I was asked to lead the music at a youth conference in Toronto this past Saturday. The band rehearsed a couple of times and felt good coming into the weekend. Long story short, a couple of circumstances left us scrambling to find another drummer on Friday evening … hours before our first set. Eventually, we found someone to fill in, but walking into the building at 6:15am on Saturday morning, I knew, more than ever, my stage signals to my band that day had to be clear.
It’s not always that you’re left playing a service or an event without any rehearsals with your band (I don’t recommend this), but even with rehearsal, the direction of a song can turn on a dime and it’s now on the leader to keep that from becoming a distraction.
We’re going to jump into a series that will occasionally pop up over the next number of weeks relating to on-stage communication. This will relate far beyond the “Good morning everyone! Stand up and sing with us!” We will talk about that direction of communication, but more importantly, we’re going to talk about communication between the leader and the band both in a rehearsal and during the service or event.
Stage Signals …
As a leader, I find comfort in knowing that I don’t need to ‘say my final words’ to the band before playing the first note of the set. We all know that we can plan a service down to the second, but there will be those moments that the tone in the room changes, something shifts and you know you’ve got to hit that chorus again, or maybe even without changing the song map, the way you want play that final bridge is different than you had practiced. You need to have signals ready that your band knows to follow when you’re mid-set.
I have a friend who leads the music at one of the regional sites at The Meeting House who uses her hand behind her back to give number signals that indicate (1) Verse, (2) Chorus, (3) Bridge, (4) Tag, and a spinning index finger that keeps things rolling … maybe I forgot the shaking fist that indicates “I’m going to get you for that when we walk off stage!!” When you have both hands free, the possibilities are endless. Without making your hand and arm gestures distracting to the moment, make sure you and your band know exactly what the signals are, and BAND MEMBERS, THIS IS FOR YOU: Watch you leader! Don’t leave them hanging, giving signals that are not followed because you practiced it a different way.
… the shaking fist that indicates “I’m going to get you for that when we walk off stage!!”
But, what if I don’t have both hands? I’m a guitar player and it’s hard to just go down to 1 hand for a few seconds to signal the band. Same thing with keyboard players who are leading — the switch from 2 hands to one is not an easy one (or even possible at times). What do we do then?
The first and most important factors that indicate how easily a band can follow their leader is how well can the band see the leader and how well can the band hear the leader. This sounds crazy that it even has to be mentioned, but make sure everyone in your band has a sight line to you and enough of your voice / instrument in their mix.
From there, you need to find what’s comfortable for you. Here’s what I do – it might give you some tips to get started:
- My right foot is the biggest indicator to my bands. They all know that when I’m leading, that’s where they’re going to find the most information in the moment. If I’m wanting to make it big, my right foot is hitting the floor to the tempo. I can often tell how big I wanted things to go by how sore my foot is when I walk off stage (Sometimes I feel like Stomping Tom … I should probably watch out for that). If I’m wanting to bring it down, I’ll just put my foot behind me and keep it still on the ground. If I’m wanting to wrap it up, I’ll drag my toe behind me.
- It’s possible to give signals by waving the headstock on the guitar too. This is really only effective if your band knows where they SHOULD go and the signal acts more like a reminder that “something is coming up! Watch out!” I want to repeat the chorus, wave the headstock. I want to bring it down, wave the headstock. I want to sing a completely different song, wave the headstock. As you can see, there needs to be some background conversation that happens with this one.
- The more your band gets to know you, the better they get at reading your vocal inflections. If you’re ramping up into a chorus, it’ll probably be obvious to those who know your voice and they’ll be with you. This comes with practice and with the band having enough of your voice in their mix.
- I left this one for last, because I don’t think it should be the default, but there is nothing wrong with actually saying that you’re going to sing a chorus again. If you direct comments like these to the congregation, your band AND tech teams (lyric operators) will thank you for it! If you’re wanting to stray off chorus, just name it and say, “Let’s sing that one again!” Even beyond changing the song map, saying things like, “Alright, let’s take that with just the voices!”, or “Come on, let’s sing that out!” will give your band the indicators they need to know what tone you’re heading towards.
When you’re leading, it’s not about you and your personal worship experience with God! It’s about how you can facilitate the same experience for those you are leading in the congregation by leading your band to go wherever you feel the song needs to go!
Of course, it’s very important for us as leaders to remember, when you’re leading, it’s not about you and your personal worship experience with God! It’s about how you can facilitate the same experience for those you are leading in the congregation by leading your band to go where you feel the song needs to go!
Maybe some of you have some indicators that you use? What works with your teams? Share in the comments.