How do you give kind but honest feedback to musicians who just aren’t up to the job?

How do you give kind but honest feedback to musicians who just aren’t up to the job?

Feedback – Mixing kindness and honesty

We had a touching email arrive at the office last week from a lady who had been turned down at worship team auditions for several years. The lady really, really loves to sing and had been so determined to progress that she had employed a vocal coach to help her improve.

The lady was asking for advice on DVDs and CDs we have that might help, but I felt that this was also a great opportunity to ask the Musicademy subscriber base for advice for her and others in a similar situation.

What followed was a detailed Facebook conversation between various worship leaders, singers, vocal coaches and others. Click through to read as there are some fantastic suggestions there for ways of improving our sense of timing and rhythm, tuning, control and more.

For me it also raised a huge pastoral issue that many worship leaders face – how do we gently say no to musicians that don’t make the grade?

Not all our readers are on Facebook, and sometimes they feel as if they miss out on the conversation we have over there. So I thought I’d write a piece reflecting on the discussion and also quoting some of the comments we received.

Dodging the issue

Firstly, I have to confess to in the past having a backing vocalist work with me who sings consistently sharp. My solution (in a small church where most of the congregation couldn’t actually hear the difference and we didn’t exactly have a large pool of musicians to choose from) was simply not to have her vocal in my own foldback. If the vocal is really bad I might suggest a quiet word with the PA person to make sure that she is turned well down in the front-of-house mix.  I imagine a solution that is more common than we might imagine!

But God doesn’t mind if we are out of tune

Now we had a fair number of comments along the lines of: “God doesn’t care one little bit about being in time and in tune when you sing” and yes, I think that’s a reasonable point. God looks at the heart and clearly this lady loves to worship. But in a church where we have a choice of musicians, is it the right thing to do to rotate everyone, regardless of their ability levels? Would we be happy giving anyone who wants to preach the opportunity because they have a ‘heart’ to lead? rotating the leaders or the preachers just because someone has a “heart” to lead or preach but perhaps no natural gifting?

Should the very able musicians “carry” the weaker ones?

I’ve spoken to very able musicians about this, often musicians who spend their working days teaching music, and are inevitably rostered in with the less able players on a Sunday because a) the “pro” can carry it and b) the “pro” is also good for a bit of unpaid teaching and support for the worship team. But how ethical is this? Does your pro musician really want what we in the UK call a “Busman’s Holiday” when s/he plays on a Sunday. And surely if we need training for our teams, then we should be paying for it? Musicians are so often the last in line to receive any financial reward, despite being in one of the most impoverished careers represented in our congregations. Or should that be considered their ‘offering’ to their church?

So from an able musicians’ perspective I think we can assume that many would prefer to be playing with other able people. And a few of us are in churches that have an over supply. In these scenarios it’s very difficult for beginners and amateurs to get a look in. They will need to be members of smaller churches, or look to be serving in more niche capacities such as home groups or with specialist ministries needing the occasional musician.

Are our worship leaders pastorally up to the job of leading a worship team?

Of course the discussion raised some questions about the worship leader in question and other issues we are not party to. Matt Zipfel commented “Their worship leader has heard this person more, knows them as a person outside this very singular set of circumstances. Could be that the WL can’t think outside the box. Turning someone down flat is difficult, especially when they are passionate. Offering an equally useful alternative role is better than just saying no.”

Jo Smith said “It’s really difficult to turn people down/remove them from a ministry whatever. The worship leader will be growing in a whole area of their skills etc too – it may not be one of their strongest points. “

And Patrick Yeoh added “It could be well true that she is not far her teams required standard, or her worship leader does not have the skills to communicate his reasons for turning her down. If it means that much to me, I would seek to have an honest chat with the worship leader and ask for his totally honest opinion.”

So what to say to the person who is willing but lacking in the talent department?

Clearly open and honest feedback is needed in this scenario. But what do you say to the person that fails to make the grade? Do you put on your Simon Cowell mask and just tell the truth turning a deaf ear to the gasps of horror around or is there a kinder way that builds up whilst breaking the bad news?

Enter the rat sandwich

Research suggests that to counter one piece of negativity, we need to hear 10-20 positive things. I do also think there is a cultural divide here as my perceptions of American feedback appear sometimes gushingly positive but ultimately somewhat insincere (so forgive my English directness).

I would suggest you start with something positive:

“You’ve really got a heart for worship here and you kept really well to the timing of the song” (that’s the bread)


“However, I think you need to work a bit more on your tuning. It was a little sharp in places today and that may well get worse in the context of a live service when it’s more difficult to hear your own voice” (that’s the rat)


“One of the things I really liked about your delivery was the confidence you showed, and your smile showed through even though you were probably quite nervous” (back to the bread with some helping of mayo, tomatoes, cheese).

Then if you want to give some constructive suggestions, talk about giving people something to aim for e.g. “I think you should consider some regular vocal training/lessons and spend a good amount of time working on xxxxx”.  Come back to me in xx months and let me know what you’ve been doing.”

So, how to say something tough kindly?

