This has become a conversation over the past few years in worship ministry. Possibly, it’s even become a battle in some chruches. Should we allow music stands on the stage?
For some, this will seem like a ridiculous idea; how can we know what songs to play without the music? What’s the big deal? Why is this even a question?
While others might say: “yes, and if you don’t get rid of the stands, you’re doing it wrong!” or some other hyperbolic rhetoric.
For this post, I’d like to address the reasons someone would want to ban Music Stands, the pros and cons of those reasons and some practical considerations for you to take into account. Maybe you’ve been wresting with this idea. Maybe this has been an issue in your ministry. Maybe you’ve never heard of such a thing and you can’t understand why someone would do it; but you are going to keep reading to find out.
WHY WOULD WE DUMP THE STANDS?
Almost universally the first reason that I hear for removing the music stands is visual. They do look bad, or at least worse than a stage without stands. This past Sunday morning I was home from church with sick kids. So I was watching live streams of friends churches. One church had no music stands, the other church did. Both were modern churches, with modern lights and stage designs and songs. The one without the stands looked better than the other, it engaged me more; and this is after all, the goal isn’t’ it? That was at 9am, at 11 am I checked in on two different churches; by chance, one had music stands and the other didn’t and again, it was notable how much better the visuals were for the church without music stands and how much more engaged I was as a viewer.
Now, before I loose you, please know that I’m not passing judgment yet on the importance or non-importance of visual presentation in worship. I’m just acknowledging that this is a reason given and its often the most sited reason I hear.
The next argument for removing the music stands is memorization. If you remove the safety net, you force the band to memorize and really learn the songs. The argument further goes that if the band has the songs memorized, they are better able to engage the congregation and lead in worship.
We will look at the pros and cons of this further on.
The thinking here is that if the stage is more appealing on a visual level, and if the band is more engaged because they have the songs memorized, then the congregation will be more engaged with where the band is going and therefore better able to engage and connect with God in song worship.
WHAT ARE THE PROS?
Often, the concern about visuals comes from outside the worship ministry. My last church, while not large, had a very active video ministry and they would tell you without a second thought that music stands looked bad. Visually, they said, it was better for the band to be without them, and humans are by and large visual creatures. So let me just say: visuals matter.
Now, I’m not going to assign a value to visuals. For certain, visuals don’t matter as much as the heart of worship in the church. They don’t matter as much as the word of God being taught. They don’t matter as much as people praying. But they matter; God has made us visual creatures and we have to take that into account.
MEMORIZATION AND ITS SIDE EFFECTS
I do believe that the more I know a song, the easier is for me to move past the technical playing of the music and engage. Engage with the Lord. Engage in worship. Engage with the crowd. The same is true for the rest of the band. Additionally, the honest truth is that in many churches, certain band members really know the songs, while others just wing it. Sometimes in my life, I need to be challenged beyond my comfort; the same is often true for our team members for both their blessing, and that of the church.
One of the things I noticed as a switched between different church live streams was the singers. The ones without an instrument obviously engaged better if they didn’t have a music stand in front of them. Congregational worship isn’t a performance, but the band is a part of the congregation and if you aren’t connecting well with the people you want to lead in worship, then you aren’t accomplishing your goal. Can engagement happen with a music stand in front of you? Of course, is it harder? I has been my experience that the answer is yes.
On an organizational level, how much easier is it for a band leader or worship director if everyone knows the songs? If someone is sick or out of town and you know that their replacement will be able to step in well? Additionally, for those in charge of practical things like stage design, lighting, etc. How much easier is it when you don’t have to worry about the bass player getting enough light to read the chord chart or having less things to strike between worship and the teaching?
WHAT ARE THE CONS?
HIGHER COMMITMENT LEVELS
You can’t have a band that has all the songs memorized, and therefore no music stands, without a higher commitment level. Now, you might be surprised to find this in the cons section. Isn’t a higher commitment level from our musicians something we all want? Sure, but there is an absolute difference from “buy in”, which is what we want, and “commitment” which is by its nature exclusive.
I have a friend at a larger church that told me he will never expect his musicians to have every song memorized. As he put it “my keyboard player is a literally a brain surgeon and several of my vocalists are moms with little kids… it’s not realistic to expect them to have the time to put in for that commitment”. Those musicians have “buy in”; they learn the songs, they show up on time, they give their all, but the higher “commitment level” that would be required would exclude them from serving to the benefit of no one.
GREATER CHANCE OF DISTRACTION
I walk into the average worship set knowing all the songs by heart. But even then sometimes my brain fails me. This happens to the best of us. How much more so with a less committed or “bought in” team member who can’t remember how the song is supposed to go? Without the safety net, we have greater chance for a musical failure or mistake that will lead to distracting people from worshiping Jesus.
FIGHTING THE WRONG BATTLE
Of all the things happening in your church, is this the right battle to fight right now? Maybe it is for your church, but I’m going to guess that for most there are better and bigger hills to die on.
WHAT DO I DO?
What I do could best be described as “splitting the difference” or “practicing the principle.” I want to have the pros without the cons.
In terms of the music stand itself: If I’m leading by myself and if it’s a shorter set for a camp, prayer breakfast, special event, then I go without music stands. I want as little between me and the people as possible, both for my engagement with them as well as their engagement with me so that we can all better connect in worshiping God.
However, on a Sunday morning with a full set list and especially when other musicians are involved, I have the music with me. This is both as a safety net and a reference point. I sometimes write notes on the charts so that if I need to remember to do something between songs like invite someone up for a special announcement or prayer, or if we are doing a scripture reading, I will put that in the charts. Sometimes I’ll write cues to myself about the next song so that I’m free to put my mental energies elsewhere.
But I am aware of the visuals. I keep the music stand as low as possible, and won’t use one that doesn’t adjust low enough. I also talk about it somewhat regularly with the team so to encourage them to do the same. Additionally, I’m aware that if the stage is cluttered with music stands, then it will amplify any other clutter. So we do our best to keep the stage free of cable runs, unused instruments & amps, etc. I also am aware of the visuals in where the band is placed…. I stay away from the straight line of singers up front, which leads to a straight line of music stands. I try to set up the stage in such a way that the band can use sheet music without hiding themselves behind it.
Finally, I’m committed to a limited song list so that the band is more likely to remember our songs and arrangements. After a while, their need for the chord charts will lessen and their engagement outward should naturally increase.
I understand the reasons and motives for removing the music stands; I try to operate in way that limits those issues without creating new ones, like unreasonable commitment levels for my team.
Your mileage will vary as to what is needed, practical and possible for this season of your worship ministry, but hopefully this will help foster conversations between you, your creative team, your band members and anyone else involved.
As always, please leave any questions, comments or concerns in the comment section below.