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.