Ask the Expert – How do I get my backing vocalists away from the sheet music?
Julie Meyer from Kansas emails:
“I’m having trouble weaning my background vocals off of sheet music. Any suggestions? The problem is they stare at the music (sometimes 5 pages per song) the whole time and don’t really participate in worshiping (their most important role on the team).”
You didn’t mention what they are actually reading on the music. I am guessing it’s the lyrics rather than reading the full score or specific parts they are trying to sing. Either way I think it’s really important for a singer who takes their role seriously to learn the words of the songs and not just rely on the music. I’d say the same to musicians about chords, parts, starts and stops. However I’ve also been in churches where the weekly speaker chooses the worship list from the theme of their talk each and so the pool of material the musicians have to work with is over 300 songs, so memorization is tricky!
So job one is to make sure your repertoire is manageable and used frequently enough so singers and musicians will find benefit in committing them to memory. However as we all get older it does get harder to memorize and recall chords, lyrics and parts instantly, especially under pressure. So don’t take the safety net of the words away immediately, maybe just encourage them to the score as a cue card when they need a prompt on the odd word. If you are not sure whether they are engaging in worship how about prompting a discussion about what they think about when they worship or perhaps what songs are meaningful to them and why, and critically how, does the experience of singing those songs make them want to respond to God? Can they translate that meaning into the act of singing? Group discussions like this can often yield some deep and surprising results…
Obviously some people respond pretty outwardly in worship and others don’t, some cope well with memorizing lyrics and others don’t but really I think it’s a question of intent and desire to respond to God in some way. I remember getting really worked up about the fact that I was so concentrating on trying to get the guitar parts right I had no headspace to mentally engage and worship. If that’s people in your team’s situation then I’d just say don’t worry. Serving God and the congregation in a situation like that could be likened to hosting a party. The host and the guests will have very different experiences and memories of the party but both perform invaluable roles that the event couldn’t happen without. They’ll also find that the more they do it, the easier it’ll become so eventually they’ll relax enough to get a bit of headspace to actively focus on God.
Practically speaking if the music is on 5 pages it might be difficult to follow and maybe a much simpler chart is required. Often we only need the first line of each verse or even just the first words of a few key lines to help us remember the rest. If you have a screen to display the words for the church maybe reposition your singers so they can see that rather than using the score. Or maybe even ban charts in rehearsals to wean them off.
It sounds like you’ve got a full on task ahead but I hope some of that helps.