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.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

What's a PA and Why Do You Need One?

It's 5 minutes before the service and THIS happens:
  • Your lead guitarist loses power to his amp.
  • In testing the clicks, you realize they've stopped coming through the IEM's.
  • One of the vocalists tells you the batteries died in her IEM pack.
  • The bass player's signal to the board is suddenly lost.
  • The pre-service music that is supposed to be playing has suddenly stopped for no apparent reason.
  • The drummer asks for an order of service because he can't remember which song is first.
  • Someone is running down from the baptistry because they need to know when baptisms are during the service.
  • The booth calls to the stage to say that the lyrics computer is frozen and there won't be any lyrics for the first song.
  • The Senior Pastor lets you know that the deacons will be making a presentation after the announcement video.
  • The keyboard player realizes the adapter for her headphones is missing.
  • The acoustic guitar is crackling every time he strums.
  • The rhythm guitarist has no clue that he is standing in the dark because the light for him is 5 feet to the left.

OK...maybe not all on one Sunday, but have any of these things ever happened to you?  As one who is responsible to help people focus on God, it becomes an impossible task to prepare spiritually and be concerned with every logistic element of the service.  These are things that simply should not be of concern to the worship leader.

That's why, for the last 8 years, I've tried to utilize a "PA".  PA stands for Program Assistant and it's one of the best choices I've ever made as a worship leader. My wife and I discovered this idea after attending the Saddleback Worship Conference years ago.  Saddleback was using a PA and when they explained what it was, it opened our eyes to a whole new world. No matter what the size of your ministry, a PA will end up being the most valuable person on your team.

What do you look for in a PA?
The PA is one of those detail-oriented people who can anticipate what could go wrong during a service.  They see things through the eyes of a guest and are able to think ahead and quickly develop a plan to remedy the problem before it happens or once it's already happened.  When things go wrong on stage or in the booth, things can get pretty heated so a PA should also be thick-skinned and have good communication skills with ability to stay calm under pressure.

What does the PA do?
For us, because it is impossible for the worship leader to sit down with the tech team in advance, the PA meets with the Worship Leader to get the "vision" for the service in order to develop a picture of what the worship leader wants the service to look and sound like.  The PA then becomes the liaison between the worship leader, the worship team, the technical team and any others involved in the service including ushers, communion servers, baptizers, presenters, etc.

After meeting with the worship leader, the PA's first responsibility is to come to rehearsal to take notes and make adjustments if need be to song lyrics and stage positioning.

Before the worship service, the PA becomes the "go to" person for any last minute additions or corrections to the service and they make sure everyone knows what's going on.  First, they go to the lighting tech to let them know where the worship leader has placed the team for lighting purposes. They also take a visual scan of the worship team to make them aware of any wardrobe adjustments that need to be made or inform them of a dangling headphone cable, etc.

The PA also serves the worship leader and worship team by helping them stay on-task and on-time. They do this by retrieving batteries, placing guitar/music stands and asking what they need such as an extra copy of the order of service.  The PA also makes sure the worship team has cleared off water bottles, purses, cups, instrument cases, etc. prior to the service.

At the beginning of the service, our PA serves as a sort of stage manager, helping direct traffic or moving props when need be, but NEVER seen or heard. Therefore, a communication headset tied into the booth is very beneficial.  During the service, they are constantly monitoring the surroundings for any audio or visual distractions, keeping an eye on the worship leader for any communication. Our PA usually stands toward the back of the worship center so to be close to the ushers, etc.  The PA then cues the band at the end of the service if they are not in the service.

What the PA is NOT!
The PA is not the director and does not make directional decisions for the service.  That is the job of the Pastor or Worship Leader.  That is why they are called an "assistant".  They are there to serve and support, not boss!

In the end, the incorporation of a PA has minimized the stress of Sunday morning for our worship leaders and allowed us to be more focused on God while leading worship.

Do you use a PA?  If not, how do you address these kinds of things on Sunday morning in order to stay focused on leading worship?

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

5 Rules For Worship Team Vocalists

As worship leaders, most of us work with volunteer vocalists every week. While those of us in larger churches have the privilege of auditioning some pretty good singers, we also have the responsibility to equip and train those who have potential but need work in some areas. Those of us in smaller churches are forced to work with whoever shows an interest and the training part becomes even more necessary.  Unfortunately, the things listed below are not designed to help the "tone-deaf" person.  In those cases, it is good to have an alternative area of service to offer them or to recommend and ear-training course.

Most of the time, those who want to be part of the vocal team have a love for singing and a decent voice, but have never sung in a group before.  They don't understand that singing as a soloist and singing on a team requires a completely different set of rules.  Hopefully, the list below will help leaders and their vocalists begin to understand their role and development as a team singer.

You're not auditioning for American Idol!  I know that for many of us singers, our identity is wrapped up in our voices.  Unfortunately, this causes us to care way too much about what people think and we end up trying way too hard. After all, we don't want to make a fool out of ourselves.  LET. GO. OF. IT!  Nerves not only kill your tone but your ability to communicate as well! You end up either looking like a deer in the headlights or you're so over-the-top that it becomes inauthentic.  Mentally and emotionally lock into the lyric and express your heart.  If you do, the voice will follow.  I know this is going to deflate your ego, but as a vocalist, it's more about your ability to physically model worship than it is for people to hear your killer lead or incredible harmony.

