Monday, May 18, 2015

5 Things to Prepare Your Worship Ministry for Multi-Site Expansion

If you're part of a ministry whose vision is to reach as many people in your city as possible with the Gospel, your leadership has probably had the multi-site discussion.  Church multi-site expansion has exploded in the last ten years. Hundreds of articles have been written on the advantages as well as the challenges of moving from one campus to several.  Forums have popped up all over with information equipping church leaders to make the multi-site plunge. With that, we've seen many different ways churches are approaching multi-site expansion. As we sift through these approaches, it is important that each ministry within the church develop a specific plan of action with objectives pertaining to their area. This post will focus on how a worship ministry can approach multi-site expansion.

In 2005, I had the incredible and humbling experience of entering into the multi-site phenomenon as a worship pastor of a large metro Detroit church.  Over the next six years, the church grew from one campus to six campuses in just six years.  It was an exciting yet scary ride for a church that was 50 years old. It required not only a lot of preparation and planning but an incredible amount of simply trusting God along the way.  Back then there wasn't a lot written about multi-site expansion so we all learned a lot about what to do and what not to do along the way.  For those of you looking to expand into a multi-site ministry, I hope you can learn from my experience.

First, the steps you take in planning for worship ministry multi-site expansion will depend on the factors going into starting your new campus.  Some new campuses are "fresh starts" where there are no existing teams in place and you will have to develop and place an entire team to facilitate worship at the new campus.  Other campuses may be pre-existing ministries where your church is going in to "merge" with an established group of worshipers already in place.  These situations are a little more tricky and require more work because you could be dealing with a group of worshipers who have just been through a painful church split or a steady decline due to the lack of vision of previous leadership.  While some of the process for expansion is the same for both situations, for the sake of this article, we'll focus on developing a "fresh start" campus.  Feel free to comment below if you'd like information on going multi-site as a merger. I'll be happy to correspond.

So now we must consider the financial, personnel and equipment aspects of expanding the worship ministry to another campus. As you develop your game plan and proposals, here are some things to look at:

This is really something you should already be doing whether you're planning for multi-site expansion or not.  If you're not, start now.  The duplication process doesn't happen overnight. I recommend at least six months. Duplicating yourself not only means training someone to lead worship but also making sure they experience and grasp your vision and what you do behind-the-scenes in preparation for corporate worship.  Find 2-3 abecedarians in your ministry who have the gift set for leading worship and leading a team and begin to pour into them.  One of those could be your candidate to lead the new campus.  Duplication is so much better than trying to hire a new worship leader from outside of your ministry since the ones you duplicate will already understand and own your ministry's mission and vision.  When starting a new campus, there will be times when you, the worship pastor or main worship leader, will need to be available to personally invest time and energy into the new campus while it's getting started.  Sometimes you may need to meet with the new team to observe them at rehearsal or on a given weekend to offer feedback and training, or actually go lead worship for a couple of weekends. When that happens, you need to have depth in your leadership team to lead while you're displaced at your campus.

Once you've started duplicating yourself, the next step is to start building depth in your team; this means recruiting and training where you're at.  With a new campus, you'll need at least two of every position.  If you don't have two consistent people in every position, start looking for more because, most likely, you'll be sending one of them to the new campus.  Not only be thinking about vocalists and instrumentalists, but tech team, too.  Once you have the depth you need, ask who would be willing to go launch the new campus.  If you don't have a full team of those who volunteer, then determine who you have in the positions that need to be filled who live closest to the new campus.  Take them to coffee and see if they would consider giving the new campus a one year commitment.  Many times, those people will end up making the new campus their home.  Be prepared.  As the new campus is getting started, there will be times when there won't be a full team and there won't be anyone form the original campus to fill in.  This is where your duplication efforts will pay off as you've trained the worship leader at the new campus on how to recruit and train themselves.

Worship planning, set design, and AVL design/operation should all use the same systems.  For example, if you use Planning Center Online for planning worship services, Pro-Presenter for lyric projection, an Allen & Heath mixing console, a Nord keyboard, and Martin lighting software, do everything you can to use some version of it at all of your campuses. Most likely, you'll be training operators for your new campus on the equipment at your current campus.  Therefore, when making AVL purchases, buy units that function similarly.  If someone needs to fill in from another campus (which will happen), you're good to go across the board.

