#30 Solving Drum Volume Issues: Dynamic Control

Featured

Due to such a positive response to the first video and its accompanying blogpost on this topic, I wanted to share even more!

Sure – acoustic drums that are too loud are a huge problem for many in Church music settings. But, in my opinion, the solutions that are utilized most often (shields, enclosures and electronic drums) are NOT the best ones. In fact, while they may “Band-Aid” one set of problems, they can create others.

The most fundamental way that drum volume can be controlled is at the very source: The drummer! It might seem too obvious, but drummers need to know how to hit their drums and cymbals with the appropriate amount of force. Too loud? Hit more softly! Of course!

Now, before any drummers throw their hands in the air exclaiming, “It’s not that simple!”,  please stick with me. You’re right, it’s not that simple. Playing drums loudly is easier than playing drums softly. I get it – even though I’m not a drummer. Developing true, wide dynamic control is tough for drummers, but it is essential. Unfortunately, many drummers have never been told that … or they weren’t listening when they were.

And there are other issues too, like how the drums and cymbals sound when they are hit with less force. But that’s for another blogpost.

I am staggered by how many drummers – especially those in Church service settings – seem to have poor control over their own acoustic volume level and very little sense of what is the right volume for their drums in any given situation.. And they often seem to have very little awareness of how loud they are in comparison to other instruments that make up the band’s sound.

A lot of Church drummers seem to operate within a dynamic range of about 6/10 up to about 10/10. Many are even narrower. Some can only play at 11! But most Church situations would be best served by a dynamic range that starts at 1/10 and only ever gets as high as, maybe, 7/10 – depending on the room, the type of drums and cymbals and the style of music.

The unconscious presumption by drummers can be that the audio engineer is taking care of how loud the drums are. But with drums being an acoustic instrument, in most small to moderately sized Church auditoriums (and even many larger ones) the audio engineer will have very little control over drums and cymbals that are being played too hard – even when they are shielded!

And so we see the most frequent “solutions” of shields or cages around the drums, or doing away with acoustic drums and cymbals all together and replacing them with an electronic kit that has a volume knob. These solutions may help or even solve the problem of drum volume. But at what cost?

Drummers behind sound barriers or playing electronic drums will have even LESS need to control their dynamics. They may play even harder! To say nothing of the awkward disconnection and “vibe-sucking” nature of the most common solutions, the drummers themselves are robbed of an opportunity to develop their hand control skills, their musicality, their ability to critically listen, and their sonic intuition. They will find it more difficult to play with volume that’s right for the song, and what is best going to encourage the congregation to sing songs of praise to Almighty God.

A drummer wearing in-ear monitors or headphones – which shields much of the actual, acoustic sound of their drums and allows them to adjust the level electronically – adds another layer to the barrier holding them back from the opportunity to develop dynamic control. But that’s for another blogpost too!

In this instructional video for Church music teams, Grant Norsworthy speaks with drummer Jonathan Truman about some of the pitfalls of the drum shield and how drummers can creatively exercise dynamic control – rendering the “fish tank” drum enclosure (with its significant negatives) totally unnecessary.

Jonathan also gives a wonderful, one take demonstration of the dynamic range available to a sufficiently skilled drummer who knows how to “play the room” as a higher priority than simply playing the drums.

Video #22: Band/Audio Tech Communication

Watch this short video. To understand the thought process behind the training video, read the blog post below it.

The audio tech is the greatest resource for any group of Church musicians who aim to craft a sound that engages a congregation and invites them to worship God through songs.

But if you speak with just about any audio technician operating sound in a Church service environment anywhere, you can be quite certain that they feel under communicated with – maybe even disregarded – by the instrumentalists and singers on the platform that they are required to mix.

This should not be so.

When the audio technician possesses the most objective pair of ears in the room – and the only pair of ears in the best physical position to asses what the congregation will be hearing – the musicians on the platform and audio technician must communicate more and more effectively.

In this instructional video for Church musicians, Grant Norsworthy speaks with sound engineer David Lim about the need for frequent, intentional communication between the musicians and the sound technician. Grant makes the point that musicians need to be willing to submit to the objective ear (and opinion) of the audio tech.

Watch Video#22 – Band/Audio Tech Communication again.

For more free resource videos and info, visit www.MoreThanMusicMentor.com.

Video#12 – Electric Guitar, Acoustic Guitar & Keys: Who’s Driving?

Many Church bands today feature electric guitar, acoustic guitar and keyboard. Each of these three instruments is capable of playing full chords in a rhythm that drives the song arrangement along. But what happens when two, or even all three of these instruments try to drive the song at the same time?

