Keeping Track of New Ideas May Require New Ideas

Is there one bright idea standing out in your box of ideas?
Is there one bright idea standing out in your box of ideas?

If you are even slightly a creative type, you have already come face to face with the challenge of keeping track of new ideas.

The new approach that dawned on you when you were out for a walk, but had left the building by the time you returned.

The plot line or song lyric that made perfect sense while you were trying to get to sleep, then had evaporated in the morning.

The fresh color combination, the on-target illustration, the untried design – all of these were crystal clear in your mind’s eye, but somehow slipped away by the time you needed them.

I know the feeling, you have my sympathy!

New ideas will hit me at almost any time, day or night. I may have been musing on some problem, or writing a new song. Something in my travels will strike me as a great idea for a blog post or an ebook, and I’ll need to write it down before I forget it. Because forget it, I most certainly will.

I’ve tried many systems over the years. All of them are good, but they don’t all work for me. I’ve had to experiment to find what does work for me.

For example, if I am writing a song in my head and get to a point where I need to put it into a tangible form, I’ve got a few choices at my disposal:

  1. I can write it down in music notation, complete with staff, measures, notes and lyrics. This, by the way, is by far the most accurate way to write it down. Music notation is an elegant language developed over more than four centuries by musicians who wanted to do exactly what I’m talking about. Yet, if I don’t have staff paper or computer software, I’ll need to start from scratch, drawing 5 long, parallel lines close to each other to create the staff. Takes practice, and I’ve done it often. It is difficult, however, if the paper I have is not full size. (I know the Gettysburg Address was written on a napkin, but he wasn’t composing music, which I believe is a much more difficult proposition.)
  2. I can record it with the voice recorder on my smartphone. Just needs to be transcribed later.
  3. I can write it using my own symbols and numbers to which I assign specific values and meanings. This has probably been the most helpful to me, come to think of it. I’ll use arabic numerals (1,2,3,4, etc.) for scale tones and roman numerals (I,ii, iii, IV, etc.) to represent chords. I’ll use a long horizontal line with a slash at each end with a number over it to represent a group of measures (looks like a multi-measure rest), along with greater than or less than signs (< >) to indicate relative volumes.

And if it’s not music we’re talking about, just keeping a notepad handy can solve the problem. Grab a stack of smallish notepads from your local drugstore and put one in your car, by your bed, in your coat pocket, in your kitchen, by your computer, by your TV… you get the idea. And make sure you also have a pen or pencil in each location.

So once we’ve got the new idea “committed to paper”, so to speak, what do we do with them? You can stick it in your pocket, as long as you have a deliberate time when you will retrieve it. I charge my smartphone at night, so when I plug it in, I also make sure I go through my pockets for anything else that might be important. Skipping this step will result in finding your song idea at the bottom of the washing machine, an inert lump of shrunken wood pulp.

Rick Warren, pastor of Saddleback Church, has his “black box”. During the day, whenever a new idea strikes him, he’ll grab any scrap of paper and write it down, then stick it into his “black box”. At regular intervals (weekly, monthly, yearly) he will go through all of the notes he has collected and file them away topically, ready to use for sermon illustrations. I like this idea, it’s really easy on the front end. But the filing it away takes both discipline and a topical framework within which to put the notes.

I’ve found three software tools that have been working really well for me: Shazam, iTunes, and Evernote

When I listen to songs in the car, I will often run across tunes that inspire me and that I don’t want to forget. A couple of taps on my Shazam app, and the program has identified the song, adding it to a growing list of songs I’ve researched. Then, when I’m at my computer (and not driving!), I’ll pull up the list it saved for me, get on iTunes and inexpensively buy the songs. The last step is to put the downloaded songs into an iTunes playlist that reminds me to come back to it. I use “composing inspiration”, or “gems”, or “Christmas” as playlist names, for example.

For pretty much everything else, I use Evernote on my computers and on my phone. I can type in a note, clip it off the web, send emails to it, even voice-record notes and take photos, all saved as “notes” within the program. To each note, I quickly add a tag, like “lyrics”, ToDo Today”, or “home projects”. Any label you find helpful is fine. Later, you can search for all the notes with a particular tag with no further sorting or filing.

Hope these help you stay on top of the ocean of ideas churning through your brain!

What do you do with new ideas? Have you found a system that works for you?

Please leave your comment below, or email any questions about music, music theory and next-step musianship to [email protected].

