A few thoughts on listening to bandmates on stage:

Many church bands seem more concerned with getting through a song than they are with saying anything alive or helpful. The thought seems to be that if we start and end in the same place and eliminate mistakes as much as possible in between, then we did our job. I disagree.

First off, this is not art. When you’re focused on reducing mistakes, the best thing you’ll ever create will be the thing everyone already expected. You’re more of an engineer than you are an artist. And your music is not very enjoyable - for your band or the crowd. It feels more like a legality (we have to have music in church) than a human expression. If playing a song well is your ultimate goal, you may want to look into using an iPod instead of a band. That’ll get you there faster and easier.

As stated in the introductory post to this series on listening, the value of music performance (and anything for that matter) is always found in relational interaction, not in the successful exchange of information. When you play music for other people, they have something more to gain from you (and you from them) than what can be found in the mechanics of the song you’re playing. They don’t want to hear the song. They want to hear you. You don’t want to play the song. You want to play the song for them. The song is just a topic for conversation. The conversation is what you’re all there for. This is also true within a band. You’re not there to play a song. You’re there to play a song together. The playing of a song together becomes much more important than whatever song you happen to be playing. The value is in the interaction.

I believe the difference between a band playing a song with each other and a band just getting through a song lies in how well the band members are listening to each other. This is a crucial area for bands to focus on - especially church bands, where they generally have permission to bury their heads in their music stands and ignore each other on stage. Mainstream bands have to listen and respond to each other and to the crowd. But worship bands are more complex. The leader is listening for God’s voice and doing what He says (upcoming post) which can change the direction of everything in a moment. He/She is also watching the crowd and listening and responding to where they’re at (upcoming post) which can change the direction again. A good worship band must be communicating together on stage.

If you’re the leader of a worship band, I’m encouraging you to spend some serious time working on getting better as a band at listening to each other on stage. I think the payoff will far outweigh most of the things we tend to spend our energy on as bands.

Here are a few practical tips to get you started:

  • Focus more on the song, less on your part.
  • Adjust your in-ears or monitor mix. Make sure you can hear your bandmates clearly. You can be a bit louder in the mix, but you shouldn’t be 10x louder than everyone else. Turn the entire mix down and see how it increases clarity. When you want to hear more of something, turn other things down rather than immediately turning the one thing up.
  • Learn to listen to your part in the context of the other parts, rather than listening to the other parts in the context of what you’re playing.
  • Lose the music stand. Get your head up and watch your bandmates.
  • Practice listening. This may be the best tip here. Just try to listen to what everyone else is doing. Notice it. Then respond.
  • Practice your instrument, hard. The better you are at your instrument, the less you’ll be distracted thinking about how to play when you’re with your band.
  • Prepare as a band. More time practicing means less distractions when the actual performance comes.
  • Simplify your song sets. If you introduce 5 new songs to your band this week, they’ll be focused on not screwing up and nothing else. Make sure most of the songs your band plays this week are second-nature. Then spend most of your rehearsal time on the one new song. I know there’s pressure to introduce new stuff all of the time but I guarantee your band and the crowd will be impacted more by your ability to listen and respond than by a bunch of cool new songs that your band plays in a stiff, distracted, disconnected way. If your library of second-nature songs is small, do less songs until it’s larger.
  • Teach your band to listen. If you’re the leader, this is your job.
  • Spend time together. If you don’t trust each other off stage, you won’t trust each other on stage.
  • Learn to frequency balance. If the electric and keys are playing in the same register, no one will hear what either of them are doing. Teach your band to play more strategically. To listen before they play.

Hope that’s helpful.

Listening pt1 (your band)