Watch this short training video. To understand the thought process behind the training video, read the blog post below it.

The video above is #12 in the More Than Music Mentor training resource series.

When two, or even all three of these chordal instruments try to be the driving element of a song arrangement, the most likely outcome is a wreck.  Too many hands fighting over the steering wheel! We tend to get a lot of distracting, unmusical clutter and mess. This din is what I sometimes call “sonic soup” and should be eradicated if the band is to craft an inviting sound to support congregational singing as an expression of worship.

To be clear: When I use the term “driving” in this context, I mean an instrumental part that is providing the most dynamic, energetic, rhythmic playing. It’s the chordal instrument that moves the song along most and clearly establishes the accompanying chord at a given moment in the song. In most Church music situations, there is only room for one driving, chordal instrument. No more.

The way the fingers of a pianist play notes on a keyboard is very different from the way a guitarist’s hand strums or plucks a guitar. The contrasting techniques that are utilized to activate notes from one instrument to the other means that the two can be difficult to combine as one coherent sound. The more driven and busy each instrument is, the more likely it is that the sound of each instrument will become mismatched and incompatible with the other.

This “sonic soup” producing problem is further exasperated with less capable instrumentalists who play without good timing. Now there are many notes landing at random time intervals, “flamming” with one another in unmusical ways that do not relate to the actual rhythm of the song! Even seasoned, professional keyboardists and guitarists can struggle to play two driving parts together that are truly coherent. Such a task is not possible, nor necessary, with Church volunteer musicians.

It’s important for the whole band – especially those members who play chordal instruments – to understand this “Who’s driving?” concept. During the practicing and arranging stage of a songs preparation, speak about who is driving.  We must learn to allow one chordal instrument to drive while the others (musically speaking) take a passengers’ seat by playing a supporting, simpler, more spacious part. With an intentional approach, focus, practice, and the development of the ability to listen better to one another, this will begin to become natural and soon may not need to be spoken about at all.

In some situations, the band might always be driven by one of these three instruments. Is your band piano driven for every song and every part of the song? Perhaps it’s acoustic guitar driven always? This can become the default with a leader – who may well be the most accomplishes instrumentalist – playing the driving instrument. They try to keep the band together by driving constantly.

This may be a necessary starting point for many bands, but if we are going to create an inviting sound with color, interest, variation and artistry, we ought to allow the driver’s role to shift from one song to another and even one section of a song to another. Perhaps the intro and verses could be acoustic driven, the choruses electric driven and then that softer, emotive bridge could be driven by keyboards.

Explore the possibilities. Share the driving role. Develop less experienced players by allowing them to drive a simple section and then a whole song. Listen to one another. Use what works best. But always know who is driving.

As we do this, we will leave space in our band sound that makes it clear to the congregation that we are inviting them to sing with us. They must be encouraged to step into their essential role of expressing the worth of God – worshiping God – through the songs we play.

In this instructional video for Church musicians I speak with electric guitarist Evan Redwine and pianist Zach Vinson about the need to establish one main driving chordal instrument in a song’s arrangement.

Watch Video#12 – Electric Guitar, Acoustic Guitar & Keys: Who’s Driving? again.

For more free resource videos and info, visit www.MoreThanMusicMentor.com.

Video#11 Electric Guitar: It’s Not an Acoustic

Almost every electric guitarist started their six-stringed experience by playing acoustic guitar first. But not all electric guitarists have made the necessary changes to their approach and playing from acoustic to make good use of the instrument.

Watch this short video. To understand the thought process behind the training video, read the blog post below it.

Is the band’s sound muddy? Is it hard to hear distinct voices from the individual instruments? Are the instrumentalists (and perhaps the congregation too) treading water in a “sonic soup” of too much, cluttered sound? Perhaps the problem is your electric guitarist.

A great deal of Church music today happens as volunteer band members read a chord chart. Less accomplished, experienced and/or prepared players of guitars and keyboards very often default to plodding their way through every chord – playing the full range of notes indicated by the chart. The result is unmusical, too full and very muddy.

Electric guitarists – especially those who have not yet more fully explored the possibilities and the best sonic roles for their instrument – lapse into the strumming patterns and chord shapes that served them well as acoustic guitarist. When electric guitarists do this – especially with overdriven or effected sounds and/or with other instruments doing the same thing – the results are messy and uninviting to the congregation. This approach might work on an acoustic guitar with its smaller, thinner, less obtrusive sound, but not anymore!

