets. It’s infuriating.

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