Having had the opportunity of leading both Pentecostal/Charismatic worship services and Contemporary Christian English Worship Services, I have a good idea of the subtle and stark differences between the two worship styles. I attended Pentecostal churches for about 12 years and have been attending 'Contemporary English' churches for the past 12 years so a good half and half of my 24 years as a Christian has been spent in either or either. Although the two worship styles are very very different; Pentecostal is loud, jubilant, happy and outwardly expressive through dance, spontaneous clapping, un-orchestrated praise, whilst Contemporary English has all those demonstrations but is far more reserved and mute compared to the Pentecostal approach; they both throw up have some common vocal issues and mistakes when it comes to singing praise and worship. (When I say 'Worship leader' this includes Lead and backing vocalists)
Here is what I have learnt:
1. The Praise and Worship Leader does not warm-up Although this list is not in any order of importance, the no 1 place has to be given to warming up, only because many worship leaders seem rarely bothered to do them. If you have ever found it difficult to sing on a Sunday morning, your voice feels stiff and unresponsive, almost like it doesn't want to do what you want it to, you cannot hit high notes, you crack or cough, it is very likely to be your lack of warming up. Most people do not do it because they cannot be bothered or think they do not have to because they have a natural singing voice already, but that is NOT what warming up is about. Warming up is not a comment on ones ability to sing or not, as if you can speak clearly and fluently you can sing. Just because you can do it naturally and without aid is not special. But what warming up demonstrates is a technical knowledge of the voice and an understanding of what it takes to sing and maintain vocal longevity. It demonstrates the deeper understanding that, if you are called to a vocal ministry, your voice is your instrument and you must look after it, just like any athlete would look after his/her body to run the race and run it to win. We all can run, we can 'compete' but warming up helps us to stay in the race longer and gives a better chance of reaching the finish line. Warming up need not take up too much time. You only need 10 – 20mins. If you said 20 mins is too long, think about it this way, when you hit the shower in the morning a few hums will help to re-balance the voice. What about mimicking the sound of your electric tooth brush whilst brushing our teeth? You can even complete a few cycles of sirens too. It will not impede on your time any longer than it takes to brush your teeth! You get up, you shower and brush your teeth, now for your first cup of tea or coffee . This will warm through your vocal area, sending blood rushing to the voice box. You've had your breakfast and you then get in your car to drive to church. It's a 10,15, 20 minute drive. Plenty of time to go through some more complex warmups such as arpeggios, Lip trills on longer scale structures etc etc. What I am saying, in a polite way, is there is always time to warm up if you build it into your daily life. Not only will you be ready for Sunday morning worship but you are also keeping your voice in tip top shape.
2. The Song Leader assumes the team knows the song That moment when you try to sing a song but the team does not know it. You end up singing the melody, the harmonies,the high bits and the low bits till you are vocally exhausted. This has happened to me several times (especially when I have felt the move of the Holy Spirit and a 'new' unplanned song comes to mind in the middle of a worship set). There are several reasons I have found this has happened. 1. everyone in the team said they know the song - or will catch it, but really only one person knows it and that person is vocally 'shy' so won't sing out or fill in to support you . 2. There are different versions of the song. Which one are we singing?? 3. The musicians said they know the song but do not ( basically stop playing and leave you hanging) or they, too, play another version. 4. The leader did not communicate details of the song at all. So no one is sure what they are doing except the leader! If you have found yourself in these positions on a Sunday morning the thought is the show must go on and in most cases you will probably bear the weight of the song ok by yourself. On other occasions the song can prove too big and needs back up and this is where it can take an awful strain on the voice as you try to compensate for the parts the team is not familiar with. I won't say do not introduce a new song in the middle of a worship set ( In my opinion, we must keep room for the movement of the Holy Spirit.) but if you do introduce a new song, set the pace by singing it as solo first. Don't be afraid to ask the backing vocalists and band to drop out and just have the keys or lead guitar play alongside you. Or, drop the music altogether and sing it acapella. That way you are in control of the team, the music and your voice and ultimately how that impacts the congregation.
3. They have not taken time to practice the songs In a way this is the answer to all the topics in this list. Regular practice. For me that means regular team practice and regular personal practice. The two go hand in hand. But I can tell you from experience that many many many worship teams DO NOT HAVE PRACTICE TIME. If you do not practice it shows during worship service with one by -product being people starting on different keys, different tones, and individual voices instead of one sound and tone. Personal practice time is also, sadly, underrated and lack of it reflects back through through the voice, particularly when hitting high notes! This is very obvious and I am 'preaching to the choir' on this one but practice, practice and practice again. Make time for team practice. Schedule it in to the week or monthly church calendar, whichever is convenient for the majority, and then make sure the majority is in attendance. The same for personal practice time, schedule it in whether it be daily or weekly. Take your ministry serious enough to practice as set by the example of Chenaniah in 1 Chron 15:22.
