The Worship Guitarist Videos, Part 1

Steve in studio

Last week, we talked about using contrast in order to convey emotion, to give our songs depth and musicality. This week, we’ll put a little more flesh on the bones.

If you are the guitarist in your worship band (or any band, really), you will probably spend a great deal of time as the rhythm player, producing the mid-range chord progression that gives foundational shape to the music. It’s REALLY IMPORTANT for you to play using contrast in many ways. If you don’t, you will undermine the efforts of the rest of the team to convey the appropriate emotion for the song. But if you do, you will lead the team in crafting some incredible moments, each an invitation for the congregation to enter into musical worship with you. Not a task to be taken lightly.

Strumming Comes First, But You Can’t Stay There

When a guitarist first picks up the instrument, often the first thing he (or she) will do is figure out where the fingers of the left hand should go for a chord, then the strumming begins. Before long, a little off-beat emphasis (called syncopation) is added, and hey, he’s playing a folk-style strum! And that is a very exciting step.

But as valuable as a folk strum may be, you can’t use it on everything. Sometimes it just doesn’t fit. And if you don’t vary your right hand technique, you just settle into same worn-out routines you’ve heard your 2nd cousins play at the last family reunion. Sweet Home Alabama sounds just like Puff The Magic Dragon, and neither one is far from Kum Ba Yah. Know what I mean?

Strumming vs. Picking

In this first video, I’ll demonstrate a chord progression first with a full strum, then I’ll play it by picking individual strings. The cool thing about this technique is that it’s really easy to make it sound like you are playing some complex pattern of notes, like you are a guitar master. The truth is, if you are fingering the chord (any chord) correctly, you can’t play a wrong note. You’re just moving the pick around. Make sure you don’t over-strum the chord – don’t play more strings than are supposed to be involved with the chord – but experiment with different picking patterns.

Picking individual strings will help you keep the music moving, yet it will sound softer and more intricate.


Assignment #1: Choose a slow to moderate tempo song that you are used to strumming. On the verse of the song, try picking individual strings in some repeated pattern. You can sweep up the strings from lowest-sounding to highest-sounding, or sweep down the strings from highest-sounding to lowest-sounding. Jump around as much as you’d like. If you can repeat the pattern, it will be easier for the listener to follow. Now on the chorus of the song, go back to the full strum, and listen to how much contrast you’ve created. It’s sounding more and more like the pros!

Bouncing Your Pick

A second way to subdivide your strumming is to think in terms of low strings (L), middle strings (M) and high strings (H). Now you are picking 2 or 3 strings at once. Your bottom boundary will usually be the lowest-sounding root, the letter name of the chord. A typical pattern for general use might be L – M – H – M – L – M – H – M using eighth notes. It feels kind of like you’re bouncing your pick on the strings, and instead of following through with your wrist, you’re stopping each stroke short and pulling your hand away slightly. You’ll see what I mean as you try it.

Now when you use this technique in combination with a full strum, the contrast will make the depth and richness of your song really shine!

For a useful variation on this, try L – M – H – L – M – H – L – H. You song will start to take on a bit of a Latin feel.

Assignment #2: Again, choose a slow to moderate tempo song. Figure out how many strings you should be hitting for any given chord. For example, G, E and Em are all 6-string chords, C, A and Am are 5-string chords, D and Dm are only 4-string chords. Wherever the lowest root of the chord is, that’s your bottom limit, becoming your “Low” strum. The 1st and 2nd strings, maybe the 3rd, are your “High” strings. And the strings between are your “Middle” strings, the ones above the low root and not as high as the 1st string.

Let your hand bounce between these string areas. Remember, a repeated pattern is easier for the listener to follow.  Try L – M – H – M,  L – M – H – M to start with.


Assignment #3: Using the two patterns Ijust described, play all the way through a song. When you’re comfortable with your pattern, play part of the song with a full strum, then go to this Low-Middle-High kind of picking pattern in another part. This is a great way to take some of the volume and fullness out of the sound and yet keep forward motion going throughout the song.

Picking individual strings or aiming for areas of the strings with a Low – Middle – High approach are just two ways of introducing contrast into your music via your right hand. (I don’t mean to discriminate, but you lefties will have to substitute right and left hand terms for yourselves!)

I’ll be posting more techniques soon as we continue to look at the developing guitarist.

Have you tried each of these techniques in your own playing? How have they helped you shape your own music?

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

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© 2014 Steve Case

The Worship Guitarist: How To Inject Contrast Into Your Playing

The Worship GuitaristWhen you watch other guitarists play, it’s easy to focus on the player’s left hand. The guitarist will often be staring at his own left hand, so it kind of looks like that’s where the action is.

