Sometimes We’ve Just Got To Sing

at the farmOn the way home from our family reunion a few weeks ago, I was reminded once again how important music is to each of us, how integral it is to life, and how so much color is added to our lives by it.

We sang a few songs at the reunion, from Loggins & Messina and James Taylor to Chris Tomlin and Keith Green. Really fun. But when we left at the end of the day, the music wasn’t over just yet.

We had been driving back to our motel for just about two hours. The family farm is in northern Michigan, but we were staying near Sue’s brother’s house, so it was a hike. My grandson Emery rode in the back seat while she and I navigated up front.

Emery had finished watching whatever DVD from his collection, then he had a short conversation with Sue about the magazine she was reading. After that, he was quiet for a few moments. Then, he started to sing.

Now he’s just a little guy, and I really have no idea what the song was. Not a clue. Couldn’t tell what the lyrics were. And the melody, while purposeful, was not quite recognizable. Yet he sang with joy, control, and artistry.

I was really proud!

our stageWhether we’re singing in a group or by ourselves, whether we’re singing ancient pop tunes (like in the 80′s? are those ancient now?) or praise songs, we are musical beings. And as I understand it, the fact that humans must sing is a universal truth.

It might be a song I heard a long time ago. Might be harmonizing to a tune on the radio. Let me tell you, I can sound pretty darned impressive in my car.

When I sing, I express my heart, my experiences, my optimism and my hurts, in a way that goes beyond mere communication. My soul peeks out through the melodies and lyrics. My life feels more colorful when I can sing.

When I don’t sing for a long time, I think I go a little stir crazy. And at 5 years old, my grandson gets it.

Is it just us, or does singing help your soul breathe, too?

I’d love to hear from you! Please leave your comment below, or email any questions you may have about singing, musicianship, or how to use music theory to

© 2014 Steve Case

7 Steps To Successfully Reinvent Cover Tunes

From my grandmother's Edisonphone to smartphones

From my grandmother’s Edisonphone to smartphones

So we’re in rehearsal for our weekend services, working on a song pretty new to me and the team. The original artist did a great job with it, but we just can’t seem to nail it down. The groove is elusive, the tempo’s not right, so far the song is not too healthy. Will we be able to get it on its feet, or will it never make it out of the lab?

I do some quick mental gymnastics and come up with a plan. “Okay, let’s have the keyboard do this, and the guitar can do that, then if we all get softer here and gradually louder into here, it should work. Ready? Let’s try it.”

Immediately one of my musicians, who knows the song well, speaks up. “But that’s now how it is on the recording…”

And he is right. It isn’t even close.

So what do we do now?

If you are in a band or on a worship team, I’m quite sure this question has popped up. The fact is, we have a mental recording of the song playing in our heads that sounds great. Inspiring. Motivating. Awesome. The right way to play the song.

Then we go to play it ourselves, and it’s not even in the same neighborhood as the original.

The Recording Is Ground Zero

Our first impression of a song stays with us for a long time. We like it or we hate it, or it is simply background noise and we don’t care. But however we first heard it – whoever the artist was, whatever their arrangement, and whether it was live or in the studio – that first impression becomes the gold standard for us, for that song.

But rather than throw in the towel, decide to give up on our dreams of becoming great musicians and stick with our pizza delivery job, there are some options. Good ones.

7 Steps To Re-Arrange The Song

1. Assess the character of the song

Know where you’re starting, whether the song is serious, humorous, in your face or reflective. Then decide if you want to give it the same mood or try something new.

2. Identify musical hooks

There will be a melody line, an unusual chord, a really catchy rhythm or a lyric that you won’t be able to get out of your head. That would be the hook, and it will give the song much of its memorable quality.

3. Let go of your compulsion to play the song “the right way”.

This has to be a conscious choice. The fact is, every time you play a song, you are playing some sort of arrangement of it, that is, you are using somewhat different instruments and voices to replay the song, now in your own setting. Even when you try to stay as true to the original as you can, it won’t be the exactly same as the recording.

4. Assess your own abilities and those of your band.

Where are your strengths? (No matter how different they may be.) Maybe your guitarist isn’t lightning fast but you’ve got a banjo player who can hold his own. If it’s just you and your guitar, what style are you really good at?

5. Rearrange the song to reflect your strengths.

Make sure the hook is still heard, unless you want to make the song sound completely new and different. If it’s still not working, try a more dramatic change. How do you think it would sound if (insert your favorite artist here) were to play and sing it?

6. Take a chance and change the genre.

The next even more dramatic change would be to cross genres, or stylistic families of songs. For example, if the song started out as a rock power ballad, try it as an unplugged acoustic ballad. If it started out as an uptempo country rock song, how would it sound as a big-band swing tune, or maybe a Bob Marley brand of reggae?