© 2014 Steve Case

What’s In Your Closet?

shirt in my closetHere’s a subject I admit I know little about. And yet it affects my ability to lead worship every single time I step onstage. Every Saturday night, you’ll find me once again poking my head into my closet, wondering what to wear for Sunday morning. I’ve learned over the years if I really get stuck (doesn’t happen as often as it used to), I can ask Sue.

“So what do you think, sweetie, does this go with that?”

“Oh, no.”

“How about this one?”

“Probably okay.”

“Well, what about this one?”

“Let me help you, dear.”

Other than jeans, I don’t buy my own clothes anymore. Sue has done a wonderful job stocking my closet with clothes that usually keep me out of trouble.

Dress For The Gig

Before you walk onstage, whatever the venue, you really should have given some attention to how you look. Street clothes are okay if you’re trying to present an “every man” image but they can also communicate apathy. Like you just don’t care about who you’re playing for.

The eye is naturally drawn to both the best-dressed and worst-dressed people in the room. If you’re leading worship and someone else on the team has raised the fashion bar, people in the room may experience tension over who they should focus on. I’m not one to get really worried about it, but I do believe it’s true. Take it up a notch just to be safe. But only one notch.

Dress For The People

Dave, a friend of mine, is a traditional church kind of guy. Enjoys singing hymns, wears his suit and tie every Sunday. When I asked him why at one point, he said dressing more formally was a sign of respect for the people he would see at church. And respecting the people was one of the ways he would show respect to God.

I agree.

Now, I don’t wear a suit and tie unless its a wedding or a funeral. And (fortunately) we hold pretty informal Sunday services at our church. But I still want to respect those I’m around. So I’ll pay attention to how people dress for our services, then I’ll take it up just a little.

Negotiables For Worship Leading

Jeans or khakis? Street clothes or business casual? Collar or no collar? Plaid, stripes, patterns, colors – these all matter because our clothing choices may set up unintentional reflex responses from service attenders.

I used to be oblivious to this, until Mark, an artist friend, informed me.

“How does this look?” I would ask, inviting his response to my choice of shirt and sweater. I think the shirt had a small checked pattern and the sweater had a stripe or two.

“It’s okay with me,” he would say. “But it will drive my wife a little insane.” Not in a good way, either.

Apparently what I wore had been the topic of conversation in their house on at least one previous occasion. Not really the outcome I’m working toward in the services. I have since paid more attention to how I look, and when in doubt, I’ll ask those more knowledgeable than I.

Non-negotiables For Worship Leading

There are some standards of dress that we as worship leaders do need to adhere to. These are about modesty and propriety. I realize that even these standards leave some room for interpretation. We don’t want clothing choices that distract, and that includes, of course too much skin.

Don’t let tops get too low nor skirts too high. The tighter your clothes fit, the more uncomfortable you’ll make some folks. And yet, if they are too baggy, it looks like you don’t care. We don’t want holes where there shouldn’t be holes, and we don’t want to see what’s underneath.

There, I’ve said it. Here come the emails…

And as an acknowledgment of how life is unfair, women will need to think about dressing up one level above the guys. When they wear the same thing, my wife tells me the women look like they have taken less care than the men. This is totally a perception thing, but it will most certainly affect worship leading.

The Heart Of The Matter

Now that I’ve come across way more like my parents than I ever thought I would, let me just say this: at the heart of these decisions is the desire to help people know they are cared for, and their opinion matters. I’m not walking onstage to prove anything or boost my ego. I want to worship God, and He told me to love people. If how I dress onstage impacts them for better or worse, I need to pay attention.

Have you found that what you wear influences the way you are perceived? You can leave your comment below, or email any questions you have about dressing for the gig or next-step musicianship to [email protected].

© 2014 Steve Case

Are You Performing With Passion? What We Can Learn From Taylor Swift

Let me say right up front I’ve never met Taylor Swift. I don’t know a lot of her songs. I don’t know much about what kind of person she is. I don’t know what she’ll be like five years from now.

But I am often inspired when I see her perform.

When she walks onstage, she’s ready to rock and roll (or whatever the country and/or pop equivalent is). She wears her emotions on her sleeve, she attacks the stage with purpose, energy and skill. Though she uses her appearance to her advantage, that’s really not what keeps me watching. It’s her attitude, along with her expertise. It’s her passion for the music and for the crowd.

And – I’m just guessing here – I think she has a blast.

What Draws Us In?

We are invited into each performance by several components, all working together to invite us into the experience: the look, the skill, and the passion.