We determined early on that there were some negotiable and non-negotiable elements in developing service plans between campuses.  The non-negotiable items were those things which reflected our church's DNA.  Negotiable items were things like the frequency of communion, baptism, family dedication, and special services as well as the worship set lists. While each campus could choose their own setlist for a given week, there was an agreed-upon library from which they would choose their setlist.  All songs added to the comprehensive library would be presented to the worship staff, but implementation into the rotation depended on familiarity, lyric and musical integrity, and whether the style would relate to the people of that campus.  For example, when we first started out, our original campus was in a predominantly caucasian suburban area.  Our second campus was located in an urban area which was much more ethnically diverse. The new campus introduced songs to our library and was allowed to use songs that we would not use at the original campus.  Instrumentation and voicing for the worship teams at each campus was dependent on the resources available.  However, there was an overall goal that each campus would shoot for. We also created a list of team options, such as adding a worship choir or going "acoustic", which each campus worship leader could choose from if they wanted to create diversity in their worship sets.  New ideas were always welcomed and discussed as a leadership team before implementation to make sure it fit with that campus and with the church's DNA.  The important thing is to develop a plan which will work best for your ministry.

CCLI's website states that "...if the new campus is several miles from your current location, will be using it's own audio/visual equipment and contains a distinct core of congregants, it will need to obtain its own CCLI license."  This also means that if the church is using a web-based worship planning software, such at Planning Center Online, each campus will need to purchase its own account.  Since each campus has it's own CCLI license, they cannot share copyrighted music.  The good news is that there are now multi-site licensing options available for churches entering into multi-site expansion.

These are just a few things pertaining particularly to worship ministry which should be taken into consideration when planning multi-site expansion.

If you've been part of a multi-site expansion as the leader of a worship ministry, please share what you've learned along the way that could help someone else prepare for the journey.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Reasons You Should Start A Local Worship Collective

An historic discussion took place recently when UK Anglican and Catholic church leaders met to discuss unity. The response was overwhelming: Standing Ovation as Justin Welby and Vincent Nichols Declare Unity.  One of Welby's quotes... 
"We need people to see our unity. When we are visibly united, it speaks more powerfully to the world...than we can ever begin to imagine, and we cripple our witness when we are not united," he added. "We release a power of witness in the world of who Jesus is, of hope, [and of] life."
That same day I read an article posing this question: Is "Multi-Site Church" The Last Good Idea? In it, Daniel King of Next Level Church makes this statement...
“I think the next big thing for the next 20 years is churches working together. In some cases, this will mean churches all across a city or town partnering together for massive community impact in partnership with schools, governments, etc. In others, it will mean truly doing ministry together, such as choosing to focus on helping unchurched people find the church that will bring them closest to Christ, not just growing my church but growing the kingdom. And in many cases, I think we will see a dramatic increase in the number of acquisitions and mergers between churches who realize they can do more together than apart."  
It seems that we're beginning to realize that the "coming-together" of God's Church needs to be at the forefront of our game plans for drawing people to Jesus.  On the other hand, many church leaders have their opinions about why networking is a waste of time and energy.  Here are some reasons why church leaders prefer not to network. Some, I've actually heard leaders say out loud:
  • It's just a forum to complain and mope about the state of the church. 
  • When we work together, it takes away involvement in the local body's "in-house" ministries.  
  • If we collaborate in any way, we're confusing people by associating ourselves with those who have different beliefs about things like how to baptize or if all the gifts of the Spirit are active today.  
  • There's an unspoken competition of who can grow larger and faster than the church down the street. 
When I first became a Worship Pastor, I had the privilege of following in the footsteps of a great man by the name of Chuck Ohman.  Chuck, now 85 (and still serving in the local church), retired in 1998 after leading several strong Detroit area worship ministries.  Following his last ministry position, I succeeded him, completely green in ministry with only 2 years of experience under my belt.  Following someone who has led successful worship ministries can be extremely difficult, especially when they stay in the church they've served in.  I got my share of "Chuck would have done it this way", or "That's not how Chuck did it".  And I'm sure he got an earful, too..."Would you talk to that boy? He doesn't know what he's doing." ...and they would have been right!  Through it all, however, Chuck was my #1 fan and biggest supporter.  He made sure I always knew that I was doing a good job.  He even continued to serve in the worship ministry under my leadership. He never offered suggestions or tried to take over and I knew he always had my back.

