To Use or Lose the Music Stands: Is That the Question?

In the past few years, a number of voices have emerged encouraging church musicians to lose their music stands. 

I don’t think anyone is saying it’s a matter “of first importance” to put the music stands away. But people have said if you really want to serve your church, you won’t use them.

Reasons to Strike the Stands

Here are some of the most common reasons people give for losing the stands.

  • In many churches, a separation already exists due to a stage. Removing the stands removes the visible barrier.
  • Musicians and vocalists tend to stare at their stands. When you remove them, musicians look up, look out, and are more engaged.
  • Singing and playing without stands forces you to memorize music and communicates a higher standard of preparation and excellence. It’s unprofessional and uncaring to use them.
  • If you’re nervous about forgetting lyrics, you can use a confidence monitor, i.e., project the lyrics on the back wall.

A Few Thoughts

While I appreciate and even applaud the impulses that lie behind church musicians going without music, it seems unwise to make it the rule or even the most-preferred practice.

We’re working with volunteers. Asking musicians to memorize the music each week assumes they’re full-time, specifically dedicated to that role in the church, or have enough time during the week to commit songs to memory. Those aren’t the kind of people I normally serve with at my church! While I appreciate musicians who know their music well, I’d rather have them free from anxiety when they’re leading.

We’re freer to make Sunday morning changes. Due to the limited amount of time our band rehearses, we come up with arrangements on Sunday mornings when we practice. That allows us to make last-minute changes, adjust arrangements to the musicians that are actually there, and make music rather than simply play it.

We want to sing the right songs. Memorizing all the songs tends to push us toward using shorter, more repetitive songs, or songs we’ve been singing for years. It doesn’t have to have that effect but often does. I shouldn’t determine the songs I lead on Sundays by how easy they are to memorize (think Psalm 119). God tells us the word of Christ is to dwell in us richly as we sing (Col. 3:16), and that implies at times I’ll lead songs that go beyond popular fare.

We want to identify the real causes. Singing with stands doesn’t communicate a lack of care, love, or engagement any more than a pastor using notes for his message does. It becomes a negative factor only when he reads mechanically, rarely looking up at the congregation. But I’d rather have him be sure of what he’s going to say than try to commit his message to memory and stumble along the way. And I’ve been ministered to in profound ways by both singers and preachers who have notes in front of them.

We sing in community. Finally, it’s participation, not performance, that should characterize our meetings. We’re singing with the congregation, not to or at them. Rather than being a barrier between us and the congregation, music stands can actually be a unifying element. They communicate we’re not musical professionals, that we can forget lyrics, and that we too can get distracted. Our congregations look at a screen (or a hymnal), but we’d never say they’re insincere or “unprepared” to worship God. Needy, imperfect, and dependent, we look to Jesus to perfect all our offerings of worship (1 Pet. 2:5). (HT to Allen Dicharry for this last insight)

Some Questions We Can Ask

If this is an issue at your church, these questions might help you reach some conclusions, whether that’s to go with stands or without them.

Are we allowing the use of music stands to be more of a focus than the God we’re worshiping and the people we’re singing with?
If so, get your head out of the stands. Go over the music in advance and use it simply as a reference. Develop the skill of looking at the line you’re about to sing, then looking up and singing it with the congregation. Try flattening out and lowering the stand, or moving it to the side, to reduce the physical barrier. Using music stands only separates you from the congregation when they’re a visual obstacle or you’re overly dependent on them.

Are we seeking to serve our congregation well?
Maximize whatever limited time you have to prepare. During rehearsals, sing and play as though there was a congregation in front of you. Sing to the empty seats. In a few days or in a few minutes, they’ll be filled with God’s people. If you do choose to go without stands and can afford it, consider adding a “confidence monitor,” lyrics projected either on the back wall or a television monitor. Besides helping the vocalists with the lyrics, a monitor also helps the leader know when the projectionist is putting the lyrics up.

What’s determining the kinds of songs we feed our church?
Take stock of what factors figure in to your song choices. We can consider ease of memorization, repetition, and simplicity, but they shouldn’t rule what we sing. God is too great and awesome, and our responses too deep and varied, to limit our songs of praise to what we’re able to memorize.

