‘I’m a singer…’ – The diplomatic art of using voices in worship teams
Picture this: someone boldly approaches the worship director and informs them that they wish to join the worship team as they play the piano. The delighted worship director quickly signs them up and adds them to the rota, only to discover on their first Sunday of service that although they are indeed capable of ‘playing’ the piano with much gusto and passion, their skills are limited to only playing along with the tune. What would you do?
This isn’t a situation that is hugely likely to occur in most churches. However, if you substitute the pianist in the image for a singer, then it starts to become a more familiar picture. If someone playing the piano, drums or bass was not ‘up to scratch’ then this would be caught early on, or they might be auditioned and encouraged to take lessons before joining the group at a later date. However due to the nature of the voice (in that most people have one and like to use it!), churches often find themselves in situations with singers who have been absorbed onto the worship team who do not possess the skills required to be effective backing vocalists (BVs). Most of us who have led worship bands have come across these singers before, we may even have a few of them in our worship teams currently. But what should we do with them?
The ineffective backing vocalist
Unfortunately a backing singer who is not going to be singing anything other than the tune, regardless of how good they are, usually won’t enhance the musical output from the band or music group. An effective backing vocalist should be able to shift between the tune and harmony lines easily, with the majority of the time spent not singing the tune (at least not into their microphone). The exception to this would be if the worship leader does not sing confidently and has delegated the vocal leading to another singer. In the ‘standard’ setup, where the worship leader takes the lead on singing the tune, any backing singers in the group should be able to contribute to the mix with harmonies.
But Cat, why don’t you like backing vocalists singing the tune?
The human voice is wonderful because it is so expressive. When leading congregations in worship, we want to be able to explore and emote with our voices, pulling rhythms occasionally or adjusting a few notes here and there to highlight changes and builds in the music. If we have someone singing (into a microphone) who is singing ‘the same’ as us (the tune), it is almost guaranteed that they will not be singing exactly the same. There will be different emphasis placed, slight variations in rhythm and tone, all of which can all too easily sound very jarring, particularly when it’s two voices of the same gender singing in almost-unison.
So what should they be singing instead?
The role of the backing vocalist is to enhance what the lead vocalist is doing, and if there are one or two backing vocalists in a band, the ideal situation would be to have them both picking out different harmony lines (one sticking to higher, one to lower generally – how to do this is taught in Musicademy’s Harmony and Backing Vocals Course). When not singing harmonies (for example first verses, bridges, wherever you decide to thin out for effect) they should sing away from the microphone. There are very few situations in which I will direct a backing vocalist to sing the tune along with the leader, mostly during very loud moments when singing some sort of powerful proclamation or ‘battle cry’ for build, and often I find that even when people start on the tune, naturally they switch to harmonies after a short time anyway.
So what do I do with someone who doesn’t sing harmonies?
The most obvious thing to do is to teach them. For most musical people who are able to sing, harmony skills can be taught, and the reason people aren’t confident in using them is likely because they’ve never been offered the opportunity to learn or try properly. Setting up group lessons for all your vocalists can be a good way of not ‘pinpointing’ specific people, and you will hopefully find that the majority of people want to improve and learn. There will always be some though who do not believe they need any assistance, and that’s where your wonderful diplomacy skills come into play.
For those who can’t quite seem to grasp harmonies, or if you want an interim way to utilise singers, you could try creating a small (or large) ‘choir’ by setting up a group of these singers, three or more, and mic-ing them as a group rather than with individual mics (you will need the correct mic for this – info in the PA and Sound Tech Course – parts 2 and 3 cover mics). This can actually be a very effective tool in churches of all sizes, and can encourage people to try out harmonies in a ‘safer’ space. If the PA team are aware of how to effectively and sensitively mic groups of singers they can draw in the sound of the group gently to the mix. This leaves the lead vocalist free to hold the tune, but also to pull and play around with it a bit, without jarring against any other projected voice. This is also useful if you have singers who aren’t quite as ‘pitch perfect’ as you would like, but are keen to be involved somehow in the worship team.
What if none of those things are working?
This is a tricky one, and depending on your churches policy on musicians you will need to adapt what you do.
If they are a talented singer and have a real heart for worship, it might be worth discussing with them if they feel a calling to be a worship leader. This of course is more than just a ‘solution’ and should be undertaken prayerfully. It could be that if they don’t play an instrument they would not have considered leading, therefore ‘fell into’ singing, but remind them that leading worship is more than just playing the guitar (or singing). You could always pair them with another leader (or yourself) to give them a bit of experience and see how they get on.
If your church doesn’t have a ‘come one come all’ approach to the worship team, then a sensitive conversation to suggest that they maybe step down whilst they work on their BV skills (which you will of course help them with) in order to serve in other areas of worship (which you will also support them in) might be on the cards.
Leave them to it. If you’re happy having them in your band and the congregation is happy with the output you get, then carry on! You could always ask the sound guys to make sure they are turned down a bit…
Encouraging others to improve their skill sets and helping them to grow into effective worship team members is a key part of being involved in worship leadership, and it’s our responsibility to ensure not only that our teams are offering worship that is pure and honest, but that we are working to the best of our abilities to give God the glory.
Cat Mayne has been a vocal coach for Musicademy for nearly 10 years(!) teaching both in local rock & pop courses and worship seminars. From choral beginnings she gained a vocal scholarship with the Berkshire Young Musicians Trust before going on to study on the Music and Worship course at the London School of Theology. She has worked extensively as a soloist performing a wide range of styles (although she is definitely a jazz and soul girl at heart, when she’s not belting out Broadway tunes!). Cat also works with choirs and bands offering coaching on a whole range of vocal and performance technique and is a worship leader at her local church. In her ‘spare’ time she is currently working on writing some original material, focusing on using music effectively to facilitate more intimate expressions of worship.