The look is most often the first aspect of a performance that catches our attention. It includes everything we see from the performer(s) to the landscape, architecture, and lighting that surrounds us. It’s true whether it’s on a screen, in a theater, or outside at a summer concert. It has to all fit together. And though many of you are way more visually oriented than I am, the look influences the whole experience, either enhancing or distracting. It starts with the atmosphere of the venue, is enhanced by the lighting and staging, but then is focused on the performer. I’m not judging here, just recognizing the reality that the way the performer dresses and carries him/herself is crucial to first impressions.

The skill of the performer will be the next thing we’ll notice. At first, there is a period of validation – can this artist deliver? When we’re satisfied they can, the next thing we want to know is whether or not they can hold our attention. I joke about having A.D.D., but I think most of us these days are increasingly attention-span-challenged. Are they performing with excellence, are they exceeding our expectations? Then, when we’re convinced they are, we wonder if they will show us something new and fresh. We want to be surprised and delighted.

The passion of the performer, when we’re comfortable with the look and the skill, is what I believe keeps us engaged. Their passion doesn’t just entertain us. It helps us believe. Passion in the performance lifts us up, transcending the mundane and the mechanical. It gives us a glimpse into life on another level, where beauty and excellence are vibrant and alive. We want to live in that place, and the passion we witness in a performance makes us feel like we really can.

Steps To A Passion-Filled Performance

We who perform, though all artists, are all over the map when it comes to our ability to emote onstage, demonstrating our passion. As for me, a guy who has to work at showing emotion when I perform, I admire those who seem to be so good at it. I’m better at it than I used to be (I think). But it takes some deliberate steps for me every time.

  1. Know well what you’re going to sing, play and say. Rehearse the mechanics of your performance to the point of being absolutely comfortable with each facet. Drill the rhythms, pay attention to being in tune. If you are planning to comment between songs, write out what you want to say. Even if you don’t stick to your script, the exercise of writing it out will help you focus on what your message really is.
  2. Look the part. Dress for the gig (more on this in a future post). When you are confident in how you look, you can feel free to focus on the performance. If you are performing for an older crowd, dress up, they will expect it. If your audience is younger, consider the venue and how they will be dressed. Then go just a step up. And never dress in a way that distracts, from too sexy to too sloppy, from clownish to indifferent. Make sure your look fits the experience you are trying to provide for your audience.
  3. Expand your movements. If you feel like you’re moving enough onstage, you’re probably not. This includes, by the way, the look on your face. Are you communicating your passion you’re feeling through your facial expression? You may need a friend’s input for this one.
  4. Let your passion lead you. When you have prepared the music, the atmosphere and your movements the best you can, the next step is to exercise the courage to put your heart out there. It takes courage because you are vulnerable and exposed. But that’s the best way to get an audience to follow you, by showing them how you feel and leading them to the same place. And when you are done, you can be confident you’ve left it all on the stage, you’ve done your job and inspired many through your passion.

Are your performances filled with passion? Please leave your comment below, or email me with any questions about music, performing, and next-step musicianship at [email protected].
© 2014 Steve Case

Stepping Up: 5 steps To Transpose Your Song

Raising the pitch
Raising the pitch

Someone once said that every time you play a song in a new key, it’s like visiting a new country.

I agree.

The landscape is different, the feel is different. It can really be refreshing.

There may be mechanical reasons to change the key of the song. Maybe it’s too high for you to sing comfortably. Or maybe you could play the song a little easier in a different key than the original. Or maybe you just like it somewhere else.

On the guitar, transposing can be as easy as using a capo (a clamp-type device placed on the neck to raise the pitch of all the strings equally). If the capo works for you, by all means, use it. I’ll use mine on occasion. But a capo has limitations.

What I’m going to describe is the actual process of transposition, that is, intentionally moving a melody and its chords up or down as much as you want. You’ve got complete freedom, yet the song remains intact.

The big idea here is to use numbers as the common ground.

5 Steps For Transposing

1. Build the major or minor scale for the key you are in, and number each scale tone. (Which chord can you finish the song on? That’s the key.)

Let’s say we’re starting off in the key of C (easy place to begin). Here’s the scale with its corresponding numbers:

1    2    3    4    5    6    7     8

C   D   E   F    G    A    B    C


2. Translate your melody into numbers, representing each note’s place in the scale (we call these scale degrees, fyi).

For this example, we’ll use one of your Top 10 favorite folk songs of all time, “On Top Of Old Smokey”, although this technique works for all styles & genres:

1    1    3    5    8       6       4    4    5    6    5

C   C    E   G   C       A       F    F   G   A    G


1    1    3    5    5       2        3    4    3    2    1

C   C   E   G    G      D       E    F    E    D   C


3. Give each chord a number as well, again taken from its position in the major scale. Be sure to add whether it’s major or minor (capital Roman numerals for major, lowercase for minor).