The electric guitar – in the right hands – is a wonderfully versatile instrument, capable of an incredibly wide and varied pallet of sound. With the advantageous use of electronics – pick-ups, effects, amplifier – this instrument can offer a great deal to the sound of a Church band. The most effective parts are often very simple, use few strings, higher up the neck than root position chords, show a skillful use of appropriate effects and utilize repeating obstinate patterns.

I encourage all electric guitarists – especially those who are freshly making the transition from acoustic – to listen carefully to the professional recordings of the songs they are preparing. In their personal practice time they should very intentionally explore the tones and the parts that are used there and work diligently to prepare their own parts before the band comes together for rehearsal.

In so doing, they should develop the skill to create their own parts that may borrow or even copy the professional musicians’ studio parts. They may move from there to begin arranging their own instrumentation that best fits their given Church band situation.

The electric guitarist – and indeed all the instrumentalists in the chord-chart-reading band – must develop their ability to listen, create, arrange and leave space for others. The notes they choose must serve the song, serve their band mates, serve the congregation and, ultimately serve Almighty God as they encourages the congregation to sing passionate praises.

In this instructional video for Church musicians, I speak with Evan Redwine about the need for the electric guitar to be played differently from an acoustic guitar and discuss the reason why.

Watch Video#11 – Electric Guitar: It’s Not An Acoustic again.

For more free resource videos and info, visit www.MoreThanMusicMentor.com.

Video#10 – Choosing The Best Key

Watch this short video. To understand the thought process behind the training video, read the blog post below it.

The video above is #10 in the More Than Music Mentor training resource series.

Not long ago I was speaking with a very talented, professional “worship artist”, “worship leader” and (male) friend of mine. Together with a female vocalist, we were preparing to play and sing Phil Wickham’s “This Is Amazing Grace” together at a “Night Of Praise” special event.

It was clear to me that we were preparing to lead it as a congregational song. The words would be on screens. The congregation would be asked to sing with us as an expression of worship.

It was a new song for me to learn, but my friend had been singing it as part of his repertoire for his home congregation for some time. I asked him in what key he usually did the song. “B flat – same as Phil Wickham!” he shot back with a confident smile.

I was impressed. But also a little saddened.

I was impressed because that means my friend possesses some serious vocal range – like Phil Wickham (and Chris Tomlin and many other popular male “worship artists”). I was saddened because, like me, perhaps 95% of men are unable to sing that high! Most women can sing in that register, but only by singing in the same octave as the male leader. The octave above the male leader (which is usual) is impossible for perhaps 95% of all women for that song in B flat!

I was saddened because I think my friend had very little idea of how difficult his congregation would find singing “This Is Amazing Grace” with him in the key of B flat. But I have little doubt that his voice sounds great up there.

Singers are a funny bunch. We can be so insecure and tend to think about ourselves too much. As leading vocalists in service of The Christian Church, we often and easily become confused about the main purpose of why we are singing. We can become so focused on what we are singing and how we sound as we are singing, that we forget some absolutely essential points:

  1. We are not performing for an audience, but we are inviting the congregation to sing along.
  2. We are not primarily on the platform with a mic to have people listen to us, but to be guided by us.
  3. We ought not be trying to impress people with our vocal ability, but to encourage others to sing passionate, sincere praises to God as an expression of worship.
  4. We should make singing along with us as inviting and easy as possible for the whole congregation – both male and female, young and old, musically capable or not.

Evidence of this “performance or guidance” confusion is seen no more clearly than in the choices of keys for congregational songs.

When choosing the key for a song that is to be sung by a Church congregation, I must not be thinking primarily about my voice, the key want, where I think will feel the most comfortable singing. I must be thinking first of the congregation and their vocal ability – a key that suits them.

I need to do all I can to find a key where almost every male and every female in the room can sing with confidence. For capable, experienced vocalists, this may well be – in fact, will probably be – a different key to where I would prefer to sing the song if I were performing for an audience.

This can be a tough thing to do for some songs – especially those that have a wider – more than an octave – range. Many modern “worship songs” utilize a chorus melody that launches considerably higher than the verses. It feels exciting to sing higher in the chorus in contrast to the lower verses! It works very well as a musical technique.

Some songs actually have the melody jump a whole octave at a particular point – Matt Maher’s very popular “Lord I Need You” as an example. Our hearts are stirred with emotion and the sound of the leader’s voice when they make that jump with just the right lyric!