One of the greatest things Chuck ever did for me was introduce me to Gary Matthews.  Gary was the Minister of Music (that's what we were called back then) at another large church in town.  Chuck mentioned to me that a group of Ministers of Music would get together from time to time to have lunch and that I should go and meet some of them.  As the leader of this "collective" (we didn't call it that back then), Gary was extremely welcoming and seemed excited about the opportunities God had for the worship ministry at Chuck's church under my leadership.  I felt immediate support, with openness to a fresh approach and ideas. Unfortunately, after meeting with this group about a half dozen times, Gary moved on to a ministry position in another part of the state and the network stopped meeting.

During the short time I was part of the group, I had developed a couple of great relationships and we kept in touch, grabbing coffee from time to time.  We would share what was going on in our ministries and talk about getting the group going again. Finally, I contacted a couple other worship leaders in the area and invited them to join us.  At one point, there were about 8-10 of us meeting regularly.  We went from having coffee to visiting each other's churches to see our set ups and learn how we did ministry.  In 2011, I took a ministry position in another state but our friendships and collaboration still continue as we share ideas and support one another over the miles through social media.

At my new position, having been part of such a great network, I knew I wanted to connect with other leaders in the area.  Fortunately, an organization called The Bridge Network, whose sole purpose is to connect churches in the Hampton Roads area, had helped get a worship leader network started with the help of a couple of local worship leaders just a year prior to my arrival. Our network in the Virginia Beach area has now grown to over 50 worship leaders.  Not only have we forged great friendships, but we've been able to offer free conferences, workshops and teaching utilizing the resources right within our own collective. In the fall, we'll be holding our first annual citywide Night of Worship at one of the city parks.  In addition to benefitting Seton Youth Shelters, our primary purpose for the event is to achieve what the afore-mentioned articles touch on...the power of coming together to allow the community to see our unity and draw people to Jesus. We realize that when people see us competing, it could possibly turn them off to Jesus altogether.  But we know that God can use our unity to draw people to Him.
How good and pleasant it is when God's people live together in unity.    -Psalm 133:1
So you can see, I've been involved in cross-denominational networking for over 17 years now. During that time, I have never experienced any of the networking fears listed above. Here's what I've learned:
  • As long as people are coming to Christ, it doesn't have to be through MY church. 
  • People don't leave a church to go to another church they're partnering with in ministry. In fact, chances are, people will see the two ministries sharing resources and be more likely to stick around at the one they're currently committed to.  
  • While networking is an opportunity to share some of things we struggle with in ministry, I have never found that connecting on a regular basis turns into a pity party.  Sometimes it's good to know there are other leaders dealing with the same issues you are and hear how they have dealt with them. 
  • I've never had anyone question what I believe because I took ministry ideas from someone who speaks in tongues.  
So here's what you do...Start finding church websites who list their worship leader's email address and just send them a quick "Hello!".  Once you've got 3 or 4 who will correspond with you, set up a time to grab coffee together.  Share ideas, stories, resources and pray together!  It's amazing what will happen!  Soon you'll have a Facebook group with Instagram and Twitter accounts, start hosting free workshops for area worship leaders and begin hosting annual citywide Nights of Worship.

The unity that our community sees in us working together has a far greater chance of drawing them to Jesus then all of us working apart.

Monday, March 23, 2015

Why Every Worship Leader Should Lose Their Ability To Make Music

I didn't set out to be a worship leader.

