This is a little tweak but makes a considerable difference:

Lose the music stands.

Music stands aren’t all evil. :) They can obviously help a musician who doesn’t quite have their stuff memorized… I guess that’s about it for the positives.

I see several negatives:

  • Music stands can help a musician who doesn’t quite have their stuff memorized. Memorizing music and lyrics is part of being a musician. When is the last time you paid to go to a concert (let’s stick to the rock genre - classical settings are a different story) and the band was using music stands? You’d feel a little cheated, wouldn’t you? I mean, you paid good money to see them perform and they couldn’t even learn their music? It’s unheard of. While no one necessarily paid to see you play at church, you still communicate a lower level of commitment to the music, and even to the crowd, by not having your stuff memorized.
  • Music stands create a musical crutch for musicians. In many cases a musician doesn’t even need the music in front of them, but since it’s there, they use it. They may have 99% of the song memorized, but why finish memorizing when the music is right there? I think we’d all agree that memorizing music is preferable to reading it off of sheets. But as long as the sheets are available, there’s not enough motivation to fully memorize.
  • Music stands hurt performance quality. If you’re reading music from sheets, you’re at a disadvantage musically. Just like reading a speech, you may become very good at delivering a convincing performance, but if you had it memorized, you’d be freed up to feel it, and as a result you’d appear to mean it that much more. Again - no music stands at rock concerts for a reason.
  • Music stands hurt stage presence. If you’re reading music from sheets, you’re glued to a sheet. Your eyes aren’t on other band members or on the crowd. Your head is down. You can’t move around because you need to stay within view of your music. And it’s very difficult to look up for a while and then back down because as long as you’re reading the music, you can’t afford to lose your place. You’re forced to become lifeless.
  • Music stands break down musical and spiritual unity between band members. If the music is memorized, a band eventually gains the almost-supernatural ability to change course mid-song based on what the collective group is feeling. The leader of the band can change things as he/she sees fit. On a musical and spiritual level, this type of course-changing should be the goal of every band - especially worship bands. The reason you’re playing music is to help people. The reason a worship leader is a worship leader is because of their ability to read a crowd and make decisions which are best for them. If you have 17 services, do you really think every one of the crowds are in the same place? Which would be better: To play the exact same thing the exact same way for all 17 crowds, or to flex and change around the unique spiritual and emotional situation that arises in each of those 17 groups of people? Musical and spiritual awareness and flexibility is possibly the most important trait of a great worship leader and worship band. Music stands stand in the way of this… literally. :)
  • Music stands create visual barrier between the band and the crowd. It’s especially bad when musicians bring the music stand right up to head-level. If the crowd is off-stage and you’re elevated, that stand sometimes blocks your entire head. That’s not good, and it physically reinforces some of the emotional barriers which are already hurting your cause.

Should music stands never be used? No. I think they should be used when necessary, but (1) they’re not necessary nearly as often as we think and (2) there should be a plan in place to eventually remove them. No one decides to walk on crutches forever. The point of a crutch is to help you eventually walk without one.

Some practical tips in weening yourself off of music stands:

  • Lower the stand to its lowest level. This takes your face out of it and forces you to glance at it rather than read along for the entire song. It makes it a pain to use, which increases your motivation to eventually stop using it completely.
  • Don’t use clip-on lights. If your stage is dark and you can’t always see the words, then you’ll rely slightly less on the music stand since you can’t always count on it. Don’t solve that problem with a light. Let it be a struggle.
  • Eventually, identify the 1% of the stuff you really do need a stand for and create a “cheat sheet” - use a big fat sharpie and write the first word of each line on the paper. Put it on the floor (no stand) and glance at it when necessary. Again, it’s not easy but it can bail you out in an emergency. The pain of it will motivate you to entirely memorize your stuff the next time.
  • Start with the worship leader / front guy. That’s your most obvious connection with the crowd. Then move to the rest of the band.
  • Confidence monitors can be nice but still create a similar crutch as a music stand. Do your best to not use it - view it as emergency-only. (Besides, do you really want to put your performance in the hands of the video tech who is also checking his email and working on coding his own flavor of linux while running your slides?)
  • If you’re used to using a music stand, you may feel awkard the first few times you play without one. That’s a good sign that you’ve got a way to go on developing good stage presence. Use the awkward feeling as an indicator that you did the right thing and push past it. Maybe I’ll do a post on stage presence sometime soon. :)

Lose The Music Stands