Vocal Range Part 2 – practical guidance for churches
Finding and using a vocal range
Vocal Range Factors
Vocal range is simply this- the range of notes (from lowest to highest) that a person can sing. A person’s vocal range varies by individual and is impacted by several factors. A commonly presented range for congregational singing often accommodates the fact that both men and women will be present to sing, as well as children and adults. These are important factors, since they limit your vocal range significantly. Women’s voices are typically able to sing much higher, and men’s typically have the ability to sing much lower in a vocal range. Children can often sing higher than adults. All this is due to simple physiology, the size of the throat and voicebox of the person and their accumen in using it to sing notes.
One common practice related to vocal range considerations in congregational music is to limit songs primarily to the range between Middle C (fixed sofege “do”, or scientific notation of C4) and the next C (called Tenor C, or scientific notation of C5). Specifically, in the key of C, the range looks like these notes:
What I would recommend is that you review your songs against this type of range as a guideline to see how much of your music is accessible for your local congregation to actually sing most of the time. Like any “guideline”, sticking to it too strictly will remove some added flavor and interest in your music. If you never allow a song to be used in congregational worship that has any notes outside of this range, you will be ignoring a solid slice of very good songs. You may keep the “meat and potatoes” songs that help everyone engage, access and sing along, but you may be leaving out some “spice” that will help keep things interesting to your congregation. But if you vary too far or too often from this type of guideline, you risk loosing engagement of your congregation.
If you are in a well trained musical culture, perhaps you can expand the range a note or two on either end. For my personal guideline, I use a range that is from Bb to D when I lead worship. This is partly because I use mostly modern contemporary worship songs in my repertoire and many of the congregation have learned some these of songs by singing along to them on the radio, and the songs often have broader ranges than the simple praise and worship choruses of the 70’s and 80’s and 90’s. Additionally, the groups I lead for are typically between teenage years to 60, and I very rarely have the opportunity to lead for older congregations who are primarily just 50+ in the age group. If I led groups of just 50+ age ranges I would adjust my vocal range down to the standard Middle C to Tenor C (at the highest).
Again, this is the place where you must use good judgment and take the input of your congregation. Yes, worship leaders, listen to your people. Not each and every suggestion will be applicable, but taken as a collective, you will find wisdom in talking to them about how accessible the music is for them as it is being sung. I typically never hear the young people say “that was too high”, but I occasionally hear that from older people.
There are a plethura of other side notes and commentary that relate to this point of vocal range, including such things as song familiarity, male/female melody leading, harmonizing, and such. For those growing muses who would like some additional information on vocal ranges, I actually do recommend the WikiPedia page on this (here), since it is fairly accurate (unlike somethings on there) and helpful for folks needing more details . But remember, if your goal is engagement in singing during your praise and worship time you will help your congregation gain access by establishing a vocal range guideline to your song selection- a range that is comfortable to them. The key here is that you must return to the goal of preffering others above yourself. What can they sing, not what can you sing. Without making it a monotonous and letharigic exercise, find a way to occasionally spice your service with exceptions to your guideline, while still keeping every song accessible for the congregation.
Listen to Your Congregation
Find your own way to reach into your local church by asking people you trust who do not have your musical/vocal abilities about their ability to join in. I occasionally ask my family about the singing with this in mind. Our family has a variety of range abilities. Two of my sons can sing well and have extended higher ranges, while one son has a limited range. My wife, likewise, has no musical training and limited vocal range. Like most people, all of them could expand their range with vocal exercises. But that is the point- like most people, they aren’t musicians or singers, and they don’t have time to spend on expanding that ability. So let’s help them find a “home” in our worship and singing by giving them a repeteroire of songs that they can engage and access. My wife will often just stop singing, and start humming when she can’t reach notes. My sons will sit down. Some times they will just mouth the words when it is too high or too low. Looking for congregational participation may help you see if your vocal range is actually working in your local church.
So what do you do if a song has notes out of the acceptable range you’ve established as a guideline?
Change Key– The first thing to try is to move the song key to see if that places most of the notes inside of the range. For example, us guitar playing worship leader guys might select a song in a key such as G that might be best sung in E, because the notes allow a range that fits within our guideline.
Leave it in – if the song has one or two notes that are out of the vocal range guideline, but they are sung only once in the song, you can probably get away with using the song and most people will not feel left out in the singing. If the song repeats those out-of-range notes many times, then you may have a problem. Use your judgment, based on others abilities, not yours. The goal here is not to show off your abilities as a worship leader and vocalist, but to engage your congregation by giving them access to the song.
Drop it out – Some songs are best used for performance, allowing people to listen and be inspired by it. But using those songs in congregational worship may have the effect of making them feel left out, or worse, that the leader is showboating their talents. If the song can’t be accessed by most of the people in the time of worship and singing, why are you including it in your set list?
This article is intended to give you basic thoughts on vocal range, how it should be considered as a component for granting access to your local congregation, to help them engage in your singing and worship.
This kind of topic is often considered, and often discarded by many worship leaders and musicians because the musical abilities of those leading will almost certainly exceed the abilities of those being led. This is where the pastoral overseer of your worship minsitry must teach and lead the ministry into humility, helping them learn they are servants to the people, not performers for them to listen to (primarily).
I am sure there are many considerations and additional points that could be made in this regard. I encourage you to join the discussion and leave your thoughts and points here, so others can benefit from reading them as well.