Creating New Arrangements for Popular Worship Songs
We’ve recently gotten some questions about our decision to cover popular worship tunes as well as how we go about creating those covers. So, we wanted to take the time to explain why and how we come up with those arrangements. Nowadays, there are so many worship songs out there, and great ones at that. So, what’s the point of re-arranging, or changing the existing songs? Well, when a song is anointed with power and told from a fresh perspective with lyrics that really move us, it doesn’t have to fade as quickly as the music it’s attached to.
First, we’ve found it to be so important to revisit the songs that have truly impacted the church as a whole. If a song is a truly a great song, it will stay timeless. That why songs like “Heart of Worship,” “How Great Is Our God” or “How Deep the Father’s Love” will never go away. At times, musical tastes can affect whether or not you choose to lead a song for your church. So, if the lyrics are great, but the music isn’t your style or just feeling a little outdated, change it up! Any writer that genuinely wants the lyrics they’ve written to impact people will not be offended by heart-felt covers of their songs, no matter what the instrumentation sounds like. Bringing new, original music to existing lyrics can really bring a freshness to a song and impact people in a completely new way. I remember when we created the arrangement for our version of“You Never Let Go” by Matt Redman. At the time, I wouldn’t have considered this a new song by any means, nor one that I particularly wanted to hear again soon. However, after adding our personal touch to it, the song was given new life, and I was able to let the lyrics sink in even more.
For us, re-arranging has become a habit. It started early. Honestly, when we first started at BIOLA, I wasn’t good enough to play some of the parts I was supposed to, so I’d have to write my own in order for the song to still sound good. Now, it’s a little different….It’s a matter of ownership. When I feel an emotional connection to the songs we play, it allows me to engage in worship on multiple levels. I’m not only offering my time and talent through the guitar, but I’m offering my ability to create, in the image of my Creator. When this happens, it becomes art and expression. It becomes more genuine and heartfelt for me, and the process is so beautiful.
For the 5 of us, the sense and desire for ownership in our music has always been something innate in us as musicians. We saw our passion grow as we would watch from stage as people poured out their hearts in worship, knowing that we poured out our hearts in writing and practicing beforehand. We offer our craft, work super hard at it, and add new musical perspective to songs that people know already. The combination of the two is wonderful. At school, we had no place to practice during the day. So, we would rent out a classroom from 10pm-3am and practice our sets. We got used to long practices because most of us actually, really enjoyed putting our mark on the songs we were learning. Most of us had no problem staying up late, even though we had a class at 8am the next morning, because we were having fun, creating together, and worshipping in a new way.
How the actual process of writing and re-arranging happens… It’s different every time, but there are a few patterns and tips I can offer. One pattern I see is that it starts with a visionary: someone who has been inspired by the song and senses a new musical direction for it. Whether its recommending a musical idea or noticing parts of a song they wished would repeat more, it always starts with one person being vulnerable and saying, “Hey, what if we tried this?” It might not be the direction we end up taking, but it gets the wheels rolling and gets people thinking outside the box. One thing I’ve noticed is that this person usually has spent time with the song beforehand. The more time they’ve spent dreaming up the idea, the more likely it will be that its usable. If you consider yourself the visionary, try this: If you’ve heard the song, don’t show your bandmates the original cut. Send them a track of you and a piano, or you and an acoustic, have them come up with ideas, and bring them to practice. Just see what they come up with without the context of the original. It might be really cool.
Writing individual parts will come more easily. It’s just improvising, feeling the music as you play it, and taking it to new places while your jamming it out. Or, you can record voice memos at home until practice and then try them out later. That’s one thing to keep in mind here… We do this for a living. We have a lot of time to write, jam out, rehearse, demo out, rehash, record, etc… I’ve been a part of typical Sunday morning practices before the set, and I realize there is not much time to do this kind of stuff. However, when we were in school, we didn’t really have the time either. Amidst classes, exams, jobs, extracurricular activities, we were passionate about it and loved doing it enough that we made time for it. Even if it’s not the whole team, you can do it. Be the visionary and find one or two other band members that have a similar desire. Workout the song with them beforehand, record it somehow, and share it as a template for the rest of the group. Give yourself time though. Usually we’ll start with jamming, then recording, listening back, editing, creating separately, and then bringing thoughts to the table when we meet together to make final decisions. And don’t feel guilty if you have to start slow. Creating one new arrangement per month could be a great place to start.
There are a few communication precedents established in our group that usually go unnoticed because we’ve been doing it for so long, but I think they are important to mention. First, we operate by majority vote. Everyone in the group has equal say as to what happens with the song; whether it be a particular riff, beat, or the overall flow. The downside is that it takes time to make progress, but the upside is that we feel equal ownership of the end product, which leads to cohesive worship from stage. Majority vote helps us to not take offense when people don’t like our ideas. Sure, it hurts a little, but if 4 people don’t like my guitar riff, and I’m the only person that does, I should probably take a clue. We’ve had to really learn to convey criticism with love. Definitely not easy to do at all, but there are a few things that help. When you have personal relationship with people and you know their hearts, it’s a lot easier to know where they’re coming from. When you know what’s going on in their life, you are able to add context to what they offer. We also use constructive criticism only. We don’t just speak up and say “I don’t like that. It’s lame.” We are only able to say we don’t like it, if have an alternative direction or idea to keep things moving forward, or can explain the reasons we don’t think it fits. Don’t shut down an idea, unless you think you might have a better one to offer. This keeps us from writer’s block and arguments with no solutions. The last operational tip is to give someone the final say. In our group, it’s Emily. She’s center stage, she’s leading the congregation in worship, and guiding/teaching people through the songs. She’s concerned with what is worshipful and what is helpful to leading a group of people in worship. It not only keeps the music in check, but it makes the decisions a little easier when there is tension.
We hope that these few tips and thoughts can be helpful to you and your worship ministry as you strive to use your creative talents to honor Jesus. We’d love to hear about your experiences with creating new arrangements as well as hear them, so leave a comment below!