Differences between playing in a ‘performance band’ and a ‘worship band’

Differences between playing in a ‘performance band’ and a ‘worship band’

Many church musicians also play in gigging bands – performing in pubs & clubs or function bands etc. I play keyboards for the band Phatfish, and we’ve had to develop skills in the area of concert performance for paying audiences as well as worship music ministry.

So what distinctive qualities does being a worship musician require that are different for a ‘performing’ musician and vice versa? And can one environment benefit from skills developed in the other? Well, church musicians primarily exist to help the congregation engage with God in worship, whilst gigging musicians primarily exist to entertain the crowd (although for a Christian gigging band there may also be the desire to use music to present the gospel and glorify God).

We’re striving for excellence in both contexts but the application may be a little different. I would thoroughly recommend being in a gigging band as a great way to sharpen your skills and benefit the church environment. The table below outlines some of the traits that make musicians effective and how they apply in the respective environments.

  Church musician  Gigging musician 
Flexible in the moment Very important given that you might play with different musicians each week, and worship times can be unpredictable, with unforeseen changes to song lists and song formats, and having to adapt to contributions from leaders and congregation. Probably less of a priority for a gigging band who will agree a set list, rehearse it and deliver it exactly as agreed – every time.
Technically proficient It’s certainly desirable to be as good as possible on your instrument. However, many worship songs are quite straightforward harmonically & rhythmically and can played very well by an intermediate player. Depends on your band. If it’s the Sex Pistols, then don’t worry about it! However if your covering Stevie Wonder or trying to sound like Dirty Loops you will really need to know your chops and have practiced many hours.
Well Rehearsed As well as being clued-up on basic arrangements for the songs you’re going to be using at church, it’s good to ‘practice spontaneity’. Look at how you might transition between songs be prepared for the unexpected! Usually you’ll need to know exactly what you’re playing in every bar of every song – including the exact sounds that guitarists and keyboard players etc will use. The rehearsal almost becomes a drill where you get the song arrangements in your head perfectly.
Authoritative & confident Less experienced musicians can tend to be a bit apologetic and weak in the way they play. Even if you lack confidence, play your instrument with conviction (that’s not the same as LOUD), and don’t be scared about making mistakes. We all do. An audience will be unimpressed by a group of muso’s who look shy. If you’re well rehearsed, you can go out and engage the audience – they want you to!
Able to memorize Having a large repertoire of worship songs in your head so you don’t always need the music in front of you is very liberating especially if you’re suddenly asked to play an unplanned song. Unless you’re in an orchestra, it’s generally unacceptable be using written music at all in a gig – it looks amateur. Memorize the set!
Rock solid rhythmically Certainly a good goal for all church bands – practice having drums and bass working tightly with a steady tempo – perhaps use a click. The other musicians should lock in to provide a stable foundation for the worship song. It’s generally a great compliment if your band is called ‘tight’ – not only do you lock in with solid drums and bass, but every riff, lick, change and transition is perfectly executed to delight the audience.
Creative Finding new and interesting arrangements for worship songs can breathe fresh life into them. The tried and tested arrangements are fine but a bit of creative thinking (especially with your own church in mind) can be very welcome. If you’re in a covers band, then emulation is more important than original ideas. However, if you’re playing your own stuff, then it’s vital to be interesting and inventive, or the punters won’t come back.
Able to improvise Really useful in a church context to add variety, and roll with the unplanned moments. But avoid jam sessions in corporate worship services. Not necessary if you’re only playing predetermined arrangements, but really useful when initially creating arrangements, or if there’s more of a jazz/improvisational element to your sound.
Able to read music Always an advantage, although chord charts tend to be more helpful in the church setting. Note-for-note playing of the songbook arrangements tends to sound very flat and uninspiring, so take cues from the score but don’t rely on it. Well, the Beatles apparently couldn’t read music and they seemed to be moderately successful. But they did have George Harrison who could. Draw your own conclusions!
Entertaining In church the goal shouldn’t be to entertain the congregation. Some would identify that as a ‘problem’ with modern worship leading styles. However, being demonstratively passionate about what you’re singing and being a ‘lead worshipper’ seems fitting. Heart attitude is everything. Eye contact, physical movement, passion, eloquent banter, using space on stage, putting the audience at their ease. Yes to all of that if you want them on your side.
Sensitive to the Holy Spirit Very important if you hope to lead a congregation and help them engage with God’s presence. It goes deeper than just being gifted at your instrument.  Spend time with God in private and it will show in public. Everything we do as Christians should be part of our worship, including ‘secular’ gigs. I still want to bless God with my instrument wherever I’m playing.
Of good character If you’re the best drummer in England, but never show up to rehearsals and meetings on time, or if you’re consistently sinning in your personal life, then I would rather not have you on the worship team. Character is every bit as important as gifting. Church is not a good place to realize your rock star fantasy. Many successful secular bands are populated by people whose lives are a total mess, but as Christians we are called to spread the seed of the gospel everywhere, to be salt and light and to influence our culture for the glory of God. That means living lives of purity, wherever music takes us.

So as you can see there are differences in these disciplines, but being a good ‘performance’ musician will surely benefit your playing at church and vice versa, but remember where you are!

Mike Sandeman is the keyboard player for popular band ‘Phatfish’ and has over twenty years experience of working alongside many of the UK’s best known worship leaders. Mike has recently setup the ‘Worship Band Advice’ service; he can come and work with your worship team in your venue; listening to you play and offering advice about how you might serve the congregation better. More details at www.worshipbandadvice.co.uk.

Thanks to Mike for this guest article. If you enjoyed it, take a look at the articles Andy has written on the topic of function bands:

Wedding function bands – can you really pull it off?

Should musicians get paid for playing at weddings?