Greg Howlett on Playing Keys for “Mood Music”

Yes, I know it should be Ed posting all of the content on piano/keys. But I couldn’t resist this time.

Check out this great video for pianists/keyboardists on playing what Mr. Greg Howlett calls “mood music.” In contemporary church music, this style is perhaps most relevant playing “under” times of prayer or in the intro/keys-only parts of more reflective songs.

While Mr. Howlett uses an acoustic piano in the video, there are still some great principles in this video that can be applied quite well even with the use of the less dynamic ambient/electric piano/keyboard sounds that are so necessary to the contemporary church music context. This is especially valid to note because, especially in these musical contexts, most worship guitar-slinging leaders tend to use vague directives toward keyboardists such as “play-something-here” or “hold-a-pad-over-this” in these types of moments, and piano-turned-keyboard players most often take that as “it-doesn’t-matter-what-I-play-as-long-as-I’m-in-the-right-key-and-I’m-not-too-loud.”

Anyways, take the time to watch this 78-minute beast. It’s worth your time.


The Worship Leader’s Role in the Local Church

In the context of the contemporary local church, worship leaders play a significant part in the lives of the congregation, one important (albeit obvious) aspect of which is “presiding” over the corporate worship service. Being one of the few times people sing out loud during a given week, the corporate worship service is a time for which the worship leader has the task of preparing a memorable portion of the congregation’s theological meal. In Worship Leader Magazine in relation to the historical idea of hymnals, C. Michael Hawn describes this aspect of the worship leader’s role in the local church well:

Worship leaders are hymnal editors. Whoever chooses the people’s song for their congregation is not only a hymnal editor but also is a primary shaper of the way their congregation understands and expresses faith.

This basic principle of the significance of leading corporate worship, then, necessitates consistent awareness and intentional effort in many areas that contribute directly to the worship leader’s role, such as:
-relationship with the preaching pastor
-theological principles/issues (systematic and biblical) in lyrics
-grammar and semantics in lyrics
-musical arrangements
-liturgy and corporate service dynamics
-music and sound equipment/technology

…And much more! The issues that fall under the responsibility of the worship leader are many. The week-to-week difficulty is figuring out which issues and principles to prioritize. May we be faithful to fill our role in the local church!

iTunes: The Free EQ Learning Aid


Here’s a little tip for musicians and sound guys (n’ gals!) alike:  you’ve got an easily accessible, FREE, and effective learning aid for the art of the equalizer.  Ready for it?  Itunes!  Ctrl+Shift+2 or the ‘View’ menu gets you a 10-band EQ, ready for the tweaking.  Besides getting your favorite music to sound a whole lot better, this equalizer can serve as quite a tool to learn the basics of EQing.  A few hours (or more!) spent tweaking is a sure-fire way of learning the basics of how equalizers work, which is by the way, an essential when it comes to BOTH being a musician and being a sound tech.  EQing is a freebie when it comes to the live corporate worship situation, and  learning it well saves a lot of headaches during soundcheck.


Some pointers:

-Use tracks you already listen to a lot to best utilize this tool at first.  If it’s a track you know, you’ll have a reference point for the differences you hear when you tweak the EQ.

-Use tracks that are similar to the type of music that you are mixing/playing in the live setting.  Just saying the obvious.

-Realize you’re EQing the whole track, so this only goes so far.

-Change up the types of tracks you use to play around.  Learn how the EQ affects things when it’s just vocals and acoustic guitar, how the full band sounds, and how just a piano sounds.  Mix it up.  Pun intended.

-“Focus” your ears.  Mentally isolate certain instruments (or parts of instruments, i.e. cymbals on the drum set).  This’ll develop your ear a lot to be able to EQ (and mix in general) better on the fly in the live situation.

-Don’t overlook  the preamp.  It’s a good chance to even see what a preamp is if you don’t know what it is…

-Don’t overlook the presets available.  They’ll help you to understand what makes certain genres sounds like certain genres.  You’ll be surprised.

Overall, you’ll be surprised.  Pleasantly surprised.  Have at it!

Lyrical Disambiguation: “Jesus, I My Cross Have Taken” (and a side lesson or two!)

Earlier today, I was thinking (again!) about the importance of the lyrics that we sing.  It dawned on me that part of what makes certain songs hard to sing is that some of the lyrics need “disambiguation.”  Now, by “disambiguation” I’m not at all taking the conventional definition of the word and implying that certain lyrics in these songs are ambiguous or unclear.  Instead, I’m referring to that ever-hazy line or few that pique the curiosity in the moment for the average worshiper, but is/are hard to remember long enough so as to later look further into its/their actual meaning.  Ambiguous as to the significance to the singer’s life.  Ambiguous to Christian truth.  Ambiguous as how to sing or think upon the lyrics worshipfully.  By “disambiguating” song lyrics, I hope to unearth both (1) a better understanding of what the actual lyric means and (2) some side lessons we can learn and use in worship leading.  Hope you’ll see what I mean as go along here.  This is hopefully one of a continuing series of these posts.

