When Elvis Goes One Way by Steve Gregory
The other day, I heard a recording of an Elvis performance that went horribly, horribly wrong. The band went one direction, “the King” went another, and chaos ensued. The struggle to get everyone on the same page continued for almost a minute before the implosion was complete and the show ground to an abrupt halt. Listening with “sympathetic musician ears”, I couldn’t help but cringe as I sensed the “what do we do now?” feeling. I suspect we have all had situations that range from hitting a wrong note, to going to a wrong song section, to things just going plain wrong.
As worship bassists, we are most certainly not immune to things going awry, whether it is something we play on our instrument or something that affects us in the group dynamic. To add weight to the situation, worship bassists provide the foundation upon which the worship setting – the worship setting many in our congregations and worship teams rely upon – is developed. To be a successful worship bassist, it is necessary to think about our responsibilities and how we can best uphold those responsibilities when things don’t go as planned. Here are a few thoughts on defending against problems before they occur, gracefully getting out of bad situations when they do happen, and learning from our experiences:
1. Preparation is the very best defense against things going wrong in worship.
This may seem obvious, but preparation is critical. First, if we don’t know our bass parts, and I mean really know our parts, we really shouldn’t be surprised when things go wrong. Spend time with your music before you stand in front of the church! Practice your music at home, rehearse your music at rehearsals, and perform the music in worship. These three steps are all separate and are not interchangeable. Trying to “get” the music once you are performing in worship is a recipe for disaster.
Second, we are bass musicians, not just bass players. That means that we should also know details about each piece of music, such as:
- The chords of the song, not just the bass line.
- Other musicians’ parts of the song.
- Whether there is a loop or a track that controls lighting, etc.
- Any potential “gotchas” that need special attention.
- The lyrics to the song.
- The “landmarks” in the song – whether in our part, others’ parts, or in the song as a whole.
At first glance, it may seem that preparation is only useful for stopping problems from happening in the first place. While proper preparation does prevent many problems, it is also important for getting us out of difficult situations when they do arise, as we’ll talk about below.
2. Playing a wrong note isn’t great, but making a wrong note into a bigger problem than it needs to be is much worse.
Let’s consider a song that has a tempo of 120 BPM. At that tempo, a quarter note will sound for ½ of a second. This is not a long time in the ear of a listener; however, if we take that ½ of a second and prolong it by not correcting ourselves or playing other wrong notes because of panic, then we have a big problem. Your audience most likely won’t pay much attention to a ½ second oddity, but may be distracted by subsequent fumbling.
When you do hit a note other than the one you mean to play, quick decision making is the key. If you can move on, by all means – move on. For example, in a measure of eighth notes on A, if you hit the first note as a G#, fix it on the second eighth note and leave the errant note behind. If you hit a note that is more exposed, immediately decide on a fix and go for it. This depends largely on context, but you may need to move immediately to the right note or develop a line that passes to the right note. This is where preparation comes in – knowing chord structures, song form, and other instruments’ parts is critical. Combine your musical understanding of the song with the desire to keep the flow of worship undisrupted and you will make sound decisions.
3. When you are at the bridge, the vocalist is at the chorus, and nobody knows where the saxophonist is, you have some decisions to make.
Any time you find yourself in a “where in the world are we?” situation, your ear is your friend, panic is not. Similar to the situation above, you must apply your musicianship and the goal of providing uninterrupted worship together to find your way out of a difficult situation.
There are a few situations in which the band dynamic becomes unstable that we should consider:
- You lose your place: be calm and aware. Open your ears and play simply as you find your center, using your ear training to find chord roots and the basic bass line. Work to find your place by listening for any landmarks (you mapped these out in preparation, right?). Remember to stay in rhythm, rather than flailing wildly in a note search – panic is a groove-robber! Rely on your skills, remain calm, and you will fall back into place.
- One other person in the group loses their place: be a leader and help the other person find their way. If you have a landmark that will help them, put a bit of extra emphasis on it. If simplifying your line for a few bars will pull them back in, do it. Decide how you can continue worship and help your brother or sister at the same time!
- There’s more than one person lost: be a worship bass musician. If you can lead, as with the example where one person is lost, step forward and lead. Understand your situation and be the center and foundation. Dropping to a pedal line to outline the section might be the perfect thing to bring people home. Emphasize your landmarks and keep the groove going.
If someone else takes the clear lead, be willing to follow and support. For example, the worship leader may define the section they want everyone to play. In this case, gracefully move to the new section, keep your ears open, and keep worship flowing.
A quick note about this situation: if you have prepared, know the song inside and out, know the form, and know without a doubt that you should be on section X, but the worship leader or another musician takes the group to section Y, your job is not to be right, it’s to provide worship. An immature worship bass musician needs their ego stroked by being right, a mature worship bass musician knows that the priority is worship, above all else.
4. Post-game review isn’t just for sports locker rooms.
I believe that one of the greatest teachers is a recording of your playing, listened to with a critical ear. When you listen, be willing to be open and honest about your successes and your mistakes. In either situation, ask yourself why they happened and how you can either repeat them (successes) or fix them (mistakes). If you are willing to be really honest about what you hear on the playback, your playing will experience exponential growth when you implement changes based on your observations.
Most of the time, our worship playing isn’t going to be plagued by problems and challenges. Many times we prepare, rehearse, and worship without experiencing difficulty. However, problems can and will arise; when they do, the worship bass musician has a responsibility to be prepared to deal with the situation and to keep worship going!
I would to love to hear your thoughts in the comments below: what situations have your found yourself in? How did you remedy them? What have you learned from the experiences?
Until next time, I hope that your bass playing is blessed and that you can bless others through your bass playing!