A while back I received an email from Paul asking:
One of the central roles of a worship band is to help the congregation to sing. Do you have advice on how a worship band can best cue the congregation? What kinds of things could I tell my instrumentalists and singers to do to help the people come in on the first words of a song or verse? How would you in general encourage congregational singing?
Paul’s question highlights one of the differences between leading a group of people to praise God from their hearts and simply playing and singing music for them. While people can certainly join along as we play our songs, it’s helpful when we make it obvious we expect them to sing. If you sing songs the exact same way every time, cuing the congregation isn’t as much of an issue. But if you regularly switch things up as you sing a song (repeat a verse, sing the chorus twice, go back to a different part of the song, etc.) people need to know where you’re going. Cuing them is one way to do that. Here are a few thoughts.
Give cues clearly.
In discussing the benefits of prophecy vs. tongues, Paul writes in 1 Cor. 14:7-8: 1Cor. 14:7 “If even lifeless instruments, such as the flute or the harp, do not give distinct notes, how will anyone know what is played? And if the bugle gives an indistinct sound, who will get ready for battle?” In other words, clarity matters. The less time people spend trying to figure out where we’re going in a song, the more time they’ll be able to give to exalting Christ in their minds and affections. That means I don’t want to mumble or speak too quickly. It also means that if different parts of a song begin with the same phrase, I have to say something other than the initial words to let people know what we’re going to sing. Generally, if I don’t say anything, people (including the projectionist) should anticipate me going to the next part of the song.
Make sure you have enough time to give cues.
Trying to squeeze in a verbal direction at the last minute not only makes me sound frantic, but it doesn’t really help anyone. I should have a feel for how long the spaces in the song are. Also, I don’t have to say the whole first line to let people know what we’ll be singing. Saying two or three words works, or even simply, “Verse 2.”
Don’t give cues too early.
I’ve been guilty of giving direction immediately after a section of a song has ended, leaving people 8 bars to figure out when they should come in. By that time they’re usually already tried to come in or forgotten what I said.
Don’t cue the band without cuing the congregation.
Some leaders develop elaborate signals to let the band know what’s next, while leaving the congregation clueless. That’s why I generally give verbal cues rather than visual ones. An exception is when I’m signaling to the band we’re going to sing a cappella or end the song, neither of which the congregation has to know in advance.
Vary the music to indicate when you want people to sing or not sing.
Instrumental cues can work as well as verbal cues. You can increase the volume of the band, ritard slightly, or vary the harmonic changes to indicate it’s time to sing. For instance, you can lead into first chord with a walk-up on the bass. If you want people to wait to come in, keep the instrumentation subdued and sparse.
Vary your cues.
Most of us tend to do what’s most efficient. “Efficiency” can suck the life out of a congregation’s singing. To vary it up, you can make a comment on what you’re about to sing. Before the fourth verse of In Christ Alone (No guilt in life, no fear in death), I might say, “This is the effect of the gospel.” You can also sing a cue rather than speak it. Or just move up to the microphone.
Think tone as well as content.
Some leaders sound like they’re barking out military commands when they give cues. Cuing a congregation can be an opportunity to impart faith and understanding to people as well as give direction.
Don’t cue too much.
Leading is like giving directions on a trip. You only need to say something when there’s a turn. You don’t need to highlight every store, gas station, or landmark that you pass by. Give people a break from your interruptions (a lesson I continue to learn). But be sure you’re there when they need to make a turn.
What have you learned about giving cues to the congregation? Have any funny stories of times it didn’t go so well?