But it’s the right hand that actually plays the guitar, giving it voice and expression. (Yes, I know of several techniques where the left hand does this as well. But generally speaking, it’s the job of the right hand, unless you’re Don Ross or Andy McKee, both really inspiring musicians, by the way.)

How you control your right hand is, I believe, even more important than getting the right notes with your left. I’m not advocating sloppy playing at all. But if you hit a wrong note, the listener’s ear will forgive and forget it quickly. If your right hand doesn’t keep a steady beat and dependable rhythm however, they’ve got you. There is no way out, your mistake will be heard as a mistake.

Contrast Is Key

In every piece of music you play, contrast is critical. You’ve heard me say this before. It’s only by playing slowly that I really hear fast; by playing softly, I can understand how loud sounds.

I will go so far as to say music without contrast is not music, it is simply a tone or a noise. Contrast in pitch, volume, rhythm and timbre give the music its life.

For the past two weeks, I’ve written about music and emotion. Contrast in what we play is how we transmit the emotion, contrast in what we hear is how we realize the emotion.

How To Put Contrast Into Your Playing

So how do we go about injecting contrast into our songs? Here are some techniques to keep in mind that will help:

1) If you are used to strumming patterns, try picking individual strings. Your left hand is already setting you up with the right notes to play. Move your pick around – you can’t hit a wrong note.

2) Change the strength of your thumb on the pick. A tight grip will afford control while you strum with force, playing loud sections. But now, try holding the pick lightly. Don’t let any white show under your thumbnail. Holding it gently may feel odd, like the pick may slip out of your fingers, but try it. See how softly you can play.

3) Another way to give dynamic contrast (loud/soft) is to change how many strings you hit at a time. It’s not just all or one, try hitting a couple of strings at a time. Aim for areas of the strings in any repeated pattern, and you’ll add lots of dimension and depth to your music.

4) Changing the direction of your picking can allow more comfortable emphasis on certain parts of the beat. For instance, picking down-down-up down-down-up down-up can give your chords a latin sort of feeling, or all downstrokes on the lower strings can give you a rock feel.

5) And speaking of the lower strings, one easy way to take your playing up a notch is to focus on playing the bass notes in each chord. Typically that will be the root (letter name) of the chord. Playing the full spectrum of strings for each chord, from the chord’s lowest sounding root and higher, will give a great sound. Not doing so will make the chords sound thin and your songs amateurish.

6) And finally, learn to control your tempo (overall speed). Songs are not just fast, slow or medium speeds. Practice with a metronome, speeding up or slowing down the tempo by small increments. Play through entire songs at different tempos, and you find the not only sound different, they feel different.

Next week, I’ll be covering each of these techniques in more detail. I’ll demonstrate for you and show you how I approach each one.

Every player can tweak their performance, and these suggestions can give you a good start. Next-step musicianship is all about taking your music to the next level. What is your next step?  And if you play the guitar, how do you use contrast in your own playing style?

Please leave your comment below. And as always, if you have any questions about music, theory or next-step musicianship, email me at [email protected]. I’ll do my best to provide clear, usable answers to help you.

And now, you can be sure you won’t miss another post! Go to the box in the upper right corner of this page and join the growing number of subscribers on our email list. You’ll receive at least one post every week, topics ranging from practical theory to musical philosophies and beyond! And you have my word that I will never share your email with anyone else.

© 2014 Steve Case

What’s Tempo Got To Do With It?

My MetronomeMy dad used to tap his toe whenever he heard a good up-tempo beat.

As a kid, I would ask him why he had to tap his toe. He would always reply, “It’s got a good beat, I just have to!”

My dad’s experience was pretty normal. Believe me, many record producers have spent lots of time and money to find out just what the right tempo is. They have understood that each song, while somewhat unique, will have certain sweet spots that will help it to sell. And one of those keys is tempo.

Though hitting the right notes in a song is important, getting the rhythm, groove and feel of the song are even more important. You can play a wrong note or a dubious chord and the listener’s ear will forgive it quickly. But if you drop a beat, they’ve got you!

Similarly, the listener will have an unconscious expectation regarding the speed of the song. They expect it to feel right. A wrong tempo can torpedo everything else, just making it sound like junk.

Some Definitions We Can Agree On

Without getting too technical, let’s define some terms to make sure we’re speaking the same language.

