The music exchange
The post-convention blues
If you’re like me it’s easy to get the post-convention blues.
Christian conventions always produce songs that divide opinion. Conventions are very often used by musicians to sell songs to people, and many who come back from those meetings try and convince their own musicians and pastors to sing the songs they’ve just learnt. ‘It was awesome. The words were great. The place rocked. I loved it. We must sing it here.’
I’ve heard all of these bits of feedback from those who’ve been to conventions, and I sit loosely to them all. That’s because all those phrases reflect personal taste to a certain extent. Even, ‘the words were great’ doesn’t sell a song to me. In fact, some use this phrase to imply that we’d be doing a huge disservice to our congregations by not singing the song. If I think that the words are the most important aspect of a song (which, of course, I do), then that’s the argument people will use to convince me to use the song.
However, even if the words were even the most theologically sound, lyrical and passionate, the song may still be completely unsingable, so I won’t introduce a song to the congregation I serve until I’m sure of a few things.
Check these out
First, that the congregation will be able sing it. I usually give a new song three outings and, if by the third time the congregation hasn’t picked it up, then I’ll drop it. Songs with endless links, bridges, and bridges into more bridges into second choruses, etc. don’t even make the cut.
Second, I need to know that the musicians I work with will be able to play it. I’m reluctant to use a song with complex rhythms that colour the whole page black for music-readers (or stave-o’s, as my guitarist friend calls them). Also, I’m wary of songs that have so many tough chords that guitarists end up with repetitive strain injuries. I dropped one of my own songs for that reason — after a guitarist’s hand nearly fell off.
Third, and I think this is the most important, I want to be convinced that congregations and musicians from other churches will be able to learn the song.
Because I serve a large congregation, and work with some very competent musicians, sometimes we can look and sound like the music put on at conventions. This means that we can make some of the ‘big’ and more complex songs work in our context, but they might not in a smaller setting with fewer musicians. For this reason I’m reluctant to give those songs a regular airing so that visitors don’t return to their own churches saying, ‘Well, St. Helen’s are singing it, so we ought to as well’. Songs should be manageable by any congregation, and by any number or ability of musicians.
Not getting any easier
Having said that, contemporary songs are not getting any easier, and I think that it is actually possible to make any song work by learning a few tricks and short-cuts. This is one of the things we’re going to be looking at together at the next London Music Ministry Conference on May 15 (http://www.lmmc.org.uk) — how to do big songs and hymns with a small band. It can be scary attempting some of these songs, but the main thing is not to be frightened off by the professionalism of the big convention bands. They have ages to prepare their sets and arrangements, and they work together regularly. We don’t have to sound like them. In fact, sometimes these bands are too professional, and the whole thing becomes a bit of a show, to the detriment of the congregational singing.
We don’t need hugely complex arrangements, driving riffs, ridiculous drum solos. All we need to do is to work efficiently with the resources we have, and to make the best sound that we can in the time available. The two key elements are simplicity and confidence.
Simplicity: clear tune, simplified chords, tight rhythm.
Confidence: a safe intro. Once the intro’s done, keep ploughing on and look like you know what you’re doing — even if a singer falls over or someone snaps a string (or a finger), keep looking as if it was all planned. Don’t shout, ‘Whoops’ into the microphone, like I did once last year. Make it look like it was all planned. Simplicity and confidence are all that are needed to make a song go, however hard that song is. There’ll be lots of tips as to how to implement these on May 15, if you can be there or if you know musicians who would benefit.
Let’s banish those post-convention blues.