What To Play When You Don’t Know What To Play: Preparation and Spontaneity

This week, Aaron Slaten shares his thoughts on the value of preparation in worship leading, and how what we sell as spontaneity may not be spontaneity at all: 

Rule #1: Always be prepared

Rule #2: If you didn’t follow rule #1, who knows what is going to happen?


I used to live in a world of spontaneity and improvisation, which I sold as “spirit led worship and giftedness,” but when I started leading more hymns (many of which contain a far greater volume of lyrics than the average praise song), I saw myself struggle more because of my dyslexia, so I started to prepare more in order to know the lyrics. Similarly, the more my song selection increased in variety, the more I started using chord charts to avoid getting lost in an ocean of chord changes.

I remember a situation years ago when I heard a friend say  “The Spirit will probably work more in your preparation and structure than in your lack of preparation, assumed spontaneity, and to be honest, your laziness.” I was a bit offended, not appreciating the way that he was indirectly calling me out. In my then-limited experience leading worship, I had grown to love the more spontaneous-feeling worship environments where the worship leader changed songs on the fly and seemed to go with the flow. I loved going into an event with a list of twenty possible songs and no plan as to which of them I would end up singing. On the surface, I felt like my friend was offending the sense of spirituality, freedom, and excitement that my “spontaneity” created.

However, I also felt something deep inside saying that he was right. What if my lack of preparation and my spontaneity were really just laziness? I didn’t know what to do with that. As it was summer time, and I was at a camp, I took the opportunity to ask one of our adult volunteers about the worship leader at the camp. What makes him better than me? The volunteer’s fast, natural response “it appears that he practices more.”

I hated that answer also. So, I took the church van and left everyone at the camp.

Not really. 

In reality, these conversations left me feeling convicted and motivated to make changes, so I established some personal routines that help me learn new songs and refresh my memory of older songs. I still use these routines on a regular basis, and would recommend that any worship leader adopt a similar routine for themselves in order to maintain a stance of preparedness:

First, I listen to a recording of the song I’m trying to learn. I find an arrangement of the song and I loop it over and over again while I work on other things. Eventually, I stop actively listening to the song as it becomes internalized within me.

Once I have the song internalized, I play along a couple of times with that recording. Once I feel comfortable with the structure and feel of the song, I play it without the recording until I feel confident enough to lead the song myself.

I rarely go back and listen to the recording after learning a particular song. I try to “own” each song that I play, and if I listen to a song too many times, I’ll tend to try and sound like the artist that sings on the recording. 

 Fighting to be prepared is important on a personal level, because it affects how you execute the songs, but it has consequences in leadership as well. As a worship team leader, if the people you play with know that you don’t prepare, neither will they. 

Inevitably, there will be times where you simply have no way of preparing to lead a song before you actually have to lead it. I can remember one retreat in particular when we wanted to transition from one song to the next without changing keys. Originally, the song was supposed to be led by a female vocalist, but the new key made it too high for her to sing. I either needed to lead the song myself or we needed to scrap the cool transition. So, I decided to lead the song myself, we ran through the song one horrific time in practice, and I took my guitar with me off stage to practice the song alone. The song eventually went off with no problems, but I would have felt much more comfortable and confident if I had been prepared.

Always obey Rule #1 and be prepared. That way, when the unexpected comes, you won’t freak out. When you’re prepared, you can be confident knowing that if you do end up doing something spontaneous, its more likely the Spirit leading than you just winging it. 


How do you prepare when leading a new song? Share your routine with us in the comments! Let's start a dialogue, people!