Beat = a length of time, the basic unit of time measurement for each note in a song

Pulse = the beginning of each beat, the place where you want to tap your foot

Rhythm = how note lengths compare to the beat (for example, varying note lengths can create many different rhythmic patterns while the beat stays constant)

Tempo = the overall pace of the song, how fast or slow the pulse of the music goes by

The Big Deal With Tempo

In order to make the rhythms sound like they did in the composer’s mind, we need to make sure they are happening at the correct pace. Playing too fast can turn an up-tempo song into a frantic race, and playing a ballad too slowly will turn it into a funeral dirge. Most musicians have a tendency to get a little excited as they play, and when we (myself included) get excited, we tend to “rush the tempo.” We’ll speed the song up, little by little, until by the time the song is over, the groove is long gone. We’ve left our listeners in the dust. Most often this happens when we are building energy in the song, like going from a verse to a chorus, or from a chorus into a bridge. The drums are filling, keys and guitars are increasing their volume, the bass is playing a cool riff as a lead-in, and so on. We naturally are feeling the surge in intensity, so we speed up the tempo. Beethoven, the moody, master composer that he was, must have recognized this tendency. So he apparently made a suggestion to an inventor, one Johann Matzel (according to, who in 1816 invented a wonderfully helpful and torturous device called a metronome. It’s sole function is to sit on your piano or the table next to you, and tick. You can set it to tick faster or slower, but once you start it, it remains a constant source of delight as the musician tries to match his or her own artistic flair with this obnoxious little machine. I knew Beethoven could be moody, and I expect his intentions were good. But personally, I hate practicing with a metronome. I do sometimes practice with it, but only because I have to. It’s not the highlight of my day! What I actually find to be the most useful aspect of a metronome is having a way to measure the actual tempo of various songs. I’ll find a song with a groove I like, and when I use a metronome to figure out how many beats-per-minute the groove is using, I can duplicate it in my own playing more accurately. If I guess, I’ll usually go too fast. But if I use the metronome as a tool, I’ll come much closer to the feel of the original song.

How the Metronome Defines Tempo

Another metronome of mine The metronome will typically divide tempos into six ranges, all given Italian names:

  • Largo (very slow): from 40 to 60 bpm
  • Adagio (slowly, at ease): from 60 to 78
  • Andante (a walking speed): from 78 to 108
  • Moderato (a moderate speed, right in the middle): from 108 to 120
  • Allegro (cheerful and quick): from 120 to 168
  • Presto (very fast): from 168 to 208

There are finer divisions and subsets of these tempos, but this list is typically how tempos are broken down.

Some Benchmark Tempos To Remember

When I’m trying to play at a certain tempo, it’s helpful to me to have some benchmarks to think about as I get started. Here are some familiar songs with easy to remember tempos, just to get you started:

  • The Stars And Stripes Forever (this is a march, for you younger musicians) and Call Me Maybe by Carly Rae Jepson= 120 bpm
  • Journey’s Don’t Stop Believin’ = approx. 118 bpm
  • Pharrell Williams’ Happy = approx. 80 bpm
  • Let It Go (from Frozen, sung by Idina Menzel) = approx 69 bpm
  • Do You Want To Build A Snowman (from Frozen, sung by Kristen Bell) = starts at 148, the chorus speeds up to 160 bpm

Let me encourage you to figure out the tempos you hear, then practice them intentionally with a metronome. If you start practicing a song using the tempo from the recording, you’ll come a lot closer to giving a pleasing rendition of it. You’ve got to be deliberate with this, however. Pay attention to exactly how fast you are playing. It will make a huge difference to all who hear your songs. Tempo can be an elusive facet of the songs we play. For more practical tools and advice to improve your musical skills, let me invite you to sign up to receive my Next-Step Musicianship blog via email (top right of this page). You have my promise that we will never share your email address with anyone else.

Question: Do you find that controlling tempo is an issue for you as well? How do you practice to develop control? Please leave your comment or email me at [email protected], I’d love to hear from you!

© 2014 Steve Case

Leading Your Team Through The Critical Moments

from Scene 2Every team faces those moments when all of their labor and effort are put to the test. It might be the day of the big race or the ship date for a new product. For my team, it was now Easter weekend, and our church’s big event, our Easter production, was having a difficult week.

These productions, which we create and perform at Christmas and Easter every year, are a big deal to us. They are one of the vehicles we use to insert ourselves into our community with the message of hope in the Gospel, and we perform them at the local high school.  And they are well-received, many visitors come, they look forward to them.

And so our rehearsals for the cast and music team had been ramping up, lines and blocking were getting nailed down, lyrics and grooves were starting to gel, set pieces were being designed and built by our stage crew. And we had the foresight to ask for an additional setup day at the school this time, so when we carried everything in and set it all up on Wednesday, we were a day ahead of our normal schedule.  Felt good, we were on track.