7. Sell it.

Whether you go with an approximation of the original or something entirely out of the blue, you’ve got to let the listener know you believe in your song. Play it like your way is the only right way for the song to sound. Commit yourself to it. Groove with it. It is now your song.

Reality and My Guitar

When I started playing pop songs, I quickly realized that no matter what I did, my one acoustic guitar would never sound like the the Doobie Brothers or Earth, Wind and Fire (back in the day, these were the quintessential experts on the radio, among others). But I did have 6 strings, 10 fingers, 1 voice, and some creativity.

Realizing I didn’t have to strum all the strings at once, or that I could beat on my guitar for a little percussion, adding a hard strum on 2 and 4 to replace the snare drum, moving the bass note of the chord around in lieu of a bass player… and on and on. It didn’t sound like the recording, but that didn’t matter anymore. I could do a decent, entertaining version of the song using the tools I had.

And once I let go of “should I play it like the record?”, I had way more fun.

Do you ever feel like you’re tied to how the recording sounds? Try some of the steps above and let me know how they work for you!

Please leave your comment below, or email any questions you have about musicianship, music theory or worship teams to

© 2014 Steve Case

How To Play Fills – When You’re Not The Drummer (The Art Of The Fill, pt 2)

Mike on the kit

Drums are the most in-your-face instrument for playing fills, and everyone expects the drummer to telegraph what’s coming up next in the song. But the best arrangements build on their foundation, using every other instrument to drive the song forward in their own ways. Each instrument can add its own brand of fills.

Ramping Up

If verses are well-traveled roads and choruses are interstates, then musical fills are the on and off ramps.

Let’s say I’m speeding along (figuratively, of course) toward my destination and suddenly realize my turn is the one I’m about to go by. I slam on the brakes while glancing at the rear-view mirror, crank the wheel and squeal around onto the new road. As the honking from the surprised drivers around me fades from my ears, I start to breathe again and loosen my death grip on the steering wheel.

I have made it through the transition from one road to the next.

But without warning other drivers around me, it could have been my last turn. At least in that car.

If only there had been an off-ramp.

Use The Rhythm Section

Fills prepare us for what musical thing comes next. We might ramp the energy up or down, or maybe even sideways as we move into a new style of playing.

Fills can (and should) be played on every instrument in the rhythm section, at least. So I’m talking about guitars, keys, bass, drums and percussion.

In the following example, you’ll hear a different instrument do a fill as we near the end of each 4-measure phrase. I did this kind of fast and it needs some tweaking, but see if you can tell where each fill begins.


What About Everybody Else?

Monophonic instruments (fancy way of saying they play one note at a time) can lead the ear using fills as well, embellishing melodies with extra notes or improvising around the tune with more energy as the new section gets closer. And yes, vocalists can fill, too.

Melodic fills are helpful when layered on top of the rhythm section, to add more tension as we head up the on-ramp toward say, the chorus. They really can’t carry the groove of the song without the other instruments. But they certainly can add color and energy when in tandem with the rhythm section.

Here is the same progression with a lead line that contributes to the forward motion of the song.


You don’t have to play something really complicated in order to do a fill. Remember, it’s a ramping up or down of the energy level. Simpler is probably better most of the time. Use rhythms that feel a little off balance, the tension will grow the longer you keep it up, and when you hit the new section of the song, go right into the new groove. Ramp up toward a chorus by gradually getting louder, then at the end of the chorus, soften it down or thin it out again. Increase or decrease the brightness of the sound, raise and lower the octave you’re playing in. Choose the direction of the fill and alter the energy level thinking about where you’re about to be.

Ready to add some really great fills in your own songs? Add more intention to your fills every 4 or 8 measures, then let me know how it sounds!

You can leave your comment below, or email me with any questions about rhythm sections, music theory or general musicianship at

© 2014 Steve Case

Fills, Turn Signals and Unexpected Moments (The Art Of The Fill, pt 1)

turn signalFills are instrumental (usually) tools that lead us through transitional points in the song. Verses in pop songs usually sound smaller or simpler than the choruses, for example. If I simply end one section and start the next, it will sound abrupt and unexpected. Do that enough and you’ll totally lose the listener as they dial in a new station to listen to.

The listener is expecting some sort of connection with the music, consciously or not, and the natural tension in the music will lead them through their own emotional journey. And the journey they are looking for will be full of unexpected moments.

Unexpected moments, when they are short and logical, draw the listener’s attention and add to their delight. Unexpected moments that are illogical or too long (when the groove is lost, or when pauses interrupt the flow of the song) become irritating.

