Worship Vocal Survival Tips

Cliff Lambert claims bad vocals can be fixed.

Over the last 30 years or so, the role of the vocal team in worship has changed dramatically. We’ve moved from full choirs to ensembles or “praise teams” of 4-12 and now down to a worship leader with a single harmony vocalist. Regardless of the size of these vocal teams, good vocal technique cannot be ignored in order to create vocal sounds that enhance the worship experience without being a distraction.

Unfortunately, there’s not a plethora of information to help worship vocalists and vocal teams on the web. This seems quite odd since the voice has been and always will be the main instrument in translating what’s in our hearts to the audible message of our worship offering. Perhaps there’s an unspoken belief that vocal ability is just something you’re born with or without. Either you have it or you don’t and there’s little room for change within that area of ability. For those who do decide to work on their voice, it can takes years of practice, sometimes having to break old habits in the process. Also, if you don’t have a thorough knowledge of how the voice works, trying to help another vocalist can be very intimidating. As artists, we also understand that egos are fragile and we don’t want to offend someone by suggesting things they need to work on vocally.

Whatever the case for not teaching good vocal technique, all of us have had the experience of hearing bad worship vocalists lead worship with some foundational technical flaws that are causing them to have an unpleasant tone or intonation problems. Believe it or not, these things CAN be fixed.

For the sake of continuity, we’ll call these team vocalists or background vocalists, BGV’s. First off, the BGV must realize they are not the main focus or the center of attention. They compliment or accompany the lead vocalist. Most vocalists don’t realize that singing as a lead or solo vocalist and singing as a BGV requires a completely different style of singing.

There are some foundational techniques that can be applied to all styles of singing, whether you’re singing folk, gospel, pop, rock, or whatever. First we must understand that there is nothing more to singing than this simple idea: “Sustained sighing on pitch”. We all know how to sigh. When we do, we’re creating free tone while air easily moves through our vocal chords. As singers, we buy into the idea that singing involves more. It doesn’t. There’s no need to manipulate any muscles in the neck or throat to make a good singing tone. If you can learn how to sigh and hold a pitch while doing it, you’ve learned how to sing. There’s nothing more that needs to be added to that.

Before a vocalist even thinks about creating a sound with their voice, the MOST important thing they must do is listen. Many vocalists tend to get so “into” the music (and sometimes themselves) that all they focus on is passionately expressing vocally what’s in their heart. Meanwhile, the rest of team has has been left in the dust and they’re the one left standing alone. As much as we think we should be heard, the goal is not for the BGV to “be heard”. Ideally, if there is a harmony to the lead vocal it should be present but not distinguishable. BGV’s create an affect of fullness without anyone knowing how or what it is.

Listening requires being aware of everything else that’s going on around you, including the instruments and other voices and responding vocally in a way that compliments and matches where the rest of the team is as it relates to pitch (being in tune with the rest of the team), vowels (the shape of the sound), dynamics (volume), tone (the timbre or quality of the vocal sound), timing (synchronized syllables, entrances and cut-offs), and texture (how many instruments/vocals are playing/singing at that time). I always tell our vocalists to go through this process in your head before making sound: “LISTEN. THINK. SING”. It’s always in that order. If you go out of order, you most likely won’t compliment what’s going on on the rest of the platform.

In addition to listening in order to match the pitches that are going on around you, the other thing that can increase pitch accuracy is proper use of the air. If you don’t know how to breathe properly and then use that breath, the muscles in the neck and jaw will overcompensate by tightening up. This tightness causes the pitch to waver or go flat (under pitch).

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