Question: How can you tell a vocalist is at your door?
Answer: They can’t find the key and don’t know when to come in!
Of course I’m joking, but it’s good to poke fun at ourselves every once in a while. All kidding aside, vocalists are one of, if not the most important members of the worship team. At the end of the day I could lose all my other instrumentalists and still be able to lead a group in worship with just my voice. Singing is the very heart of what we do in worship.
And yet, while vocals are essential to any worship team, they also present a particular challenge for worship leaders. Singing is a purely intuitive exercise. I can teach a guitarist how to finger a G chord, but I can’t show a vocalist how to manipulate their vocal chords to produce the right notes, vowels, and tones. Because of that, it’s often hard to get singers to improve their skills and abilities.
With all that in mind here are 5 tips to help vocalists become better members of any worship team:
1.) Follow the Leader
The goal for every worship leader is to get their congregation to sing and participate in worship. In order to do that there has to be only one leader at any given time to help direct and guide everyone. Most of the time the members of the vocal team are not leading the songs, which means they need to be the lead followers to help show the way for the congregation.
If you are on the vocal team when someone else is leading, be very attentive to that person. Follow the way they lead the arrangement of the song, how they sing the melody line, their dynamics and their tone quality. Don’t let your own opinions of how the song should go muddy the waters and confuse your congregation. One time when I was leading in a service, my vocalists jumped ahead of me on a verse and didn’t realize it until halfway through. It took the whole rest of the song to get our congregation back on the same page.
If you are the lead vocalist, know where you’re going and communicate it well. This includes having a good idea of the song arrangement in advance, and then using strong vocal cues to help everyone follow (“Let’s sing that again…” or “Sing ‘Name above all names!'”) Remember this is not a performance; your goal is to bring people along with you so make it crystal clear where you’re going.
2.) Listen to Others More Than Yourself
There is an old choir adage that says in order to sing in a group well you have to listen to those around you more than your own voice. I’ve mentioned before how vital good listening skills are for any musician, but for vocalists they are absolutely essential. It is simply impossible to sing well with others if you’re not able to hear their voices. It’s like trying to hit a golf ball into a hole 200 yards away with your eyes closed. It’s just not going to happen.
There are two things to listen for when singing in a group. The first is intonation. Intonation is a fancy way of talking about singing in tune. Having good intonation when you’re singing alone is hard enough, but in a group it requires serious effort and attention. In fact the only way to truly sing in tune with other people is to listen for the overtones that are created when the frequencies of the notes match up just right. (For more info on this check out a brief instructional video I did on the basics of intonation.)
The second thing to listen for is blend. This is basically how well your voice fits with other people. There are many elements that contribute to the blend of a group including vowel formations, tone quality, dynamics, and pronunciation. But the easiest way to achieve good blend is simply to try and sing like the people around you. If the team has a more nasal sound, match your tone to theirs. If they use rounder vowels open your mouth and let your vowels sync with theirs.
Good intonation and blend will help you and the other team members create those tight harmonies that make the music shine.
3.) Let Sheet Music Serve As A Guide, Not A Rule
One of the main differences between classical and contemporary styles of music is the way it was and is written. In the past, music was generally written first and played second. In other words, Mozart would sit down with a blank piece of sheet music and write out the notes, rhythms, dynamics, etc. and then take that sheet music and give it to his orchestra, which would then play it. These days the opposite is true. Contemporary songwriters, like Chris Tomlin or Matt Redman, will begin by playing and singing what it in their head and later transcribe it into sheet music.
Why am I mentioning this? Because generally, sheet music is very helpful for the method used in the past, and far less helpful for the method used today. Songwriters today generally don’t sing or play using rhythms or melodies that fit well on a 5 line staff with measures. So when music is written out it is simplified and streamlined to fit the traditional notation conventions. But that means the sheet music doesn’t really represent how the song should sound.
I bring this up for vocalists because many (not all) vocalists still rely on using some form of sheet music to learn songs. If that is you, remember that most often the sheet music for contemporary worship songs is at best a close approximation. There are often missing melodic embellishments and rhythmic alterations that don’t make into the published music. So use the sheet music as a guide, but use your ear to really listen for how the song should sound.
4.) Know Your Part
This is one I cannot stress enough, especially for background vocalists. Unlike any other instrument, background singers have a great temptation that can hinder their preparation and performance. It’s called “the melody”. I can’t tell you how many times over the years I’ve heard vocalists say, “Well if I lose my part I can just sing the melody, so it’s no big deal.” The truth is, musically it is a very big deal.
You’ll be hard pressed to find a good worship album that isn’t loaded with harmony parts. A well written vocal harmony part can do more than almost any other instrument to add to the power and dynamics of a song. If a background vocalist doesn’t know their part and switches to the melody, a large musical element of the song suddenly disappears. It would be like a drummer suddenly forgetting the groove and instead picking up a guitar to play along.
So whatever it takes, know your parts. If you sing harmonies by ear, figure them out in advance of the service (or the rehearsal) so you’re not fishing around for the right notes. If you use written out parts that are given to you, do whatever it takes to learn them confidently before you serve on the team.
5.) Sing It Like You Mean It
The great thing about being a vocalist is that we have the greatest freedom of expression as we sing in worship. Unlike the rest of the band which is tied down and limited by their instruments, we are totally free to express the music not just with our voices, but also with our faces and our bodies.
Unfortunately I’ve seen many worship teams where it looks like the vocalists really don’t know what they’re singing about. They’re singing the melodies, harmonies, and lyrics correctly, but it looks like they have no idea what the song really means. In most cases that’s not their intention, and internally they are completely engaged with the worship. But as leaders we need to show people how to worship, and that means expressing the emotions of the songs we sing.
Often times this lack of emotion comes from vocalists who are not confident in their parts or are distracted for some reason. My encouragement is to do whatever it takes to come focused and ready to communicate the messages of the songs we sing together. The best way to prepare for this is to practice singing while watching yourself in a mirror. Often we think we’re being very emotive, but in actuality our level of expression is far less than we think it is. Sing in front of a mirror and work on how you express yourself until it looks good and natural to you. Then it will look natural to everyone else.
As vocalists, we serve a vital role in leading our congregations in worship. It is a sacred charge and one we should seek to become better at each day.