10 Best Practices For Worship Vocalists

The vocals in a worship band are an instrument, and when played well, musically, and in intentional connection with the rest of the music the band is making – can lift the worship experience in a local church to some beautiful heights. Here are 10 Best Practices for Worship Vocalists I’ve gleaned from many effective leaders, arrangers, and producers over the years that will help take the vocal instruments in your band to the next level.

These best practices are in no particular order, and are not meant to be exhaustive, but all of them are a bit of a “constellation” of good listening and heart habits that work together. They also don’t all focus on singing, as worship has to do with both heart and skill expressed in a band environment.

10 Best Practices For Worship Vocalists

1. Vibrato Is Out – Tight Blend Is In.

When microphones were first put in front of church vocalists back in the day, chorally or folk-bred singers brought their vibrato to the microphone. If you’re the only one singing, or if you’re trying to convey a 1970s sound (almost 50 years ago), you can get away with it. But “buzz” is what we’re after in today’s 21st century worship environments. Aim for a smooth sound, that blends tightly with the other vocalists (see #8 below).

2. Drink Lots Of Water Hours Before Singing.

Hydrated vocal cords sound better, hold pitch better, and hold up longer. Drink lots and lots of water a few hours before you are going to sing. It will help your sound and keep your voice strong for the long haul.

Oh, and warm up on the car ride in. It helps.

3. You Don’t Need To Sing All The Time.

I can’t tell you how many “deer-in-the-headlights” looks I’ve gotten over the years about this one. “I’m in front of a microphone, I practiced, so I need to sing all the time, right?” Nope. You are an instrument. Voices blend, come and go, lay out for extended periods, then come in tastefully – just like instruments. Listen to an All Sons And Daughters video, Bon Iver, or other video (see the Oceans acoustic video). It’s all about applying your “instrument” at the right time.

Sometimes, I ask one singer to join in on the first chorus, then hold back a second singer for when a bigger moment arrives. It adds dynamics.

4. Begin Phrases, And End Phrases, Tightly With The Worship Leader.

This is about concentration and practice. Losing vibrato, and focusing on creating a vocal “buzz,” pay attention to the exact rhythm and phrasing of the worship leader. Match it. Then, vocalists should match each other.

My “Vocal Circle Exercise,” below, helps train this. So does the recording studio, and in-ear monitors.

5. Two Vocals Is Enough; Beyond That Creates Another Sound And Must Be Worked.

Just so we know, today (and my preference), having a lead vocal and just one other vocal is a common, tight sound. (Think Civil Wars, or some other favorite band.) If it’s just you, fine. If it’s just two of you, tastefully apply the second instrument. If it’s more, work out the harmonies. I’m a big fan of a female vocal (if I’m leading) joining me on melody on a big chorus, while the other vocal does a cool harmony (see #7) below.

Some pastors value a higher visual “participation” up front, and vocals are the logical place to put more people. But know that it changes the sound radically, and the more vocals, the less “current” (at least in some contemporary worship sounds) the band may sonically feel. For this reason, if that is a value or request, I encourage using choirs and other complementary groups to enhance the straight-up band sound – rather than putting them all on a mic.

6. Competition Is A Heart Issue; Deal With It Before Jesus.

Just throwing this in. We’re all called to be Jesus. That’s all. Competing with others and being upset when they are asked to lead a verse, or do something special, is just our brokenness talking. Serve, with your instrument, with humility.

[Here’s a hot-button I hear about everywhere I’ve gone the last years. Voices, and sound tastes, change. They do, and it’s okay. We must all learn new approaches to ingrained singing habits. Know that if your natural vocal sound is aging, and another sound is desirable, the worship leader or those leading the ministry are not de-valuing you as a person if they emphasize the other sound/voice. Your voice is not the identity equivalent of you (welcome to the struggle of every artist). But you can learn new tricks with practice and intention.

And, as always, find your place, Be there to serve and offer ego to Jesus, be willing to step on or off a stage, and then find a variety of places to serve as needed. I’m not saying that leaders aren’t imperfect in how they handle these things, but I am saying that things change and worship leaders have hard calls to make along the way. Find a place that works for you, and leave the competition off of church stages.]

7. Train To Current Recordings And Videos, And Learn Their Harmonies And Entry Points.

This is a big, big deal. Learn fresh harmonies from fresh music that is out there. As I’ve said before, 1970 styles were almost 50 years ago. 1990 was 20+ years ago. Sounds change, and sometimes people sing in ways that they mimicked in their teens and twenties.

Download a bunch of new songs, then, play them all the time. Only sing harmony in the car to every song you listen to. Practice. Try fresh approaches. If not, you will default to the 3rd, the 5th, or some other “this sounds basic and doesn’t work so good” mix. Listen, listen, listen, then mimic, mimic, mimic. Then, when a moment calls for a fresh harmony, you have a mental/vocal toolbox from which to draw.

