Learning New Worship Songs through YouTube

YouTube makes it easier to learn worship music, but it could also lead to cookie-cutter worship and unreasonable expectations for musicians.

It wasn’t that long ago that I had a tower of blank CDs on my desk ready to burn with new songs for the worship team to learn. But today, song performances can be shared in seconds. Team emails are now filled with YouTube links and pleas to listen, listen, listen before coming to rehearsal.

But does the ease of YouTube raise any concerns? What are wise practices that leaders can follow?

In recent months, I’ve found experience with my students and the thoughts of musicologist Matthew Thibeault to be a helpful guide.

Recreate, don’t imitate

Concerns about the use of YouTube in music learning are not unlike the rise of sound recordings introduced by the phonograph.

Before the phonograph, when music was heard, it was commonly through the performance of others, and there was little opportunity for repetition. It was there and gone. The reverberation of the performance, however, remained in the ear, and a musician would try to recreate that sound, often with the aid of written sheet music. The result was a new performance, a recreation that was localized and personal.  

With the advent of sound recordings, and today with YouTube, music has become perpetual and ubiquitous. As any parent knows, “Let it Go” can be heard at least 20 times in one day.

What does this mean for worship leaders? The capability and ease of repetition that YouTube affords creates the possibility of copying the actual performance itself. Some teams may try to imitate the sound of the arena-filling anthems of Hillsong United, match the vocal style of Kari Jobe, or sing the soaring tenor melodies of Chris Tomlin. But such massive sound, pop style, or vocal range is inauthentic to or unrealistic for most small, local worshiping communities.

Additionally, the temptation to copy a performance leaves less room for inspiration or for making a song one’s own. Rather than a localized, embodied performance of communal singing, a congregational song may become a mere reproduction without heart and soul. This concern is an echo of composer John Philip Sousa, who wrote, “Children are naturally imitative, and if, in their infancy, they hear only phonographs, will they not sing, if they sing at all, in imitation and finally become simply human phonographs—without soul or expression?” (“Ubiquitous Music Learning in a Postperformance World,” Thibeault, 198).

In actual practice, of course, adaptation inevitably takes place. The exact instrumentation is not available, the caliber of musicianship is not present, or the quality of sound mixing does not exist. At the same time, it is often the unique signature and imperfections of a community’s pianist, singers, and congregational voice that gives the music performance a sense of soul. It’s what makes it localized and embodied—our worship.

Still, I often notice in myself and in my students a drive to reproduce the YouTube video rather than creating a unique performance. We see evidence of this drive whenever we nix an idea in rehearsal because it deviates from the video we sent around. We know it in the disappointment we feel when our glockenspiel player is not available to match the sweet Gungor arrangement, or when our electric guitarist can’t seem to nail the riff to every Hillsong arena rock anthem. There’s regret—even though we know our capacity—that songs don’t sound more like the recordings.

Realistic standards?

This drive to match the YouTube video can create unrealistic standards of excellence and a drive for perfection.  Indeed, Thibeault writes, “20th century musicians did begin to emulate recordings in the ways Sousa foresaw,” with performances then “sacrificing spontaneity for consistency, surprise for an aspiration toward flawless performance” (Thibeault, 198).

The pursuit of excellence can be healthy. But when standards are unrealistic, worship leaders lay unreasonable and frustrating demands on themselves and their volunteer teams, paralyzing them with a fear of failure and inadequacy. Worship leaders might ultimately lose a vital sense of playfulness, freedom, and creativity in arranging and leading.  

Extraordinary vs. Ordinary

I also worry about the impressions left on the imaginations of worship leaders through repeated viewing of YouTube videos. Many YouTube videos present not just music and lyrics, but also visuals of concert settings and the performance practices in these settings.

Professional light shows, packed arenas, zoomed-in footage of attractive and expressive worshippers, and young, thin, beautiful leaders with Australian accents all are extraordinary. One might pay for that experience. But the church—the church is ordinary. Jesus is “so ordinary, so uncharismatic, so unexciting, so everyday human,” Eugene Peterson writes (Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places, Eerdmans, 2005, 35).

How does watching videos again and again shape our expectations for what worship is and what it should look like? Might it blur the presence and activity of Jesus, the true wonder, in the quiet, the understated, the surprising, the amateur, and the lowly? As Peterson writes, “Bright lights and amplification are not accessories to the cultivation of wonder” (Christ Plays, 121).

