I’ve recently made a transition from full time worship leader to helping Seedbed run our New Room Conferences. This means I have not only left my home church of nearly seven years, but I am also in the dangerous realm of “church shopping.” After over decade of leading worship several times a week I am grateful to have the opportunity to worship from within the congregation for a season. I also am trying to enter into worship in song without wearing the hat of lead critic. That aside, I’ve observed a trainwreck worthy of a post. This particular worship team was suffering from something I would call elastic tempo. The team started at about 75 beats per minute (BPM), pushed it up to 80 BPM in the chorus, and ended at 70 BPM. The leader was trying to slow it down with his guitar at points, while the classically trained pianist actually tried to stay at 75 BPM while everything else around her fluctuated. It actually sounded like two songs were being played at once. We haven’t been back since.
Timing – oh how important you are to music. My advice to all worship leaders and worship teams alike is to practice with a metronome. Ain’t nobody got time for you to not keep good time!
Like all aspiring musicians, I used to believe that I naturally possessed great timing. If I sensed the band was lagging I would begin to stomp my foot against the floor with that cool worship leading “jimmy leg” and hope that the whole band would magically sync to my grove. Unfortunately, I began to work with a metronome and soon discovered a terrible habit of rushing on the chorus and dragging on the verses. I thought to myself, “how could this be, if I find it difficult to keep time with a metronome while by myself practicing, how bad does this get when I lead a team?” The fact is, without training people tend to unintentionally increase tempo as they increase volume and decrease tempo as they decrease volume or intensity. It takes discipline and skill to have wide dynamic range and keep consistent timing.
The musical “greats” can push the beat ever so slightly for effect, or lag the beat, but you have to know precisely where the beat falls to accomplish this. Want to know what makes Willie Nelson so intriguing to listen to? He has a magical way of falling behind or in front of the beat with his melodies – it has become his signature style. Lets face it, we are not Willie. In the meantime, use a metronome until it is so internal that you hear it even when you’re not using one.
Here are some practical suggestions. Many churches have moved towards using in-ear monitor systems (yes they require an investment up front) but the benefits of creating clarity in the main mix by reducing stage volume are a huge benefit to a worship community. If you have this kind of system, at a minimum add a click track into your monitor mix during rehearsal. Better still in my opinion is use it during live performance. You might be surprised at how many talented worship teams and touring musicians are doing this. Not only does it allow you to utilize tracks and loops, but it creates a kind of space within the music that really brings comfort and creativity. I think of great timing as allowing the music to breathe. This also aids people to do what you are hoping for – enter into praise and worship of the living God! What My experience with the worship team whose tempo was all over the place made me realize that I could not bring myself past the elastic tempo enough to bring my attention to Jesus. Good timing puts the listener at ease and lessens distraction.
Note: If you don’t have an in-ear monitor system, start by noting the tempo or desired tempo of each song you will lead, and begin to send a click track through your sound system during rehearsals. There are many free applications for your phone which can simply be plugged into the mix and controlled by you as you lead the rehearsal. My preference is to have the drummer control the click track, it can be done from behind the drum set in a way that creates no distraction for you while are leading.
Image attribution: sutteerug / Thinkstock