I am a music pastor who spends a lot of service time on the platform, with my brain and spirit in overdrive, managing musical and spiritual moments. I love the rare occasions where I get to sit in my seat and soak in the experience of a dynamic combination of voices! It doesn’t matter if it’s a choir or a team of nine or just a trio. When it’s right, it’s an experience like none other! For me, the sum impact of a group of incredible singers will always exceed the impact of a world-class soloist.
But the value of my experience is pretty much destroyed when the vocal team is out of sync, out of tune, and fighting one another musically. In that moment, I get so distracted by the musical chaos that I can’t lean into God’s voice. Although my ear may be “slightly” (grin) more discriminating than the average listener, the same holds true for guests in our churches. Vocal chaos drowns out the message we are conveying.
So today we are going to talk about tips for eliminating vocal chaos and creating a clear sound with our singing groups. Each of these tips apply a group of any size! Does your team have three singers? Or ten? Or are you part of a choir of 100? These tips are for you!
At first this seems like a contradiction, right? How can a singer work alone to get better as a group? Let me explain. Every team member must be challenged to personal growth as a singer. There are elements of singing that can only improve through private practice. Leaders should clarify to singers the areas that MUST be worked on alone.
Vocal range is one skill that is best improved through private practice. Vocal range is improved by consistently working the full range of the singer. Up and down. Scales. Arpeggios. Singing on vowels. There is no shortcut. Even if the leader sets the tone by opening each weekly rehearsal with 10 minutes of vocal exercises, lazy team members will walk away that week with just… yep…. 10 minutes of vocal exercises. That’s not enough! There’s no way a singer can stretch a small range by exercising it for 10 minutes a week! Are you kidding me? If 10 minutes a week were enough exercise for anything, I’d be a marathon runner, a star basketball player, and I’d be good at golf too, but that’s a whole different discussion. Great singers work their full range every day. (I feel a heavy cloud of conviction descending on me. Let me stop typing and sing some scales for a moment….)
Breath control is another area that must be addressed individually. A person without good breath control will need to practice specific sets of exercises and learn how to take good breaths (cut out shoulder heaving or shallow breathing) and then use those breaths well (don’t use all your air on the first note; listen for wasted air). This individual work cannot happen effectively in the context of the team.
Some of the best exercises to learn proper breath control actually require the singer to do unique things like lay on the floor, splay their palm over their lower back, stand against a wall, or other activities that are impossible or, at least, awkward, to achieve in a rehearsal setting.
Since every team WILL benefit from singers who work on their vocal technique individually, leaders should equip their teams with ideas for individual practice times. It’s exciting and worth it to see individual singers coming to rehearsal with greater stamina, range and breath control!
In this day of political correctness, we teach our kids not to label others. Well, throw that advice out the window when it comes to your vocal team. Great vocal leaders will kindly and warmly help every person on the team to understand their own voice type, and the strengths and weaknesses that come with their unique, God-given voice.
Some singers are loud. They’re good singers. But really loud. (Yep. You know the ones I’m talking about.) Some singers have the most beautiful tone but can’t stand up to a powerful song with an aggressive band accompaniment. They just get drowned out. Some singers are pitchy. Some singers struggle with vibrato and have trouble lending to a “big gospel choir sound.” Some singers have so much vibrato that they struggle to blend in the context of contemporary worship material. Leaders and singers do themselves a disservice if they “tip-toe” around the truth of their team.
The great news is that I’ve heard outstanding vocal teams, choirs and small ensembles made up of all these types! But, we should strive to understand one another and the vital role we each play on the team.
When I was in college, one of my textbooks was a choral manual by Walter Ehret. In his chapter about blend, he described the voice in an interesting way, by equating the human voice to the orchestra. His observation? Some voices are reeds. Some voices are flutes. Some voices are strings, but all are valued and contribute to great blend.
Walter Ehret did NOT say that some voices are drums, and drive you crazy when in close proximity. That’s my own addition to the text. But let’s move along…
I love this analogy of the orchestra, and it has helped me to wisely achieve blend on my teams. Ehret goes on to suggest that when arranging singers on the stage, voice types should be appropriately distributed. Unlike the orchestra, no one type should be “huddled up” together. Evenly distributing voice types will help the overall blend. And singers should be coached to understand their contribution and make adjustments when appropriate.
Likewise, when selecting smaller groups, the best blend will come when similar voices are used. A reedy male voice will not be a good duet with a flute-like female! Even if they both have great voices! Flutes and Reeds, if left alone, will rarely blend well! Reedy voices often benefit from a warm string to mellow it. In the spirit of throw-back Thursday, think of Sandi Patti. She really benefitted from the warmth of Larnelle Harris’ voice. Israel Houghton is another reedy voice that often pairs himself with a string-like duet companion or string-type background vocals. This kind of thinking really begins to transform our understanding of blend!
The analogy of the orchestra and the human voice is just one way to examine blend and address the unique voices we all bring to the table. But great blend happens when we are working as a TEAM and tempering our own “natural” style. Loud voices need to know when they are too loud and ruining the mix. Wide vibratos need to learn to even out their vibrato. Breathy voices need to work on a rich, full sound for gospel “power” moments. The bottom line is, self-awareness about our voice and its role on the team is vital. And leaders play an important part in bringing this awareness to their team members.
I’m not expressing any love for boy bands. Period. But I did get your attention, right? Being in sync with one another is a vital part of improving a vocal team’s success. This tip is not something you can do alone. This tip is all about what you do together.
First of all, work to be in sync rhythmically. This is harder than it seems! Vocal lines these days are incredibly rhythmically complex. This is especially true for gospel music or anything contemporary that strongly leans into gospel, such as Israel Houghton, Martha Munizzi and BJ Putnam. It’s just the reality. And many singers are unprepared for this kind of syncopation.
Leaders must listen continually for rhythmic accuracy among the team. Nothing will kill a blend faster than four people singing a line of rhythm four different ways. If you are a singer, learn what it means when a note is on the “off beat” or the “up beat.” If you don’t already understand these terms, find a musician to explain them to you, and practice fervently. A strong vocal team will be able to communicate things like, “that note is pushed.” Or “sing that word on the one-ee-and-UH…” Finding common language to navigate the new waters of rhythmic complexity will strongly propel a team towards good blend.
Secondly, work to be in sync in the way you sing the words. I’m talking about matching up your vowels and your consonants.
Consider the phrase, “I am free!” (seems like a really popular worship phrase lately!) Some people sing, “I am FREEEEEEE.” Emphasis on long e sound. Some people sing, “I am FRAY” As in say, day, way. If half the team Is fray-ing and the other half is freeeee-ing, you will not be in sync.
Especially in gospel music, wonderful things happen when the entire team learns to say vowels the same way, and “lean into” the notes together with dynamic swells. The same goes for consonants. Although most consonants don’t carry pitch, placing them in the same place and being in synch with our endings of each phrase is a huge part of improving blend.
Within these three tips, we’ve talked about range, breath, tone, control, rhythm, vowels, consonants and so much more! These are the nuts and bolts of what makes a singer valuable to a team, and what makes a team impacting to the congregation. Never forget, we press towards the prize that GOD might receive glory, and that his message can go forth free from chaos and distraction. Now, go be dynamic!