And then it got weird.

The Other Event

Thursday morning, we got a call from the school, letting us know that somehow a performance in the high school auditorium had been overlooked when we booked it, and there would be a large group of elementary kids coming to see a stage production late morning. They needed us to remove our set pieces and sound system in a hurry.

Just what you want to hear the day before your dress rehearsal.

So three of our guys rushed over, unplugged, pushed, coiled and roped off, creating a suitable compromise that saved the day for the school. But that night, we had to redo what they had undone, and we pretty much lost the day.

But we still had dress rehearsal on Friday night, so no worries. Right?


I don’t remember the exact time I got the news on Friday, but it wasn’t much before the starting time for our dress rehearsal.  The school was dark, it had lost power, along with half of the village.  I checked the power company’s website, and we thought we’d have it back pretty soon, so we still gathered at the school, ready to dive in whenever the lights came on.

The estimates for restoring power kept getting later and later. It became obvious to us that no rehearsal was going to happen at the school for the rest of the night, so we met together in the cafeteria (the windows allowed us to see each other as the evening light dimmed outside).

Now I have to tell you, whenever I have to speak to a large group of people, I get nervous.  Even though these people are all my friends and even though I have spoken to many groups in the past, there is nothing quite like being the person everyone is looking to for a plan in the midst of unsure circumstances.  I do not revel in those moments as some leaders might.  Give me a guitar and a song, I’m good to go. But this shooting-from-the-hip sort of thing makes me a little crazy.

We looked at our options and decided to move back to the church for one more cast-only rehearsal.  But everyone understood, and I heard not a hint of complaining from our folks. If we had been a paid, professional company, I daresay that would not have been the case. Instead, we prayed together.

Facing the Heat

We arrived a bit earlier than planned on Saturday so that we could do our dress rehearsal. It was almost funny when we walked into the auditorium and found it to be 120 degrees (our best guess).  The power outage had apparently reset heating systems in every school in town. Thanks to a very helpful custodial staff, fans were brought in and they got the air circulating somewhat. By late afternoon, the AC was on and we were good to go. And we finished our rehearsing just before the doors opened. 

There were other technical complications as well. Melting gels on lights, computers winking out and back on.  What a ride! But our team stepped up, kept focused and worked together to make it happen.  I am always proud of our people for their dedication and esprit de corp. Never more so than this weekend!

The finale
The finale

Lessons for the Leader

It turned out to be a great weekend and a wonderful service.  And I have had a few lessons reinforced for me, principles that may help you as you lead your team.

  1.  Don’t procrastinate in planning or preparing. Our team had done a really good job of rehearsing, and the main things we didn’t get to were staging issues. If materials can get in the hands of the cast and music team before everything is rushed, the better prepared (and happier) they will be.
  2. Be forthcoming with your team about difficulties. We talked about the issues that could have derailed us and we formulated a plan together.  We’re much stronger as a team!
  3. Celebrate your team. When people step up, whether onstage, behind the curtain, in the sound booth or taking care of unexpected circumstances, everyone does their part to make an event like this successful. We, as leaders, cannot say “thank you” too much!
  4. Weigh your own behaviors carefully.  People are looking to you for a plan, for confidence, for an optimistic outlook that will help them exercise faith.  Giving up, losing control or being fatalistic are all options that lead to disaster.

And one final step for me – though I can’t predict a power outage, I can and will call the school early in the week next time to confirm there are no other performances!

 We have a great team.  I am honored to lead this group of artists.

 How does your team handle unhelpful surprises? Please comment below or contact me with any questions at [email protected].

 © 2014 Steve Case

Shadowing The Melody (How To Sing Harmony, pt. 4)

Photo (c) 2013 Steve Case

 Today we’re going to attempt a dry run at singing harmony, using a method that I’ll refer to as “shadowing the melody”.

Listen to the first part of this tune and the chord that accompanies it.  Is the first chord major or minor?  Can you sing all 3 chord tones (one at a time, of course…)?  Now listen again, focusing on the very first note.  The challenges begin with finding a note to sing that is above the original melody note, but not too far.  If the starting note is the root of the chord, you would sing the 3rd.  If the starting note is the 3rd, you would sing the 5th. And if the starting note is the 5th of the chord, you would sing the next root going higher.

You may or may not be able to tell exactly what the intervals are yet, that’s okay.  Just listen closely, so that whatever you sing sounds different from the beginning note of the tune, but it still sounds good because it’s a note in the same chord.  Make sense?

