I was ten years old when my parents put me to work at the church. It may shock you to know that I was both a trouble-maker and a smart aleck. But I had a knack for hooking up the family Nintendo so they signed me up for the tech team. My first assignment was the overhead projector.
Let me just say this: if you think running lyrics on a computer is hard, you didn’t live through the overhead projector era! Glancing back and forth between a 750 watt lamp and the service outline sheet was a strain for even my youthful retinas and contributed more than a few missed cues. And orienting the transparency sheet so it shows right side up and forward was not as easy as it seems! We overhead operators dreaded two-page songs that kept returning to a first-page chorus. And who could forget those last-minute song selections, hand written in green transparency marker?
A lot has changed since 1991, but data projectors and worship software haven’t changed the nature of the job. Whether it’s called “graphics”, “lyrics”, “CG”, “PowerPoint” or “ProPresenter”, the job is to show people the words to sing next. The word “next” is key. Displaying lyrics before they need to be sung is really the whole game. But how early is too early?
In order to read and understand language, our brain stores and manipulates information in something called “working memory”. I won’t pretend to understand the research, but it turns out a young adult can hold and process at least four “chunks” of data – like words – at a time. This means that advancing slides with four unsung words remaining won’t stifle the singalong for a literate, adult audience. If you keep it to a two-word lead you’ll be in range for tweens, older adults and those using a learned language.
Of course, you don’t always have to switch slides early. It depends on the phrasing of the song. Take “Everlasting God” by Brenton Brown for example. The last word of the verse, “Lord”, lasts for only half a beat then it’s straight into “our God” without taking a breath. Here I would take full advantage of the two-word margin and make the transition right after the word “upon”. A song like “Lord I Need You” by Chris Tomlin is more forgiving. Here you have three and a half beats between the shortest transition, which is more than enough time to wait and switch between phrases. With even longer transitions it’s appropriate to pull the lyrics down for a few seconds and bring them back in time for the next singing section.
If words like “beat” and “phrasing” bring back bad memories of junior high music class, don’t worry! I’m not asking you to come for a music audition. But I do believe that everybody involved in music should be a little bit musical including you, the lyrics person. You can tap your foot. You can sing along. You can try counting to four while the band plays (if you have a background in dance I’ll even let you count to eight!) However you do it, get to know the music the band plays. Memorize the words. Learn the arrangements like it all depends on you. I strongly encourage tech teams to work from the same charts the band uses – marked by the music leader with all the transitions.
Of course, timing isn’t everything … there’s also a little thing called showing the right words.
The first step to lyrical accuracy is to know where the band is going. As we just said, you should have charts or some sort of cheat sheet.
The second step is to follow along in rehearsal. If the band makes a change, write it down. If they’re straying from the written flow, ask the music leader what’s up! Most people in the crowd won’t notice a wrong chord but they will notice a wrong lyric – and it can be a big distraction. With the exception of the song leader, the lyrics person needs accurate musical cues more than anybody. (Song leaders, I hope you are reading this!)
The third step is to think one step ahead. Every musician and tech doing live production should be thinking at least one step ahead. As soon as you bring up a slide, that little assistant inside you should identify the next slide and start counting down.
You may not think running lyrics is leading worship, but it is! Access to words is a primary enabler of corporate singing. Believe me, you can lead a crowd to sing their hearts out without drums. You can even do it without guitars (although who would want to?) But if people don’t know the words they will sing cautiously at best. Newcomers will feel awkwardly left out. And we’ll miss an opportunity to internalize the words we’re singing, because seeing them does make a difference.