In those recordings, also notice when vocals enter, and when they recede. Apply those ideas when you’re part of the band. Note the tight phrasing, and lack of vibrato.

8. Aim For A Vocal Buzz – One Voice – Between Vocalists.

I have an exercise I do with myself and vocalists I call the “Vocal Circle.” Off mic, we stand in a tight, tight circle. I sing a chorus, and everyone watches me to match my phrasing and dynamics. Then, we all join in. Our goal is to sound like ONE voice – not many. Vibratos disappear, and a tight “buzz” begins to happen. Then, apply this to the microphone.

When dynamics get big, vocals often get out of control, trying to add to the energy of the band. That’s when “buzz” starts to fall apart and vibratos start coming back in. Resist the urge to let go, and (even if you can’t hear well in your monitor) retain control of the instrument that is your voice. The whole will sound much better.

9. Lower Your Music Stand, Or Get Rid Of It.

Straight up? We can all memorize the songs. There, that’s out of the way. If you use a music stand, or iPad, know that it communicates a message to the congregation. It should never be in front of your face, between you and a wedge monitor (I can’t tell you how often I must move a music stand for a vocalist struggling to hear themselves. It’s a basic sound principle – if an object is between you and the sound, it will block it.

Lower the stand, and move it to the side. OCD pastors or stage techs – no, it doesn’t need to be perfectly centered with the mic. I often use my iPad now for my chord charts (less rehearsal), or I use nothing at all. Music stands are a necessary evil, and fiddling with music and other objects on the stands causes little distractions that aren’t necessary. Watch a favorite music video – where are their music stands?

10. Smile Partially Or Fully (At Least Occasionally), And Worship.

Take this one mildly. It’s not a hard and fast guideline, but I’ve seen truth in it over 20 years. If you have some soft, gentle, pleasant expression on your face up front, people think you want to be there. Then they want to be there. It’s psychological math. Super-smiles feel disingenuous (welcome to the 70s), and no smile or frown is a Debby Downer (or conveys a broody rock star). Even if one person is postured funny, in face or body, it distracts and detracts from the overall sense of worship.

Care for each other, and help make each other happy to be there. Laugh a lot. But if your heart is heavy, psychology/physiology tells us that one of the things God can use to lift your heart is you physically smiling on occasion. As C.S. Lewis said, our physical posture can affect our hearts.

I hope these tips help you in your expression of worship as a community. There are more, and as I said, this list is not exhaustive. I’d love to see more tips from others show up in the comments for everyone to glean from. Bless you as you sing, from the heart, in worship.

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Question: Which of these 10 best practices have you found the most helpful in your world? What others have helped you navigate “vocals as an instrument” in your community?

Resources: I touch many of these general principles in the Essentials In Worship Video Course, and specifically hit them in 7 Steps To Awesome: For Worship Vocalists.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

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21 thoughts on “10 Best Practices For Worship Vocalists

  1. Something to think about on #3 – the congregation is watching the worship band to know when and whether to sing, and if they see members of the team just stepping back and not singing on parts of the song, they may stop singing, too. Consider singing the melody (or even just lip syncing) on parts of the song rather than “not singing” altogether… then splitting off into a harmony on the parts of the song that should sound ‘bigger’. Depends on the stage setup and where you stand on the performance vs. participation debate… but, also, if you are the “leader,” be a little careful about ad-libbing during the ending of the song, because if the congregation is watching the leader for cues and the leader starts making it up on the fly, that can cause the congregation to stop participating in the song.

  2. Charles, that’s an important thought. Singing off mic, especially engaging in worship, without necessarily adding to the mix, is an important way a worship vocalist can engage, and help others engage, without necessarily adding a part in the sound.

  3. I thought your article was crazy great, Dan. I really had a hard time thinking of anything I’d change at all. But I thought I’d add my suggestion for point #11. Here it is:

    11. Modern Vocal Styling Doesn’t Have to Mean Pop Star Persona

    The points about style and current sound are spot on, and take the conversation clearly to the vocalist to begin learning if they are using tools from 20+ years ago. But something I see happening (and has been a problem since stages have been around) is the styling people do with their bodies, postures and hands. This is where vocalists lead the way. While we are primarily using music as a tool to make a platform for the people to engage God with worship, the music *isn’t* the thing. It’s the tool. We aren’t the star. He is. Lose the persona. Lose the head toss. Lose the mic pose and crooning. Good vocalists know how to use a mic and make it properly access their voice. Make our music excellent, yes. But we aren’t singing *to* people, and using the vocal platform as a place to impress the people draws the attention inappropriately from the One being worshiped.

    Personal note: for me, hands free, not holding the mic, is the posture I prefer vocalists to use. It leaves the hands able to be lifted, clapped or otherwise extended in expressions of worship.