Singing Harmony Above The Melody

Using Yankee Doodle as an example (don’t worry, the songs will get better!), listen to the first note of the tune and the chord that is happening at the same time.  Find the next note higher in the chord. The song starts on the root, so the next chord tone higher is the 3rd.  That means you’ll start singing on the 3rd.  We’ll go slowly at first.  Here is the first chord, followed by the first part of the song.
Did you hear the pattern of the first 7 notes?  The first two notes are the same, then it moves up to the next scale tone, then up again to the next scale tone, then back to the first one, then up a 3rd and down a scale tone.  If I were to write it in numbers, I’d write:  1   1   2   3   1   3   2, and sing “Yan-kee Doo-dle went to town”.
Now for the harmony.  Starting on the 3rd of the chord, you’ll sing 3   3   4   5   3   5   4   for “Yan-kee Doo-dle” went to town.
Here is the harmony by itself.
Now both together.
Sounds pretty good!  Well, except for the last note.  It doesn’t sound quite right yet.  Let’s adjust that last note up another scale tone and see if that fits better.  So now you’ll sing 3   3   4   5   3   5   5.
Ah, that’s better!  A small adjustment on one note and it’s sounding just right!
Here is the entire verse to the song.  First you’ll hear both parts together (yours is the higher one), but in the middle of the verse, the harmony will fade out.  Do your best to finish it the same way, so that you’re singing the higher harmony all the way through.  Next, you hear it again, but with the harmony included all the way through so that you can check yourself.

Singing Harmony Below The Melody

The same principles are true for singing a harmony part right below the melody.  Here is the first part of Ode To Joy, from Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony.
This tune begins on the 3rd of the major chord, so you’ll start to sing on the root below it.  First you’ll hear the first melody pitch, then you’ll hear your pitch, then the song will start.  Shadow the melody on chord tones that stay below the tune this time.  You can sing it all with the syllable “doo” if you’d like, or you can find it in many hymnals under the title, “Joyful, Joyful, We Adore Thee”.
Now here it is with the harmony included.
This shadowing technique is really common for singing harmony that moves with the melody.  For each sung melody note, two more notes are sung in harmony, thus completing a chord for each syllable.  Try it out on some of your favorite songs! Now that you know what to listen for, I’m confident you’ll recognize this sort of harmony more and more.
Hey, let me know how you’re doing with all this harmony stuff!  Is this all making sense to your ear?  Are you starting to hear where the harmony should go?  I’d love to hear from you!
Please leave your comment below, or email me at [email protected].
© 2013 Steve Case

Finding Your Notes In The Chord

2013-09-15 23.15.09

How To Sing Harmony, pt.3

Now that you can sing a part independently and sing each note in tune, it’s time to get off the melody and find some other notes to sing that work.

Our pop style of music is based on chord progression, that is, a series of chords that are usually in a repeating pattern. A typical pop song will have three or four of these repeating patterns: one for the verse, one for the chorus, one for the bridge, and sometimes something else for an intro or instrumental.

The component parts to a chord progression are, of course, chords (big revelation there). Each chord is built by playing the 1st, 3rd, and 5th of the major scale at the same time. Any tone can be on the bottom, any tone can be on the top. Simply the combination makes the major chord.

In the following audio example, you’ll hear several examples of the 1st, 3rd and 5th of the major scale played one at a time, then together. Try to sing each tone as they happen separately, then land on any of them when you hear the chord.


We’ve been singing chord tones for major chords so far. But just as common are minor chords, built 1, b3 (flat-3), 5. The third of the chord is lowered, and now the chord sounds sad, not happy.

Listen to the same sorts of combinations in the following audio example, but now listen for the flatted 3rd in the middle of the chord. All of these are minor chords.


Next you’ll hear various major and minor chords. We’ll start by singing the root of each chord, that is, tone 1. You’ll hear a chord played, then fade out except for the root, then the chord will fade up again. Sing the roots of all the following chords.


In the following exercise, sing the 3rd of each chord. Same process as the previous exercise.


Now sing the 5th of each chord, again using the same process.


Now for the test. In each chord, sing the part of the chord listed. You’ll hear the chord played for a couple of seconds (hopefully long enough for you to find your pitch), and then you’ll hear the chord fade out, leaving only the desired tone. See how many times you get it right!

