As a church musician, I have a lot of thoughts on preparing music for worship. I’ve been leading choirs, congregational singing, singing in choirs, playing instruments, and singing solos in worship for 25 years now…geezaloo. It’s not exactly the same for me as preparing for a stage performance. I’d like to share a few thoughts on how I prepare to offer a solo in worship.
Selecting the song
The church I’ll be singing at is small and the pastor never writes the sermon until Saturday night. I may have some idea of what the scripture will be, but at this point in the life of this particular church, a perfectly flowing, thematic worship order is not the most important part. You see, this church is dying. It can no longer afford to sustain their programs and facilities. It will close it’s doors by or perhaps on Easter.
My role as a music minister here is to help the congregation to continue to turn their hearts to God in worship on Sunday mornings, even knowing that their church’s days are numbered. It’s the same kind of ministry I would be offering to a dying person. And when someone is dying (or perhaps if I’m singing their funeral), the music I choose is very personal.
So rather than carefully selecting a song that flows with the scripture and the sermon, I leave room for the Holy Spirit to bring me the right song. Not only does it always end up fitting perfectly with the service, it ends up fitting perfectly with the needs of the congregation. The song for this week is Here With Me by Mercy Me. It’s a contemporary Christian song that is getting a lot of radio play this year.
Adapting the song
My first challenge is in adapting the song to fit my vocal range. The lead singer of Mercy Me is more of a tenor and I’m more of a baritone…and on Sunday morning at 9am, I’m more of a bass. So I learned the song in a lower key on the piano. It’s a very simple chord progression, and I was able to learn the basic skeleton of the song in minutes. Also, the Mercy Me recording is more of a rock band sound. I have to adapt that to just voice and piano, but all of this happens has I learn and work with the music.
Second, I just need to play and live with the song for a few days to get the words, notes, and piano accompaniment technically solid. This drives my family crazy. All of them have experience as musicians, but none of them practice with the obsessive discipline it takes for me to do what I need to do. I play and sing the song over and over every day, sometimes just with the voice, sometimes just the piano. I give myself freedom to improvise like crazy as I go, trying out different patterns, styles, fills, and tempos on the piano, trying different turns and colors with my voice.
Making it my own
Third, I have to make the song my own. I can’t sound like Mercy Me, and it would be foolish to try to imitate it. At some point over the course of my preparation, I have to let go of what I’ve heard on the radio and let my own voice unfold in the song. This is the subtlest part of the whole process, and perhaps the most crucial.
If I don’t bring my own voice to the song, I may as well just play a recording during worship, because it’s just not going to work. I will never make the transition from practice, to performing, to worshiping if I’m just imitating somebody else.
Transition From Performance to Worship
The final step in my preparation is worship and prayer. This song has to become my song of praise and, ultimately, the congregation’s song of praise. The only way for this to happen is for me to be true and authentic with my playing and singing–and by the way, telling you how I do that is like telling you how to be romantic. Romance is not something that can be rehearsed or imitated or engineered in any way, because romance is a relationship between two people. It’s an outward expression of inward feelings. It lives in the moment. And worship is an outward expression of my relationship with my God. So, I’ll take a few opportunities near the end of the week to worship privately with this song. It will happen when I let go of the notes and the technique and the rehearsing and simply use the song to tell God how I feel.
And that’s what makes the difference on what actually happens on Sunday morning. That’s what will make the difference between a response of “Oh, that’s lovely” and response more like “I love you, God. Have mercy on me. Praise be to you! Amen!”
And by the way, if the response is, “Oh my, you’re such a good singer!”, then I’ve also taken a wrong turn. I’ve put the spotlight on myself and my abilities, rather than on God.