In “Smokey”, the chords are as follows:
F (IV)                                    C (I)

On top of old Smokey, all covered with snow

G (V)                                C (I)

I lost my true lover from courtin’ too slow.


4. Decide if you want the song to be higher or lower, and how far. Build that scale.

Let’s say that the song just gets a little too high for me to sing, so I’ll need to lower it a bit. (I know I titled this blog “Stepping Up”, but you can go either direction. Work with me.) If I take it down a whole step, now I’m on Bb:
1     2     3    4     5    6    7    8

Bb  C    D   Eb   F   G    A   Bb

I = Bb major

IV = Eb major

V = F major


5. Now apply the numbers you assigned for the melody and chords to the new scale. Keep all rhythms the same as they were.

Old notes:                                 C    D    E    F    G    A    B    C

Scale degrees:                          1     2     3    4     5    6     7    8

Now become:                           Bb   C    D   Eb   F    G    A   Bb


Chords now change to:
Eb (IV)                                 Bb (I)

On top of old Smokey, all covered with snow

F (V)                                 Bb (I)

I lost my true lover from courtin’ too slow.

Thinking about the melody and chords this way allows you not to just transpose to a single key. It allows you to transpose to every other key. When you think about numerical relationships, it applies to all keys. The more you get used to thinking in numbers, the faster this process becomes.

Your Turn

Try transposing a verse or chorus from one of the songs you already play. Use these 5 steps, and you’ll be able to put any song in just the right key for your voice or your instrument. Or try taking the last chorus of your song up a half step for some added energy at the end. (Barry Manilow made a career for awhile out of key changes in his songs! It was a bit overused, but it worked for him. He’s really a fine musician, by the way.)

How have you used transposing in your music? Please leave your comment below, or email any questions you have about transposing, music theory, or next-step musicianship to [email protected].

© 2014 Steve Case


Some Next-Step Musicians Who Are Raising The Bar

footsteps in Trebuchet font

I’ve been having a ball over the past few months helping a (mostly) young worship team at a nearby church. I want to highlight them today because the team members are great examples of Next-Step Musicians.

When we at CaseTunes (okay, that’s really Mike and me) talk about Next-Step Musicianship, we are referring to an attitude, a drive, a perspective that is always looking to creatively improve the music we generate.

Doesn’t matter if you’re a singer or instrumentalist, a novice or a pro. Something inside you makes you unable to settle for being only as good at your music as you are now. You want to stretch. You know you can do better. You’ve got it in you, and you need to figure out how to release it.

I’m not trying to make this sound epic, although for some of us (including you), it certainly may be. Next-step musicians are always trying to raise the bar, to create music that expresses the soul a little more clearly, a little more passionately. We are constantly seeking to improve our art by getting better at what we do.

The Next-Step Music Team

So back to this worship team. They asked me to lead some rehearsals and help them get better at what they do.

It has been a tremendous experience for all of us.

Now the church is small, yet eight musicians came to the last rehearsal. That speaks well of their attitude by itself. The team has been playing every other week, though I think that is changing. They rehearse two or three times for any service they lead. And when they show up for rehearsal, they come ready to make it happen!

I have to admit, I had some reservations when I first met them. Not personally, they are really great people. But musically, they are quite the eclectic mix. Their rhythm section consists of a keyboard, a drum kit and an accordion. Two to five vocalists will lead worship from the stage.

And last week, they blew me away again with their attitude.

My Job Was To Paint

During rehearsal, I would listen, teach a little, suggest some techniques and strategies so the songs come out more cohesively and artistically. Using the instruments and vocals as the musical palette, I began to paint. A little here, a little there. And to a person, they did their best to give me what I was looking for.

I suggested to Al, who plays the accordion, to think about his role in the band – should he be like the glue holding it together, or rhythmically punctuating the chords, or sometimes playing scales and fills to keep it interesting? He’s a really fine player, and he took my suggestions and ran.

The keyboard player, a sophomore in high school (I think, so when she reads this, she can correct me if I’m wrong) has taught herself how to play chord progressions and read charts. And she has come quite far! I get to suggest different techniques for her to try, or key changes, or different approaches to rhythm. Then she buckles down and gets to work. I’ve stretched her thinking a couple of times, and she without exception rises to the occasion.

I suggested to one of the vocalists (who I had just met) that she try singing an obligato vocal part, that is, kind of a free-form echo of the melody and lyrics in between the phrases everyone else is singing. I didn’t have to ask twice. She started adding those in, and it sounded wonderful. Really nice.

