5 top tips for developing and training your church sound team
We ran an open question on the website and Facebook recently inviting you to submit your questions in relation to common problems with church sound. The team at SFL have been through the responses and picked out the most common and interesting themes which we’ll be bringing you in a series of articles in the coming weeks.
If there was one common theme running through nearly all of the comments and questions we received it was about training and development of church sound teams.
Whether it is simply that the apparent complexity of the technology is putting new people off having a go, or that you’ve got willing volunteers but nobody to train them, overcoming these challenges to grow, maintain and develop an experienced and technically competent sound team is vital to achieving good quality sound in your church. Here are Pat’s top 5 tips for developing and training your sound team:
1. Integrate your music and technical teams into a single “worship team”
Being the church sound person can be lonely, particularly in a small church where you may only have one operator per service and only a small team to draw on. Instigating a culture shift so that the sound person is considered an integral member of the worship team, is present for all rehearsals and practices, and is always invited to the socials will ensure your volunteers feel included, fosters social cohesion within your team and ultimately will help to make the role more appealing. This single team mentality is a staple ingredient of almost every church I have seen with healthy numbers of capable technical volunteers. It also helps to break down barriers and improve communication between the sound person and the musicians, often an area that can be a source of tension in churches.
2. Invest in team development
A lot of churches know that they have a problem with numbers and/or quality of technical volunteers, yet fail to actively do anything about it. Sound engineering is a unique skill that requires years of practice and development, it’s similar to learning a musical instrument except that opportunities to practice and develop it are a whole lot less common. For this reason it is pretty rare for the average church to just happen to have an experienced and capable sound person in their congregation. Too many churches seem paralysed by this reality; if you want to do something about it then you need to invest in training and developing your team. Rather than just waiting in hope for the right person to come along we need to make our churches purposeful training centres for sound people. This means investing both time and finances into training and resourcing your volunteers, there is nothing that helps to grow your team or expand their technical abilities more than a church who are willing to provide (and fund) training courses and resources and to give back to their volunteers. Again, this is a staple ingredient I witness in many of the churches that are most successful at this. Churches can and should be great places to learn and develop these skills, in fact a large number of professional sound engineers I know and work with started out as volunteers in their local church.
3. Exercise grace and make church a safe place to learn
Following on from the previous point, if we want to make our churches great and intentional learning environments we need to ensure they are also safe places for people to practice, and from time to time to get things wrong. Mixing (and playing music) in churches can often be a very stressful experience; it is easy to feel out of our depth and the pressure and expectations can be substantial. A really good way to think about this is to imagine if church were a secular environment – if you were a secular musician regularly playing to crowds of several hundred (or more) then you are doing pretty well and are probably on the cusp of making it as a professional performer. The expectations in terms of the quality of your performance will likely be pretty high in this scenario. Yet in church we often find far less experienced (and, let’s be honest with ourselves, usually less capable) musicians leading worship for congregations of a similar size. The same is true for your sound people. This creates a lot of pressure and it is easy to forget that we are all volunteers. We need to make sure that we foster an environment in which it is ok for people to make mistakes and in which we all communicate with one another with grace and patience, sometimes getting things wrong is a necessary part of the learning process. This is a culture in particular that your pastors and key worship leaders can set by example, always ensuring that they are patient and that feedback is delivered in a constructive way. If you want to keep hold of your sound people and inspire them to keep trying and keep getting better at what they do make sure that they don’t just hear complaints, a regular “thank you” or positive comment from a key church leader can make all the difference in making your volunteers feel valued and supported. It is also really important that churches tackle any culture of direct complaints about the sound from the congregation. If members of the congregation are unhappy with the quality or volume of the mix they should be encouraged to raise this with the church leadership in an appropriate forum rather than to go personally marching up to the sound person in the middle of the service, there is nothing more demoralising or likely to put your technical volunteers off than being in the firing line like this, particularly those who are still learning. Not only will this harm your volunteer retention and enthusiasm, it is also downright rude and inappropriate (I’ve even known sound engineers who have been so hurt by the way they have been treated and spoken to whilst volunteering in this capacity that they have ultimately left the church). If there are consistent complaints about the sound then it should be the responsibility of the church leadership to raise this with the volunteer in a constructive and pastorally sensitive way.
4. Invest in quality equipment
Far too many churches still exhibit a profound cultural aversion to spending money on audio-visual technology. This is simply not tenable in the modern world; our congregations are bombarded by high quality technical production left, right and centre in their day to day lives and are becoming increasingly intolerant of poor quality production when they arrive at church on a Sunday. It doesn’t matter whether you think this is right or wrong, it is simply a reality that if you want to get your message across effectively and retain the attention of today’s congregations (particularly if you want to attract and maintain a younger demographic) then the church does not get to dictate the terms or style of communication anymore, we have to meet people where they are at. Of course churches need to exercise good financial stewardship, but we also need to appreciate that regular investment in quality audio-visual technology is as much a part and parcel of running a modern worship space as any of our other building or operational costs. If you want to build a team of enthusiastic and capable sound people then giving them the tools to do their job properly, as well as exposing them to exciting new technologies, shows that the quality of technical delivery is important and valued by the church. On the other hand the prospect of working with decrepit and out of date technology that is falling apart at the seams and prone to regular technical glitches (for which the sound person will invariably be blamed) is a pretty uninspiring proposition and is unlikely to attract the right people to your team.
5. Source great training resources
The standard process for training new sound people in churches is for existing volunteers to take them under their wing and show them the ropes. The problem is that this can often be a case of the blind leading the blind as multiple generations of church volunteer simply pass on their relatively limited (and in some cases outright incorrect) technical knowledge. This is not to slate those diligent church volunteers who have served for many years, but without some outside input it is easy for misunderstandings and bad habits to fester within your team. As a professional sound engineer I know that the only way I continue to improve at what I do is to seek new inspiration and to learn from and share with other likeminded people; the larger my pool of outside influence the more likely I am to learn new things and to face important challenges to any misconceptions or bad habits I may have developed. For UK churches SFL run a great range of training events both at our base in Reading and up and down the country in collaboration with Musicademy. Keep an eye on our website, social media and mailing lists to stay abreast of all the latest opportunities. SFL and Musicademy have also teamed up to produce a fantastic training DVD for church sound volunteers. One comment from Andi Moore on Facebook was about smaller “bite sized” training; the course is a great resource for this as it breaks training on a wide variety of topics down into small 10-20 minute chunks which are ideal for individuals or teams to watch in short bursts in order to develop their technical knowledge over time.
Our Church Sound Tech Course (on DVD, download and via our subscription site) is designed as a very comprehensive guide to church sound – you could watch it as a group over a series of training evenings.
For those of you near London or the UK South East, Pat is running a day of Sound Tech training for Musicademy on 19 March.
Do add your own thoughts to the above article in the comments thread below. We’ll post the next in the series soon. And if you have any other PA and Sound Tech questions, please post them below so we can add them to the list for future articles.