What The Turn Signal Is Really For

When I get into my car, I expect an experience that is very similar to the last experience I had in my car. Namely, that I’ll follow the rules of the road, the other drivers on the road will get along with me okay, and we’ll all successfully get where we’re going.

When something unexpected happens, that’s when my irritation meter starts to rise. If it’s quick, like someone pulling in front of me with no signal, I can handle the spike in my emotions (“how could they possibly think that pulling out in front of me with no signal was a good idea, the jerk”).

A little more challenging is the failure in my own vehicle (a slow leak becomes a flat tire, the engine overheats, or the brakes give out- why didn’t I get those fixed, now I’m the jerk). That indicates a lack of planning on my part, resulting in a lengthy inconvenience.

An even larger challenge is when other drivers get involved in an ongoing relationship with me but I’m really not wanting one with them (like when I get rear-ended, or I get pulled over for some unknown reason…).

The point is, the trip in my car will feel the most successful when I not only arrive at my destination, but when I arrive with my emotional balance and personal integrity intact. Unexpected moments were handled with grace, and I did my best to help others have a successful interaction with me on the road. And so I will signal when changing lanes, and I’ll do my best not to cut in front of people.  I need to let people know what to expect when I’m driving.

Fills = Musical Turn Signals

You and I expect to hear audible signals when a song goes from one section to another. When we don’t hear a fill, the transition can be abrupt. We’ll save the abrupt transitions for special moments. Smooth transitions are primarily accomplished through fills. Yes, the chords matter and provide their own forward movement. But these days the rhythms propel the song forward even more strongly than the chords do.

When To Play Fills

With our Western European ears (in terms of our music), we automatically listen for groups of four: four beats per measure, four measures per phrase, four phrases in a verse or chorus. It feels really natural to us musically and lyrically for new phrases to begin every four measures. So every time we are about to begin a new phrase, a fill can lead us in. Fills can be played with any instrument, and they can be sung as well. Fills not only telegraph changes in the musical style or texture, it leads the listener through each change from start to finish.

Think of the last time you watched Tarzan (I know this is a stretch, but bear with me) putting his arm around Jane while he grasps the miraculously appearing vine with his other hand and swings from tree to tree. He successfully takes his passenger from one place to another, handling the transition flawlessly. She is along for the ride and knows that the endeavor will probably work out well. But she is not in control. All she can do is sit tight and try not to scream. Maybe swoon, depending on who’s playing Tarzan.

Fills do that for the listener. They handle the transition, and all the listener can do is hold on. But it doesn’t last very long. It is exciting to be taken on the ride, and though the listener expects it to turn out well, he is not the one in control. It can be a thrilling ride.

What Do You Think?

Here is a quick and dirty example of a short song with no fills. The chords themselves provide some interest and contrast, but the fills are missing.

Now listen to the same short song with various length drum fills added at the end of every 4 measures.


Next week, we’ll take a look at fills on each of the rhythm section instruments.

How do you think about using fills? Do you use them strategically in your songs?

Please leave your comment below, or email me at

© 2014 Steve Case

10 Song Attributes To Strengthen Or Sink Your Set List

Which block comes next?

Which block comes next?

I want to get specific with you today on my process for creating a set list. In my context, I’m choosing songs to lead worship at my church. Most of these still apply, however, when you’re doing concerts or clubs.

A well-crafted set list will take the audience seamlessly through a range of emotions.

At the beginning of the set, everyone is in a different emotional place, often just because of how their day has been shaping up. So at the beginning of the set, the goal is to capture attention, interest, curiosity.

By the end of the set, people will be rejoicing, reflective, inspired, contrite – and the songs were the catalyst, breaking down emotional defenses and feeding the soul.

Now for me, creating a really solid set list may take hours. I’m sure I’m not as fast at it as some. But I’ve learned to kind of live through the list, making decisions on songs based on the following attributes. I have found that using a spreadsheet to track all of these attributes, while time-intensive, is really helpful.

The Song Attributes I Look At (In No Particular Order)

1) Topic – What characteristic of God does the song emphasize? What encouraging message will come through to the congregation? Sometimes we may tie the songs topically to the sermon (opening intellectual doors), but often I’ll create a stand-alone set of praise and thanks (opening emotional doors).

2) Title – What does the song title say about the message we’re about to sing? Will it give people a sense of joyful anticipation (like “Today Is The Day”), or concern (like “Let The Waters Rise”), or mystery (like “Praise Adonai” – what does “Adonai” mean)?

3) Hook – Most songs these days have some sort of lyrical and musical hook, a phrase that will stick in your mind and come back to you over and over. Does the song I’m choosing have a strong hook? Is it a hook I want people to be singing all week?

