Called to Excellence

by Curt Taipale

I mentioned to my MoM (Minister of Music) that our backing vocals were sounding pretty rough on a regular basis. Their intonation was so bad at times that we often had to use the “shoot it before it multiplies” approach to mixing. You know – if it doesn’t sound good, don’t turn it up!

So over the summer he scheduled regular rehearsals just with the backing vocalists, and he stopped me in the hall recently to tell me about how well things were going. Not only were the vocals sounding better, but the singers were encouraged and really enjoying the process.

We rejoiced together over the results of their renewed faith in practice, but I couldn’t help wondering why they hadn’t been practicing like that on a regular basis for years. I guess sometimes we get used to how things have been done in the past, and it’s not easy to see, or hear, the need for improvement. As Chris Beatty is known for saying, practice doesn’t make perfect – it makes permanent.

We Need Practice Too

By the same token, if you’re responsible for the sound in your church each week, you need to be attending those rehearsals as well. The single most effective thing any church sound mixer could do to improve his/her contribution to the worship service is to practice with the worship team on a regular basis.

We are called to excellence in the technical support ministry. God gave us His best, and our service through the tech ministry should offer no less than our best pursuit of excellence for Him. Audio, lighting, and video are all crafts that require our diligent study to learn. We can learn by finding someone to mentor us, by reading and studying books on the subject, by participating in online discussion groups (like our own ChurchSoundcheck Discussion Group), by attending trade shows and workshops, and so on.

If anything, the majority of people who serve in a technical support ministry of their local church are way behind the curve on learning that craft. Let me explain. In most churches, the musicians and vocalists who lead worship each week are accomplished musicians. They have studied music and how to deliver an excellent performance with their instrument for many, many years. During those years of learning they immersed themselves in the learning process by taking lessons, practicing for hours on end at home, playing in recitals, practicing some more, and attending concerts to hear others perform. It wasn’t easy, but they finally got there. Some are just farther down that road than others.

Yet the majority of individuals who find themselves serving in the tech support ministry of their local church don’t have years of study at that craft like the musicians and singers do. Many of them are just starting to learn how the gear works, often struggling with well-meaning people teaching them the wrong way to do stuff, filling their heads with audio mythology instead of truth.

Being good at any one of those crafts also requires an element of performance during a worship service. A worship leader doesn’t walk on stage to perform. He/she goes out there to lead others into worship of God. But there is an element of performance in what they do. Knowing the right words to the song, knowing how the melody and harmony parts go, developing the ability to sing well and in key – all of those are elements of performance. I think you would agree that we’re thankful for the time they’ve invested to develop the abilities God gave them.

God has given us unique abilities to shape and control the sound, or the lights, or the video equipment, to capture and even enhance the gifts of the worship team. But you didn’t wake up one day with the ability to deliver a great mix. You had to work on it. Artfully lighting a dramatic presentation on stage, or even lighting the stage evenly so that the video team will have a smooth picture to broadcast takes an investment of our time and a decision to learn and develop those unique abilities that God has given us.

Stay on Task

Delivering a flawless worship service requires focus and sensitivity on our part. First, we need to be focused on the task at hand. As much as I want to close my eyes and lift my hands in worship during an especially moving song, I can’t. It’s not that I can’t get anything out of a worship service, because I do. But I tend to look at my part of the service as a sacrificial offering to God so that others can enter in. If I allow myself to get distracted, if I’m not fully focused on the task at the moment, then I can easily miss a mic cue, allow a bit of feedback to get out of hand, miss a lighting cue, forget to put the right song lyric graphic on the projection screens, and so on. Those kinds of mistakes are understandable, but inexcusable.

We need to put ourselves in the congregation’s shoes. The congregation should simply hear exactly what they need to hear, at the moment they need to hear it, at the exact level they need to hear it, and not know how it happened. They should never even know that we’re there.

We do this by paying attention to the little things. For example, if your worship leader is anything like 99.9% of the worship leaders I’ve worked with, they sing a whole lot louder than they talk. So let’s say that you have their input fader at “0” (unity gain) while they’re singing. You know from experience that if you don’t push their fader up to +10dB between songs, that there’s no way your congregation is going to hear what’s being said. So when they finish the song, and you know or suspect that your worship leader is going to talk before the next song starts, you should have already started moving their fader up to a position that you know will be loud enough for them to talk with the congregation.

No compressor is going to make up for that difference. You – yes, you – have to push the fader up while they’re talking so everyone hears what they need to hear. You also have to pull the fader back down when they start to sing or they’re going to blast everyone out of their seats. That takes some work on your part to learn the worship leader.

Every worship leader I’ve worked with has a certain style all to their own, including how they interact with the congregation. Once you’ve worked with them for a while, and that may take a few years, you’ll begin to sense when they’re going to do this or that. “How did you know to push the fader up at that moment?” “I don’t know. I just sensed that he was going to do that, so I pushed it up.“ You’ll also sense in advance when they’re going to sing a couple of words too loud, and you’ll instinctively pull the fader back the right amount without thinking about it. It will eventually become so automatic you won’t realize you’re doing it.

It’s like a piano player who can make the piano do anything they want it to do without even looking at the keyboard. They could probably explain the mechanics of what they do, but they’re such a part of the instrument that it would be difficult to explain the thought process and emotions that go into creating the sounds that they create.

So that’s one of your goals – to get so comfortable with the gear that you operate it instead of the other way around. To listen so analytically that you can discern even the slightest imperfection in the mix and deal with it before someone else notices it. If it fits your style of worship service, to make moves with the house and stage lighting systems that allow them to have a life and breath that matches the worship service. Excellence requires study and practice. Lots of it. It’s a never-ending assignment, so get used to it.

Sensitivity to the Holy Spirit

We also need to be sensitive to the Holy Spirit’s leading at the moment. This can be as simple as knowing that the guitar player is about to take a solo, without anyone having told you about it. Now, frankly, if they’re already planning on it, I’d prefer that someone in the band tell me that the guitar is going to take a solo during the third verse. But I’m sure you understand what I mean. Trust your intuition.

Another reason for our staying focused on the task at the moment is so that we don’t do something really stupid during a service. For example, we generally dim the house lights to a preset value at a couple of strategic moments during our worship services. The dimming system we use has a fader that determines how fast that fade up or fade down is. On occasion, one of our tech team members will hit the preset without checking to see where that dimming speed fader is positioned, and the lights will snap to the next setting. Now, that’s going to be obvious to any congregation member. Instead of a slow dimmer move from one setting to another, it’s a sudden change that could be a distraction to some. If it happens often enough, it could even have some members thinking “There go those idiots in the tech booth again. Why can’t they get that right?” If it distracts even one person from the worship service, it shouldn’t have happened.

Published in the Sept/Oct 2000 issue of Live Sound International. Used with permission.