Like so many worship leaders who have found themselves thrust into leading worship, I had other aspirations. To be honest, I haven't alway loved making music.  I mean, I'm guess I'm good at music, but I was much more interested in architecture and design growing up. But it was my mom's dream for the world to "hear my gift". So at 16, I went on tour with the Continental Singers.  It was during that time I surrendered my abilities to the Lord. Even though I was now going in the right direction, it was still all about me. Like my mom, I began to feel like I had something to offer that the world needed to hear and God had gifted me to deliver it. Wow, just saying that sounds so egotistical right now.

So off to school I went to study music at Liberty University. I had seen the The Sounds of Liberty sing on television and knew that was going to be my connection to the world.  What I realized when I got there is that there were a lot of other people God had "gifted", too.  I soon began to realize I was just an averagely-gifted musician with visions of grandeur.  Slowly, my need to be "used" and "seen" faded into a music education degree so I would have something to fall back on if my Nashville career didn't pan out.

Going into my third year, I made some big mistakes and, other than when I committed my life to Jesus, it was one of the first times God got a hold of my heart and told me to stop aspiring to be recognized. It's one of the deadliest traps artists can fall into. So after sitting out a semester, I went back and auditioned for the Sounds of Liberty for a third time.  This time was different. My heart was in a better place and when I went to audition, the director asked me where I had been for the last three years.  I told him I had auditioned previously but he did not remember me. I believe God had shut his ears because He knew I wasn't ready.

So my last year and a half at Liberty was spent performing, traveling, and recording as a member of the Sounds of Liberty. While God had begun to work on my heart, He still had a long way to go. I still had a complete misunderstanding of what worship was and how God viewed me and my gift. During that time, I met my wife-to-be and we decided to get married the semester before my student teaching.  I couldn't be on the Sounds and be married at the same time so Dr. Falwell decided to hire me as a paid soloist for televised services until I graduated.  Little did I realize that my last performance with the Sounds would result in severe laryngitis the week before I got married.

I assumed that the loss of my voice was temporary and I would be able to speak and sing again just in time for my new singing gig and my semester of teaching.  But not only did my voice not come back, it left me for seven months.  I had to teach, sing and try to interview for jobs without a voice that, due to my need to speak, couldn't heal.  In the beginning, it wasn't a big deal, but after about three weeks I started to get very frustrated.  I started to question why God would allow my voice to go at such an important time in my life.

Then one Sunday morning that spring, God got a hold of my heart again and during corporate worship, spoke truth into my heart that I have never forgotten.  I believe He spoke into me at that moment to prepare me for what He had planned for my life all along.  While attempting to lift up my voice during corporate worship (which I shouldn't have been doing anyway), my heart was deeply aching because nothing was coming out. I wondered how I was supposed to worship God without a voice.  I wondered how God could love me and use me if I couldn't sing.  Then, just as clear as anything, God revealed two things to me in that moment.  He said:

"Cliff, I don't love you because you can make music. I love you simply because your my child, whether you can sing or not! And I can still use you even without your voice."  

Up until that point, my identity had been wrapped up in my voice; my ability to make music.  My singing voice was who I was.  It was what I was known for. It was my worship. In that moment, I was willing for God to take my voice permanently, knowing that it wasn't who I was.  It was a gift and He could choose to use it for His glory or not.  My desire to pursue being "known" or "heard" began to fade and I was willing to allow God to be my promoter if He saw fit.

God also revealed this,

"Cliff, you can still worship me without your instrument. You can still worship without your ability to sing.  Your voice is not your song. I'll hear it because you worship me with your heart."  

I can't begin to tell you how profound that truth was to me. It was like a whole new world opened up and I began to understand what worship truly was.  What I didn't realize is how this truth He had spoken to me would be a truth I would have the opportunity to speak into hundreds of other people later on.

Even after that experience, God still had work to do.  I still had aspirations of being known. I wasn't pursuing it, but I was secretly hoping God would bring a great opportunity across my path to make it happen.  So after teaching music in a Christian school for five years, I decided to step out in faith and see what God had for me, my wife and our brand new son.  It's amazing how God orchestrates things when we exercise our faith in Him.  Three weeks after I told my principal I was resigning, the worship pastor at our church announced he was resigning.  As the music teacher in the Christian school, they asked me to fill in as interim until they could find a replacement.  Mind you, I had no formal training in leading worship or running a church music program of any kind.  I knew how to "perform"and "minister", but not lead worship.  So for the next four months, I stumbled my way through learning how to create and lead corporate worship experiences.  It was BAD!  But somehow, miraculously, God saw fit to lay on the church leadership's hearts to hire me as their next Worship Pastor.  I was lost!  So I began to soak up everything I could about worship and attended every conference I could.  God began to grow me in ways I had never known.  It was painful and awesome all at the same time.