One of my favorite hymns (lyrically speaking, but also in general) is Henry Lyte’s “Jesus, I My Cross Have Taken.”  It’s become a mainstay in the church and college ministry that I’m involved in, and for good reason.  It’s one of those solid hymns that seems to concisely articulate the entirety of the Christian life, from initial faith’s first taking up of the cross to “heav’n’s eternal days.”  Just so full of rich truths.

A line that was initially confusing to me when I first started learning the song is at the end of the (depending on what version you sing) 4th verse.  Maybe the whole verse in general is/was confusing. I don’t know. Here’s the whole 4th verse:

Soul, then know, thy full salvation;
Rise o’er sin and fear and care;
Joy to find in every station,
Something still to do or bear.
Think what Spirit dwells within thee,
Think what Father’s smiles are thine,
Think that Jesus died to win thee;
Child of heaven, canst thou repine?

That last line.  “Child of heaven, canst thou repine?”  Woah there, Ice Age English!  The first thing that probably jumps out is the use of the word “repine.”  Just a wild guess.  Here it is:

re·pine [ri-pahyn]  verb (used without object), re·pined, re·pin·ing.

To be fretfully discontented; fret; complain.
Let’s make it simple.  To repine is to complain.  Cool.

A few other things jump out that will help us to further disambiguate.  “Child of heaven.”  It’s hard to dispute this one… a child of heaven is a Christian.  An heir with Christ.  But grammatically speaking, the child is being addressed in the last line.  He is being asked the question “canst thou repine?”  So, who’s the child?

You know how your pastor/Bible study leader tells you context is everything?  Well, it certainly helps here.  Looking at the context of the whole song and the context of just the 4th verse help us to better understand.  The structure of the whole song, as referred to earlier, runs the whole gamut of the Christian life.  It’s helpful to notice that the author/singer is addressing different entities with each verse of the hymn:

Verse 1: Jesus, I my cross have taken
Verse 2: O while Thou dost smile upon me, God of wisdom, love, and might
Verse 3: I have called Thee, Abba Father
Verse 4: Soul, then know thy full salvation
Verse 5: God’s own hand shall guide thee there
That’s just a small taste of the changes that occur in audience.  There are definitely more changes in the verse themselves, and at certain points one could argue the author/singer is singing statements of fact to no one in particular (“yet how rich is my condition”, “go then earthly fame and treasure”).  Unless, I guess you can say the author/singer is addressing earthly fame as an entity.

I digress.  The point is, by looking at the context of the song, we can see that in verse 4 the author/singer is addressing his own soul.  He’s talking to himself!

To tie everything we have so far together with a little English lesson, “canst” and “thou” are archaic versions of “can” and “you.”  Not so crazy, eh?  Well, “canst” in specific is the second person singular.  Which, in a small way, would confirm our thought that the author/singer is addressing himself in a third person way.  He’s talking to himself.

Now, context level number two will bring this all to rest.  The verse itself.  Again, for emphasis:
Think what Spirit dwells within thee,
Think what Father’s smiles are thine,
Think that Jesus died to win thee;
Child of heaven, canst thou repine?
Soul, I’m talking to you.  Think of the Holy Spirit that God’s given to dwell in you.  Think of the Father’s smiles that are yours.  Think of Jesus, who died to win you in His righteousness.  Christian, o child of heaven, here’s a rhetorical question for you.  Can you complain? Can you fret?  (NO!)

Phew.  Disambiguation.  I hope.  This lyric in particular brings up two concepts (quickly!) for me to consider as a worship leader:

#1 Punctuation on song slides.
The question mark at the end of that verse is of paramount importance to understanding what the lyric even means.  It would be tragically confusing without it.  This just happens to be a prime example of something that could easily be overlooked.  In “less important” situations (quotation marks emphasized), punctuation plays a role in how we perceive words, emotion, and grammatical sense.  I think you know what I mean, but just for fun:
God, you are great.
God, You are great!
God, You are great
Spend good effort on the song slides!

#2 Lyrics are grammatical.

If you’ve ever worshiped with Bob Kauflin leading, you’d know that he likes to shout things between lines.  Love it.  Sometimes, it can be distracting how passionate the man is, but overall I find it extremely helpful because the things he says always help the audience to understand better what they are singing.  So, shortly put, whether through between-song explanation, shouting between lines, or however else, it might be helpful to yourself, your team, or your congregation if you take the time to understand (at the very least!) and maybe explain what the grammar tells us about who we are singing to, what we are singing, and why we are singing in a given lyrical moment.

All in all, the responsibility to help the audience understand the grammar and logic of a song’s lyrics directly serves the worshipers in their ability to engage the truths of the lyrics they sing!

An Approach to Choosing Songs

Choosing songs is hard.  It’s especially hard if you’re indecisive.  Or if you’re falling asleep or something.

Ultimately though, choosing songs is difficult because it is arguably among the most important things that a worship leader does.  The crucial nature brings spiritual and shepherding weight to it, and the weight brings difficulty.  Fortunately in this case, as with most things in the Christian life, this difficulty is really “difficulty.”  With quotations around it.  It’s the beautiful, sanctifying, only-if-self-imposed-and-self-dependent-for-too-long kind of difficulty.