    Part of this is my tradition coming through, but it speaks to what you will grow in your church. If you sing and present vocals in a way that communicates to people that one of your subtle goals is to look like a concert /rock/ pop star with how your present yourself (posture, hands, face, motion), people will slowly get the idea- back off and listen. This is a show. We’re here to listen and be impressed.

    I’d rather people came away with the idea that the music was done excellent, and that everything done from the front was an example of real worshipers that serve as an invitation for all congregants to jump in, full on.

  4. Fantastic! I’m sharing this with the rest of our team.

    I would add to #10 that communication is more than half (some say up to 90%) non-verbal so our body language and stage presence is a critical piece of us as good leaders. Make yourself visually believable and connected to the words you’re singing!

  5. As a trained singer, advising folks to lose the vibrato is extremely harmful to the vocal instrument. The vibrato in the adult voice is natural; all other piped instruments have vibrato. The great choral groups of the US: Atlanta Symphony Chorus, Dale Warland singers, Mormon Tabernacle Choir, etc., all have voices that sing with vibrato. Advising the singers to sing unnaturally will cause them irreparable harm if this becomes the normal and usual way to sing. Work with the instruments the singers bring; don’t tell them to ruin their voices.

  6. Nellwyn Beamon–

    The vocal chords are instruments. They are muscles. Vibrato develops as people age, but only in certain people as the muscles naturally stretch. It does not, and should not, be developed in all people. Your statement that all adult voices should naturally sing vibrato is incorrect.

    That said, Dan is talking about a sound, a musical preference in pop music that avoids the use of vibrato in singing arrangements. People who can healthily sing in straight tones should do so in his context. But like anything, the muscles can be trained healthily to sing in either vibrato or straight tones. What Dan is saying is that in his opinion of style right now, vibrato is not what he is looking for in a modern sound. Whether you like it or not, that is a good estimation of pop music styling that is popular in churches.

    As a worship leader, one of the reasons I like straight tone is that it is easier for the congregation to access and match as a guide to follow and participate. Vibrato, in my opinion, tells people “look at me, stop and listen”. People (without a lot of training) can’t easily and naturally match a vibrato lead in singing a congregational collection of songs. Straight tones are easy to find in the head voice, and then duplicate and access with the voice of a regular congregant. Again, that is my opinion and I have seen it time and again proven correct– whenever the styling of a song becomes excessively complicated with the voice, the congregation stops singing and participating and lets the “professional” voices sing their aria as a solo.

    There are a lot of opinions surrounding much of this portion of the discussion but they have to do with style and what each of us believe is most useful in our local congregations. Obviously this will be vastly different for each congregation. So my opinion and style may not fit your church as yours won’t fit mine.

    But the base information about whether it is ok to sing straight notes, and not use vibrato needed some clarification, which is why I responded here.

  7. I like your comment on humility. I am an experienced worship leader, and in fact, was asked to be the worship leader at this new church we’re attending. However, because of my job involving frequent travel, I did not want to over commit at the moment so I offered to only help as needed. Interestingly enough, the interim leader is a basic player and can somewhat carry a tune, but will not accept any recommendations on musical arrangements, sounds, or otherwise the music that is selected and played. So I simply sit back, play my drums (guitar and piano are really my instruments) and worship.

  8. I made a mistake and used my email address in the post above. Please be so kind and remove both my posts. Thank you.

  9. Hiya Dan,

    Thanks for the thoughts. As a worship leader for a small youth focussed service, I have recently purchased a TC Electronincs Voicelive Play GTX (I know … it’s a mouthful). Basically it is a vocal effect pedal that ‘reads’ note I am singing, compares that to the chord progression I am playing and generates real time harmony parts. The harmonies can be added and removed at will using the footswitch.
    I did this because sometimes I am the only singer and most times I have only one other singer, who is not yet confident in doing harmonies and I feel it adds a lot to the overalll sound when used cautiously. Just curious about your thoughts on such technologies, as I had one person suggest it was too ‘showy’. My responses was I wasn’t sure how pushing a button equated to putting on a show. What do you think?

  10. Wow all of this is good tips and beneficial. I’d like to add that it’s important to build relationships. Reason being is that as worship leaders we are taking the church into that place of worship so that they can also express their own hearts to The Lord. Building relationships makes others comfortable to follow you to that place of worship.
    Another important factor is to make sure as Worshipers to spend time in personal time of worship. We can’t take others to a place we really never go to.

  11. Shane,
    In regards to the harmonies being too “showy”, I would say that you cannot please the entire congregation. I use a Voicelive 3 for harmonies and live looping myself during worship. The trick is to adjust and eq the harmony so people cannot even tell a harmony is being sung behind your lead vocals. This is the same as adding a 1/16 delay to your lead vocal, most people have no idea why your lead sounds so full. Voicelive harmony should be approached the same way, adjust to where YOU can barely tell it is on. When you highlight certain vocal phrases, it will create that little bit of vocal dynamics which creates extra impact for your chorus.