Then it started...I began to see participants in our worship ministry who were struggling with the same identity issues I had dealt with a few years earlier.  There were those whose identity was completely wrapped up in their gifting; those who thought the ability to make music was synonymous with worship.  It was then I began to realize that all God had brought me through and all He had taught me was to prepare me to shepherd these very people He had put under my leadership.

So if you ask me why every worship leader should lose their ability to make music, it's because it allows them to let go of trying to be recognized, feel like music is their only expression of worship, and prepares them to deal with people like me...self-promoting, identity-misplaced, worship-confused artists who need someone to speak loving truth into their souls and grow into the worshipers and worship leaders God intended them to be.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Worshiping Creator or Creation?

With the recent posts pertaining to modern worship's attempt to pull us all down into a hedonistic abyss, it's time to chime in on a topic which God's been stirring in my heart for a while.  It's a tension that wages war in the heart of every human and because the heart is where worship takes place, our American worship gatherings have engaged in this battle as well.

It's the war to prefer creation over The Creator.

First, let's all establish the fact that God is the Master Designer and His creativity is matchless.  Psalm 19:1 says, "The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of His hands." Creation screams His glory.  That means, as His creation, we do, too.  And we've been given the ability to create in order to reveal God's glory.

So we create in the name of our Creator, but considering the sin-flawed hearts of those being asked to follow our leadership, how much of The Creator do they actually see?

As we ask this question, it should cause us to evaluate how we function as creatives, artists, and worship leaders.  Are we truly attempting to offer worship that is Creator-focused or are we offering an expression that only draws attention to our presentation?  This is a question with which we have to be honest with ourselves.

If we truly want people to see the Creator, do we revert to creating vanilla, timid experiences that limit the creativity God has put in our hearts....all in the name of reverence and being Word-focused? Do we stop creating beautifully diverse, awe-inspiring worship environments just so people won't get sucked into "consumer worship"?

At the same time, when we truly reflect the vastness of God's virtuosity in our art, how can we know if people's attention is actually being drawn to the Creator and not the art form itself?

The answer is: "We can't."  That is between God and the worshiper.

But before worship leaders and creative directors start using that as an excuse to turn their worship experiences into rock concerts, let's remember that we do have a responsibility to make sure our motives are not indulgent for ourselves or for the people we are leading and that we are doing everything we can to draw their attention toward The Creator, not creation.  Our prayer should be that God will reveal Himself to people while we're using creative "conduit" to keep their attention.

Entertainment has become a taboo word in worship these days but let's consider what entertainment is.

Entertainment: "An agreeable occupation of the mind".  

If we're honest, we can't deny that there is an entertainment factor in experiencing God's glory. For example, when I see the Northern Lights, I'm completely enamored by them.  Does God regret creating them because people are focusing on the color instead of Him?  Probably not.  He's created them with the hopes that people will see His glory in them.

So let's continue to express worship in a variety of beautifully creative packages which all reveal the glory of God, but let's do all we can to guide the worshiper from being so enamored with the package that they miss the gift of His presence.

Here are a couple of other posts I've written to help you do just that:
5 Ways To Get Your Church To Sing
Beyond Just Singing Songs

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Don't Waste Your Breath: Breathing Techniques for Vocalists

We've all been there. 

The setlist for the weekend is epic. The songs are a little outside of our vocal range, but we can't wait to dive in and shout them out with everything we have.  We're just hoping our voice doesn't give out before the end of the service because we've gotta hit those high notes and we just can't wimp out or worse yet, crack.  Well, we make it through the musical worship without embarrassing ourselves but our voice has been reduced to a raspy whisper because we blew it out during "Great I Am".

