5 – Ideas for Improvised Worship Leading!
NOTE: A couple of the tips below refer to a worship team not rehearsing the songs selection in advance before Sunday. In some cases, bands with enough skill level can do this, but in other cases, it is absolutely crucial to rehearse the songs selection and pick the songs in advance. This article is definitely not opposed to choosing songs and rehearsing them in advance. The examples below merely demonstrate several ways to add flexibility to your worship leading, although not every suggestion would work for every situation.
The term “improvised worship leading” means simply this: running the worship service with enough flexibility to make on-the-spot changes to the music or the songs selection. If you’ve been looking for ways to add greater flexibility and spontaneity to your worship services, this article will provide a few helpful ideas.
I play in a worship band that has its roots in jazz, though we play all sorts of styles, including CCM rock. Our drummer was once very active in the jazz world and even played a gig with Dizzy Gillespie. Everything we do is configured for total flexibility during a service, if needed. I’m not saying this is better or worse than any other method; it’s simply one way to do things.
For example, when it’s my turn to lead worship (we rotate leaders), I show up a little early, pray for guidance on which songs to play that day, and then pick the songs. When the musicians arrive, I hand out the song selection for that Sunday, scrawled in my chicken scratch on pieces of paper. They pull the songs, and we start the service without rehearsing the set list. It’s not unlike a jazz band that plays from the “fake book” and can turn to any page in that book and just start playing.
To pull this off, the band has to memorize, or at least know, the songs well enough so that they can play them at the drop of a hat. To be clear, we don’t play without song sheets. We still pull the music and place them on music stands. Even if you memorize something, sometimes the brain goes blank, and it’s helpful to have the music there in front of you.
“Yeah, but,” you might be saying, “how does the band figure out the arrangement of the song without first rehearsing it? How do you know how many times to play the chorus or when to end the song?”
This is where the American jazz tradition of “following the band leader” comes in.
The worship leader uses a system of hand signals to communicate where we’re going in a song. For example, if the leader wants to repeat the chorus, he or she has a hand signal for it. Same for any other action: going to the bridge, repeating a verse, repeating a tag, or ending the song.
None of this, of course, is being presented as the only way to go about this; it’s just a template to inspire you if you’re trying to establish more flexibility in your worship band. Although you can certainly come up with your own hand signals, here are the ones that we use at my church:
1 – Repeat the chorus: make a hook shape with your index finger as if you were pretending to be Captain Hook.
2 – Repeat a verse: if you’re repeating or jumping to Verse 1, simply hold up your index finger as if you were counting to one silently on your hand; if you’re repeating Verse two, hold up two fingers (like the peace sign).
3 – Go to the bridge: make an “a-okay” sign with your hand by raising your middle, ring, and pinky fingers up and forming a little circle with your thumb and index finger.
4 – Repeat the tag: make the sign you’d make with your thumb and index finger if you were a chef telling someone to add just a little bit more sugar to the recipe—the sign you make when you bring your thumb and index finger close together but not quite touching. (And, just in case my lingo is different than what others use, the tag is that little phrase at the end of the song—perhaps the last line of a chorus—that songwriters and worship leaders will repeat several times just before they end the song.)
5 – End the song: raise only your pinky finger up like someone would do while drinking a cup of tea at a tea party.
Whether or not you use these signs or make up your own, it’s important to extend your hand out in clear view of the entire worship team when you do make a sign. You’ll also have to work on timing it. For example, when I want the band to repeat the chorus, I’ll throw the signal out when we start the last line of lyrics of the chorus—a few measures ahead of time—so that the band has plenty of time to see it and know where to go next.
All of this takes practice and, frankly, it just takes getting used to. Using excellent rehearsal tools like Rehearsal Mix can help teams put in that extra time to memorize their parts and not have their eyes glued to their music stand the entire time. But once the worship leaders and band members have these skills down, it opens up a wide range of possibilities during the worship service.