1. Sing the 1st (root) of this major chord.
2. Sing the 1st of this minor chord.
3. Sing the 3rd of this major chord.
4. Sing the b3rd of this minor chord.
5. Sing the 5th of this major chord.
6. Sing the 5th of this minor chord.
7. Sing the 3rd of this major chord.
8. Sing the 1st of this minor chord.
9. Sing the 5th of this minor chord.
10. Sing the 5th of this major chord.
11. Sing the b3rd of this minor chord.
12. Sing the b3rd of this minor chord.
13. Sing the 1st of this major chord.
14. Sing the 5th of this minor chord.
15. Sing the 1st of this minor chord.
16. Sing the 3rd of this major chord.
17. Sing the b3rd of this minor chord.
18. Sing the 5th of this minor chord.

Okay, how successful were you? If you find these hard to find, repeat the exercise daily for the next few days, and see if you improve. And let me know how you are doing!

Please leave your comment below, or feel free to email me at [email protected]. I’d love to hear how you are doing!

© 2013 Steve Case


How To Match Pitch

One of my guitar tuners, made by SNARK. I highly recommend them.
One of my guitar tuners, made by SNARK. I highly recommend them.

Today may well feel like we’re taking a step backward. But in order to sing harmony, a fundamental skill is that of singing in tune. If we know all the music theory and are acquainted with how the song is structured but we can’t land on the intended pitch with any accuracy, it will sound more like howling cats than pleasing harmony.

The first step is to master the art of matching pitch, that is, closing the gap between what you intend to sing and what you actually sing. Listen to the following example. You’ll hear a single, steady tone which is the target pitch. Soon you’ll hear a second, more abrasive tone enter, but it won’t be in tune. It starts out too high, then swings too low, then swings high again but not quite as far. The gap will get smaller and smaller as you listen, until a perfect unison is found.

Matching pitch with your voice is very much like what you just heard, it just happens faster. And in a melody that keeps changing pitch, this process has to happen for every note very quickly in order to move on to the next note of the tune. A melody like Yankee Doodle, for instance, has 55 distinct notes in it (more or less, depends how you sing the song) that all have to be sung in tune. And the whole tune is sung in just under 30 seconds!

Hearing It Before You Sing It

So matching pitch is important and has to happen quickly. It becomes much easier when we know what pitch is coming next, kind of hearing it in our head before we sing it (that’s called audiation, for any music geeks reading this. A quick yet accurate explanation of this process can be found here).

To make it easier to “hear” it before we sing it, we can practice singing certain patterns of intervals. In part 1 of this study, you sang (hopefully) Row, Row, Row Your Boat as part of a round. You were able to keep track of where you were in the piece by thinking about the words you were singing; and being familiar with the speed of the music’s beat, or pulse, you could remember what to sing next before you were even there. That’s what I’m talking about.

Now let’s sing up and down the major scale. Match each pitch as you hear it. The track will play the major scale three times, first slowly, then faster, then even faster.

What you just sang was a pattern of whole steps and half steps. More detail on those later. But you’ve heard the whole pattern over and over again throughout your life. It sounded very natural to you, and though it may take several tries, you should be able to anticipate how much higher or lower each next tone is even before you sing it.

Practicing A Song

Now for the test. You may have heard “My Grandfather’s Clock” (written in 1876 by Henry Clay Work). The tune is mostly made up of whole and half steps, but there are a few bigger jumps. I’m trusting that you’re familiar enough with this song that those jumps won’t seem too much of a problem. The first track will be a little slower, the second a little faster, and the third will be about as fast as it is usually sung. Lyrics are below.

My grandfather’s clock was too large for the shelf,
So it stood ninety years on the floor.
It was taller by half than the old man himself
Though it weighed not a pennyweight more.
It was bought on the morn of the day that he was born
And was always his treasure and pride;
But it stopped short, never to go again
When the old man died.

Reality Check

How can you know if you are singing in tune? Here are a couple of methods.

1) Use your smart-phone. Play the recorded track and sing along, using your phone to record yourself. Video is always available, and free audio recorder apps are abundant.

2) Get another opinion. Ask someone you trust to listen to you sing and give their honest feedback. Someone who is already a musician would probably be the most helpful.

Let me know how you are doing with this! Please leave your comment below, or email me at [email protected].

© 2013 Steve Case

How To Sing Harmony, part 1

 Frere Jacques

It’s either one of the simplest ways to sing along with a song, or it is absolutely the hardest. When it comes to singing harmony, it seems you either “have the ear” or you don’t.

The musicians I work with every week are dedicated and talented, working hard at their music. But one of the issues that comes up repeatedly is whether or not a person can sing harmony.

If you’ve grown up in a musical household, hearing music in many forms all of your life, singing harmony can be as easy as breathing. You just know it, and when you sing it, it fits. Harmony is just another way to compliment the melody, giving it more texture and dimension.

