Leading without an instrument
Updated: Nov 5
You may not be doing much worship leading at the moment, this is still a great season to brush up on your skills, and stay in a mindset of growth and improvement. So here are some hopefully helpful thoughts for any who lead worship without an instrument, or would like to.
I’ve never led worship with an instrument. Be encouraged that it doesn’t have to be a hindrance, or a reason to feel ‘less than’ the gifts of other musicians.
The important thing is that you are there to lead. In worship, you’re kind of ‘directing traffic’, if you like… you’re sensing what is happening in the meeting, you’re encouraging the band to play out, or the congregation to sing out, or you might be helping people to wait on the Lord without rushing on. You’re seeking to be ‘in step with the Spirit’, rather than ‘get through’ a list of songs. You’re helping to facilitate moments where God’s people will meet with and encounter Him. You don’t need to play an instrument to do any of those things.
One thing you do need, though, is to be able to give clear instructions to enable these things to happen. And to give clear instructions, you need a level of confidence and authority. You need to be able to lead the people, and direct a band. You don’t need to be an extrovert or Type A personality (I’m an introvert), just understand what you’re there to do.
A few years ago, I used to lead worship at the Newfrontiers International Leadership Conferences which would gather about 4,000 people. I would ask God for the authority I felt I needed to ‘lead the leaders’. That doesn’t mean I was in charge of the event; the authority I had as a worship leader was always submitted to the person who was overseeing the entire gathering. But I needed to be clear and decisive, not overwhelmed or intimidated by the context.
Whatever the context you’re in, large or small, you’re there to be a leader. Matt Redman coined the phrase ‘lead worshipper’ many years ago, and it’s still a good one! Your biggest contribution is to come as a worshipper who loves to engage with God. Yes, you need to direct the band, but you also direct the congregation by pointing people to Him. And you do that by the songs you choose, your heart attitude, the way you pray or speak, the choices you make in the worship time (praising, adoring, listening, waiting), and your evident hunger for His presence. (Again, no instruments involved in these things.)
The key to success is communicating well with your musicians. You will probably either be leading a song that has a pre-rehearsed arrangement (in which case the band should need little direction) or your worship times may have more of a spontaneous, let’s-see-where-this-goes kind of feel.
In this second scenario, the most important thing is that you are clear with SIGNALS and eye contact. It’s probably actually easier for you to signal without an instrument than for a worship leader who is playing one. You have two options: 1) signal the whole band, or 2) signal one person (eg a musical director) who signals the whole band, although this can take longer.
In rehearsal, you need to instruct your band to look for signals at the right time – it’s very frustrating if you’re standing there signalling and no-one is looking at you! In this scenario, just speak the instruction to avoid a train-wreck! Ideally though, the band needs to look up every time they need a new instruction eg ‘what’s happening next?’
Getting off to a good start
During your rehearsal time, be very clear with the band how each song will start. If the band is starting all together, indicate to the drummer to start counting the band in. (As a worship leader, you can come to rehearsal with (or send out in advance) guide bpms for each song. You can identify these by downloading a free metronome onto your phone and identifying the speed of songs from cds or YouTube.) If your drummer is not confident of the tempo of a song, be prepared to count it in. In more mellow songs, where the drummer may not be counting a song in, be clear with the keyboard player and acoustic guitarist which one of them will be starting it.
If you have one of those moments mid-song where you have the realisation, ‘how does this song end?’ it’s not a problem as long as you signal it clearly. If you want to end by doing a slow-down finish, make a signal to end and then indicate the pace of the slowing down with your hand.
A song can end unconfidently when it didn’t need to, just because the worship leader didn’t give a clear enough indication of what was happening. In a nutshell, if you’re not signalling, the drummer becomes the worship leader, because they have no choice but to take a lead.
Sometimes we can miss great praise moments, for example, at the end of the song to close the service, because the song just ‘ends’, rather than the worship leader indicating to the band to really celebrate the ending. If you sense the congregation really want to praise God, don’t close it down, encourage it!
If you have prepared a list of songs, you may have a sense of an appropriate place to open the worship time up to singing in the Spirit, or contributions from within the congregation. It sounds like a contradiction in terms, but it’s good to rehearse this spontaneous space. Say to the band, ‘I’d like to open it up at the end of this song – let’s agree which chord sequence we’ll use.’ You might use a part of the song, such as the bridge chords, or you might use a 2-chord or 4-chord sequence. Just make sure everyone is clear what the chord sequence will be, and how you’ll get into it. This is a good place to encourage suggestions from the band.