4) Text Direction* – Are we singing about God or singing to God? Or both in the same song? Jumping back and forth can diffuse focus, while choosing one text direction that leads into the other will help the congregation be intentional with their thoughts and expression.

5) Tempo – similarly, the tempo of each song can help the overall feel of the set. Starting fast and ending slow can lead into personal reflection and prayer; starting slow and ending fast can lead into a joyous celebration. And if enough time is available, thoughtful combinations of tempos can work quite nicely.

6) Style and Genre – While blending styles or musical genres look good on paper, keep your style pretty consistent throughout the set. Use a maximum of two styles or genres in a set. Any more will cause people to tune out, and your worship set will feel more like a variety show.

7) Key* – If you want your congregation to sing, make the key accessible to them. If it’s a great song for tenors, it will be too high for most people to stretch up to. If it works well for altos, raise it just a little and it should work for almost everyone. A good range is from Bb (just below middle C) up to D (a ninth above middle C).

8) Rhythmic Framework and Groove – though this will sound a little geeky, decide if the song is built mainly with eighths, sixteenths or triplets. Sometimes going directly from one song to another creates a super-smooth transition in your set, and using songs with similar rhythmic frameworks will allow you to do that. When the groove or framework is different, you will probably need to end one song before you segue (connect) into another.

9) Frequency – When is the last time you played this song? Are people still finding it as helpful to them when they worship, or has it been overused? Determining the appropriate frequency of use for each song in your library can help you anticipate it’s continued helpfulness. Update this attribute often as you pay attention to how people respond to each song. A useful spectrum for scheduling songs is as follows:

  • new songs (repeat often so the people can learn them*)
  • once a month songs
  • once a quarter songs
  • twice a year songs
  • once a year songs
  • once every few years

10) Team* – if you have multiple worship teams, how long has it been since this team has played this song? Keeping songs fresh for the team will help keep them fresh for the congregation.

*These attributes are important for leading worship.

Which song attributes are the most important to you?

Please leave your comment below, or email me at with any questions about worship leading, musicianship or music theory. I’d love to hear from you!

© 2014 Steve Case

Dynamics And You: Playing To The Back Of The House

dynamics graphic

Dynamic Contrast (real soft to real loud to kind of soft)

The need for contrast is huge in order for the listener to get a sense of direction for the song. The only way for the ear to experience the audible journey through a song is to continuously hear something new. What it hears now is not what it heard a few seconds ago.

A key way to make that happen is through the use of dynamics.

Dynamic Contrast

Dynamics are the louds and softs in the music. You have many options at your fingertips for using them:

  1. play at different volume levels from very soft to very loud. Think of it on a scale from 1 to 10.
  2. gradually get louder as you play (called a crescendo), or gradually get softer as you play (called a diminuendo or decrescendo)
  3. play a note or a chord significantly louder than the ones around it (called an accent)

There are more terms we use (mostly Italian) to refine how loud or soft we should play, according to the composer (or editor, or arranger). Often these terms relate the intended mood. For example, the word forte we usually will say means “loud”, but to be precise, it really means “strong”.

If They Didn’t Hear It, We Didn’t Play It

But here’s the hardest part, I think, of playing with dynamic contrast. We can create a slight change in the volume level and feel the difference as we play. But the listener probably won’t hear it. Unless she is reading along in the music or expecting subtle changes in volume, she will most likely miss it.

And I remember a former band director telling us, “if they (the audience) didn’t hear it, you didn’t play it!”

So we really need to over-emphasize the dynamics in our songs. Play with more of a difference between soft and loud, so that the listener can’t miss it.

Playing to the Back of the House

There is an expression in the theater that says an actor must play to the back of the house. Every movement, every word spoken or lyric sung must be overdone so that a person sitting in the back of the theater can easily follow the dialog and action.

Now in the middle of the theater, the same actor and scene will appear slightly over the top, but it is easy to watch.

Up in the front rows, however, if the acting, singing, and movements are being done correctly, it will look quite unnatural. As a matter of fact, it will look, well… goofy.

That’s theater, we know to expect it when we buy the tickets, so it’s okay.

Musically, we need (in my opinion) to practice overdoing the volume changes. Make a subtle change into a more prominent change. Make a prominent change into an obviously big change. Make an obviously big change into what feels like a ridiculously huge change.

Play dynamic changes so big that the listener can’t miss it.

Are you stretching the loud/soft contrasts when you play? Let me know how this works for you! You can leave your comment below, or email me at

And if you haven’t signed up yet to have these posts and our emails come right to your inbox, take a minute and do it now! When you do, you’ll be able to download our free audio guide and infographic, “Ten Reasons You Aren’t Thriving As A Musician”. We hope it inspires you to go to the next level with your music, or get back on task if you’ve lost a little traction.

© 2014 Steve Case