A “Normal” Church-Goer
Imagine, just for a moment, that you’re a “normal” church attendee on Sunday morning:
- You’ve never had voice lessons.
- You only sing in the car, and only if the radio’s up loud enough.
- And you don’t practice hitting those superlative high notes that punctuate the big parts of worship songs like vocal exclamation marks.
So when the worship leader goes for those killer notes, what do you do?
You might be tempted to say, “I would just stay with the original melody” or “I’d drop an octave.” But remember, you’re a regular joe church-goer with no formal voice training. You sing what the leader puts in front of you. And you don’t know an octave from an octopus.
So when the worship leader jumps to that high countermelody on the big part of the song, what do you (a typical person in the congregation with no formal training) do?
You stop singing.
How do I know this? I stopped singing.
Why I Stopped Singing
It was a few weeks back and I hadn’t scheduled myself to lead or play, so I was a “normal” church guy. It was early in the set and we were singing a song that I knew well (and had led many times). But then the worship leader jumped up to a high part during a big section of the song, and I stopped cold.
I was a tad bewildered about why I stopped. I knew it was coming, and I can usually hit those notes. But I still stopped. Why?
Looking back, I realize it was out of my vocal comfort zone for that context. I wasn’t warmed up. I wasn’t in “big voice” mode. I was just a regular guy singing. And the leader lost me.
And so I paid attention the next time it happened. Sure enough, when the leader went off the written melody to some higher notes, I noticed the congregation got a little quieter.
Uh-oh. This is a problem.
The Self-Conscious Singer
I think there are two issues here. The first one is self-consciousness. To hit those higher notes, my volume would have risen considerably. And I felt like I was already singing louder than most of the people around me.
As “true worshipers”, should we feel self-conscious as we worship? Perfect world, no. But the reality is that we have people in all stages of their spiritual formation. And even seasoned worshipers have days where they just can’t enter into worship very easily.
Now, that particular Sunday, I felt like our overall house volume was lower than where I’d like it to be. So I think a higher volume would have let me feel less exposed. But it’s a delicate balance: the volume can quickly go from bolstering the congregation to burying the congregation.
I think another issue is in play here.
The Sympathetic Singer
The typical person in your congregation is likely what I call a “sympathetic singer.” That is, he locks on to the strongest singer around him and vocally hitches a ride. So when the worship leader decides to head skyward, the average congregational singer who’s locked onto the worship leader will bail out before it gets too high.
I’ve had always had my concerns about this. And this incident helped bring it into focus. It’s like we’re vocally abandoning the congregation. We’re shepherds scaling cliffs that sheep can’t climb.
So what do we do?
Just sing the melody.
That’s the easy answer.
I can just hear the Tomlin-high tenor worship leader say to me: “So where the lead voice on the recording goes up and it sounds sooooo good, you really want me to just sing the melody there?
“Yep,” I say. And that’s when he punches me in the forehead.
Here’s the thing we have to ask ourselves: Our we on the platform for our musical fulfillment or to help lead people into worship?
We all know the “right” answer. And I don’t believe worship leaders who soar beyond their congregations are just trying to fulfill some repressed rock star fantasies. (OK, a few are.) And those above-the-melody high notes do truly create some dynamics that help engage people.
So maybe there’s a both/and solution here. Maybe we can have the vocal expression of the worship leader without the vocal abandonment of the congregation.
I do think it’s possible. But it takes some intentional steps.
Steps To A “Both/And” Solution
1. Weigh the benefits.
As the leader, weigh out the potential gains or losses if you decide to sing the alternate melody/higher part like the artist does on the recording. Pro: it builds the dynamic and creates more musical depth interest. Con: it could lose the people you’re intending to lead.
2. Spotlight the melody.
If you choose to sing an alternate part, is there someone else prominently singing the melody? And does the sound engineer know who that melody singer is, so he or she can be turned up in the mix?
3. Work the mic.
As you hit the high notes, consider backing off the mic, even slightly, to help the melody stay out front. This also visually cues the sound tech that the you’ve left the melody.
4. Keep it familiar.
Choose songs the congregation knows well. For instance, my congregation knows and loves 10,000 Reasons by Matt Redman. I could probably sing a perfect fifth above the melody in Mandarin Chinese and they would have no problem continuing to belt it out.
I’d like to mention one final thing that will help most worship leaders, and it’s this: get perspective.
Be a normal person in worship several times a year. And if it’s not possible because of your schedule, go to another church’s Saturday evening service. The experience of being led can help give you empathy for the people you’re leading.
And remember, Sunday morning is not about our fulfillment as musicians. It’s about serving God’s people and helping them to worship and enjoy God.
For discussion: In the comment section below, let me know some ways you’ve dealt with this issue.
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