4. The key Is too high or too low Sometimes the song starts in what seems like a comfortable key then it jumps really high ( a fifth and above) and it is suddenly out of your range. A good example of this is Ron Kenoly's, Ancient of Days. I have to admit, if this song comes on during worship I have to stop, watch and listen with breath bated as the bridge approaches because it is either going to be very good or really really bad. Screechingly bad. It is not unusual to hear the vocals drop lower instead of attempt the high bridge. But this is where regular practice comes in because it gives a chance to work out the most comfortable note for everyone so as to avoid the tight squeezing and straining of the voice on the high bridge. As a habit worship teams often give Altos the melody on this song and everyone starts in unison, so when the harmonies kick in on the bridge the sopranos have a long way to jump up and end up either screaming or disappearing into a head voice. I have always found the original key (D)of the song is perfect and need not be moved if the sopranos* are given the melody but this means female tenors are too low. So moving the key up one or two and giving melody to the sopranos* should keep all sections in a comfortable natural vocal place, thus eliminating the straining and screaming. (*if they are proper sopranos. A slightly higher key may not work so well if your sopranos are really high altos.)
5. Oversinging the songs Ok, this one is a classic voice breaker. The worship leader starts doing runs and riffs all over a simple song, belting out long notes for ages and not looking at the congregation - or their team- once. Yes, embarrassingly, I have done this too, peeking through one eye to see if I am impacting but all I end up doing is pushing my vocals, pulling my chest register high and missing crucial notes on my runs. In other words, no one is buying it! And I am not the only one. Many of you do it too. The irony is I really hate when I find myself fall into doing it as it is rarely done on purpose, rather I am not spiritually engaged for one reason or another so go to default which is not good for me vocally or for the service over all. I have seen many worship leaders do the same thing. Just over doing it to either demonstrate their vocal agility or to fill in for spiritual lack. So by the time worship is over their voice is drained and tired from the short solo-ish performance. Keep oversinging ( dynamics, runs, riffs, belts) to a minimum for congregational worship time(remember worship service is about everyone not just you) this way you will keep your vocals in a natural comfortable range whilst still executing a few embellishments here and there. I want to say, there is nothing wrong with embellishments and dynamics but when used incorrectly they impact vocals and worship negatively rather than, respectively, enhance and engage. There is a difference between performance worship ( concert solo) and congregational worship (Church Lead)
6. They Do Not Pace Themselves Through the Set Ok, this one is mainly for my Pentecostal compatriots. Imagine this: You are the song leader, singing and leading 3 praise songs back to back to open worship time. If you're anything like me, you are leaping, dancing, jumping, spinning, extoling, exhalting and encouraging the congregation to lift their hands and join you. You love it but it arduous. 25Mins have gone and you're tired, your voice is getting weary already and you are very much aware you still have 2 worship songs to go in a 30 – 45 minute set. Will your voice hold out till the end?
The answer, of course, is: Yes, if you pace yourself. No, if you do not.
Hoarseness or loss of voice at the end of a worship set is not a sign one is a good worship leader( I think I will write something about this. Too many people do it). Rather it suggests one does not know how to pace oneself through the set and feels that every word, phrase and dynamic must be sung. In my experience it is not necessary and it is actually ok to let the backing vocals or congregation carry the song whilst you take a vocal rest. Remember, the song leader is often going between singing and speaking. This alone takes a toll on the voice as you are using the voice in two different ways, essentially switching from one mechanical gear to another mechanical gear. Or, like driving a car forwards for a period of time then suddenly reversing for a few seconds, then back to driving forwards. That is what is it like switching between singing and speaking ( and explains why many singers and gospel preachers 'sing speak')
Pacing yourself is easy, if you can allow yourself to give space to your backing team or musicians to sing and play. After all, they need to express their worship too, so give them space to do so and use the opportunity to give yourself a vocal break; rest and reset your voice.
7. The Praise and Worship Leader is not Listening I found this to be one of the most common problems for a song leader to lose their voice: not listening! Not listening to the Backing vocalists, not listening to the musicians and especially not listening to their own voice! Now it could be that there is no PA system, the system is not very good or the PA guy/gal is not very good. Either way there are still ways to actively listen to the team and yourself. First is to actively listen. Listen to what is going on around you whilst you are singing. Listen to the monitors (house or stage) and listen to the instruments. They send aural clues back to you about your pitching, if you are straining or pushing too hard. If you do not have any monitors then use your hand over your ear, now and again, to help make sure you remain in pitch and are not shouting or straining on high notes. Remember that you need to hear what the congregation is hearing. If you have no monitors, use you hand over your ear to help you to hear what they are hearing.
By actively listening to what is going on around you, you maintain a higher level of control over the volume of music, which ultimately helps you to maintain control over your own voice, avoiding, in particular, shouting, straining and singing off pitch. You also can ensure the BV's are in pitch or harmonies or wherever you need them to be at that point. Actively listening will help eliminate many vocal problems when singing.
These are some the common vocal mistakes I have seen - and heard - made by worship leaders, myself included. The good thing is by making slight adjustments to how you approach your voice in ministry (remember it is your instrument) can help you quickly eliminate persistent problems with your vocals thus enabling to you to sing and minister confidently.
To your vocal success. Dionne
Have you had your own experience? Tell us about it in our comment section below.