This scenario has happened to most worship leaders more than once and a question always arises.  How can I hit those notes and even increase the longevity of my vocal strength (for those who lead multiple services) without straining and ending up hoarse by the end of the worship?

The answer is really simple: Proper use of your breath.

Proper breathing is the most fundamental element of good singing.  All other aspects of vocal technique rise and fall on proper breathing. You can learn how to relax your throat, achieve resonance, and have perfect vowel placement, but without proper breath to sustain it, it ain't gonna happen. 

While the answer of using your breath properly may seem simple, coordinating all of the respective muscle groups for proper breathing will take some time to develop; especially if you've been singing for a long time and have developed some counter-productive habits.  In this post, I'll give you some information and techniques for proper breathing as well as some breathing exercises you can do to develop your breathing muscles.

1. Inhaling is an act of relaxing and stretching, not contracting.  How many of us have taken a deep breath only to heave our chest, raise our shoulders, and feel like we're contracting every muscle in our core? When we finally let go of the breath, it feels like we're relaxing everything.  This is the exact opposite of how proper breathing should feel.  Contracting your muscles is what you do to exhale. If done properly, it will be a completely different set of muscles than what you're used to using.

2. When people say to sing from your diaphragm, they don't actually mean that you breath from your diaphragm.  While the diaphragm is part of the breathing process, it is an involuntary muscle which acts as a horizontal "wall" between your lungs and your "guts" and basically just "goes along for the ride". There are other muscles which you actually have control over that must be engaged for the diaphragm to do it's job.  

3. When you inhale, it should feel as though air is going "down" into our belly rather than "out" in our ribs.  The lungs are enclosed by ribs on all sides except the bottom.  At the bottom of the lungs is our flexible diaphragm muscle. The way to get the diaphragm to lower and allow the lungs to fill is to stretch and relax the abdominal muscles as well as expand and spread the muscles of your mid and lower back.  When we do, our guts spread out, which in turn, allows our diaphragm to lower.  When our diaphragm lowers, our lungs expand with air. The process of spreading the back is especially important for pregnant women whose abdominal muscles are already stretched to the max. This type of breathing is a foreign concept for those who have been told to hold their belly in.  We naturally want a flat tummy and typically have a small amount of constant tension on our abdominal muscles.  For this kind of breathing, that tension has to be completely relinquished and, in fact, the tummy should be stretched outward.  

4. There should always be a constant feeling of tension on the sides of your ribcage,  under your arms and upper back.  This acts a "lifter" of your ribcage and creates more lung capacity as well as a rigid core for both inhalation and exhalation.  I tell people to feel as though they are squeezing tennis balls under their armpits, pushing the ribs out toward the arms more than the arms pushing into the ribs.  If you're keeping the ribs lifted this way and using your abs as your energy source, the chest will/should never heave while inhaling.

5. After stretching the abdominal and back muscles to inhale, you'll need to exhale or create vocal tone. When doing so, contract the abdominal muscles from the bottom up.  Feel as though you're rolling your abs upward.  This contracting puts pressure on your "guts".  The guts, in turn, put pressure on the diaphragm.  The diaphragm (along with the help of a lifted/rigid ribcage), in turn, puts pressure on your lungs and creates compression.  This compression of air in the lungs is what allows the voice to stay relaxed and free while creating vocal tone.  Once you've contracted your abs to the point of feeling like they will touch your spine, release and relax them quickly for the next breath.  How many times have you been singing a fast song where there is virtually no place to breathe and the spots there are to breathe are so fast, you can't get a deep breath?  This technique will help achieve quick breaths that are deep and full but it will take time to train the muscles to tense and release quickly since the abs are not the most agile muscles.

6. While singing, always inhale through a combination of your mouth and nose and open your throat as large as possible so air can pass as quickly as possible back into your lungs.  Do not inhale through your nose only.  While you're singing, this won't allow air to refill the lungs fast enough between phrases. You should feel as though you're drinking air back into your body.  

7. While singing, never try to conserve air thinking it will allow you to sing longer phrases.  The more you try to hold air in, the more tense your body becomes and the more air that gets trapped inside your lungs.  If you have it, get rid of it!


