This week Mike talks about stewardship. Not the kind where you get the cheapest thing possible, but the kind where you get the best value for the money spent. He also talks about a new product he got to install, which was, incidentally, good stewardship.
This week, Mike offends everyone with a diatribe on why the ancient practice of getting three bids for an AVL project is a dumb idea. More than that, he’ll tell you the better way to do it. Don’t miss this one…
I’ve never been much of an athlete. I tried a couple of sports in school, but found I wasn’t good at any of them and thus never got any playing time. The only thing I had a modicum of success at was bowling, and that was because I and everyone else on my team was bad enough that we gained so many handicap points other teams couldn’t beat us. We were known as the Bely, Bely, Bely Bad Bowlers.
About three and a half years ago at age 50, I decided to start shooting my pistol competitively. Now, this isn’t as “athletic” as say, football or soccer, but the top shooters are fast on their feet, are in great shape and have a solid mental game. When I started, I had none of those things. I believe I finished my first match 19th out of about 32. The other day, I found myself 1st out of 42. Now, this is a local match, not a big one, but I did beat guys who have won state, regional and national trophies. I beat guys 20 years younger than me. How did that happen? A lot of work, and surrounding myself with people better than me.
In the last three years, I’ve taken 21 classes—some of them more than once—for a total of 130 hours of instruction, at a cost of over $5,000 (plus ammo). For the last 3 years I’ve shot 12,000-15,000 rounds annually. I shot 1-2 matches per month, and spent a lot of time watching the guys who were regularly beating me. I would ask them about their strategy, why they went left instead of right and whether dumping that last round was faster than reloading at slide lock. I’ve had guys shoot video of my stages and run it through software that times everything so I can see where I’m losing time. I’ve asked people to critique my technique. I took classes that were way to advanced for me and got my butt kicked. And I practiced. A lot.
Now, I’m not the world’s greatest shooter, and winning a local match doesn’t mean I’ve “arrived.” But, it is a significant achievement. It’s the culmination of a lot of work, time, effort and money. I feel pretty good about it. And next match, I’ll have to shoot better because everyone else will be a little better, too.
A Better Tech What does any of this have to do with a church production website? I was thinking about this the other day when someone on one of the Facebook groups asked how he could get better at mixing. I didn’t look at the replies because they tend to frustrate me. But the answer is remarkably similar to what I did to go from 19th place to 1st; work really hard, spend a lot of time and money and surround yourself with people better than you.
There’s really no secret to improving at anything. You simply have to do it—a lot. You need to be instructed on doing it better. All that is going to cost you. “But Mike, I’m just a volunteer at my church. You mean to tell me I’m going to have to spend my own money to get better at mixing?” Yup.
Let me tell you another story. I’ve been mixing live audio for almost 30 years. But it wasn’t until about 10-15 years ago that I got really serious about it. By then, I was on staff at church. You know what I did to get better? I took vacation time, spent my own money and went to every conference I could. While at those conferences, I sought out guys who were better engineers than I and I picked their brain. I’ve had conversations that went into the wee hours of the morning plumbing the depths of various mixing techniques.
When I would get home, I’d boot up virtual soundcheck and try out those techniques. Then I’d turn around and do it again. One year, I went to nine conferences. Those weeks were way harder than a week of work and very often involved very little sleep. I didn’t take a “vacation” because all my days were used up going to shows.
I jumped at every chance I had to mix and I even occasionally sent my mixes off to others for critique. Talk about scary…
Note how the thing I did to get better at mixing are remarkably similar to improving my shooting? In fact, it’s pretty much the same thing we do to get better at anything. If you’re a volunteer or work for a church that doesn’t believe in training budgets (welcome to the club), you’re going to have to spend some of your own money. If you’re unwilling to do that, I’d argue you’re not really ready to get better.
Getting better at anything requires time, discipline and effort. It also comes at a cost. We take lessons, go to classes, hire coaches and instructors. We travel, take vacation time and spend money to get better at things we want to get better at—often these are just hobbies, like my shooting. I’m not going to become a professional shooter anytime soon. But I wasn’t satisfied with 27th, so I did the work to get better.
There’s no plugin, no magical piece of gear, no new speaker tuning that will make you better. You have to do the work. It’s going to require you to get out of your comfort zone, find people who are better than you and talk to them. You may have to invest in the equipment to do virtual soundcheck so you can practice. You need to read articles, blogs, magazines, watch videos and listen to a lot of music. You’ll need to travel, seek out opportunities to learn from others or maybe pay to fly someone in to learn from.
“But Mike, that sounds like it’s going to take a lot of work, time and money. I’m not sure I can do that!” Ok, cool. You can hang out on Facebook and look for the secret sauce that will make you a master. Meanwhile, those who want to get better will be doing the things that will get them there.
Lately, we’ve been working with churches that are in need of some organizational help in the tech/worship department. These churches tend to run weekends in the “by the seat of our pants” mode. I happen to know a little bit about this. Most of you know me as being hyper-organized and having everything planned out. And that’s true. But, I have worked at churches that weren’t thus. I took it as my calling to turn that around.