Dependence

YouTube wants its viewers to watch its videos again and again—not unique in the world of for-profit websites. It is an example of “technologies that foster a dependence and aim, in part, to create lifelong consumers of that very technology” (Thibeault, 209). That ease of accessing music, though, can create an unhealthy dependence on YouTube.

If an Egyptian song of peace, for example, is identified in a songbook but not found on YouTube, might a worship planner opt for another song? If a leader can’t find a recording of a new song written by a local worship musician, might she be less willing to take the time to learn it from the lead sheet? If one discovers a contemporary hymn with an outstanding text, might he decide that it’s not right for his team because he can’t easily share a link to YouTube?

What then?

The practice of watching YouTube videos to learn worship music is not going away. What habits can we cultivate, then, to use YouTube more deliberately and critically? Are there ways of sharing and watching YouTube videos that can be a form of active life-long learning and not merely imitation?

Delay and Diversity

One practice is to delay listening to YouTube videos. Consider learning the tune and changes from a lead sheet first; then look to YouTube videos for inspiration. This way, the worship leader is not biased toward how a song “ought” to be led and finds more freedom and imagination for how a song can be arranged for a local context.

Another practice is to approach a new song by listening to a variety of recordings along with a lead sheet. This way the musician is continually comparing recordings to the given musical notation, is presented with a range of possibilities in performance practice, and is able to imagine the best presentation for her worshipping context.

Search for live recordings

The unique quality of a congregation’s voice can distinguish a live worship recording over a studio recording. Even though a live worship recording can be mixed and modified in post-production (often minimizing the congregational singing), it is closer to the sound of worship in a local congregation when it includes the voice of the people.

Listening to live recordings helps worship leaders tune their ears to and quicken their hearts for the sound of the congregation. Hearing the voice of the people raised in song can inspire us to pursue the sound of full singing in our contexts beyond the riffs and rhythms of the band.

Listen to the audio without the video

Another strategy for using YouTube videos is to listen to the audio without the video. This avoids the impact of concert images upon the imagination and limits unhealthy expectations for celebrity and extraordinary style and performance.

Remember, too, that large concert venues and staged studio session videos are not the only options available on YouTube. Lyric videos are good alternatives. These videos include only the audio and lyrics of a song, as with a PowerPoint display.

Worship Together’s Worship Leader New Song Café provides stripped-down arrangements (often with guitar or piano alone) performed by the artist. Sovereign Grace Music provides “acoustic sessions,” with simplified arrangements of their songs. I’m also intrigued by a song story and tutorial uploaded by All Sons and Daughters for their song “I Surrender,” which includes a simple performance of the song along with chord changes and visuals of the keyboard and guitar fingerings. All these options help musicians focus on the basics of the melody, chords, and rhythm, and they leave the leader free to consider the best arrangement for her context.

Last, having a sense of humor about concert and studio videos can disarm the power of the images presented. When watching a concert video of a young, stylish, and attractive young artist, I’ll try to make my team members blush by saying, “I bet he’ll make a really good husband someday.” Or I’ll joke that the hipster worshipers surrounding the band all went shopping at H&M that morning. Naming and poking fun at these images helps us discern the contrasts between the extraordinary on YouTube and the ordinary of our local churches and communities.

Community and making music together

With the ubiquity of sound recordings and the popularity of YouTube, it is reasonable to suppose that the act of making live music in community might decline. It’s depressing to imagine musicians becoming mere consumers limited to the creative capacity of adjusting the volume control. There is great significance and value in making music together. Thibeault writes that such gatherings remind us of the value of face-to-face communion, a value that should be dear to worshiping communities.

Fortunately, making music together appears to be alive and well among my students. In this context, I’ve observed that YouTube videos are often watched with the goal of learning and then adapting a song together in unique ways. Moreover, YouTube offers a way of organizing virtually but coming together physically (Thibeault, 205). In this way, YouTube can be an efficient tool in the music-making process.

Curation

All these “best practices” suggest an opportunity for curation. Thibeault writes that for learning music, curation of the most helpful videos might “work to keep learners oriented toward expanding their musical horizons rather than amplifying their own interests” (Thibeault, 203).

So how can worship leaders select and curate YouTube videos to enhance music learning? Can we gather videos of unfamiliar but high quality praise and worship songs to raise their profile? Can we curate collections of the best recordings of songs from different regions of the world? Can a YouTube version of a new denominational hymnal be curated? Can multiple versions of a song be gathered to capture the breadth and diversity of performance practices? These and many other curated collections could help curtail some of the concerns of using YouTube videos and broaden their effectiveness for choosing and learning songs for worship.

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