Using a steady beat, sip four times like your sipping on a straw, continuing to inhale until your lungs are full (If your lungs don't fill up all the way in four beats, take bigger sips). Then immediately hiss four times like a tire that's had a hole poked in it (exhaling), pulsing each beat, making sure not to close your throat between hisses and getting rid of ALL of your air in four counts by creating a lot of pressure behind your teeth.  Continue this non-stop for at least 30 seconds.  Because you'll be exchanging a lot of oxygen, you may get dizzy at first.  Your body will get used to it.  As your muscles get stronger, more coordinated and more agile, extend the counts to 8 sips and 8 hisses.  You can also do this exercise with no beat and just see how long you can do each one.  For variation, add voice and hiss on a "z" or even sing in your head voice on an "ooo".

Lie on your back and place a stack of books on your stomach.  Take slow, deep breaths. As you inhale, stretch out your abs to lift the books higher. As you exhale, contract your abs to make the books go lower. 

Lean over at the waist and let your arms loosely hang down toward the floor like a rag doll so that your upper body is completely relaxed.  Take slow, deep breaths. Feel the abs and back expanding and contracting as you inhale and exhale.

Lean over slightly and interlock your fingers in front of your waste so that your arms form a large "U' in front of your body.  Take slow deep breaths while trying to pull your arms apart.  This helps strengthen the rib muscles that help lift your rib cage while singing.   You can also vary this exercise by holding the straps to VERY heavy bags in each hand while you breathe.

Standing straight, stretch your arms over your head as high as they will go.  Take slow deep breaths. This raises the ribcage and allows you to feel the abdominal muscles relaxing and contracting during the breathing process.  You can vary this exercise by stretching your arms over your head, taking in a huge breath and holding it.  While holding your breath, drop your arms to your side and relax them. Now, hiss the air out while keeping your ribs high and expanded.  You should feel the abs doing their job.

I hope this information on breathing and the exercises are a help to you as a vocalist.  Please let me know if you have any questions by commenting and I'll respond to try to clarify things.

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

My Short Response to Perry Noble's "The Bible Isn't Important"

I typically don't post responses to blogs or even theological content apart from worship, but Perry Noble's thought-provoking post, The Bible Isn't Important, prompted me to share my perspective; for what it's worth. 

Perry is pastor of Newspring Church based in SC.  The above-mentioned post was a follow up article to his post, Ten Convictions I Have About The Church. He wrote it as a response to reaction from his followers.

First, let me say that I respect and follow Perry as a very "in touch" pastor who has a great sense of humor,  is extremely down-to-earth and does a great job at communicating uncompromised Biblical truth in a way that's palatable for someone who doesn't follow Christ.  He has a heart to see people put their trust in Christ.  God is honoring that by allowing Perry and the staff at Newspring to bare witness to much fruit.  

Perry stated in his follow up post that "Community is more important that reading the Bible".  Perry goes on record to say that he loves God's Word but that new believers must have someone to walk with them as they grow in their knowledge of Christ.  If not, they "dive back into destructive habits...because they have no one in their lives who seem to care".

My post here is not to refute Perry's stance but to perhaps clarify and elaborate on an important fact I believe he infers but does not come out and say in his post; it's the idea that in order for a new believer to grow in Christ with "a group of people who are trying their best to follow Jesus", that group MUST have a core who love and desire to get into God's Word; equal to their desire and love for community.  I've seen many caring groups of people within the church who develop beliefs that are the furthest thing from Biblical truth because they don't have a mature core who love and know God's Word. 

So how do we define a group who "loves Jesus and are desperately trying their best to follow Him"? For me, I know my love is directly proportional to how much I know someone.  I get to know them by spending time with them.  I 'follow' someone by learning their ways. Spending time with and learning from Jesus looks a lot like reading God's Word and meditating on it.  

So to say that community is more important than reading the Bible really applies to new believers but can be dangerous if there are no mature, knowledgeable believers to whom they are connected.  So let's make sure that as we connect new believers to a group of people, that group has a mature core of Christ-followers who love God's Word just as much as they do gathering in community.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Worship Vocal Survival Tips

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 on the web to help worship vocalists and vocal teams. 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 one 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).  Watch this video to learn more about how to breath and use your breath as a vocalist.

