An Aural Assault
Several years ago, I was between churches and offered to do some “pulpit fill” in some churches brave (or desperate) enough to hire an out-of-work worship leader to preach.
At one church I preached at, they just had a guitarist, drum machine, and six to eight vocalists.
From the pick-up note of the first song to the final rubato whole note of the last song, every singer sang every…single…one…of…those…notes.
And it was not a short set.
After I finished preaching and was driving home, I thought about why that musical worship experience made me want to curl up in the fetal position under the pew with my hands over my ears.
Was it too long? Well, I’ve participated in and led longer worship times than that.
Was it the song choices? They weren’t all to my liking, but that’s OK. My musical tastes aren’t the North Star of worship music.
I finally landed on it. It was the constant barrage of vocals.
I had desperately wanted the aural onslaught to stop. I think I might’ve been giddy had they slipped in a solo—even if it had sounded like something from the opening episodes each year of American Idol.
If you’ve been around great arrangements of music (modern, classical, choral, jazz, etc.), you understand this.
Dynamics are one of the keys to a song’s emotional connection with the listener. And dynamics just aren’t about the quality of loud and soft, but about the quantity of instruments at any given moment.
In a choir of 100 people, 99 will shut their yappers and let one vocalist sing. The arrangement calls for less and fewer at that moment. Why?
The Rocky Mountains are even more glorious when you’ve rolled through the (utterly) flat lands of Nebraska and eastern Colorado.
Or ever seen a Rembrandt? Massive contrast.
Great photography? A contrast of shadows and light.
Great debate? A contrast of opinions.
Great stories? A contrast of characters.
Great music? A contrast of not just loud and soft, but of much and less.
These distinctly different moments help emotionally engage us in the music, so we can sing more freely the words of worship, adoration, praise and thanksgiving.
Now, you’re likely a musician and a worship leader, so I probably had you back at “constant barrage of vocals.” You’re ready to move on to the practical stuff to deal with vocalists who sing every note (of every song in every set ofevery service).
So how do you deal with that?
What’s Behind The Wall Of Voices?
First, we need to recognize what’s behind this need to sing all the time. There’s likely one of two issues. And sometimes both.
1) Musical Immaturity
Less experienced vocalists over-sing. Just like less experienced guitarists over-play. (And from one you hear constantly Let It Go and from the other,Sweet Home Alabama. But now we’re off topic….)
The immature singer thinks, “I have a mic. I’m on a stage. There’s music playing. Therefore, I MUST sing.”
This immaturity can just be an ignorance of arranging—which is relatively easy to deal with. But more often, it’s the second issue.
2) Emotional Immaturity
If there’s an emotionally immature singer on the team, there’s an ego bruised every time a worship leader says, “Why don’t you lay out on this verse.”
He thinks to himself: “What? Why?! Am I not good enough? I’m every bit as good as that person she’s having sing right now! I knew it: she hates me! I think I’ll get Chic-fil-a milkshake on my way home.”
(I may or may not have revealed some of my own past thoughts just now…)
So to deal with these two issues of immaturity, we need to start with why.
Why Tear Down The Wall Of Voices?
Starting with “why” gives your vocalists a motivation and a bigger picture. It’s human nature: if people know the reason behind a decision (even if they don’t agree with it), they are more likely to go along with something.
So here are four “why” statements that you can tell your vocalists as you ask them to lay out.
“Have you noticed we arrange the band for dynamics and feel, and they aren’t all in at the same time? We need to do the same for the vocals.”
“Too many voices take away from the simplicity of this part of the song.”Or related to this one, “The syncopation of the melody is easier to follow with one primary voice coming through.”
“We are going for a more modern style with this song. Too many voices in this section would make it sound too choral.”
“We honor each others’ musical offerings by leaving space for each other.”
Hopefully, these four “whys” will let you come up with ones that work in your context.
At this point, the big question from the soon-to-be-muted singer is this, “Well, what do I do if I’m not singing?”
That’s a fair question.
How To Tear Down The Wall Of Voices
Here are three things your singers can do while they “lay out.”
1. Sing “Off-Mic”
Early on, when I was moving my team from a piano-driven, vocal ensemble sound to a more modern, band-driven sound, we’d experiment with having a solo voice lead the first verse of a song. Inevitably, the congregation would stop singing on those verses.
But we retrained our congregation to sing with a solo leader through two tactics.
The first tactic was to just invite people to sing along. I would encourage the lead vocalist of a particular song to (gasp!) talk to the congregation and invite them to sing along. I’d just tell them to say, “Sing with me.” Three words were all they needed. Permission granted.
And the second way we facilitated worship being led by a solo voice was to have the other vocalists sing off-mic. They would lower their mics (or step away from their mic stands) and just sing along sans amplification.
Singing off-mic is a simple but direct cue for the congregation to sing along. And of all these ways to step aside, this is probably the most natural way for your singers to do so.
A quick note on this: if you’re in a smaller worship space or using area miking (like for a choir), the “off-mic” singers will need to lower their volume to keep from competing with the lead voice.
2. Worship Without Words
Another way to encourage a tacet with your singers is for them to model “worshiping without words.”
They can either close their eyes or look up to heaven and just soak in the words and music. A couple of other worship expressions to accompany this is to raise your hands or put them over your heart. But don’t force it. You want this to be a genuine, external expression of an internal attitude.
By the way, many people in your congregation would find this non-singing posture to be a meaningful expression for them. Seeing one of the singers on the platform do it gives them permission not to sing but still worship.
3. Look At Who’s Leading
Another option for the momentarily-sidelined vocalist is to look at the person leading. This technique is especially helpful at the beginning of a song before it builds up. It also acts a visual cue for the congregation to know who’s the leader at that moment.
By the way, some “forced-to-not-sing” vocalists naturally do this, but more in a glaring-eye-daggers-“why-don’t-I-have-this-solo??!” sort of way.
That’s not really helpful.
So encourage them to agree non-verbally (smile, nod, etc., but not over-the-top) with what the soloist is singing.
As you begin to encourage laying out on your vocal team, don’t assume they will know when to do these different expressions of rest. So suggest what might be appropriate at that point in the worship journey. Like anything, after they practice it awhile, it will become natural for them.
Failure To Comply
If all this fails to keep one or more of your vocalists from over-singing, try one of these two techniques:
The Aggressive Approach: Pry the mic from their hands and have the drummer escort them out of the building.
The Passive-Aggressive Approach: Tell the sound man to pull down their fader. Forever.
But seriously, if someone does willfully sing at times when he/she’s been asked to lay out, you’re now dealing with a heart attitude. So a crucial, one-on-one conversation is needed.
Let me encourage you as we wrap up this post: If your vocal team hasn’t taken these steps before, you’re likely in for a bit of a challenge. But in the long-run, it will be worth it. Your songs will be more engaging for the congregation you’re serving, and it will encourage and invite them to sing more.
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