Also, keep in mind that proper singing takes place from the collar bone DOWN.  Tone is not created by manipulating your voice box, tongue or jaw.  If the muscles in the neck and jaw are tight, not only will you limit your range and wear out your voice (possibly damaging it), but your resonance and vowels will be hindered.  Learn some exercises that help relax the neck and jaw and then begin to create tone without engaging any of these muscles.

The main reason people sing off pitch or have an unpleasant tone is due to shallow breathing. When they do, the breathing muscles never engage so the voice doesn't have enough air to work properly. In turn, it tightens up. There are plenty of Youtube videos to show you how to breath properly.  Mainly, breath deep and relax when you inhale without heaving the chest.  Expand the stomach and sides of your ribcage.  Then contract those muscles to push the air out while singing.  It's easy to forget to breath deeply in the emotion and excitement of leading worship but it's imperative. The more you practice, the less you have to think about it.

Louder is not better. There are two times when a vocalist has a tendency to over-sing.  One happens while learning the part and the other happens once the correct part is learned.  What happens during the learning process is that, without realizing it, the singer begins to "yell" their part so they can hear themselves and get the part into their head.  The problem with this is that it limits the singer's ability to hear what's going on around them. When they are screaming their part, they lose the context of how their part fits into the whole and could end up learning the wrong part altogether. The best worship team vocalist prioritizes listening over singing. You will learn a part much faster and correctly if you back off, cup your hand around your ear so you can hear yourself, and blend in with the rest of the group. It is also important while learning your part that you listen to the other singers in order to match their tone and vowel shape.  Be aware if your tone sounds more "nasally" than others in the group or if your "ah" sounds more like an "uh" compared to everyone else. Adjust accordingly.

Once you have your part learned, there's no need to "belt" it for the world to hear.  The idea of a worship team is that you function as a TEAM.  In a team, every part is equally important.  You may be totally "into" the worship, but a worship team singer must continually be conscious of all the other parts and how their part is blending and balancing with the rest of the team. There are many Scripture verses to reinforce this idea but my favorite is Philippians 2 which tells us to "esteem others better than ourselves".

Also, if you learn harmony by ear, it is egotistical to think that just because you can only find one harmony that everyone else on the team has to work around your part.  The next time you're in your car by yourself listening to music, force yourself to find and sing alternative harmonies with the songs.  If you take time to practice this, you will get batter at it.  It also demonstrates a servant spirit while helping you improve as a musician who listens and adapts.  Eventually your ear will develop to hear more than one part and it will make the other singers on the team look forward to singing with you rather than dreading it.

Too many inexperienced vocalists sing one-dimensionally. They have one volume and one tone.  The voice can do so much more and vocalists need to explore and practice these capabilities of their voice.  As an expression of the heart, worship music inherently possesses the entire gamut of dynamics and tone. From bold declaration to intimate prayer, vocalists need to adjust their volume and technique to create these atmospheres for the worshiper.  For vocalists who have a bigger, heavier voice, work on lightening up, moving the tone more forward, and even adding a little breath to your tone.  For those who have a light, thin voice, work on ways to create a more full resonant sound; then use these tones appropriately.  Always be aware of the ambience of a song.  Most of the time, this is created through the instrumentation.  I can't tell you how many times I've been on a team where a worship team vocalist was in their own world and when the band backed off they were blaring their part for the world to hear. Awkward!

Part of dynamics is also learning how to use a microphone.  Once you do, the sound guy will love you! Good microphone technique requires a knowledge of awareness of your own voice.  You know the sweet spot in your voice.  You know "that note" where it just rings.  Those are the places you need to pull the mic away.  You also know those low spots where your voice loses intensity.  As mentioned before, don't over-sing.  Keep it tender and bring the  microphone in closer to your mouth.

What? I'm the alto harmony on the worship team! What do you mean I'm not supposed to sing?

Just because you can, doesn't mean you need to. Worship comes from the heart.  The voice doesn't always have to engage for the heart to worship. There are many times during worship when I have asked our vocalists to drop the mic and simply internalize or mouth the lyrics being sung by someone else.

In any music, variety of texture is key to the music being engaging and worth listening to. I love a good choir, but after about an hour, my ears are full of choral sound.  The congregation is the same way when it comes to the worship team.  If they hear full harmony singing for 30 minutes, they begin to shut it off.  Let texture rise and fall throughout your songs. Leaders, practice this with your teams. For example, when the first verse starts, encourage them to keep their mics down and only mouth the words, then join with the melody only on the second verse; don't add any harmony until the second chorus. During the breakdown go back to melody or drop your mic altogether. Singers, once you've worked through the texture map, don't forget it before the worship service!  Remember, it's not about your ability to awe the audience with four-part harmony, but to allow them to engage in worship.

Also, watch the leader.  If they drop their microphone, it's probably a cue for you to do the same.  As a worship leader, I drop my mic from time to time because it causes the congregation to hear themselves. When they do, it removes the "performance" aspect of worship and encourages them to lift up their song of praise even louder.  As a vocalist, if you fail to drop your mic after the leader does, the congregation ends up worshiping to your blaring tenor part all by itself.  Not ideal.

I'd love to hear other things you've done as a singer or leader to help the vocalists on your team function better as a team.