Which is more important to us: visibly engaging with a congregation or leading them to a deeper knowledge of God in Jesus Christ?
Those two ends aren’t necessarily opposed. When we lead a congregation to lift up their hearts and voices to praise God, it should be an emotionally engaging event. But emotions aren’t our focus – God’s glory in the face of Christ is (2 Cor. 4:6). God wants the real events of the gospel to move people, not the fact that they don’t have to look at us over music stands.

Like most secondary matters in congregational worship, using or not using music stands isn’t an either/or issue. We just want to make sure we’re asking the right questions.

18 Responses to To Use or Lose the Music Stands: Is That the Question?

  1. J. Perdido December 4, 2017 at 12:07 PM #

    Thank you Bob. I agree with your conclusions. Are we make much of Jesus or music stands? or lights? string pads? transitions? in ear monitors? etc….

  2. Tom Kraeuter December 4, 2017 at 12:45 PM #

    Great post, Bob. Since I first heard the “no music stands” idea several years ago, I’ve been teaching many of the same thoughts that you shared.

    • Bob Kauflin December 4, 2017 at 1:24 PM #

      I thought we’d be on the same page regarding this topic!

  3. Carin Basson December 4, 2017 at 1:57 PM #

    I have extreme respect for anyone who can make music without paper/digital help (or playing & singing), but such talents are the exception.

    I’ve been singing in church bands for more than a decade, but if I sing without the words in front of me, most of my attention is on getting the words right, not on connecting with the congregation, conveying the meaning through my expression/body language or appreciating the skills of my fellow musicians.

  4. Dan December 4, 2017 at 3:10 PM #

    Great post and I totally agree with where you are coming from. Having said that, at our church, we have the instrumentalists use music since we use lead sheets with measures and codas and all that stuff. With singers, I do try to minimize their use. I have received complaints from the congregation that some of our singers who have used music stands looked angry, bored, or somewhere else entirely when they were intently looking at their music. I eventually weened them off of the stands. I definitely don’t want to have distractions that can be eliminated or minimized. I think congregations want to see those who lead them display an outward expression of the joy of the Lord that is inside them that encourages them to pour out their affections as well. I don’t want to foster any fake spiritual enthusiasm, but just to encourage those who sing to let what is in their hearts come out naturally. Obviously there are more pressing things to think about in worship and music, but it’s definitely something that has affected what I do as a worship pastor.

  5. Kyle Broady December 4, 2017 at 3:40 PM #

    I have to say you ended up not exactly where I thought you’d be on this one, but you gave me a lot to think about. The practice I’ve adopted is a sort of hybrid approach where instrumentalists and myself as the leader use stands but vocalists do not (and we do have a confidence monitor for them). It seems to work well, but you’re right in that it doesn’t eliminate the need to still encourage them to engage the congregation and show what they’re singing on their face. Thanks for the good thoughts as always!

  6. John Bjorkman December 4, 2017 at 5:25 PM #

    Great points, Bob. If the congregation is studying the singers, can’t worship without “engaging” with them, demand a more “professional appearance”, etc., there are more serious problems than doing away with music stands could cure.

    In fact, a friend of mine in California works sound at a church where several high profile professional artists are part of the worship team. Their solution to eliminating any distraction that might cause is to have the worship team essentially blacked out, with only the leader being visible. Another option that I’ve seen is having the worship team behind, or off to the side of, the congregation – even further eliminating the “performance” aspect.

    Perhaps there were good reasons for choir lofts!

    • Tedd December 8, 2017 at 12:40 PM #

      One of the best worship sessions I ever went to was at our college campus ministry….they had the stage backlit so you could only see silhouettes of the band members….I suddenly found it was much easier to focus on the words and the worship without any urge to stare at dimly-lit silhouettes. Has anyone else tried this?

