One thing that differs a lot between our contemporary and traditional services is that the contemporary band plays every week (with a different volunteer singer on a monthly rotation), while the traditional service has different guest musicians three weeks a month and the choir once a month.
So, the choir rehearses the music for a service for a month (or more), while the band rehearses the music for a service for two hours. How does that work?
Obviously, the choir doesn’t spend a month figuring out how to sing “One More Step”, nor do we. Much of the music the band does is relatively simple. The choir is presenting their music, while the band’s main function is to lead the congregation in song. So, most of the music we choose must be singable — either familiar, easily learned, or both. I reserve the offertory as a “presentation” piece, something the singer (usually) chooses that is more complex, has higher vocal demands, or should be listened to and pondered rather than sung as a group.
In addition, we have a standard playlist — a collection of songs that we repeat every couple of months, so everyone is familiar with them. Before the “church year” starts, we have a rehearsal or two where we run through every song in the standard repertoire to make sure we are all sharp on them. Newcomers are usually already familiar with all or most of these songs because they’ve been attending the service. And we draw heavily from the popular repertoire, so chances are good that most of the band will be at least passively familiar with a new song, even if they’ve never sung or played it before.
So, we spend the first half hour to hour polishing up the four songs the congregation will sing with us, sometimes spending more time when we add in new ones. Then we spend the rest of the time working on the offertory piece. We don’t usually recycle these; they’re a chance to make our musical offering with something the congregation can listen to, appreciate, and perhaps get an additional take on the days’ topic from. This is also the singer’s reward for being there every month singing the standard repertoire over and over. And the band likes to stretch out, as well.
In order to make this two-hour miracle work, I send out lead sheets and links to recordings (YouTube, grooveshark.com, etc.) ahead of time, so people can familiarize themselves with the music before they get to rehearsal. And most of the time there is only one rotating vocalist. Harmonies are usually sung by the guitarist (your narrator), though on special occasions we invite other singers to beef up the vocal section.
Adding vocalists takes more rehearsal time, of course, as we have to spend more time working on harmonies, dynamics, etc. etc. Two singers is usually a manageable number; if we go for the “gospel singers” configuration (as few as four, as many as 30), then we have to have multiple rehearsals, just like any choir. So, the first key to playing weekly is to keep things simple.
The other key is to have a solid band that you can rely on to deliver the goods week after week. In our case, that means paying the core players, the rhythm section (bass, drums, guitar). I get paid to do other things in addition to playing guitar. The bassist was a friend of a friend who has since become quite integrated into the UU congregation. The drummer is a talented high-schooler who approached us after coming to the service with his family for a while. He played hand percussion, then when the previous drummer’s day job conflicted with the music gig, our high-schooler moved to the kit, picking up lots of performance experience as well as some incidental income.
If we expect them to be there every week, the musicians get paid for their consistency and reliability (in addition to their musical contributions). I never have to wonder who will show up to rehearsal. This has the happy side effect that we have a pretty crack core group now. We have played with each other long enough that we lock in quickly and lay down something the singers are familiar with and sound good over. This could be done with a rotation of volunteers, but maybe not with one rehearsal before each service.
Lately, the sound tech has been coming to our Wednesday rehearsals, too, which means that he’s ready to go on Sunday morning with a minimal sound check. Like the regular musicians, he gets paid a stipend, since he’s there pretty much every week. And he gets us recordings that are typically of outstanding quality.
This all sounds expensive, and it could be too much for a small congregation. But I have just laid out how we do it. If you are in a large congregation and have the talent and/or money, you too could put on a 20-minute rock festival every week. There’s no reason why other configurations wouldn’t work, though. Other congregations have fewer musicians. You just need someone with passion for injecting the energy of current music into worship. I’m convinced that you’ll find the talent comes to you, once the congregation gets what’s going on.
Once we got the contemporary service established, we found that we got a stream of volunteers ready to fill the gaps when someone moves on, or needs a substitute. The custodian can fill in on bass. The public defense lawyer played congas in college. The music educator decides she’s ready to branch out and sing in public. I attribute this “stone soup” of musicians to the fact that (except for the offertory) the music we make is music of the people. Everyone gets to sing with this band during worship, and eventually many of them decide to make it formal and join us on the stage.
Somehow, everyone has a carrot or potato to throw in the pot, and soon it’s a feast made by everyone.