But we ought to be aware that these techniques favor a performance style of singing and make it very tough for a whole congregation to sing along. If performance is the purpose, I say “Go for it!” and sing your performance as an expression of worship. But if you are the person picking the keys for songs, make your choices wisely – being aware of the benefits and the costs from the congregation’s point of view.

For my part, if the words are on a screen, if the objective is to invite a body of believers to sing truths of Almighty God, to cry out to Him and to praise Him, I will do my best to present songs using a key where as many people as possible know that they can sing along. It will help them to want to sing.

Oh. And to tie up the loose end of the story with my friend and I preparing “This Is Amazing Grace”: We spoke, we tested a few keys, checked where the melody would suit guys and gals and agreed on the key of E. Not the most exciting key for us guys with microphones, but the congregation sang very well indeed.

In this instructional video for Church musicians, I demonstrate the process of choosing the best key for congregational singing with “This Is Amazing Grace” as the example song. In particular, I show how the best key may differ from the key of the song as it’s heard on the radio AND how it may be different from the key in which the leader would prefer to sing the song.

Watch Video#10 – Choosing The Best Key again.

For more free resource videos and info, visit www.MoreThanMusicMentor.com.

Video#9 – Vocalists: Creating Our Unified Voice

Watch this short video. To understand the thought process behind the training video, read the blog post below it.

The video above is #9 in the More Than Music Mentor training resource series.

What’s the melody?

Consciously or unconsciously, the congregation that is being invited to sing as an expression of worship is asking that question. For them to feel willing and able to sing, the question must be answered for them – and answered in clear and simple terms.

Most likely the congregation is reading the lyrics of the song on a screen, but the melody of how they should sing those words is guided by two things:

  1. their memory of how the song goes, and
  2. the leading vocalists – the singers on the platform with microphones.

Sadly, and far too often, the leading vocalists seem unsure of the answer to that question themselves! Without intentionally doing so, the leading vocalists might present a mash-up of several different interpretations of, and approaches to the same song’s melody.

Vocalists on microphones are often singing multiple variations of the song simultaneously. Their task is to lead and guide the congregation, but they actually create confusion. With the congregation being bombarded by different variations of the melody, we should not be surprised when they resist singing along.

The mistakes that I observe most by leading vocalists in this area are:

  1. sticking to a particular or preferred version of the melody, despite others singing a different version,
  2. too much variation of vocal style (formally trained, informal or “conversational” vocals, vibrato, “scooping”, slides, note length and so on) from one leading vocalist to another, and
  3. falling for the temptation of embellishing the melody with performance-style vocal self-expression.

People’s memory of exactly how the melody of a song goes can vary a great deal. There are often multiple versions of a single song’s melody floating around – especially songs that have been reinterpreted by multiple recording artists. There is no need for pointless discussion of which version of the melody is the correct one, but the leading vocalists must make sure that they are all very clear on what their melody is for any given song.

Additionally, all vocalists who are tasked with leading the congregation must have a clear distinction in their minds between this leading-a-congregation approach to singing and performance singing. A vocalist who is performing for an audience – who is primarily being listened to – is free to use all manner of techniques to add interest and self-expression to their singing, including (but not limited to) altering the melody, note length, use of vibrato, adding syncopation, intentionally singing around the beat.

But these techniques need to be set aside by those vocalists who are leading a congregation to sing as an expression of worship. The melody they present must be clean and simple if it is to invite the (presumably) less-capable singers in the congregation to sing also. Leading a congregation does not offer the same opportunity for artistic self-expression and concert-style creativity as singing for performance.

All this wasn’t a problem, of course, back in the days when the congregation were reading lyrics and notation from a hymnal … and could read the melody (and their harmony too if they wished). While it still happens a little, the notation-reading congregation is actually very rare today. And the percentage of people in the congregation who are able to read musical notation is usually very low anyway. I’m not suggesting we go back to that method, but it does show the need to be more intentional with our preparation when not even the leading vocalists are reading notation to be certain of the melody

The musical director of the band must dedicate sufficient rehearsal time to make sure the singers’ combined “voice” is unified – presenting one, clear melody that the congregation can sing along with. Step away from the microphones. Gather around just a piano or an acoustic guitar. Sing together. Really listen to one another’s melody. Pay close attention to the details. Hear any differences. Make adjustments. Find your unified voice.

To make an engaging invitation to the congregation, we must make sure that they are presented with a clear, singable melody. In my opinion, this is prerequisite to, and far more important than adding any harmony vocals.

Significant, beautiful, potentially powerful and even supernatural things can happen as gathered Believers worship God Almighty by singing songs of praise with one, unified voice. Let’s offer them the best possible invitation to do so.