I like to encourage arrangement ideas from the band, because I want everyone to bring their gift to the table and not feel they’re just being told what to play. However, just because you’re not playing an instrument yourself, that doesn’t mean you have to go with all of their ideas! It’s ok to politely say something like, ‘That’s a great idea, but it’s just not quite what I’m hearing for that part of the song – but thanks so much.” In order to filter ideas, though, you do need a clear idea of where you think the song is going in terms of dynamic.
Here I’m referring to musical preparation rather than the preparation of the worship time itself, which I’ll cover in another post.
It may help you to get together with a guitarist or pianist prior to the band rehearsal, to sing through songs, help you find keys and so on. If there’s someone you can play with on a regular basis then you will begin to build a rapport and a repertoire together which will, in turn, build confidence. Also, why not watch YouTube videos of worship leaders who don’t play instruments and look for the way they signal the band. Bethel have a lot of worship leaders who lead without instruments and who navigate spontaneous moments by communicating well with the band. We’re not looking to imitate someone else’s style (always be you!) but just to gain confidence in how you can communicate effectively and lead the band, and the congregation, to powerful or intimate worship moments.
Come to the rehearsal with arrangement ideas yourself, even if they’re not expressed in musical terms (eg ‘I’d like this bridge to be massive’ or ‘Let’s sing the bridge twice but I’d like the second time to be much fuller than the first’). Sing through each song at home beforehand so you have a clear idea of the dynamics you’re hearing for each section and where you sense it could go.
Respect people’s time. If your rehearsal is from 7.30-9.00pm, don’t be late! If you can, encourage people to be ready to play at the start time, rather than to arrive then and start setting up and soundchecking. It’s amazing how quickly that rehearsal time can disappear. But whatever time you get going, finish at the time you said you would finish.
It’s a funny thing, but get a bunch of people holding instruments and they actually want to play them! You can end up with a whole lot of ‘twiddling’ going on. It’s hard to talk over that and, I’m pretty sure if they’re twiddling, they’re not listening. Be polite, but firm, and ask that if you raise your hand, for example, you’re asking for the band’s attention and it’s time to listen and focus.
First of all, is there a protocol for introducing new songs at your church? Does anyone have responsibility for checking the lyrics of new songs (including ones you have written yourself) to make sure there are no theological ambiguities? If you’re not sure, ask your worship team leader who to check with (it will likely be them or your pastor). This is important because you are putting words into the mouths of the congregation and it’s a big responsibility. People, in part, learn their theology from the songs we sing so it’s important to take this seriously.
If you’ve got the ok for a new song, make sure you have sent it to the band beforehand, well in advance. Know what key you want to sing it in and send out a chart in that key, including a capo chart for the acoustic guitarist if needed. If you have no idea how to produce these materials, speak to your worship team leader because (hopefully) there will be a system for disseminating music to all the musicians in the team.
If you’re going to do a new song, and can only rehearse it on the morning of the service, make sure you have sent out that YouTube link, chart and so on IN GOOD TIME, BUT ALSO follow up with your band during the week (‘how are you going with that new song?’). It’s really discouraging to turn up on Sunday morning and then ask the question and hear, ‘Sorry, what new song?’
Also, as part of your preparation, think and sing through introducing a new song. Make sure you’re very familiar with the words and melody and know what arrangement you will follow. Think carefully about which songs will precede and follow the song so that you can ‘launch’ it as well as possible. It is sometimes helpful to have the preceding song in the same key as the new song so that you can go straight into it, or start with the chorus, without a stop-start.
Know your keys
If you have times in your church where you might launch into a song spontaneously (one that wasn’t previously on your songlist), even if you’re not playing an instrument you still need to know what keys songs are in. If you don’t, it’s much harder to pluck a song out of the air in a spontaneous time.
Above all, stay calm
Things will happen, band members will forget arrangements, words projection may fail, the ending kind of … wasn’t, the key change was ‘avant garde’, the soundcheck took 90% of your rehearsal time. There are all kinds of obstacles out there that can be tripped over. There is room to talk about these in another post (look for the heading ‘Dealing with the unexpected’). But whatever happens, STAY CALM. If you’re calm, your band will stay calm. If you’re stressed, most likely your band will be stressed, too. One day, you’ll be able to see the funny side of the mistakes, we’re only human. Remember, it’s not an exam that you need to pass, you’re the family of God worshipping together, and we all are here by the grace of God, so what really can go wrong? Always remember:
Turn your eyes upon Jesus, look full in His wonderful face
And the things of earth will grow strangely dim,
in the light of His glory and grace
© Kate Simmonds 2020