The Problems of Chaos No, that’s not a typo; chaos actually causes multiple problems. The biggest problem is that people burn out. Chaos is simply exhausting. If every weekend is a challenge because you didn’t know what was going to happen, who was going to be on stage, what inputs were needed, who was where…you’d simply get tired and quit. And that’s what most people do. If you’ve ever wondered why that rock-solid volunteer who was there every weekend for 3 years one day announced this was his last weekend, I can bet chaos was a big part of that decision.
Chaos also leads to sub-optimal performance. We can only focus on so many things at once, and when most of our focus is on solving problems we didn’t know were problems and figuring out how we’re going to pull this weekend off, we don’t have much processing power left to make it great. When every weekend is an attempt to simply survive, there’s not much room to thrive.
A Case Study As I said, I have some experience with this. Years ago, I joined the staff as a part-time TD. The church and the people were great, but they were not terribly organized. The tech team didn’t know until Thursday night when we all showed up for rehearsal who was going to be on stage playing what. So, instead of spending 7-9 rehearsing, we spent 7-8 setting the stage, troubleshooting things and making sure everything was working. The band was cheated out of an hour of rehearsal, and really, so was the tech team.
Being the master of organization that I am, I started sending out an email on Monday requesting the worship leader for that coming weekend send me their band list. And I needed it by Wednesday. Why Wednesday? Because that’s when I built my input list and stage plot.
At first, everyone balked at this. But after a few leaders got me their information and walked onto a stage that was completely set and ready to go—giving them an extra hour of rehearsal time—they started getting the picture.
Wednesday I would build the input list and stage plot, leaving that in the office for the retired couple who had volunteered to set the stage on Thursday morning. I showed up 10 minutes early on Thursday night to double-check everything, and rehearsals became more efficient, productive and enjoyable.
The weekends then went off without a hitch because we were all ready to go in advance. The volunteer team health went up by orders of magnitude and we generally enjoyed a year and a half of smoothly running weekend services. I left after a time to work full-time at another church, but it was reported back to me a few years later that they were still reaping the benefits of the work I put into organize everything.
How Do You Do It? So, how do you become organized and banish chaos from your weekend services? First, use Planning Center Online. Seriously. Use it. Yes, it will cost you a few dollars a month. One or two of your paid staff members might have to forgo their skinny boy decaf soy no foam latte once or twice a month to pay for it. Don’t care. Use Planning Center.
And when I say use it, I mean use it. The worship leader shouldn’t be entering the songs for Sunday morning on Saturday night at 10 PM. I mean by Monday or Tuesday, the people and plans for the weekend should be in there so everyone on the team knows what to expect.
In fact, as a crazy side benefit, you might find you can actually get more people to volunteer to be part of the weekend service when you can schedule them more than 2 days out. I know…mind blown.
But Mike…we have the same team every weekend. Nothing ever changes. We don’t need to schedule. Yeah, yeah, I hear that all the time. Then I also hear tales of woe—from the same churches that tell me that—about how when they have specials, or different people, or people can’t be there or something changes that it’s a mess. Huh. I thought it was always the same. Turns out, it’s not; you just think it is. Use Planning Center. If nothing else, it will help you organize your music library and give your musicians an easy way to practice during the week at home (yeah, I know I’m just talking loco now…).
Input Sheets & Stage Plots You need to do an input sheet and stage plot. Every week. Yes, I know your stage never changes and the band config never moves around. See the previous paragraph. It does more than you think. Moreover, if it never changes, it’s easy to do a stage plot and input sheet every week; just open last week’s change the date and save it. Now wasn’t that easy?
Well, except Bob is playing bass this week instead of Frank. And Bob uses a DI instead of a bass amp. An active DI come to think of it, so that needs phantom power. Oh, and Tammy can’t sing, so we don’t need her mic. But it’s the same every week. Really…
I actually laugh out loud when people spend 20 minutes complaining to me about how disorganized their services are and how they need help and they don’t know what do to make it better, and I say, Planning Center and Input Sheets, and they say, “We don’t need that.” Yes, you do.
Look, I’ve been doing production as a very serious hobby and/or professionally for 30 years. If tomorrow I joined the staff of a small country church that had three people on stage every week, the first thing I would do would be to make up a stage plot and input sheet. Could I do it in my head? Yes—I could do it in my sleep. However, the best practice I’ve found to making weekends run smoothly is to be organized. Knowing who will be there this weekend, where they are going to stand and how everything plugs in is the bare minimum I need to know to make things run smoothly.
Once you get past that, you can focus on being creative and making it awesome. But if you try to skip the organizational part and go straight to the new Waves Abby Road Saturation Made Easy and Awesome plugin, you’re going to fail. That’s not a dig on Waves, by the way; I hear that’s a super-cool plug.
Anyway, when I talk to really high-level production guys and they tell me that they do input sheets and stage plots every week, and use Planning Center to keep the people and music organized, I look at that as a clue. Those of us that have been doing this at a high level for a long time know that keeping the basics organized is the first step to making weekends great. With the simple stuff taken care of, you have a lot more mental space to think through whether a hall or plate reverb will sound better on the second song.
Mike’s back in the car talking priorities. As a TD, you have many things competing for your attention and time. How do you properly prioritize all those things? Which things are important, and which are merely urgent? Listen in and find out.
Van’s back in the truck and he’s talking about how to spark passion in your volunteer team. Some team members seem content to do average work every week. Van has some thoughts on how to help move them to the next level.