What does it mean to be successful as a worship vocalist? Perhaps more importantly, how do we achieve our definition of success in a sustainable way?
Is it even necessary to devote our energies to developing our vocal ability? If success means growth, meaningful engagement, and sustainability, I’d say yes! As far as getting there, you’ve got many options, and plenty of avenues will emerge.
However, no matter the path you choose,
I’ve identified at least four keys that time and experience have proven worthy over and over again.
If you’d like to find meaningful success and some practical tips to help you develop as a vocalist, read on.
Which means the ability to maintain at a certain level over time.
Notice the keyword “level” in the definition of sustainability. Some worship vocalists contend “it’s for Jesus, so the quality doesn’t matter,” but I think that’s simply a choice to be lazy and ignore the responsibility of your calling while choosing not to invest in the gift God has given you to steward. (ouch!)
Today, we have a vast amount of resources available to help us not only fulfill the call on our lives, but to do it with excellence.
One of the axioms at Life.Church states, “Excellence honors God and inspires people.” And of course, a nice fringe benefit of excellence over time is the opportunity to do what you love and feel called to do for a big part of your life and career.
So how do we sustain the integrity of our voices with the demands and toll that leading worship week in and week out can take?
We can go conceptual, but let’s get practical since we are talking about developing and sustaining your vocal instrument.
It’s funny that this one often gets overlooked by naturally talented vocalists. Here’s the deal, NBA players are naturally gifted too; still, you’ll find them warming up and preparing for every game.
If you want to be a top performer, especially if you want to make a career as a vocalist, be willing to put in the time to set up your voice to succeed consistently.
Think and act like a professional if that’s what you want to be. Here are some easy warm-ups you can do anywhere.
Easy, Practical, Do Anywhere Warm-Ups that Work:
It doesn’t have to be complicated. Here are some easy warm-ups anyone can do from home, in your shower before you head out to lead or even in the car on your way.
- Early Morning, get the frogs out: 5-note ascending, descending scales on the vowel “ee”. Shape your mouth like an “o” but sing “ee”. This will get your placement forward, and the closed “ee” vowel will also resonate through your frontal and nasal cavities. (It’ll get everything awake and in motion before (instead of during) your morning worship set.)
- Agility: alternating thirds on “ee, eh, ah, o, oo” is a simple and effective vocal exercise, and one you can speed up and slow down depending if you want to focus on agility or tone color and quality. (Your vowels produce tone quality… so, if you don’t like what you hear, manipulate the vowel until you do!)
- Mixed Register: “Nee-ohm” on 1-5 degrees of the scale. The “n” takes the placement to the front of your mouth while the “ohm” opens the mouth and throat to make space for what’s known as the “bell tone” or optimal resonance cavities to be open.
When you’re young, it’s easy to push your body to its limits and wake up the next day and do it again. But we are talking about sustainability (maybe even past your twenties 😉), so here are some things to put in motion now to keep your voice in marketable condition.
(Yes, churches are markets too, they have options for who they put on stage to lead their congregations into worship, most prefer a leader whose voice is in good enough condition to finish a set without going hoarse.)
Simple Effective Ways to Keep your Vocal Cords Happy and Healthy:
- Drink Water- plenty of it throughout the day.
- Careful of too much alcohol or soda, both dry out the vocal cords and make them less agile. Cottonmouth (or throat for that matter) is not your friend.
- If you tend to wake up with “frogs” in your throat, you may have night-time acid reflux. Be sure to drink water before bed and consider raising the top portion of your bed to avoid the acid sitting on your vocal cords while you sleep. Gross, but very common and very damaging to vocal cords.
- My favorite Vocal therapy drink recipe by me:
1⁄4 cup Hot water, 1 orange Emergen-C drink mix, 1⁄2 Cup Apple Juice, 1⁄4 cup Orange juice, add Cinnamon – warm-up in a microwave or on a stovetop – this is super yummy, full of nutrients, (has natural sugars, of course) is soothing, and can seriously give you just the energy and nutrients your cords need to take you from “I sound like I just woke up” to “I sound like it’s 8 PM when it’s 8 AM Sunday morning”.
- Careful not to over-sing, shout, or scream. You want to live in your vocal happy place most of the time and venture to other places like “belting” on occasion for effect. We visit other places, but we live in our strength zone. Be sure to get a good mix in your in-ears or monitors so you can hear yourself. This will help you avoid over-singing as well. Good news, we get to grow our strength zone…stay tuned.