Choosing songs is extremely important for what might be too obvious of a reason.  It’s determining the truths that the congregation will sing, rehearse, be reminded of, worship through, and use to empower and contextualize to the other aspects of biblical fellowship that are taking place in the corporate gathering.  The songs themselves may have no magical wonder-working power to them, but the truths enveloped in tune carry (hopefully) the truths and principles of the very Word of God.  Important.

Understanding the importance is definitely just the beginning, but it gets you most of the way there.  The principle behind the importance drives the practical.  Unfortunately, there is no hard-and-fast best way to choose songs.  But here are some guiding principles that help me when I choose songs:

#1 Choose songs that are entirely truthful and often truth-filled.

The big one.  Truthful, as in consistent with biblical truth.  That’s the obvious part.  To dig a little deeper perhaps, some truthful songs are going to belabor one specific truth, while others are chock-full of biblical truths (truth-filled).  Use both types of songs.  Ebb and flow with your congregation’s ability to sing, comprehend, and respond to different concentrations of truth and choose appropriately as time goes on.  My personal preference: tending toward as many truth-filled songs as much as possible and scaling back from there.

#2 Choose songs that you know.

Another pretty obvious one, but it’s too true to not mention.  Songs that you know well, you can lead well.  If you can’t lead certain a song well (because you don’t know it well), I’ve found that that’s often a helpful indicator of when you might be choosing a song for the wrong reason.  Key words “might be.”

#3 Contextualize the worship set to the entire corporate service.

The songs have got to fit in with the rest of the service.  The music and truths should flow in a way that is helpful to the congregants.  Friday night on a college campus should maybe start out differently than a Sunday morning.  A service with a sermon on repentance might end differently than a missions night.  But more than anything else, songs chosen should help the corporate gathering as a whole achieve the goal of biblical fellowship.

#4 Consider your congregants.

Assess the appropriateness of your songs to the people you are leading.  Consider prioritizing the objective-Christian-helpfulness a certain song(s) can be for others just as highly as your own musical tastes and preferences.  Most often, my tendency is to sing the songs that I’ve been listening to in the past week, that have been most helpful to my worship with the Lord lately, or that are my all-time favorites.  Sometimes I just “feel like” doing a song.  Those things aren’t bad.  You can’t/aren’t/shouldn’t get rid of those influences.  They’re not evil.  It’s just that often these principles far outweigh what songs might be most helpful to the congregation, whether in regards to specific struggles you are aware of in your ministry or with things that are helpful to Christians in a situation-transcendent way.  On a long-term level as this develops week by week, this is part of what I would call building a “relationship” or “culture” with your congregants (but that’s a post for another time).

#5 Use  a blend of song types.

There are SO many different types of songs in worship music today.  By “type,” I’m referring to difference in what each song is meant to help the typical congregant do.  Some songs show victory in Christ, some fight doubt, and others point heavenward.  And so on.  Although sometimes it may be appropriate to choose most/all of your songs to thematically lead your people in a certain direction, most often it is helpful to sing a variety of song types within a given service.  When I talk to people about this, I usually give them the example of singing the same song 7 times in the same service.  Would that be helpful?  Maybe.  How about for a year, every Sunday, that same song 7 times every Sunday?  Helpful?

Maybe not.  That’s the extreme version of the scenario, we can all realize.  But what about 7 songs of the same “type” that shepherd the typical congregant in the same way?  7 “It Is Well”-type songs, or 7 “How Deep the Father’s Love For Us”-types?  Such a week might not be particularly unhelpful or distracting to the average congregant, but to relegate song types to non-distinguishment because of a lack of thinking through the “types” of songs would be to ignore a great part of shepherding that is leading worship.  And in this case, specifically, choosing songs would be the shepherding tool.

#6 Picture the Gospel.

This is something that is greatly missing in worship music nowadays.  Thankfully Bob Kauflin has picked up the slack in championing what he calls “Gospel sense” in worship services.  Google one of his worship conference messages or workshops or head over to Bryan Chapell’s Christ-Centered Worship for some strong Biblical reasoning behind this idea.  You won’t be the same.

Suffice it to say: understanding the significance of the corporate worship gathering is a concept that both worship leaders and church-goers often grasp conceptually but don’t allow to practically hit home.  If the Gospel of Jesus Christ were the unrivaled and repeated anthem of Christian gatherings, I believe the modern believer’s life might look a lot different than it does now.  Just as much with the songs chosen to outwardly (and inwardly) proclaim these truths!

#7 Zoom out big time.

Perspective-ize.  Contextualize.  Obviously (hopefully), the songs chosen in a corporate worship service in the context of a congregant’s life is only one really small slice of the pie.

But understanding that that really small slice of the pie is the worship leader’s weekly feast is of paramount importance.  Increasing this understanding is not to puff up the importance of what he gets to do from week to week, but instead to correctly see and grapple the shepherding opportunity that it is to choose songs for the time of corporate singing.

Choose to the glory of God!