The drummer is a another high school musician, and he’s got some chops. For him, it’s a matter of choosing when to blend in and when to drive it, when to lay out and when to lay it down. And he does great.

In fact, every single person on the team (and I plan to write more about them in the future, so for those of you I didn’t mention yet, you’re on my hit list) brings a combination of talent, determination and a commitment to the team that is really cool. They will continue to serve their church with more and more excellence if they keep doing what they are doing now.

And I have the privilege of working with them. What an honor. What a blast!

You Can Adopt The Next-Step Attitude

Let me encourage you today to very intentionally be a next-step musician. If you’re getting stuck, you may want to download our audio guide and infographic, “10 Reasons You Aren’t Thriving As A Musician”. We all get stuck at times in our musical journey. But a little encouragement can go a long way to get you unstuck. We hope these ideas help you!

Try each of these next steps with your own music. Each one will add value to your art and your life:
  • Always, always, always be learning new songs. Search the web for resources, for charts and videos to help you.
  • Pursue a more systematic approach and find a teacher. If you find a good one who isn’t near you, think about using Skype for lessons.
  • Play with someone else, maybe a band or a worship team at your church. It’s very rewarding, and your approach to music will change as your experiences feed your creativity.
  • Write some of your own songs. They don’t have to be #1 hit songs, they just have to be yours.
  • Take on a student, teach someone more about music. Find a musician who is not as developed yet as you are, and work with them – you’ll be surprised at how much you learn, and you’ll be investing in someone else. It’s a double win!

So what are the next steps for you? Are you looking for ways to stretch yourself and refine your art?

You can leave your comment below, or email me at [email protected] with any questions you may have. I look forward to hearing from you!

© 2014 Steve Case


How To Find The Key By Just Listening

Everything balances on I
Everything balances on the I chord

It happened again.

We were in rehearsal for our Sunday services, and our final song needed an intro. The chords on the chart correctly read: C G Em D, and I heard someone exclaim, “this is the one in C, right?”

Uh-oh, I thought. We may have a problem.

The song is in G. But they didn’t know that.

Now our songs often do start on the I chord, that is, the chord with the same name as the key. It’s built from the 1st, or the root, of the major scale. But songs don’t have to start there. The key center might be anywhere in the pattern.

And knowing what key the song is in is pretty important for our music team members to know.

Determining the Key

So how can you tell what key a song is in? If you can’t read music and you don’t know what a key signature is (and the key signature is a signpost, not a reason or a definition, by the way), what should you do? How can you just listen to a song and figure it out?

Well, the short answer is, you just have to know what to listen for. And it will take some practice. But you can learn to do it!

Here’s how it works.

The Key Center

Every song in our culture revolves around a key center. Well, most songs. There are some pieces of music that are atonal, meaning they don’t follow quite the same harmonic rules as just about all the rest. Let me pull a number out of the air: I would guess these make up less than 1% of the music we hear.

Right now I’m not talking about atonal music, but rather the everyday kind of music you’ll encounter everywhere you go: songs you’ll hear on the radio, TV commercials and themes, symphonic pieces, blues, jazz, top 40, country. Each song has a very specific harmonic structure, and the structure is based around the key center.

The key center is the chord that brings everything into balance. The melody and all the other chords are to varying degrees removed from this chord. They will each sound like something else needs to happen next, like they are waiting for something.  But the key center is the fulcrum, the nucleus that everything else revolves around.  It is, as I mentioned, the chord built from the 1st of the major scale, so we’ll call it the I chord (roman numerals mean chords, not single tones).

The Only Chord That Makes The Song Sound Finished

You’ll hear the I chord as being the only chord you could potentially end the song on and have it sound finished and complete. Try it with some of the recordings you own. Start playing a song, then when you think you’ve found the I chord, hit pause. Does the song sound like it should end on that chord? Try it again and again until you’re pretty sure you’ve found it.

balancing scaled 1This works for songs in major keys and minor keys, fast songs and slow songs, rock songs, country songs, polkas and reggae. Even rap for the most part. There will be a chord that everything seems to revolve around, the other chords moving out from it then back toward it. But when you play that chord, the I chord, things come into stable repose.

The placement of the chords within the rhythmic framework of the song will also affect your perception of the key center, though not the actual function of it. For example, the downbeat of a song is naturally the strongest point in time as you play any progression. You very easily, almost automatically, want that spot to be filled by the I chord. So when the song for my team didn’t start on I, it was a confusing moment for one of the team members.

Okay, I guess we’ve got some theory to cover in our next rehearsal!

