How to Survive the Pitfalls of Live Performance
By Worship Leader Sandy Hoffman
Whether you believe that God or the Devil is in the details, the fact is that no matter how hard you try to honor one or drive the other away by paying attention to the smallest things, stuff happens.
Our music teachers always taught us to play through mistakes. But what can you do when you’re a Worship Leader and one sunny morning, you’re faced with an unrelenting series of tech troubles that seem to get in the way of delivering the message?
Meet a man who knows how that feels and what to do about it. His name is Sandy Hoffman and he is serving the worship community at Christ Church Santa Fe. Here’s his story:
“Just about anything that could go wrong during worship did go wrong. The day started out predictably enough. That incredibly blue Santa Fe sky greeted me as I walked out the front door to head for the church. The engine of my fine old Ford fired right up, and for some Sunday-morning worship inspiration, I tuned the car radio to the local black gospel station. Oh, happy day.
How could anything spoil this perfect morning?
As always, we conducted our weekly worship team tech rehearsal on Thursday afternoon. That’s the point in the week when we go through the worship checklist. From batteries to lyric projection, lighting and stage setup, we try to get everything just right before the team shows up for Thursday evening rehearsal.
After making sure that the charts were accurate and available for each worship song in the set, we welcomed the team members as they showed up for “P and P” (prayer and polish). The rehearsal proceeded without a glitch.
Then Sunday came. Apparently, Worship Gremlins had been hard at work over the weekend.
It began during the very first song of the first service. Inexplicably, a middle-aged light bulb in one of our three video projectors died on the spot. (We have since replaced the projectors with flat screens!) The instantaneous blackness of the screen, lit up only moments before with the morning’s first glowing words of praise, jerked the attention of the worshipers from the eternally Divine back into the momentarily mundane. Sometimes it only takes one small stone to start an avalanche.
Right on the heels of the video bulb debacle came the wireless mic muting mishap, proving how much damage can be caused by one stray index finger on a Mute button. That’s all it took to accidentally render two perfectly new AA batteries useless. This was distraction number two, and it wasn’t diagnosed until the end of the first service.
No Charm the Third Time
When our bass player arrived for the second service that morning, he was greeted by the total re-tweaking of all the settings on his stage amp. Who changed it? Who knows? The Gremlins? He spent the rest of the morning trying to arrive back at that low-frequency sweet spot he had so carefully dialed in at rehearsal just three days before. Distraction number three was in full swing.
But Wait! There’s More!
It was then that the Gremlins launched their most insidious attack.
It’s our habit to check and replace batteries every Thursday for the following Sunday. This time, what we thought was a brand new 9-volt battery in the internal preamp of my Taylor T5 was actually a used one, just waiting to disrupt worship with a final choke and wheeze of DC output.
This turned my beautifully clear signal into a dynamically distorted distraction. “OK,” I thought, “it’s time for the people out there to meet and greet one another. I’ll just discreetly change the battery while they’re not looking.” I signaled the sound tech to mute my guitar channel, and in seconds I had a brand new 9-volt battery in the T5. “Finally,” I thought, “after a morning of multiple distractions, we’re back on track, ready to lead the people into the Promised Land!”
Not so fast! Yet one more hurdle remained and this was a good one.
No sooner did we begin the next praise song than we noticed a hideous crackle and spit coming from my guitar channel. Arrggghh! The battery was fine now, but sometime during that short welcome break, the Gremlins had made their final move.
The XLR cable between the guitar direct box and house snake had chosen that moment to cease making a solid connection. For the next 20 minutes or so, there were milliseconds at a time of pure clarity, interspersed with eardrum-wrenching electronic outbursts. My worship leader focus was gone. Demoralized, I grimaced through the remainder of the set, and then slunk off the stage with my head hung low.
The Path of Prevention
We learned that day that not every worship distraction can be avoided. In spite of the technical challenges we faced that day, I actually received one surprisingly wonderful comment from someone who never even noticed any of the worship distractions.
Here are a few suggestions that may not eliminate all of your technical challenges, but if applied, will send your Gremlins a clear message that you’re on the offensive.
1. Regularly replace batteries, strings, bulbs, and anything else that has a short, unpredictable life span. This will help you avoid lots of embarrassment and distractions. Make and stick to a regular, consistent schedule of replacement.
2. Keep consistent records. Keeping a written log of your amp, instrument, and sound reinforcement settings will make it easy to reset them to your favorite sweet spots. Also, remember to keep an eye on how many hours any gear that has its own internal clock has been used. Too many hours can be a warning sign of impending problems. Stay vigilant.
3. Have supplies on hand. Always have extra fresh batteries, cables, bulbs, strings, picks, sticks, and anything else you can think of. You never know when you might need to make a quick switch right in the middle of a worship service. By diminishing the number of potential distractions, we increase the level of focus on the worship experience.
4. Finally, fluidity is the key! I’ve often heard it said, “Be fluid, because flexible is too rigid.” These profound words of wisdom, applied to worship preparation and mixed with faith, will enable us to deal with anything that could possibly go worng— I mean, wrong.”
ABOUT SANDY HOFFMAN: An accomplished musician, Sandy’s road has taken him from the touring company of “Godspell” in the late 1970s to a 31-year run leading worship. In addition to his role at Christ Church, Sandy is a featured instructor at the Youth with a Mission Schools of Worship and Schools of Music in Missions worldwide. He writes a regular “Tips for Tight Teams” column for Worship Musician magazine.
Find more stories like this, plus tips and techniques on the art of 21st century worship in Sandy’s new book from Hal Leonard Publishing. It’s widely available online as well as on the publisher’s website.
Listen to Sandy’s 12-track acoustic guitar recording Sereno on iTunes or visit WorshipTeamWork to order a copy of this inspiring and personal CD.