The shift to Praise Bands and rhythm sections as accompaniment groups in church worship services is nothing new, nor is the idea of putting a contemporary spin on old, familiar hymns. But it may be new to you and your church. And you may be wondering how to adapt a hymn to a contemporary style. Here are a few steps to take you through the process logically. It assumes you are capable and comfortable with simple chord substitutions and communicating with your band members.
These steps are aimed at creating a successful congregational hymn singing experience – not to make your worship team look like rock stars.
1. Pick a key. Keep in mind that traditional 4-part harmonies are not much used in contemporary music styles. Almost everybody in your congregation will be singing the melody, with the exception of those who can sing the occasional “pop” harmonies. (Generally 2-part or 3-part singing.) So, choose a key that is suitable for baritones (most of your men) and second sopranos (most of your women).
Do not choose a key to fit your 1st tenor Worship Leader.
2. Get in a groove. Find a rhythm pattern and tempo that allows the melody to be sung freely and naturally. Avoid applying unnecessary syncopation and “push beats” to the tune. Never forget, this is about your congregation singing the words. You want them to succeed with this new approach to the hymn. Complicated rhythms are a recipe for failure.
3. Re-harmonize the melody for a rhythm section. 99% of the time, this means simplifying the traditional harmonies found in the hymnal. As a rule, you don’t want more than two chord changes in a bar. One per bar is better. One every two bars is great. You don’t want it to sound “busy.”
Rhythm sections are built around the concept of playing a groove. The less harmonic movement, the better they can keep the groove.
Be aware that experienced players also interpret chord changes in a way that is suitable for the style of the groove. They may automatically add a 2nd to a chord when it’s appropriate. You can spell these added notes out for them. But chances are they will make those interpretations on their own.
4. Write it down. Don’t teach it to your people by rote. Somebody will surely forget the changes. With it written down, everyone is literally on the same page and communication will be much clearer.
I highly recommend using scoring software such as Finale, Sibelius, or Dorico to create a clean, uncluttered lead sheet/chord chart for everyone to follow. It may be helpful to write the words & melody out for your choir/ensemble, including any simple harmonies you want to be sung. All the band will need is a chord chart.
Keep this in mind: Some of the players may be several feet away from their chart. Singers may be glancing over to a music stand. Make the chart easy to read.
5. Never forget: It’s all about your congregation.
All the best to you —
Editor’s note: please enjoy these selections from Robert Sterling