How to develop a worship arrangement for a praise band
A friend of mine once remarked that there are three approaches to arranging a song – beforehand, during the song or wishing you had made an effort to arrange it after you have finished playing!
The key thing to remember is that the chord chart is NOT the arrangement. A full music score can be the arrangement but has anyone ever seen a full score of a worship song for every instrument in the band?
And even if it was available could everyone even read it? Therefore we either need to plan some parts beforehand or learn how to communicate, listen and to fit in with each other on the fly. One of the great things about making worship music as a community is the option to interact and ‘feel’ the arrangement develop as we worship with the congregation. Unfortunately one person’s ‘spirit led’ bass solo can be another person’s most distracting moment ever. So it’s probably a good idea to do a combination of ‘groove’ planning and spontaneity.
Practice vs rehearsal
For the planning element, try to make sure each of you knows how to play the song before you start to work with it as a band. Don’t waste valuable rehearsal time by teaching the song and the chords. That should be done before you come together collectively so use the time to get the song to gel with all the musicians. That’s personal practice time rather than group rehearsal time.
Start with finding the right tempo and groove and then build the other instruments’ parts around it. Tempo is often to do with how comfortable it is to sing at a certain pace so choose the fastest feeling part of the song, probably the chorus, and make sure it doesn’t feel rushed. Nathan Fellingham’s Holy Holy is a great example of this. Use a metronome or click in practice times to help you remember the right tempo afterwards.
Don’t over arrange a song with lots of detail unless you make sure everyone writes it all down as they’ll probably forget it otherwise and most of the congregation won’t even notice. But do over practice a song. Rehearse it more than you think is necessary and build up your muscle memory. A good place to start is by copying the parts from a definitive recording of the song and go from there.
So before the song:
If using a specific arrangement – know which version it is! I’ve had interesting moments with musicians all playing different versions of the same song simultaneously
Rehearse it more than you think
Write it down for the visual learners
Have some kind of chart that musicians can make notes on
Learn to copy instrument parts from CDs
In order to build any arrangement spontaneously we need to get an understanding of the different elements that make up an arrangement in a song and what we can change. These elements are the groove or rhythm, the dynamics, i.e. how big or small the song sounds at different points, the tempo, fills, harmonies and motifs (which are the repetitive elements that keep returning to add a sense of familiarity – think of the bass part in Lou Reed’s ‘Take a Walk on the Wild Side or the lead line of ‘In Christ Alone’).
There are probably other elements I’ve missed too. Did you notice that I haven’t included melody? Melody is the one thing that should remain set that we build the arrangement around, so lots of ad-libs and harmonies from the main song leader can be confusing for the congregation unless they are extremely musical and hugely familiar with the song.
So which of all those elements can or can’t we change during the song? Let’s take the three key elements; tempo, dynamics and groove. For the tempo, actually no, you shouldn’t change the tempo unless it’s wrong in the first place or there’s a deliberate speed up or slow down as a feature of the song. Many people equate more exciting parts to playing faster and gentler parts to slowing down but listen to any well recorded piece and the BPM stays exactly the same. What you’re actually hearing change is the dynamics. So yes, change them well and often to create different feels and moods. Think about how the lyrics are making you want to respond. Do you want to shout or be quiet? Laugh or cry? Dance or bow down. Try to use dynamics to mirror those feelings with your music.The key thing is making sure the whole band changes dynamics together otherwise is just makes the odd instrument sound incongruent and out of place.
So how do we change our dynamics? There lots of ways to add feel to your playing. Play harder or softer, double or half your subdivisions, e.g. drummers play 16ths instead of 8ths or visa versa. The same goes for strumming. You can also add or subtract from the groove by emphasising the key elements of the rhythm or pulling back and just playing the main up strums. Use your instrument ‘colours’ by playing the same part higher or lower. Also remember that not everybody has to play all the time. So pick your moments and make a statement. If you do start or stop, get in and out at the junctions of the song – the verse, chorus, turnaround etc. If you miss one junction, get on at the next, don’t just start playing at a random point.
What about the groove? Groove is hard to define but it’s like the specific rhythmic accents that work with the pushes in the melody to form a repetitive and distinctive rhythm. This generally works through the whole song. You may add or subtract from that pattern to change your dynamics but it tends to stay there for the duration. It’s not just a drum thing either. Any instrument played rhythmically can help build the groove. So no, the main groove doesn’t generally change unless it’s a feature deliberately written into the song. Think of something like Spirit of Radio by Rush – remember that one?
As a band exercise, play a section of a song three times and each time try to change one of the following; the tempo, the dynamics or groove. See what works.
So if you are arranging a song whilst you are playing it, work on a consistent groove and look and listen to what everyone else is playing and try to fit in with that groove. If you haven’t got a full band compliment then try to make sure the other instruments cover the main elements. E.g. guitarists make the strumming pattern really solid and consistent if there’s no drummer or get the keys to cover the low end if there’s no bass. Just make that each instrument is only covering one role and not stepping on another’s toes. So if you do you have a bass player, make sure the keyboard’s bass parts aren’t clashing with the bass guitar. Maybe even tie the keyboard player’s left hand behind their back!
Lastly when using these arrangement tools, try to create musical space, not just to fill it up. Musical space isn’t like space in sports. Unlike football, you don’t always run into a musical space when one becomes available. Let it breathe. Think of it like a store room. You can’t create space in a store room that is already full. Musically that means if it sounds bad or cluttered it probably means there is too much in the store room and you have to strip back the sound to make space. There may be too many musicians in the band or just too many people playing too much at the same time.