Ask the Expert – Warring musicians and choice of keys for songs

Ask the Expert – Warring musicians and choice of keys for songs

How to handle disagreements in your worship team

Princess Pilime from the UK asks for some advice on warring musicians:

“Do you by any chance have tips on how to understand each other with the instrumentalists, at the moment we have a problem where the instrumentalists refuse or argue that they do not want to change to a key that suits the choir, they prefer to play with the original cd key, are there any tips you can give as how to resolve this matter amicably?”

Andy replies:

I commented on a similar issue in another blog piece previously where someone was wondering if it was ok or even correct to change a song from the original key as per the CD into something that was more suitable for her voice.

What many people don’t realise that that many original recordings of worship songs are not done in a particular key because it seems like the most appropriate key to resource the average congregation, the key is actually chosen to best suit the singer’s voice. Not every worship leader has a huge range so if they are trying to make an album that people will enjoy listening to they have to work to their strengths and put songs in keys that best suit their voice. Chris Tomlin has a very high voice and I think he recorded How Great is Our God in C# which most people, especially women, will struggle with, so of the many cover version recordings of that song by other artists are in a lower key.

Bottom line is when choosing songs to best serve the congregation you have to put it in a key that serves them well. If your choir reflects the average vocal range of your congregation then you must choose keys to suit them, not the musicians.

That said there are a couple of caveats to that last statement. Firstly I’d suggest you have some round table discussions with your musicians and find out the real reasons why they don’t want to change the key before issuing a fait-a-complis saying that they must. I’d humbly offer two suggestions as to why.

Depending their musical background and personality, some musicians see making perfect music as reproducing exactly what’s arranged on the CD or written on the page. Any deviation of chords, key or tempo then becomes technically ‘wrong’ and their job is to get it ‘right’. This tends to ring true more for people who grew up reading classical music (but not always!) and have neclected the art of jamming or improvisation. If this is the case you have a bit of an education battle on your hands. Also, more musicians than you think are slightly on the autistic spectrum (particularly those that can get obsessive about their music, instrument or practice routine) and purely the process of changing something they know can cause mental friction.

Secondly, and more likely, is that some of your musicians just may not have the skills yet to transpose or even play in some unfamiliar keys. If that is the case then a bit of give and take along with some music theory education will vastly help, along with lots of rehearsal time. All our intermediate DVD courses cover music theory and transposing thoroughly so if they need some help here is a good place to start. Generally most instruments are only a semitone away from being in a comfortable key and if you find out which instruments are having trouble then I’m sure you can find some suitable keys for both choir and musicians to work with. At the end of the day people can cope with singing most songs in a small range of keys but the band HAS to be able to actually play the songs. Practically speaking:

  • Guitars find G E C and D easiest, and generally avoid sharp and flat keys
  • Keyboard players often like as few black notes as possible so C, Bb and F are good – although I know others that love the black notes
  • Bassists are similar to guitar but five string players like the low B
  • Orchestral instruments can vary vastly depending on their natural key so talk to them
  • Vocalists can obviously vary but a stereotypical male voice is Eb and a stereotypical female range is Bb. Hence why Redman/Hughes songs are in D or E and Darlene Zschech’s Shout to the Lord is Bb.
  • Drums – for this bit, they’ve got it easy

Hope you find a solution.

Other posts you may find helpful:

Worship team dynamics – the phases every team goes through

What to include in a music chart

The conscious competence learning model

Quality sheet music for worship songs

Practical ideas for working with a novice worship band