Watch Video#9 – Vocalists: Creating Our Unified Voice  again.

For more free resource videos and info, visit www.MoreThanMusicMentor.com.

Video#8 – Incorporating Notation-Reading Musicians

Watch this short video. To understand the thought process behind the teaching video, read the blog post below it.

The video above is #8 in the More Than Music Mentor training resource series.

For hundreds of years, since the birth of classical music, any serious instrumentalist or vocalist (at least, from the European tradition) would have to be able to read pages of a particular form of music notation that instructed them on exactly what to play and how to play it. Sometimes called “staff notation”, this written form of musical language uses lines, dots, symbols, letters, words, and more to tell the musician practically every detail of the music that they had to reproduce.

Check out this little bit of hand-written musical notation by J. S. Bach (1685–1750)!

Hand-written musical notation by J. S. Bach (1685–1750)

I have some experience and ability to read musical notation from my early years learning piano, playing brass instruments and from studying music in high school and as part of my college degree. But I was never very good at it. Reading musical notation was always difficult for me. While there was a joy in music at that time, the joy was somewhat offset by the onerous chore of reading notation.

But then I discovered playing without notation. Playing by ear. A new musical world of creativity, self expression and joy exploded for me. Music like this was wonderful! Approaching music – without the specific confinement of staff notation – certainly fit me better.

Since picking up the bass guitar and beginning to play music in rock bands (including quite a few years as a recording, touring pro), the number of times I have been asked to read notation – within my role as a bassist – could probably be numbered on one hand! That’s very few times. Ironically, any notation reading skill I had has become extremely rusty over my pro-musician years through under use!

I’d play by listening to the other instruments and creating my own bass parts – exploring different possibilities, considering the many options and arriving at what I thought worked best. All the musicians in the band would interact, throw out suggestions and together, we’d craft a piece of music that we liked most. This was especially the case when writing and arranging original music. The lines between writing, arranging and producing were wonderfully blurred.

If I was being asked to reproduce an existing song arrangement, I would listen to a sound recording and memorize the most important details and “feel” of the previously recorded bass part, but still leave some room for my own interpretation. Quite often a much simpler form of musical notation – the chord chart – would be used to aid memorization of the sound recording.

At times, just a chord chart (without the support of a sound recording) would be presented to me. These very loose guidelines would demand that each instrumentalist bring a great deal of themselves – musically – to the performance and hammered home the necessity of listening carefully to the other instruments.

Here’s an example of one of the many ways a chord chart might look.

Chord Chart

I wish I was better schooled to read and understand written music – staff musical notation and music theory. These are important skills and, in many musical situation – extremely important, beneficial and even necessary.

From one way of thinking about it, there are two “schools” of playing music: one that depends on written, musical staff notation and another that does not. Each “school” or system of playing music has strengths and weaknesses. The details of these might make the subject of a future blogpost, but don’t need to be discussed here.

The reason I explain all this is to make this point: These two approaches do not represent a “correct” way and an “incorrect” way. Neither is inherently better than the other in every musical situation. They are just different. And they can be complimentary.

But the people belonging to each “school” can easily think of their way as being the preferred way. The favored way. Cliques can form. Even within the Church, the team of established musicians – influenced heavily by the leadership – can rely mainly on one system or the other and, perhaps even without intentionally doing so, may exclude anyone from the other “school”.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if the musicians who prepare sacred music in the life of the Church were intentional about recognizing and utilizing capable musicians of all “schools”? We ought to lean towards each other to learn from one another, understand each other better, pick up some of the language of the other “school” and, in so doing, become more effective at creating a unified musical “voice” that would better serve The Church.

J.S.Bach could hear his music in his head and play it by ear first. He only wrote it as notation so what he heard could be understood and reproduced by other instrumentalists. Thank God he did! There are musicians who are equally comfortable in the formal, notated “school” and the play-by-ear “school” of music. Of course, that’s the ideal. That’s the best set of skills for a musician to have, but it is quite rare.

There may be very capable instrumentalists within your Church congregation who don’t get involved in the music because they have a more formal musical background and only feel comfortable playing when they are reading staff notation. In this instructional video, I speak about how we can and should incorporate these musicians, even if they are unfamiliar with learning to play a song from a chord chart and a sound recording.

Watch Video#8 – Incorporating Notation-Reading Musicians again.

Take this link to watch the full rendition of “Be Thou My Vision” featuring classical musician Syneva Colle on cello.

 

For more free resource videos and info, visit www.MoreThanMusicMentor.com.