I have a few disclaimers to share before moving forward:
1. I will be showing my age.
2. This may be for just other musicians on other praise teams.
3. You may find this extremely boring.
I’ve been a part of various forums online for quite some time now, and one topic that tends to come up every now and then is how closely should the musicians play the original tracks? Should we try to learn each note for note, or do we simply use the tracks as a “suggestion” and do whatever feels best?
In order to give my opinion, I thought it would be interesting to give a little bit (or a lot) of history of my experiences in playing praise and worship over the past 20 years or so.
When I first started playing praise and worship music, in my experiences, there was no “standard” way of playing many of the songs that we did.
Some of these standards include the following:
"Shout to the Lord"
"Lord, I Lift Your Name on High"
"Open the Eyes of my Heart"
"I/We Exalt Thee"
"Here I am to Worship"
"Wonderful, Merciful Savior"
For millennials, all of this will seem very foreign and weird. You know what? It was a lot of work, but anything worth doing takes time, energy, and most of the time, money. So here goes:
When I was first learning many of the “standards,” most of the time there was no CD available because they were expensive. You have to keep in mind that this was about 7-8 years before downloading and sort-of-illegal file sharing. See, if anyone wanted to learn the latest and greatest worship music straight from the track, he or she had to go to a Christian bookstore, possibly order the CD for $17.99, and wait about a week to get it (The local place got in shipments every Thursday. If it didn’t come in that week, maybe the next Thursday it would come in. If it was really new and in demand, sometimes it would take several weeks. Please note that I’m not bashing the local place. I loved it! However back then, this was just the way it was done.). Sometimes, you would take your chances and drive to the not-so-local place an hour or so away and hope and pray they had it in stock. You could call ahead to see if they had it in stock, but sometimes you would get there and it would be sold. Don’t ask me how I know.
Because of the lack of readily available music, the VAST majority of worship music I learned was through word of mouth, much like the way stories have been passed down. There was a lot of sitting around with worn out crummy guitars, under-powered bass rigs, and drums that were decades old with the original heads. But that’s what we had to learn on, and I think we did ok.
Many of the worship leaders I worked with back then tended to be a little more “loosey-goosey” in terms of how to start songs and when to stop. There was just as much “learning the leader” and other band members as there was learning the song. We all learned to “read” each other. Head nods, bobbing guitar headstocks, facial gestures, winks, foot taps, eye-to-eye glances, etc. were all crucial to starting together, stopping together, and adding extra verses and choruses as needed. It was very on-the-fly playing. One of my most memorable moments is when the leader started a worship song I had never heard before. Like, ever. Keep in mind that this wasn’t during a practice; this was on a Sunday morning! In a loud whisper, I got the worship leader’s attention and I said, “I’ve never heard this song before in my life!” and without skipping a beat, she said, “It’s a slow song! You’ll do fine!” This is one of the times where I wish I could go back and take a look at my own face to see what it looked like! Everything ended up ok that day. Back then, this was just par for the course.
During these years, there was a lot of great worship music for me despite a few train wrecks along the way. But we all learned with each other and from each other. It was fun and a little nerve-wracking at the same time because I sort of had an “idea” of what the worship was going to be like on a given Sunday morning or Wednesday night. As far as playing like the original song? Well, it was about as far away from it as you can get aside from possibly the melody. Back then, I really didn’t see the point of learning a song exactly like the original; I didn’t really see the value in it. I mean, as long as we get through the song, everything’s fine, right?
Maybe then, but not now.
Let’s fast forward to today. Right now, there are three services at Mount Pleasant. We have three different drummers, and there are several folks taking lessons right now who may end up playing in our church someday. In addition, we have quite a BIG handful of other musicians who play week in and week out and over a dozen different singers (not counting choir members). So that we are all on the same page from week to week, we use an app which provides each person with an MP3 of each song, an MP3 of each instrument isolated so everyone can practice along on his/her specific instrument in addition to links to YouTube tutorials for just about every instrument as well. While Brad does an excellent job in keeping us consistent with our teams (for example, I usually play 1st and 3rd Sundays every month), worship teams shift due to sickness, vacations, work trips, mission trips, etc. (Especially in the summer.)
Because the singer and musician lineup can change from week to week, I do my best to learn as closely to the original song as I can which is a far cry from the way I used to learn songs. My number one job, as a drummer, is (and has always been) to make everyone else sound as good as they possibly can. I’m there to support the music that’s happening around me – it’s my job to NOT “stick out” (although sometimes it’s nearly impossible). Learning a song close to the original helps keep everyone on track, no matter who is singing or playing that given week. While I do take a little “license” with a few drum patterns and fills, I like to think that when I show up for practice or for service, everyone knows what he or she is getting from me, and I try to be as consistent as I can because when there is a click track/metronome clicking in all of our ears, the last thing we need is a “surprise.” By learning songs close to the original, the chances of anyone being thrown off by a weird pattern or drum fill is minimized. With playing drums, there is absolutely nowhere to “hide” which is both exciting and a little frightening at the same time. All in all, these days I attempt to play closely to the original because it’s what works best for our church.
So, all of this leads me to the original question – should worship musicians play like the original track or should they simply see the original tracks as a suggestion?
My answer? It depends.
When I first started playing worship music, our church needed the freedom for our worship team to take quite a bit of license with the music. So many of us were new to this, and we just had to feel our way through a lot of worship music, and by doing this, we all developed in our playing in addition to a lot of non-verbal communication. I’d say simply using the music more as a guide works well with smaller churches where instrumentation may be limited and possibly where time constraints aren’t as prevalent. Also, if the musicians are new, it helps to simplify.
These days, with three services and a tight schedule, the music needs to be somewhat predictable. This is not to say that our time of worship isn’t powerful and moving; however, if we are going to serve as many as we do, there needs to be some order. This is what I feel works best for us right now.
Overall, simply do what works best for your church, and do so with a servant’s heart.