But if music was not heard much in your house growing up, if it was an artistic endeavor that began with you as a child or as an adult, you probably have had a tougher time figuring out how harmonies are built. Why do some sound great and others just mediocre? Why do some harmonies sound edgy and intriguing while others sound mundane? (These are some of the questions that keep me up at night…)

Let’s take a stab at some guidelines for how to sing harmony. Though we can start today, there is a lot to cover if we really want to understand the mechanics and successfully sing harmony.

Defining Melody and Harmony

The melody of a song is the tune, the part of a song that gives it its identity. Harmony is pretty much everywhere else on the tonal spectrum. The instruments are all producing some sort of harmony to the vocal, all with different textures and in various ranges of high to low. The rhythms might be the same as the melody or different, but it is pitch relationships that we’re concerned with here.

How easy is it for you to sing something like Row, Row, Row Your Boat, or Frere Jacques (Are You Sleeping)? Those are simple melodies that we learn as children. But when they really get musical is when they are sung as a round. To sing a round, one person starts with the melody and sings the first phrase. As they begin singing the second phrase, another person begins the first phrase. When the first person reaches the third phrase, the second person is on the second phrase, and so on, until the second person has reached the end of the song, singing the final phrase alone.

Listen to the melody alone for Frere Jacques, played on a clarinet. (Okay, not a real clarinet, its a keyboard thing. But it will have to do.)

Now here is the same song in a two-part round. Try singing along with either part. The second will sound like a flute.

And just for a little more challenge, here is the same song once again, but this time in three parts. The third part will sound like a bassoon (I tried a French Horn as it might sound fitting, but it was pretty bad).

How did you do? Was it hard to follow? Because you know the tune so well, you were able to focus on your part, even while the other part(s) were happening. You were able to filter what you heard and get it to make sense. And that is the key to singing harmony. Knowing what to expect, filtering what you hear and focusing on making your own contribution fit with the rest.

This is just the first step on a long climb, and we have a bit of a hike in front of us. But the view from the top is worth it!  We’ll continue on next time.  Until then, let me ask you:

Are you a person who can pick out a harmony easily, or is it still a mystery to you?

Please share your experience below, or email me at [email protected].

© 2013 Steve Case

How to Craft an Effective Set List


Photo (c) 2013 Steve CaseFor those of you who are in the position of figuring out set lists for the band to play, or even if you’re not but you’re curious as to how it’s done – today I’ll take you through my process. These principles are the same whether you’re leading worship with a band, with a full orchestra, or by yourself. For that matter, they are largely the same if you are playing out in clubs.

To start with, know your band. Think about your band’s capabilities; each team has its own strengths and weaknesses. Are they great at the blues but weak in reading charts? Are they good technical players but in need of songs that reignite their passion?
As well, know your audience. For the nightclub musician, the genre of the club is everything, from dance clubs to jazz clubs to hotel lounges. Your song list will largely be determined by what sort of guests frequent the place. But remember that the primary time worship teams play is on Sunday morning. Sunday morning.

Most people will be getting out of bed on their day off in order to come to church and be led in song by you. So are they looking for an explosive, in-your-face set that will melt your toenails, or might they be wanting to wake up a little more gently? I think the answer largely depends on the time of the morning, to be honest, and probably how fast the caffeine is kicking in…

One more prerequisite for the worship team leader: know your track record, how often you have played certain songs, how recently you’ve played the songs you’re about to choose from now. It is important in every setting to balance the fresh and new with the more familiar but not yet stale songs.

 Choosing the songs

However long or short your set list, craft it with the notion that the person singing along with you will be led through a series of emotions because of both the lyrics and the musical construction. When you get done with one song, don’t simply launch into another that happened to be in the same key. Rather, when you finish one song, ask yourself what do I naturally want to sing next? Where does my heart want to go? Those questions will take you a long way toward hitting the target you’re aiming for.

It’s a pretty easy task to choose the key for a song, or the tempo, or get the groove going. But another facet to consider is the text direction. Am I singing about God, or am I singing to God? In a few cases, where scripture has been set to music, it might be God singing to us! Though not a hard, fast rule, I usually want to lead people from chaos into order, from the noisy world we all live in to the restful peace we find when we are focused on the Lord. So I’ll start us singing songs about God and lead into songs that are sung to God personally and often quietly.

 From the listener’s point of view

When you are creating your set list, think through every transition, every benchmark moment, from the point of view of the listener. They will not have the bias you do and will not care if you don’t do the song with the screaming guitar lead or the one with the really funky beat. If your list works, they’ll never miss it.