So the song might start on the I chord, or it might not. The composer may choose to end the song on the I chord, or she may not. But the fact that the I chord is the key center does not rely on its position in the song. It gains its strength from its position in the scale.

There are mechanical reasons for this, of course. We’ll cover the mechanics in another post soon. For now, let’s just say that the I chord is simply the only chord you can end the song on and have it sound finished. Try the exercise above, then let me know how you did!

Can you pick out the I chord when you’re listening to your favorite songs or artists, or even when you hear the Muzak at the mall?

Please leave your comment below, or email any questions about music, musicianship and practical music theory to me at [email protected].

I’d also like to invite you to sign up and receive our emails by scrolling to the top right corner of this page and giving us your first name and email address. We’ll deliver our weekly posts about about basic musicianship, worship leading, and next-step musicianship right to your inbox. We will not share your information with anyone else.

© 2014 Steve Case

7 Steps To Successfully Reinvent Cover Tunes

From my grandmother's Edisonphone to smartphones
From my grandmother’s Edisonphone to smartphones

So we’re in rehearsal for our weekend services, working on a song pretty new to me and the team. The original artist did a great job with it, but we just can’t seem to nail it down. The groove is elusive, the tempo’s not right, so far the song is not too healthy. Will we be able to get it on its feet, or will it never make it out of the lab?

I do some quick mental gymnastics and come up with a plan. “Okay, let’s have the keyboard do this, and the guitar can do that, then if we all get softer here and gradually louder into here, it should work. Ready? Let’s try it.”

Immediately one of my musicians, who knows the song well, speaks up. “But that’s now how it is on the recording…”

And he is right. It isn’t even close.

So what do we do now?

If you are in a band or on a worship team, I’m quite sure this question has popped up. The fact is, we have a mental recording of the song playing in our heads that sounds great. Inspiring. Motivating. Awesome. The right way to play the song.

Then we go to play it ourselves, and it’s not even in the same neighborhood as the original.

The Recording Is Ground Zero

Our first impression of a song stays with us for a long time. We like it or we hate it, or it is simply background noise and we don’t care. But however we first heard it – whoever the artist was, whatever their arrangement, and whether it was live or in the studio – that first impression becomes the gold standard for us, for that song.

But rather than throw in the towel, decide to give up on our dreams of becoming great musicians and stick with our pizza delivery job, there are some options. Good ones.

7 Steps To Re-Arrange The Song

1. Assess the character of the song

Know where you’re starting, whether the song is serious, humorous, in your face or reflective. Then decide if you want to give it the same mood or try something new.

2. Identify musical hooks

There will be a melody line, an unusual chord, a really catchy rhythm or a lyric that you won’t be able to get out of your head. That would be the hook, and it will give the song much of its memorable quality.

3. Let go of your compulsion to play the song “the right way”.

This has to be a conscious choice. The fact is, every time you play a song, you are playing some sort of arrangement of it, that is, you are using somewhat different instruments and voices to replay the song, now in your own setting. Even when you try to stay as true to the original as you can, it won’t be the exactly same as the recording.

4. Assess your own abilities and those of your band.

Where are your strengths? (No matter how different they may be.) Maybe your guitarist isn’t lightning fast but you’ve got a banjo player who can hold his own. If it’s just you and your guitar, what style are you really good at?

5. Rearrange the song to reflect your strengths.

Make sure the hook is still heard, unless you want to make the song sound completely new and different. If it’s still not working, try a more dramatic change. How do you think it would sound if (insert your favorite artist here) were to play and sing it?

6. Take a chance and change the genre.

The next even more dramatic change would be to cross genres, or stylistic families of songs. For example, if the song started out as a rock power ballad, try it as an unplugged acoustic ballad. If it started out as an uptempo country rock song, how would it sound as a big-band swing tune, or maybe a Bob Marley brand of reggae?

7. Sell it.

Whether you go with an approximation of the original or something entirely out of the blue, you’ve got to let the listener know you believe in your song. Play it like your way is the only right way for the song to sound. Commit yourself to it. Groove with it. It is now your song.

Reality and My Guitar

When I started playing pop songs, I quickly realized that no matter what I did, my one acoustic guitar would never sound like the the Doobie Brothers or Earth, Wind and Fire (back in the day, these were the quintessential experts on the radio, among others). But I did have 6 strings, 10 fingers, 1 voice, and some creativity.

Realizing I didn’t have to strum all the strings at once, or that I could beat on my guitar for a little percussion, adding a hard strum on 2 and 4 to replace the snare drum, moving the bass note of the chord around in lieu of a bass player… and on and on. It didn’t sound like the recording, but that didn’t matter anymore. I could do a decent, entertaining version of the song using the tools I had.

