The second to last Sunday before the Covid-19 lockdown in the UK was my first ever service as sole worship leader. One of our usual leaders had a planned absence and I had agreed to help out for three services in March and April. As it turned out, it was only one.
Since then, my worship leading, like everyone else’s has been much more limited and very different to the week-in week-out singing that had been my lifelong pattern before 2020.
And my voice knows it.
Whether you’re a trained singer, an ordained minister, a lay preacher or just the guy who plays guitar for the Sunday night prayer meeting, your voice will probably be out of condition too.
Of course, a small number of worship leaders are still doing the equivalent of their regular Sunday stint through pre-recording and/or live streaming music, sermons and liturgy. Most of us aren’t.
If you’re a worship leader who isn’t involved in the music, you’re probably not singing at all because we still aren’t allowed to.
As restrictions are starting to lift here in the UK, and the future of live worship is becoming more optimistic, worship leaders need to think not just about the content of our services, but also about how we deliver them. By taking care of your voice now, you can prevent problems later on when we move back to full schedules.
I’m going to talk here about two things – how we as worship leaders need to plan now to get into good vocal habits, and how we can help our congregations to build back to singing too. Remember, if we as leaders have barely sung, average Joe in the pew probably hasn’t uttered a note in months.
Caring for ourselves
Lest you worry that there’s something unchristian about looking after your voice, you don’t have to look too far for clear instruction that we should value our bodies just as much as any other part of ourselves – perhaps beginning with Paul’s famous line from 1 Corinthians: “do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you … glorify God in your body.” (1 Cor 6:19-20). Our bodies are God-created, God-breathed and God-loved, so it is absolutely right that we take care of this amazing gift He has given us.
Yes, this first half is almost a perfect 3-point alliterative sermon…
I’m starting with the most important P: patient. Be patient with yourself through this whole process. Wherever you are at, starting to build up stamina and strength in your voice is going to take time.
Singing has a lot in common with running. Running is something we nearly all learn to do as children, and we can mostly all more or less still do it in a pinch. I can run for a bus, but without practicing regularly, even a 5k will be beyond me. Singing is about training a skill we nearly all have so we can do it more efficiently, more effectively and for longer.
Whether you’re a singer or speaker in worship, give yourself grace as you start this process of rebuilding your voice.
As in, we need to be preparing now for something that is probably a few months away yet. By preparing now, we will be ready when the time comes to go back into our churches and worship as fully as we did before.
The best way to prepare is to (ha, another P) practice.
Don’t freak out, I don’t mean hours of work, or even thirty minutes. You can start to build your voice back up in just five to ten minutes a day.
For speakers, I cannot recommend highly enough the One Minute Voice Warmup app, which is available for both iOS and Android. This app has been put together by expert voice coaches and gives you a selection of different exercises to do each day. I would suggest doing these exercises daily, and then before each service.
For anyone who sings, start out with lots of gentle closed mouth exercises like humming, lip trills or singing through a straw. Keep the range small to begin with. Pay attention to your breathing – your abdomen should rise and fall more than your upper chest.
I love the Jacob’s Vocal Academy youtube channel for voice exercises. There are absolutely loads of videos on there of all kinds of lengths and complexities. Try their series of exercises to do with a straw (the shortest is only five minutes) or build back gently with this twelve-minute set of daily exercises for beginners. If you feel any strain or tension, drop out for a couple of exercises. If it’s getting too high or too low, just change the octave!
There are loads of resources out there, and if you’re struggling, most singing teachers are still teaching online so you can get some help and advice from the convenience of your own home.
Whatever you do, don’t jump from nothing to three services every Sunday!
As plans are made for services, make sure you’re increasing the amount of voice work slowly and allowing yourself to build stamina.
You will get there, but if you push too hard and fast, you’re going to wind up at home on vocal rest!
If you do need to do a lot on a Sunday, make sure you’re getting vocal rest between services – no heading out to a picnic where you’re chatting away for hours between the 10:30 and 6:30.
I’m going to talk a bit in a minute about how to care for your congregation when you return to services, and those tips on how to structure your services will help you to pace your voice use too.
Above all, remember the three “S”s of voice care that will help you to manage vocal fatigue:
Helping your congregation
It’s not just you – everyone has been singing less. When we are finally allowed to sing in church, it’s going to be hard not to go BIG! But BIG will tire your poor congregations’ voices out really fast, so there are some things to consider when you start to plan which songs to use in your service.
Think small range
Range is the distance from the highest note to the lowest note in the song. Both ancient hymns and modern worship songs can have a really wide range, demanding you and your congregation sing at the extremes of your voice. That can get really tiring really fast, and mean people are straining to reach notes they’ve not used in 18 months or more.
Instead, look for songs that are an octave or less in range (that’s 8 lines and spaces from top to bottom note). Look for melodies that stay in a similar place through out the whole song, and watch out for big leaps. It’s much easier to move in steps and skips to begin with.
Think comfortable pitch
This is a tricky one because human voices vary a lot in what is a comfortable pitch. If you’re keeping the range small, it does make it easier to keep the pitch comfortable.
My recommendation is, for a song that’s within an octave, play it so the lowest note is between the A below middle C and middle C. That should keep the song in a singable range for most people.
Remember you may need to change the key to accommodate this. Even if you normally sing a song in one key, no one* will notice if you drop it down – it’s been over a year since they last sung it!
(*ok, the few people with perfect pitch might, but you can just ignore them)
Think shorter and fewer
Depending on your church, this could be tricky. Some churches love to have a LONG period of worship running five or six songs together. This can be really tiring on the voice. Just as tiring can be the congregations who just love those twelve line, ten verse hymns that go on forever. And people care about them.
Still, think about how you can choose shorter songs and break up the worship times for the first two or three months. If the long hymns are a problem, cut down on the number of verses for a while. People might miss them, but then they’ll be even happier when they come back in a few weeks.
Choose songs that aren’t as long, and limit repeats. Don’t sing that last chorus 20 times, limit it to 2 or 3. Pick songs with less verses.
If your church likes to do a long worship session with a lot of songs in a block, consider how you can break this up. Can you play an instrumental song? Or ask a few people to pray? What about stopping for a bible reading in the middle? Talk with the other leaders at your church about how you can pace the singing for the first few weeks back to build up the congregation.
Finally, choose songs your congregation knows. Bring out those old loved stalwarts. Now is not the time for introducing the latest pop song-come-worship song you’ve had on repeat on Spotify. Not only will it probably have a big range, but it’s harder to sing well if you don’t know the words and music. It’s great to sing songs we know and love, so why not indulge?
Build slowly and build well
Much as I’d love every church to do a quick voice lesson before the service, I know that the best way to get our congregations back singing is to prepare well ourselves, plan our services well, and take time to get back into our old-new rhythms.
Remember, you can always get some training from a teacher specialising in public speaking or singing. You could even invite a singing or speaking teacher to run some group sessions on Zoom to help your whole worship team learn how to care for their voice.
Of course, if you are facing voice problems now, or as you return to full worship services, do contact your GP – you can get help with voice problems from ENT doctors and Speech and Language Therapists.