Turn it up to 11 (and down to 1)

Turn it up to 11 (and down to 1)


Yesterday I was flicking around radio stations in the car as I do from time to time. I’d stick with each station just long enough to hear what was going on and decide whether I was in the mood for what I heard. As I was scanning through I came to a station which seemed almost silent. On turning the volume up I was almost blown away by the crescendo which came next. Turning the volume back down I struggled once again to hear anything against the noise of the road as this mighty burst of volume subsided to a mere whisper of strings. I have to admit that I was captivated by the music – mainly due to the variety of what I was hearing.

Add interest by varying dynamics

One of the best things we can do to add interest to our playing is to change the dynamics – and not just a little bit. Bands often get stuck playing everything at either the same or very similar levels. It’s extremely easy to fall into the trap of everyone playing all or most of the time. Together with this a lot of us simply play the same thing louder when we want the volume to rise. Whilst this may approach the desired effect it won’t be the most effective way of ramping things up. The key is for volume (how loudly we play) and texture (how much we play) to work together. Put another way, how loudly we play links very closely with how many notes we should play (or not play).

Take the 1 to 11 test

One exercise any worship team can use to improve is what I call the 1 to 11 test. Take a section of any song (the chorus is often the best bit for this) and try to play it at eleven distinct levels. Start really quiet and gradually increase the level. See if you can get all the way to 11 before you top out (this is also a great individual practice exercise).

The key to doing this is at each end of the spectrum. To be really quiet you need to play very little. This might mean just the vocals with no instrumental accompaniment. If it doesn’t work without instruments (most songs do) try adding one instrument but keep it very simple. Just marking the chords is enough. A keyboard pad sound works well for this but you could also use guitars or piano – just make sure they play the bare minimum. Two or three notes when the chords change is more than sufficient.

Ideas for changing dynamics

To increase the dynamic you have a number of choices. You can add instruments (one at a time or as a block) but keep all of the playing very simple or you can increase the amount you play. There is a world of difference between an acoustic guitar quietly marking the chords and playing a full groove. For really loud passages you need to increase the number of notes you play. Changing from quarter notes to eighth notes should have a big effect. It’s also worth experimenting with who increases these subdivisions first. More eighth notes on the kick and snare drums will drive much harder than splitting chords on a piano but both can increase the intensity. It’s this kind of experimentation which can give us more options to play with.

Avoid the mid range

The final part of this jigsaw is to experiment with the range of your instrument. Everybody playing in the mid range is going to get muddy extremely quickly if you’re all playing a lot during a loud passage. It’s much better to separate out where different instruments are playing to give a full spectrum. Look out particularly for the crossover between bass and the left hand of keyboards together with the higher end of keyboards and electric guitar.

Having worked on more and more levels of dynamics and texture for a song experiment with changing between them on the fly. The more you’re able to do this and the more levels you find can equip you to help lead in a dynamic and engaging way.

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