If you read through the Facebook conversation you’ll see plenty of gentle constructive feedback in evidence. One thing, I do have to say is how touched we were with the respectfulness, graciousness and practical feedback here. In these days of the culture of internet flaming and rude aggressive anonymous comments we at Musicademy are so grateful for the sensitive thoughts that clearly took our commenter’s some time to write. So thank you from us!

The following comments are an (edited) critique of a vocal sample that the lady submitted. Not only are they a lovely set of constructively critical (rat sandwich-style) feedback pieces, but I think are genuinely useful food for thought for the lady involved.

Patrick Yeoh:

 The lady is brave indeed and should be commended on her willingness to be critiqued. Unfortunately I would have to agree with her worship leader in that she may not be ready to sing in the worship team with a general agreement with her worship leader’s feedback. It is possible that she can improve with more coaching and lessons, however in my humble opinion, singing may not be her area of gifting. She has to understand that this does not de-value her in any way as God’s creation. We are all created uniquely with different gifts….she just has to find what it is. Remember our identity is not tied to our gifting, but in Him.


Matt Zipfel:

That is a very brave thing to do – agree the recording quality doesn’t help (I know I sound very different when recorded on a phone as opposed to when singing into a proper microphone).

From the recording alone (so I re-iterate, it would sound different on a real sound system, with reverb etc) – it appears that some extra practice on the following would be in order and would make all the difference:

1) Vocal strength – by this I don’t mean how loud it can go. Volume is really unimportant in a band setting. The strength that is required, is being precise on the notes. So, for example, if I sing standing still, I can sing a clear, straight note, that doesn’t fluctuate, and I can hit that note dead on, each time. If I have to walk about or jump, then because my diaphragm is being bumped about and has gravity acting upon it, it changes the consistency of air flow through my vocal chords and can cause me to vary the note a little (much like if you’re slapped in the back, your voice will change). Strengthening your diaphragm, doing passive breathing – (not chest breathing) – will really help with this.

2) Annunciation – working on the consonants in the song – making sure that the important ones are clear, precise and true. This is similar to elocution lessons. This sort of practice would also assist the tone.

3) Be careful not to “force” the singing. Rely on the microphone to do the volume. It’s easy to go sharp, out of tune, when forcing the voice. Equally, don’t go too soft. It can go flat. It takes years of practice to be able to force your voice and keep in tune – e.g. Madonna dancing around the stage and yet pulling off many well sung songs in concert.

4) A first impression can last – your worship leader may well have made a decision long ago, which will take a great deal to overturn. It may be better to take on board the things above, work on them for a good period and then try a brand new worship group which has no pre-conceptions.

I admire the bravery, and wish her all the best.


Jo Smith:

 Hi – Yes brave to be so open to critique and feedback. I too would have to agree with her worship leader’s decision regarding not being ready to be in the team. (I have led worship teams for about 15 years and voice is my instrument so I can look at this as a leader and as a vocalist.) The main things that I would say need looking at are:

 1) Pitch. The singing is out of tune quite a lot.

2) Tone quality – the tone is quite compressed/harsh/nasal – this may be due to not breathing well and not singing with an ‘open’ chest, posture, or just trying too hard and forcing it. Perhaps ask the vocal teacher to concentrate on opening this out.

3) Hearing yourself – can you hear yourself that the singing is out of tune? If not it will be harder to correct. Some people can hear it and some can’t. If this lady has been having singing lessons for a while it may be that this really isn’t supposed to be her ‘thing’ although continuing to have lessons will continue to improve her voice but whether that will end up being enough I don’t know.



I find the best approach is to be honest, specific and balanced. Something like: ‘Ok, thank you. Firstly it’s great that you are so committed to singing that you want feedback. This puts you in a vulnerable position because you are exposing yourself to feedback. As far as your technique is concerned there are one or two issues, but there’s some good stuff too. For instance, your diction is generally very good. Recording quality aside, it’s clear what you’re singing. The main issues stem from the fact that you aren’t breathing properly and supporting the vocal from your diaphragm. As a result there are moments when the tone of your voice is quite weak and the intonation is not there. There is also the fact that you may be damaging your voice by failing to pay attention to appropriate technique. I would strongly advise that you book a series of lessons from an experienced vocal trainer to deal with these critical issues.’ Say it with a smile.


Patrick Yeoh:

I would suggest to have max benefit…work with a singing / vocal teacher. The feedback you get is would be the most helpful in terms of zeroing into the areas you need to improve.


Margaret Cook:

I have to echo Patrick- along with we all need to know that our wishes and dreams are sometimes different from our gifting.


Over to you

What would you have said to this vocalist?

If you are a worship leader with a tough message to give in the past, what did you say and how was it received?

Do you agree with the points I’ve made in the article or do you take issue with them?


Other posts you might like:

So you’re going to be a worship leader

The Ideal Worship Leader (and other myths you should stop believing)

Ask the expert – should musicians get paid for playing at weddings?

Ask the expert – our song leader has trouble with counting and rhythm

Six ideas for developing character in your worship team and encouraging their work

Six ideas for working with your team outside of Sunday mornings

Building and pastoring our worship teams – Aaron Keyes

Pastoring a worship team