And once I let go of “should I play it like the record?”, I had way more fun.

Do you ever feel like you’re tied to how the recording sounds? Try some of the steps above and let me know how they work for you!

Please leave your comment below, or email any questions you have about musicianship, music theory or worship teams to [email protected].

© 2014 Steve Case

10 Song Attributes To Strengthen Or Sink Your Set List

Which block comes next?
Which block comes next?

I want to get specific with you today on my process for creating a set list. In my context, I’m choosing songs to lead worship at my church. Most of these still apply, however, when you’re doing concerts or clubs.

A well-crafted set list will take the audience seamlessly through a range of emotions.

At the beginning of the set, everyone is in a different emotional place, often just because of how their day has been shaping up. So at the beginning of the set, the goal is to capture attention, interest, curiosity.

By the end of the set, people will be rejoicing, reflective, inspired, contrite – and the songs were the catalyst, breaking down emotional defenses and feeding the soul.

Now for me, creating a really solid set list may take hours. I’m sure I’m not as fast at it as some. But I’ve learned to kind of live through the list, making decisions on songs based on the following attributes. I have found that using a spreadsheet to track all of these attributes, while time-intensive, is really helpful.

The Song Attributes I Look At (In No Particular Order)

1) Topic – What characteristic of God does the song emphasize? What encouraging message will come through to the congregation? Sometimes we may tie the songs topically to the sermon (opening intellectual doors), but often I’ll create a stand-alone set of praise and thanks (opening emotional doors).

2) Title – What does the song title say about the message we’re about to sing? Will it give people a sense of joyful anticipation (like “Today Is The Day”), or concern (like “Let The Waters Rise”), or mystery (like “Praise Adonai” – what does “Adonai” mean)?

3) Hook – Most songs these days have some sort of lyrical and musical hook, a phrase that will stick in your mind and come back to you over and over. Does the song I’m choosing have a strong hook? Is it a hook I want people to be singing all week?

4) Text Direction* – Are we singing about God or singing to God? Or both in the same song? Jumping back and forth can diffuse focus, while choosing one text direction that leads into the other will help the congregation be intentional with their thoughts and expression.

5) Tempo – similarly, the tempo of each song can help the overall feel of the set. Starting fast and ending slow can lead into personal reflection and prayer; starting slow and ending fast can lead into a joyous celebration. And if enough time is available, thoughtful combinations of tempos can work quite nicely.

6) Style and Genre – While blending styles or musical genres look good on paper, keep your style pretty consistent throughout the set. Use a maximum of two styles or genres in a set. Any more will cause people to tune out, and your worship set will feel more like a variety show.

7) Key* – If you want your congregation to sing, make the key accessible to them. If it’s a great song for tenors, it will be too high for most people to stretch up to. If it works well for altos, raise it just a little and it should work for almost everyone. A good range is from Bb (just below middle C) up to D (a ninth above middle C).

8) Rhythmic Framework and Groove – though this will sound a little geeky, decide if the song is built mainly with eighths, sixteenths or triplets. Sometimes going directly from one song to another creates a super-smooth transition in your set, and using songs with similar rhythmic frameworks will allow you to do that. When the groove or framework is different, you will probably need to end one song before you segue (connect) into another.

9) Frequency – When is the last time you played this song? Are people still finding it as helpful to them when they worship, or has it been overused? Determining the appropriate frequency of use for each song in your library can help you anticipate it’s continued helpfulness. Update this attribute often as you pay attention to how people respond to each song. A useful spectrum for scheduling songs is as follows:

  • new songs (repeat often so the people can learn them*)
  • once a month songs
  • once a quarter songs
  • twice a year songs
  • once a year songs
  • once every few years

10) Team* – if you have multiple worship teams, how long has it been since this team has played this song? Keeping songs fresh for the team will help keep them fresh for the congregation.

*These attributes are important for leading worship.

Which song attributes are the most important to you?

Please leave your comment below, or email me at [email protected] with any questions about worship leading, musicianship or music theory. I’d love to hear from you!

© 2014 Steve Case

3 Proven Keyboard Techniques To Make Your Songs Sing

piano handsThere are so many techniques to choose from when it comes to playing the keys!

Here are 3 solid techniques you can mix and match any way you’d like to create the best rendition of your song. These are great on acoustic or electric pianos (I’m using an acoustic piano sound on the videos) and a number of other synth sounds to varying degrees. Take some time to experiment with your favorites!