Strength is the second “s” in success because, without it, a vocalist will tend to avoid problem areas rather than develop them. Many vocalists struggle in certain areas of their voice, so they often find themselves avoiding the part of their voice they don’t want on display.
The problem with avoidance is that you aren’t developing it into something useful and productive as long as you’re avoiding the trouble area.
The domino effect, of course, is that you’re stuck within the limitations of your natural talent rather than having the added benefits that developing your talent into skill would bring. There are 2 main contributors to vocal strength that can be a real game-changer for you!
2 Game-Changing Contributors to Vocal Strength:
- 1) Breath Support: “People keep saying I should be singing from my diaphragm, but I have no idea what that actually means.” This is a common issue. Here’s an easy way for you to feel your diaphragm engage.
Blow up a balloon, feel the diaphragm (right under your rib cage) contract. Notice it continues to stay engaged as long as you are using pressurized air. When you stop, it stops. Now transfer that feeling to singing. You’ll want to try to sing out a note and keep your diaphragm engaged.
You don’t need highly pressurized air for speaking and can even get away without great engagement in your mid-crest vocal register for singing because it’s so close to your speaking register.
It’s easy to let your diaphragm relax until you need it (sneezing, laughing loudly, blowing your nose, screaming, or singing those darn high notes without hurting yourself).
Once you know how it feels when your diaphragm is engaged, it’s easier for you to be aware of whether or not you’re using it while singing. If you lack strength, likely, you’re not supporting your sound.
- 2) Breath Control: breath support is knowing where the slingshot is, while control is your choice in how far back to pull the slingshot, where you aim it, and the size of rock you launch with it.
You have breath control when you tell your breath where to go in placement and how much to use for what part of the phrase as pressurized air, rather than your lack of breath control telling you what you can sing and how you can sing it.
We can’t talk about developing your voice without discussing the third “s” of success, the sound of your voice.
In other words, the technical side of your voice; your pitch, tone quality, timbre, phrasing, selection, and execution of vocal parts that complement other team members, warmth, coolness, and color of the voice.
It’s also a good idea to get an outside perspective on your sound from a vocal coach or even a fellow musician. We all have blind spots when it comes to our own voices. After all, we’ve heard ourselves our whole lives.
Fresh perspective helps amplify our strengths and remedy our weaknesses.
2 Change Makers in Developing Your Best Vocal Sound
- 1) Pay attention to vowels. Vowels create tone quality. You can have great pitch but poor placement due to poor diction and have a tone quality that is lacking. It doesn’t mean everyone is shooting for the same tone quality. You may want to brighten your tone or warm it up. You might like a raspy or soft bluesy tone… no matter your goal, vowels are usually the vehicle to get you there.
- 2) Phrase with purpose. Most folks simply memorize the words and melody to a song, great performers tell a story with it, connect meaning to their own lives, and invite their audience to be part of that story. Phrasing is a big differentiator in vocalists, be careful not to overlook it!
The fourth and final “s” to success for the worship vocalist is Synergy – the value and performance of two parties is greater than the sum of the separate individual parts.
If you want to develop into your highest capacity as a worship leader and vocalist, you can’t get there alone.
I have learned so very much from my time with other vocalists on and off stage. One thing that gave me the reputation I have as a vocalist and worship leader is the relationships I invested in and those who invested in me over the past couple of decades.
(Wow! that statement makes me feel old, but I’ve been doing this a long time, so I guess that means I am!)
Learn from one another. Be confident enough to ask questions and speak up if you need to change a key, learn a part, or take time to rest and refresh.
Whether you’re leading a song or singing background harmonies, whether centerstage or side stage, learn to find ways to complement those sharing the stage and, in doing so, synergize the experience.
My prayer is always to bring something that adds value, complements, and gives permission to those joining us in worship to be vulnerable and open to whatever God has for us.
I can only do those things when my mind is made up to let God use my giftings in sync with the rest of the worship team. If it’s all about me, it can’t be all about Him. If it’s all about Him, I can do it better with them.
As worship leaders, we are actively engaging others with God through song. Our voices are the instrument He’s using. When I remember that my instrument is for His glory, it advises my effort and pursuit of excellence.
As I steward the care and development of the gift He gave me, I’m reminded the gift was never meant just for me, but was given to me to go through me.
Want to learn harmonies and be more confident using your voice to lead people into worship?
– “Worship Online is our ‘secret’ tool for nailing vocal parts” – Steven P. (Journey Church)
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– “I can turn the vocal tutorials on when I’m driving and not have to pick apart what the singers are doing on the album” – Anna D. (Riverside Church)
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