When a young student is beginning to develop their musical skills, it may help to think in terms of a musical toolbox. The idea is simple: develop more tools and make the ones you have better. We are talking pitch recognition, musical vocabulary, work ethic and everything in between. We all know that in order to develop as a musician, there are certain tools that need to be cultivated and for those of us working with teenagers, we must be sensitive this reality.
The students that make up a typical youth worship team most likely bring varying levels of musicianship to the table each week. Some are getting ready to major in music performance in college while others are simply dipping their toes into making music. Because of this, it is necessary to set a high priority on establishing a standard of excellence across several basic musical skills. Once these particular skills are clearly defined, the audition, selection and development process becomes more understandable for both the student and the leader.
One such tool that all musicians need in their toolbox is understanding time. Don’t assume that everyone who auditions for your team understands the difference between 4/4, 3/4 and 6/8 (ever try to play Hillsong’s “Stronger” in 4/4… yikes!). This is HUGE and its importance can never be overstated. Just because someone owns an instrument doesn’t necessarily mean they understand time. Another danger is thinking that only the drummer really needs to understand time. Oh what a slippery slope that can be. Everyone needs to understand how each song is put together and how their part fits into the whole without rushing and without dragging.
And the best way to develop a better sense of time? Play with a metronome. Download one on your iPhone or pick one up at your local music store (it will be twenty not-so big ones well spent). Challenge your drummer to plug in their headphones to a metronome and practice their rudiments, beats and fills at varying tempos. They will quickly figure out that it is more challenging to play steadily at slower tempos than it is to play lightening quick drum fills that belong in a drum off with Questlove (save it for Guitar Center). Tell your vocalists to sing the song a cappella with a steady beat ticking away in the background. Want to hear smooth electric guitar riffs? Professional sounding keyboard intros? Beautifully timed instrumentals? It all starts with the metronome.
Everyone has heard Pop Warner’s famous quote about playing the way you practice and the same is true for making music. Too many talented musicians show up each week without giving any thought to preparation. Why? Most likely because they have never been pushed or inspired to practice. The challenge and encouragement must be present every week. They are developing habits that will last them a lifetime so it is critically important for them to be developing good habits like playing a song at the correct tempo. So how then do we bring our practice tools into the world of live music? The Click Track!
Now before you give in to convention and go back to thinking click tracks are only for the big boys, let me explain to you why every student worship band should be using a click track. Really! This is possible!
- Preparation / / It forces them to prepare. It sets a clear expectation of what success looks like and how they are to rise to the occasion.
- Support / / They don’t have to worry about playing the song too fast or dragging through the down chorus. Also, using vocal cues will do wonders for helping your team get through the song in the correct order. There is nothing more reassuring than hearing “Chorus Two Ready Play!”
- Tighten The Mix / / It tightens up the band and subsequently, tightens up their sound. All the notes line up with the click and all of sudden, the band sounds like they have been playing together for years. Albeit, this means everyone is responsible for making sure their part is in time with the click.
- Fill Up The Mix / / One of the major benefits of using tracks is that it can make your group sound big and full. There is just something about the confidence that is found when singing in a room that sounds full and supportive.
- Practice Practice Practice / / Let’s face it, playing to a metronome can be more boring than eating macaroni without cheese but when you add all the beautifully interesting and loopalicious parts to your practice time, you start to feel like you making music instead of just practicing the basics. Isn’t that what we all fell in love with in the first place? Making music?
It may not come without its difficulties but the benefits of using the click track with your group of teenagers far outweighs the cons. Give them a chance to practice with it on their own. Provide good vocal cues and make sure they are getting a strong audio signal for both the click and the loop. Then give it a whirl and see how everyone does while keeping in mind that this isn’t an over night change. It takes some time to get used to it but once they do, you will certainly be glad.
Reminders: Please honor copyright laws on tracks that you purchase. I know we are community of worship leaders but just because you purchased a track online, doesn’t mean you get to distribute it willy nilly. Obeying the law honors God and this is a part of being men and women of integrity and character.
Not everyone has to have custom In Ears in order to play with a click track. They do probably need a decent pair of closed back headphones and there are affordable options. Check out MeElectronics M6 for in ears or Tascam TH-02 for over the ear. Both are great options that won’t break the bank. And of course, if your budget allows, Shure, Westone and others offer solid universal options. Stay away from Apple headphones because they do not provide the necessary isolation needed to hear the in ear signal correctly (and you might even pick up some click bleed into the vocal mics).
There are plenty of resources out there in internetland to get you going on the “how to” part of working with click tracks but I would suggest hopping over to Ryan Loche’s rundown of his Ableton setup or checking out featured Collective partner Matt McCoy.
Thoughts? Comments? Connect with me on Twitter @mmcmahon_
Bio: Michael currently serves as a student pastor at First Baptist Church Tulsa where he programs and leads student worship each week. Michael loves developing student worship leaders and enjoys worshiping with teens throughout the year at camps, retreats, discipleship weekends and more. He holds two master degrees in student ministry and worship leadership respectively and enjoys studio ceramics in his spare time (handmade bowls and mugs).