How to organize music practice for a church service

This article looks at the issues involved in planning and running a music practise for a church service.    It accompanies the music practise planning template, which is a structured form that can be used to prepare or manage a practise session.

No two churches, church music groups, choirs or bands are the same.   The choir practice run by a full-time choir master with a doctorate in music and  a 30-voice semi-professional choir will be very different to the practice for an up-beat 7 piece worship band or the only two musicians who are available next Sunday!

Despite that, there are many elements in common, and thinking about them in a structured way can help to make the best of of the time and talents available for leading worship.


What is needed to prepare music for a church service?

This can be broken down into three components:
  • Planning - deciding what to sing / plan, at what point in the service. A music selection worksheet can be very helpful when you are considering the options, and  service-planning template for the specific type of service could be used to record the specific choices.
  • Practise - ensuring your group can perform the selected music as required
  • Organisation - arranging parts, buying or photo-copying music, filing the left-over music from the last serivice, completing copyright reports, recruiting singer and musicians, making songsheets / slides / etc for the congregation, etc.

Sometimes these three happen at the same time: a group of musicians and liturgists are asked to choose and prepare materials for a theme, feast-day or service.

Or, especially if one person is a designated worship leader or music director, they are totally separate: all decisions are made beforehand, the practise session is totally focussed on developing the musical / performance capacity, and the organisation is invisible.

The approach used depends on the church's authority structure, the experience and preferences of the people involved and their skill levels. It also depends on the objective of the practise - is it to develop musicians and singers, or is it to form people to plan and lead worship?

The practise-planning-template can be used in either situation, and provides a structure that helps you make sure everything is covered - and it can be a way to communicate the commitment required from your members.    If several leaders are involved, then it's good if the leaders meet and agree on the process and plans beforehand.

If you do use a template, then customizing it for your situation is strongly recommended - you may need to add or remove items, or change some items names.


What might happen during music practise

Set-up

Practise needs to happen somewhere, at a given time.   The time must be agreed, the place, needs to be booked, opened, perhaps heated. Possibly you need to copy or buy music, get out folders, chairs, sound system, etc.

Arrival

Allow time for people to arrive, greet each other, get their instruments out, etc. Just because practise starts at 7pm does not mean you can start practising a specifc item at 7:01pm! That said, don't tell people that you plan to actually start late, or they are likely to arrive later still!

Check Attendance / availability

In a larger choir, this may involve taking the roll.  In a small group, it may be about discussing who's available this week. Or if you are a sole-charge organist with no choir you are the attendance so you can leave it out totally!

Prayer

Most churches would expect some opening prayer at working meetings - follow your local and denominational guidelines.

Tune instruments

Make sure you allow time for this. Or if it needs to happen before practise starts, make sure that your instrumentalists understand what is required.

Warm-up

Amateur churh choirs often don't do this, but most singing coaches say that's a mistake.   People warm up their bodies before playing sport - singing is just another physical activity where some pre-performance "stretches" makes your body work more effectively. Allow time for a warm-up, and maybe even plan specific exercises to develop particular vocal agility or choral skill.

Review - or prepare - the service plan

Planning may be done during a practise session, if you are a small group/church. Or it may happen in advance, done by a small group of specialists / professionals. Either way, it can be good to start practising by listing what you need to cover, and checking how can be done in the time available.

Practise

Allocate times to each specfic piece you need to work on. Some people do this in the order that they will be used. Others do "group" items early in the session, and keep solo or small-group practises until the end (when everyone else has gone).

It's often good to start with something easy/well-known, to continue the warm-up and build confidence, and then move onto the more challenging pieces.

If you end with a piece that the group can perform well together (maybe use this as the closing prayer), members are ore likely leave with a positive mindset, rather than feeling discouraged.

Make slides / handouts, do copyright reports

This may or may not be part of a practise session - in some churches, it's done by admin staff. Take it off the list if it's not needed.  But make sure you think about it for one-off services, whether the needs may be different.

Share the music plan

You need a policy about how to communicate information to people who were not at the practise - and about what role these people may have during the service. While it would be great to say "no practise = no play", this isn't always realistic. Whatever your approach is, it needs to be workable for your church.

Follow-up

Often you find during practise that something else needs to be done later on: eg asking someone  if they would play a solo, or getting / sharing music for a particular item.

It's often a good idea to make a "follow-up list" and look over it again just before the end to confirm who is doing what, and when they'll have it by.

Closing prayer

Again - follow your local and denominational guidelines. It can be useful to use this time to address any conflicts or issues that have arisen during the practise-period.

Confirm meeting time

Everyone needs to understand
  • where they need to go,
  • what preparation is needed (dress-standard / choir-robes, folders, etc),
  • what time they need to arrive.
  • what to do if something happens which will stop them attending.

For a regular service, this is probably established - but don't forget to let newcomers know "what happens here".

For a one-off service, or if anything is different, it's critical to confirm this at the end of practise, just before people leave.

You may even send reminder messages (email, text etc) afterwards.

Clean-up

Like set-up, you need to allow time for this. And it can be done far more quickly when everyone understands what is required, and works together.


After practice is over

Some churches have strong social connections - refreshments after practice is over are so normal that they may as well be on the timetable.   In others, this would be a once-in-a-blue-moon happening.  


There is no right or wrong approach:   it depends on the music-group and its members.   Whether you add this to the plan is also a local decision, but be sure to think about who might be excluded if you do/don't socialise together.


What else?

Does your church include other activities in regular music practises?   Leave a comment below, and we'll add them them to the template.

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