How to make it happen: a beginners' guide

by Paul Roberts 2002 [edited 2012]

Making your own resources

Alternative worship involves people in using an astonishing range of creativity, imagination, technical know-how and physical hard work. All of this can be a bit daunting for anyone new to it. Don't worry! We all have to start somewhere, and you can add new techniques (and invent some of your own) as you and the group grow in confidence. However, there's no point re-inventing a wheel that someone has invented before you. So here are some common guidelines which come from a range of experiences over a number of years, from a number of different alternative worship groups.

Music & sound

I'm not a musician, so I'm not going to say much about writing or playing your own stuff. If you're not a musician either, then check out our resources pages for pre-recorded music you may wish to use. If you are a musician, just a few words from a non-specialist:

Remember that a good song to be performed is not the same as a good song for everyone to sing.

The melody for singing together must be much simpler, have a more narrow dynamic and vocal range, and a simpler rhythmic variation. Although there will always be some good singers in a service who can follow the syncopation of a difficult melody line, most will be struggling and it'll sound ragged. Other than that, I've nothing to offer on the subject of composition.

A number of alternative worship groups write lyrics to instrumental tracks that they like: often these use simple repetetive chants, and sometimes the original track is digitally edited, or interspersed with sampled loops to make it more suitable for the chant.

Besides using background pre-recorded music or backing tracks, you may wish to experiment on your own. Some kind of editing facility comes in useful eventually. One of the easiest ways of doing this is on a computer with a sound card. If you've got a decent soundcard (Soundblaster) then you should be able to record, edit and playback samples or complete songs (assuming you've got a nice big hard-disk) without too much problem. Don't bother using an 'on-motherboard' soundcard - they invariably distort the sound horribly, and won't produce anything worth playing over a PA.

One nice technique is to loop samples. Until a couple of years ago, we used to use quarter-inch magnetic (reel-to-reel) tape loops, with very critical editing to do this. With the advance of computer technology, it's now much easier to do it digitally. For this you'll need decent WAV-file recording software, such as Steinberg Wavelab or Wavelab Lite which comes free with some Soundblaster cards. You'll need to record from a soundsource (normally the CD drive of your computer). Then you can highlight the portion of the piece you want to loop - using a standard highlighting technique. Then you press a few buttons to tell the software to loop the selected portion, and hey-presto! When looping, it's best to pick sections of tracks that don't vary in volume too much. Also, for really good loops, they need to be fairly repetitive, and ideally have some 'clicky' bit to act as a loop marker - such as a high-pitch plucked chord, or cymbal.

All you then need to do is master to CD or MP3 for as long as you think you'll need. Other things can be sampled and looped in a similar way. I've got a great piece I recorded from Radio Vatican on shortwave radio, with tons of nuns saying the Ave Maria with loads of phasing and other distortion. You can record vox pop from people in the streets and treat it to some interesting effects (like slowing it down, up-pitching or down-pitching, etc.)

Video

Again, computers are taking over here as well, but most people start with a small TV and a couple of VCRs coupled together to produce edited video, or looped video. Generally, video work is more time-consuming than music (at least, in my experience).

Computers which have video capture and playback cards are capable of editing video sequences, and also looping them like soundcards can (see Music page). However you need a fast computer, and a lot of RAM and hard disk space to do this effectively. We now have a fair number of video loops which were produced on computer. The quality is good.

You must be careful about mastering onto VHS. Don't use the LP (long-play) facility, as this inevitably leads to a deterioration of quality. Also, it's nice to keep to one sample per tape. You might be able to get a supply of 10-minute tapes, which are usually fine for most video loops.

The latest kid on the technological block for alternative worship is DV (digital video). If you're going to buy a DV camera, look-out for one with DV-out and DV-in, and for a Firewire interface. With that lot, plus a state-of-the-art PC or Mac with a Firewire interface, and you'll have yourself an in-house digital recording/editing/mastering facility which will be able to match commercial broadcasts. It's also nice to buy a DV camera which is capable of recording in low-light conditions - you'll be able to record the services then! As for me, I'm still dreaming... (sigh).

Creative Writing

This doesn't cost any money at all - just use your imagination. If you're not used to writing to be read aloud, it's a good idea to have a kind and honest critic who will help you tidy it up a bit. Here are some guidelines for writing good prayers, meditations, prose etc:

  • Keep sentences short

  • Use simple, straightforward language - otherwise it'll sound pretentious

  • Address God like you think, rather than how you'd speak - the result is much more natural and direct

  • Keep ideas bunched together in paragraphs - don't put two different concepts into the same paragraph

  • When writing a prayer, 'think' about God (say something about/to God) before 'asking' God

  • Avoid ultra-religious 'Gloreeeee Lordy' language - it acts as a jargon barrier to people on the church fringe

  • It might be worth experimenting with calling God 'she'/'her'/'mother', but remember that this might have a high impact and may eclipse other things you say in the vicinity of that language, alternatively you may...

  • try using him/her he/she randomly in your praying - making a gentle point that God is both/and male/female, transcending single gender

  • If you deliberately use archaisms ('thee', 'thou', 'thy'), don't mix them with modern pronouns

  • In intercessions, use 2nd person plural unless you deliberately allow each person to put themselves into the 1st person singular language by some mode of introduction

  • When reading your creations, don't rush the words, but read them slowly enough for people to savour. Experiment reading aloud what you've written as part of the writing process.