Block Chords

Soft or loud, fast or slow, block chords give the listener the whole enchilada with every beat. Most typically, they are played as quarter notes pulsing through the song. Any embellishments are played along with the triad.

At a slower tempo, block chords can provide a gentle undercurrent or a bold in-your-face kind of sound. Played really fast and high, they can make you sound like Jerry Lee Lewis. In this video, I’m playing right in the middle for this pop-style progression.

(click here to watch the video)


Broken Chords

how many combinations can you think of to play a three or four note chord? One note at a time, going up or going down, playing two notes against one, or lots of other combinations. Broken chords can give a lighter touch to a song than block chords, so a standard approach is to play broken chords through the verse, then use block chords for the chorus.

One caveat with whatever method you choose for your keyboard chord progression: when you’re in the band, remember that the whole sound doesn’t depend on you. You’re only responsible for your part of it. So if you are playing block chords, any other mid-range instruments (like guitars) should play in a different style, like picking, or playing lead fills or accent chords. And it’s true the other way around. If the guitar is strumming chords, they you should probably play broken or accent chords so as not to compete for the listener’s ear. This is all part of the 100% Rule, and knowing your job description in the band.

(click here to watch the video)


Accent Chords

Sometimes it’s important for the keys to back off and add some color to the progression without carrying it.  Accent chords are strategically placed within the overall rhythm. They can be longer, held chords (as in my video), or short, bright chords that add rhythmic character and depth.  Either way, accent chords will add rhythmic, tonal and textural interest to any song you play.

(click here to watch the video)


And More

We’ll spend some time soon on choosing patches (sound textures) for your songs. Using MIDI instruments, the world is your oyster! From really great sounding orchestral instruments to odd ethnic percussion to sound effects and ambiance generators, you can easily get just the sound you’re looking for.  We’ll also go through underscoring techniques, often called padding, for those times when a little unobtrusive music is called for, gently replacing silence with instrumental wandering. (It’s not nearly as weird as I just made that sound.)


What techniques do you use on your keyboard to craft your songs just the way you want them? You can leave your comment below, or email me at [email protected].

The Worship Guitarist Videos, pt 3: Even More Right Hand Techniques

Left Hand TechniqueWhen I started trying to figure out how to play songs, I reminded myself of all the tools at my disposal.

I had six strings on 14 easily reachable frets, ten fingers and a guitar pick. How many different ways could I possibly play? Lots of ways, it turned out.

We’re looking one more time at how to inject more contrast into your playing. The amount of contrast you use will directly affect how interesting and emotional your song will be.

Today I’ve got three more incredibly useful ways for you to practice using your right hand. They are nothing close to revolutionary, but the more you do these things, the more depth your songs will have, the more control you’ll exercise, and the more people will hear you play and want to hear more!


Full-Range Strumming

Getting the fullest sound out of your guitar will require you to intelligently use the bottom strings (naturally, those are the ones closest to the ceiling, if you’re confused). This technique alone can separate you out from the hordes of amateur players who tentatively play from the middle strings up. Your strum will sound fuller, more balanced. You’ll always have the option of playing the bass notes separately from the rest of the chord, as in a bass counter-melody, or strumming them all together for a richer sound.

click here to watch video


Pick Direction

This is one of those “I never knew it mattered” kinds of techniques on the guitar, kind of like singing from your diaphragm, or sitting up straight when you play the piano. Your pick direction will naturally emphasize whichever area of the strings you hit first. Downstrokes make the bass strings louder and the chord sound fuller, while upstrokes emphasize the higher strings, making the chord sound brighter, crisper. Controlling your pick direction is particularly useful for playing in certain genres (try these!): for a Reggae-ish feel, use mainly upstrokes on the back-beats; for Rock & Roll, use downstrokes on 1/8 notes; for Folk or Country styles, use alternating down and up strokes.

Tempo and Groove

Gotta get the tempo right. The song won’t groove the way you want it to without paying attention to the speed. Most of us tend to rush the tempo, that is, we’ll be focusing on other things and start playing faster and faster without even thinking about it. But the right tempo can make or break the song.

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Because we know that every musician struggles from time to time with their music, Mike (my son) and I would like to offer some practical advice through our new audio guide and infographic, “10 Reasons You Aren’t Thriving As A Musician”. And we would like to build our relationship with you! We’ll send you the audio guide and the infographic for free as our thank you when you sign up for our emails. You can sign up in the box at the top of this page. As always, you have our guarantee that we will never share your emails with anyone, and you can unsubscribe at any time.

What techniques do you rely on as you play? Leave your comment below, or email any questions about music theory, techniques or composing to me at [email protected].

© 2014 Steve Case