Q I’m a pianist who leads a worship team at my church, but I’m not a singer. What are some practical tips I can use to coach the vocalists on my team to best lead congregational singing?
A The Scotsman John Bell of the Iona Community is one my favorite clinicians on coaching vocalists to lead congregational singing. His book The Singing Thing too: Enabling Congregations to Sing is not only practical for local church musicians, but extraordinarily funny. Chapter titles include “Lion-Taming for Lambs or Sheep-Rearing for Tigers,” “Sunday Morning Showers and Weight-Loss Through Music,” and “Nailbitingly Important Issues for Loose-Fitting Denture Wearers.” Throughout the book, Bell takes seriously the task of enabling congregational singing, but he coaches vocal leaders to take themselves far less seriously. One passage that has left an indelible mark on me reads:
I am blessed with a passable voice. One of my brothers has vocal cords that got him into the chorus of the Royal Opera, Covent Garden. I could never do his job, and he probably couldn’t do mine. If people heard him demonstrate a song, they might feel they could never emulate him; whereas I sometimes rasp and squeak and people think, ‘Poor soul, we’d better give him a hand’ (2007, p. 27).
As a trained singer myself, I know the temptation to impress, to seek the admiration of those who might run up after the service and say, “You sound like Josh Groban!” But that is not my job as a leader of congregational singing. Much better is to have a raspy, squeaky voice and enable the congregation to sing so wholeheartedly that they forget all about Josh Groban (and me).
Pop Singing vs. Classical Singing
Since I began my reply to this question with an illustration involving John Bell and his opera-singing brother, I think it is helpful to distinguish between pop singing and classical singing. Because you are working with a worship team that likely is leading in a contemporary style, elements of pop singing can aid communication and intelligibility for enabling congregational singing. I also think that some aspects of pop singing, in contrast to classical singing, humanize the voice for congregations and help encourage others to sing.
The first point of contrast is volume. Classical singers are trained to fill a concert hall, to project their voices to the back row without amplification. But pop singers, like most worship leaders, use a microphone. Because their voices are amplified, they purposely sing less forcefully, which can sound more natural and inviting.
Using a microphone also means a singer does not need to enunciate consonants as much as a classical singer without such amplification. Classical singers learn to over-enunciate their dental consonants—the d’s and t’s. This is crucial for singing without amplification. But with a microphone, singers can enunciate as they would in daily speech.
The second point of contrast is conversationality. Classical singing, in which tone is king, requires warm, round vowels. But pop singing is more conversational. Vowels are less round and closer to your speaking style. But I still coach my singers to avoid wide Midwestern vowels!
Simultaneously, we must mind our r’s. R’s can make our vowels ugly. Avoid singing like a pirate, “Arrrr.” But I don’t go as far as many classical singers and eliminate them all together. I don’t like replacing “er” with “uh.” I wouldn’t say “ovuh” or “closuh” unless I had a British accent. I suggest shaping your mouth like “uh” but thinking “er” to soften your r’s. Ultimately this conversationality will sound more natural and thus more inviting.
A final point of contrast is vibrato. Classical singers employ a rich vibrato. In pop singing the tone is more often straight. This straight tone allows a team of vocalists to blend together rather than stand apart as individuals. With a unified sound, the congregation can find its voice as one body.
Cueing the Breath
A worship vocalist’s role is to lead congregational singing, including helping the people start together. It can be incredibly frustrating for a congregation not to know when to start singing. It is equally irritating to start each verse or chorus on the third or fourth word.
Shepherding the entrances first involves practicing them: vocal leaders themselves need to know when to come in. Unfortunately, we don’t often practice entrances in rehearsals. We pay attention to the musical arrangements and grooves, but not congregational cues.
Second, simply giving a visual cue to the congregation can be immensely helpful for starting together. This technique involves one leader simply cueing the breath. When you help the congregation know when to breathe, you automatically enable them to sing the first word.
For instance, if a song in 44 has a vocal entrance on beat one, cue the breath on beat four of the previous measure. Simply lift your hand, exaggerate a head nod, or raise the microphone to your mouth in time. By cueing the breath, the community breathes together and sings as one.
Snatch & Sing
Another skill critical for leading singing is eye contact. I know making eye contact may feel uncomfortable. Some may rather look at the back wall or close their eyes, “lost in wonder, love, and praise.” But when you fail to make eye contact, whether in public speaking or in leading a song, you look less authoritative and less believable (Sims Wyeth, “10 Reasons Eye Contact Is Everything in Public Speaking,” Inc.com, 2014).
When you are a song leader, you are the authority on that song. I guarantee that after you have rehearsed a song, you will know the song better than 95% of your congregation. Eye contact communicates that and instills trust in your leadership.
At the same time, when you make eye contact, you communicate that you believe the words that you’re singing. You’re not merely reading them off the page. You’re not distracted by other things happening in that space. Your eyes say that you believe it and that you want your congregation to believe it too.
Ideally we would all have the time and capacity to internalize the lyrics of the songs we sing, but this is not always possible. Therefore, a skill called “Snatch & Sing” can be helpful. I have adapted this from a practice called “Snatch & Speak” that my colleague Mary Hulst uses to teach eye contact during Scripture reading.
As you sing, “snatch” an entire line or phrase of the lyrics, then look out at the congregation, maintaining eye contact until the final word. Only then do you look down and “snatch” the next line or phrase. The key is to avoid looking down before you get to the end of the phrase. Don’t worry—there is almost always a beat or two of rest to snatch that next bit of text. Record and observe your team using this technique. You’ll immediately notice how effective it is in communicating the lyrics.
Giving and receiving constructive feedback about singing can be difficult. Criticizing one’s voice or leading technique is for many vocalists akin to criticizing their sense of identity. When we’re dealing with our bodies and how we sound, criticism and coaching feels personal. With this in mind, it’s so important to be gentle, laugh, and never take yourself too seriously.
We all have much to learn and ways to grow, and our efforts to coach and receive feedback bear so much fruit in greater skills and capacity to lead our congregations in singing. To borrow a phrase from John Bell, these are “nailbitingly important issues.”