What We Can Learn from Michael Jackson

I just re-watched Michael Jackson’s This Is It. Now, I’ll go on record stating that I’m not a huge MJ fan. I appreciate his artistry and showmanship, but I don’t have any of his music on my iPod. It’s good stuff, just not my cup of tea. I originally saw This Is It in the theater when it came out last fall. At first, I was a bit put off by his physical appearance, but after a while I was drawn in by the incredible talent he possessed and the amazing show they were preparing. 

Today as I watched it again, a few themes emerged that I think we as technicians and musicians can learn from. Note that I’m not saying we should be like Michael Jackson; rather these are a few illustrations of how we could be better at what we do every weekend.

Know the Material
During one scene in the film, Michael is working out a part with the keyboard player. The musician obviously studied the part and knew it pretty well, but Michael knew it exactly. Every note, every beat and the exact feel. Other times we saw him working out vocal parts with the background singers and he could sing every line. The man obviously knew the songs backwards and forwards.

How much time do we spend during the week getting to know the songs we’ll be mixing or playing on Sunday? Far too many times I’ve seen musicians show up, pull out the charts and ask, “So how are we playing this?” or “Wait, what’s that part?” Other times, I’ve seen FOH engineers turn a guitar-led song into a piano-led number because they weren’t familiar with the recording. 

I’m not saying there isn’t room for artistic interpretation and expression, but there’s a difference between showing up prepared and putting your signature on it and flying blind hoping not to crash. Technology is making this easier than ever. More and more churches are using Planning Center Online which makes it dead-simple to attach MP3s of each song so the entire team can listen during the week and familiarize themselves with the material. 

I’ve been encouraging my entire tech team to spend a few minutes and listen to the songs before the weekend. It helps lighting designers come up with a feel for the song; camera people know when solos are going to happen and video directors know when to switch to them. Presentation techs will have a better idea of where to break verses up and obviously FOH engineers will know how to set up the mix.

Treat Others with Respect
Another favorite scene in the film happens when Michael is having problems with his IEMs. After struggling through I Want You Back, he stops, and says (and I’m paraphrasing because I didn’t transcribe this), “I’m struggling to adjust to the in-ears. It feels like there is a fist pushing down in my ear. And I’m saying this with love; L-O-V-E. But it’s really hard, you know?” 

We’ve all heard stories of big-name (and not-so-big-name) artists going off on monitor engineers because their monitor mix is not quite right. I once had a musician snap, “They need everything in their monitors, they just need it mixed well!” I’ve had musicians stop during rehearsal and say, “The mix is so bad, we just can’t go on!” These were church musicians. I’ve also seen engineers yell at musicians, “You can’t hear your guitar because you’re deaf!” 

Those are probably not the best way to build relationships. When a musician is willing to work with the engineer to achieve a good mix, everyone wins. When the engineer walks down on stage and asks, “Is there anything else I can do for you?,” everyone wins. Proverbs 15:1 says, “A gentle answer turns away wrath...” Yelling at people doesn’t build teams.

Share the Spotlight
Whatever you think about Michael Jackson, you can’t deny he was a mega-star. With all his stardom and fame, you would expect he would have every right to keep everyone in the background and keep the spotlight on himself. His fans would probably expect that. But that’s not what he did. He surrounded himself with dancers and vocalists and shared the spotlight.

In another favorite scene, he brings 24-year old Orianthi Panagaris up to the front of the stage for her guitar solo. Now, she’s a pretty amazing young guitarist, but she’s just that--young. He stops her several times and says, “Now really hit that high note, don’t worry if the rest of the band stops. This is your time to shine, and we’ll be right there with you.” 

That’s an amazing gift to give a young performer. We can do the same thing. Worship leaders can allow others to lead out and learn from the experience. As TDs, we can give younger techs and volunteers the chance to take on more than they ever thought they’d be capable of. And when someone compliments their work, we need to make sure they know it wasn’t us. 

I have a 15-year old lighting volunteer who is really, really good. I love giving him the chance to create magic with the lights. Our worship leader is very good about bringing others in to hone their skills at leading. Remember, it’s not about you, it’s about the team we’re building to bring glory to God. 

At the end of the film, they gather in a circle as Kenny Ortega and Michael thank everyone. Michael says, “This is a great adventure, not something to be nervous about. We just need to bring our best.” I think that should describe what we do every weekend. We don’t need to be nervous about bringing praises to God; it should be an adventure! When we bring our very best to God and offer it to Him, somehow, He transforms it into a magical experience that gives everyone in the room freedom to worship Him with their entire being. If that’s not a great adventure, I don’t know what is!

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