Be prepared to take some significant time to figure out your set, don’t just shoot from the hip and throw some songs together calling it a set. A collection is not a set.

The most effective set lists- for worship services, for concerts, or even for dance club sets- are the ones that are carefully thought through with these principles in mind and yet feel as if they are fresh, being created in the moment. Yes, it is an art!

 Do you take enough time when crafting your set lists? What are some of the principles that guide your song selection?

Please leave your comment below, or email me at [email protected].  I would love to hear from you!

© 2013 Steve Case

Know Your Job Description In The Band, Part 2


Street performers at the 2013 NY State Fair
Street performers at the 2013 NY State Fair

In part 1, we talked over the various job descriptions for rhythm section players, that is, for guitars, keys, bass and drums. Those job descriptions can be extended to include other instruments that sound a little different but are played similarly. For example, your rhythm section might include a mandolin, which acts as a high-pitched rhythm guitar or as a lead instrument. Traditional keyboards like the organ or the accordion can be used, or even the relatively new “keytar” (a keyboard on a strap over one shoulder). And the rhythm section might well include hand percussion or foundational acoustic percussion, like the West African djembe or Peruvian cajon (ca-hone). I’m sure there are many others.

Today we’ll look at everybody else that takes the stage on a filled-out worship team (and no, I’m not calling you fat…)

Let’s start with other instruments that compliment the rhythm section.

Orchestral instruments (sax, violin, trumpet, etc.) used one at a time provide a little color within the chord being played. But the sweet spot for these instruments is in playing melodies. These might be complimentary fills between vocal phrases, or longer melodies that take the place of the vocal entirely during instrumental segments. Each orchestral instrument brings its own texture and range to the music, providing an amazing palette of aural color and expression.

For the worship team, the lead vocal is the most prominent and really most important component of any song. This is the part that the congregation participates in, and they take their cues from the vocalists. The lead vocal, when sung by more than one person, needs to be in unison or in octaves with rhythms worked out and agreed upon. The lyrics and melodic shape of the tune express the primary message and emotion of the song; if the rhythms or melodies are not exact between the lead vocalists, the song will lose focus and come across as muddy, even chaotic.

The rhythmic style of the lead vocal may be even, straight syllables, emphasizing the beats, or some syllables may be pushed, or syncopated. How the team handles the rhythmic style of syllables will largely determine how well the genre of the song is presented, from hymn-style to pop, from rock to jazz. And how much time is spent working out these rhythms on the team will determine how easily the congregation will hear and hopefully follow. And I would be remiss if I did not mention the importance of good diction. Get some pointers from a vocal coach if you can, a good voice teacher is an invaluable resource!

Background vocals provide a wide or thick texture to the melody when they parallel the lead. Or they might provide block background vocal textures that further color the chord progression. And occasionally, background vocals can provide a counter-melody that compliments the lead vocal.

An important and preferably invisible member of the worship team is the sound engineer. His job is to mix all sonic material into an appropriately balanced presentation, making sure that each frequency range is well-represented, lyrics are clear, and the overall decibel level is appropriate for the style, the room and the audience. The sound guy (or gal) can make or break a performance or a worship service; if everything is working correctly and he is fine-tuning the mix properly, the sound system (referred to as sound reinforcement) should be totally ignored by everyone else in the room.  And there may well be other members of the technical team, like the person responsible for projecting lyrics, or a cameraman, or the producer of a video stream …  All have their roles to play so that everyone who attends the service will be inspired to focus their attention on the One they came to worship.

The 100% Rule

One more thing we need to cover regarding the worship team. When you are part of a team, it is important that you play and sing as part of a team, and the whole team is responsible for the whole sound. As an individual, you are only responsible for your own part. For example, if there are seven musicians onstage (and I’m including vocalists, they are musicians, too), then you are responsible for 1/7th of the total sound. So that means that the keyboard player should usually back off on her left hand so that the bass player can cover that range. Or if the violin is playing a lead line for an instrumental, everyone else should drop their volume a bit to make room for the solo. Or if several vocalists are singing the same notes in the same range, they will need to sing more softly in order to blend. On the other hand, if you are responsible for 1/7th of the sound, you can’t hide behind the other players or singers to make your entrances, you will need to be deliberate with them. The rest of the team is depending on you to hold up your 1/7th!

How are you doing with understanding your role on the worship team? Are you holding up your part of the 100%?

I’d love to hear how you are doing with this! Please leave a comment, or email me at [email protected].

© 2013 Steve Case