  7. jchollar December 4, 2017 at 7:13 PM #

    On the other side of this coin, I have to say that the key question is on how to make sure we are helping everyone, especially the congregation, to be able to focus on the Lord. And in this regard, as Tom Jackson says, “people are (generally) ignorant” when it comes to music, but are experts at reading body language, … if you have people on a platform/stage, even more so if they are “in the spotlight”, … where the musicians are looking gives people cues as to what we want them to be paying attention to. And as musicians, we are often so focused on getting it to sound just right, that we can be completely oblivious to what we are communicating with our body language and lack of eye contact. Liberating ourselves from the focus on the music stands can really make a big improvement in our ability to really connect with the congregation and inspire them to engage and focus on God. Also, even just sonically, musicians can devolve into barely paying attention to what is going on around them and like a typist just “playing what is on the page”, instead of opening their ears and widening their focus to more of what is going on. We don’t want people to be thinking “Wow! That guy looks like he is really concentrating. And by his/her face, I would guess that this is a really difficult (or worse, boring!) song. The lack of visible emotional and physical engagement isn’t exactly inspiring. And if the “leaders” aren’t particularly aware of the congregation, or at least seem to not care (=no eye contact) … I think a lot of churches might actually be better off with an orchestra pit … You listed lots of great alternatives and/or baby steps towards becoming less focused and dependent on the sheets of music. Thanks!

  8. Allan Anderton December 5, 2017 at 9:41 AM #

    Hi Bob – thanks very much for this article, it is very helpful.

    Another topic I would like to hear your thoughts on (not sure if you have already addressed this?) is whether the band should be upfront at all?

    It may sound like a strange suggestion, but I have heard people suggest that the Band should not have the spotlight, and should either be off stage, even at the back of the church or blocked from the view of the Congregation.

    What are your thoughts on this?

    • Bob Kauflin December 5, 2017 at 11:35 AM #

      Thanks, Allan! When the band can’t be seen it makes leadership more difficult. At Together for the Gospel one year we tried it with me leading from a piano in the middle of the people. It was awkward. Gestures, countenance, and cues all aid in helping a congregation sing well. To me it’s somewhat like suggesting the preacher should preach without being seen. A lot would be lost.

      • Allan Anderton December 8, 2017 at 9:13 AM #

        Great thanks very much for that!

      • jchollar December 8, 2017 at 10:07 AM #

        I’m just curious here, Bob. What if the worship leader was up front, but the band was off to the side/not clearly visible? I agree that it is really hard to lead people in worship without standing in front of them. Like you said, a piano in the midst of people is awkward and makes it hard to communicate and thus lead. Think about it historically though with the cantor up front and the organ player (band) facing who knows where and physically located off to the side. Is there anyone out there reading this who has tried this with modern worship or is doing this now at their church or has seen it done? I would be fascinated to see and hear about the pros and cons of that type of setup. Bob? Tom? Anyone?

        • Bob Kauflin December 8, 2017 at 3:59 PM #

          Jason, great question. I know of churches who put the band in the back but I don’t recall which ones at the moment. I’m not convinced that it’s the best model for congregational song that’s led by a band. We’re used to getting cues from the musicians on stage and leadership can be a great help to congregations singing enthusiastically together.

  9. Evan Jackson December 8, 2017 at 4:36 PM #

    Spot on. After years being involved in music ministry as a leader, spectator, and performer, I can’t even remember a single time that I was on stage or in the audience and thought, “Man, that music stand is really distracting.” It’s a non-issue, especially when there’s so much else to worry about.

  10. Josh December 11, 2017 at 5:50 PM #

    I personally hate stands, though I recognise their functional value. The difference I see in musicians, singers and worship leaders with them compared to those without is significant. Now some of that is simply due to skill and practice (which allows them to lose the stand) but often it is as simple as the barrier created both physically and in terms of attention.

    I am ok with musos using them for a while but leaders should lose them or in the least replace them with something less conspicuous.

  11. Anna December 21, 2017 at 11:18 AM #

    I’ve been a church keyboardist for over 25 years. That means I have 10s of thousands of songs in my head. And, let’s be honest. Most modern worship songs are very similar. I rely on my music to keep me in the correct key, in the correct song, to keep me from getting too lost in the moment so I can lead the congregation through the service, and to make sure I follow the agreed upon road map. Personally, keeping my eyes on the sheet music actually helps me to focus in the One we are worshiping rather than the distracting people singing off beat, talking to their neighbors, or walking in and out of the auditorium. Its been mentioned to me many times over the years that I probably don’t need my music stand. But my brain doesn’t work that way. Thank you for this post! This is the first balanced response I have seen from a respected member of the worship community.

  12. Chris February 5, 2019 at 2:16 AM #

    All this leads me more and more to the question “why do ‘worship leaders’ stand on a ‘stage’?”.
    Churches put on great concerts these days.

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