In short, yes, yes and NO! I rarely have the words and music in front of me. I memorize them, and flow with the chords so they make sense, playing them from the heart (or by ear if you like) rather than reading them.
The Argument Against Words and Music Onstage
I have to admit, seeing music stands across the stage is something I really hate, and I think it looks terribly unprofessional. As I said before, when was the last time you saw a secular rock band on MTV with written music on music stands in front of them? They work hard, remember their words and chords, and I think we should be able to do the same. Sure, cover bands who are doing 500 songs from the 50s and 60s may use songbooks, but I think, if we are doing only 4-8 songs it a morning, there really is no excuse for us!
The Argument for Words and Music Onstage
However, it is better to have the words and music in front of you than forget what you are supposed to play/sing. I think each worship band should have a song book, enabling a quick change of songs if needed, but ideally they are only for reference. If you aspire to excellence and professionalism in your worship band, MINIMIZE THE USE OF MUSIC STANDS!
That being said, some like me find it much easier to play by ear than others, who are not comfortable working without seeing the words and music. I occasionally sneak a look at the projected words on the screen if I am in doubt.
The best way to do it, if you must, is to blow the songs up big and place them on the stage in front of you. Then the audience cannot see the fact that you are operating off a book, but the words are seen by you on stage. Any complaints that they cannot see them should be met with this response… they are only there for EMERGENCIES, not to be sight read through the entire song. The words and music are simply references if you need them.
I would also add that I have witnessed some incredibly uninspired worship featuring musicians who simply stare at the pages in front of them! It is extremely difficult to lose yourself in worship while sight reading music or words. So, guys, put in a bit of work, memorize the song as best you can, then play by heart and concentrate on worshiping the Lord, not reading the words or music. After all, the worship team is not really there to sing or play, but to lead others into worship.
Interestingly, Erick and I differ completely in our views of music and words onstage. I hate them, and he thinks they are great, so obviously there is no blanket ideas when i comes to this area.
So, everyone is different, and you need to make a decision about your band. But if you do need them, please keep words and music onstage to a minimum and make sure that your team are not just staring at them… At least make it look as though they care enough to learn the song properly!