For the worship team vocalist, vowel shape is the most important factor for a good blend within the team. Every vowel a vocalist sings should have a foundational “AH” shape to it.  The “AH” shape should never leave the back of the mouth while the “EE”, “EH”, “OH” and “OO” are formed with the lips, teeth and tongue. These vowels can get mutated when changing the foundational “AH” by lowering the soft palate or back part of the roof of the mouth.  The varieties of these mutations coming from the different vocalists on the team ruin the blend.  Work on matching vowel shape by keeping space between the teeth and keeping the “AH” shape in the back of the mouth on every vowel.  In addition, look to make sure the tongue is staying flat and relaxed on the bottom of the mouth with the tip of the tongue lightly touching the back of the bottom teeth.  If the tongue tightens and raises up in the back, the vocalist loses the open “AH” foundation.  Watch this video to learn more about how to relax the jaw and tongue.

Louder is not better. A good team vocalist matches their volume to the atmosphere of the song and balances it with the rest of the team.  This is driven both instrumentally and lyrically.  Just because there’s a great harmony part for a lyric such as “In this quiet place with You” doesn’t mean it should be blatted out for everyone to be amazed by it.  Likewise, if the band is rocking out, you don’t want to timidly sing “With all that I have I shout out Your glory”.  Dynamics are used to create interest.  After about 3 minutes of full-on singing, most ears shut off anyway.  

The quality of a singer’s voice can be described in many terms…nasally, edgy, breathy, full, thin, raspy, etc.  These descriptions refer to vocal tone.  Every single one of these tones have their appropriate place within a vocal team…as long as everyone on the team is utilizing the same tone and they are used on a style of song for which that tone is appropriate.  These various tones are created through resonance and placement of the sound. Typically a BGV wants to eliminate as much edge to their voice as possible depending on the style of the song.  The rounder and mellower the tone, the more it will blend. BGV’s should focus on an easier tone, especially when lower in their range where the chest voice tends to boom or get an edge to it, which can easily overpower the lead.

Modern worship has become known for the infamous “8th note delay”.  It is very important for BGV’s to make sure they match and practice the timing with everyone else on the team when it come to entrances, syllable timing and ending consonants, especially the letter “s”.  “S” is easily achieved on a vocal team if only one person actually sings the “s”.  If all members decide to make the “s” sound, they need to get off of it as quickly as possible by opening their mouth to “ah” as soon as the “s” is created.  This will eliminate the prolonged snake sound at the end of phrases.  If timing isn’t practiced, it will sound sloppy and the lyric will become indiscernible. 

Vibrato is that up and down oscillation you hear as some vocalists hold a pitch. There’s a lot of discussion on vibrato for vocalists.  Is it generated?  Does it happen naturally?  Regardless, when singing on a team, vibrato should be kept to a minimum or none at all.  If you have a vibrato, it CAN be controlled.  As we get older, the breathing muscles tend to weaken and the energized “quick spinning” quality in our voices tends to widen.  We must work to keep the breathing muscles toned so that our vibratos stay tighter and quicker.  When a straight tone is desired, the natural vibrato must be held in place without tightening the throat or cutting off the air. This is difficult to do.  Straight-toning has a tendency to go flat (under pitch) because we press down on the larynx in order to “hold” the vibrato.  As long as the air is used properly, straight-toning is very effective in creating a great blend.

Just because you can sing it doesn’t mean you have to.  There are many times in worship when dropping the microphone altogether is very effective in creating interesting texture within the music. In addition, designating specific times to sing unison and harmony can create interest in the texture as well.  Full-on harmony all the time can overwhelm the ear and it begins to tune out what is being heard.  Don’t be afraid to create moments of simplicity and reverence with unison singing then create momentum by breaking into harmony at an appropriate time in the music.

Our voice identifies who we are, but in the case of worship vocals, we want to develop our gift in a way that doesn't draw attention to our ability or lack of it, but to the One who gave us a voice to begin with.  The goal is for worshipers to look past our voice and identify Jesus in our lyric.