Focus Track: Lead Vocals
The acoustic guitar is the quintessential worship music instrument. The bass guitar provides the groove. The drums keep the beat. The electric guitar provides musical distinction. The piano / keyboard is timeless and versatile. Countless miscellaneous instruments contribute to keeping things interesting. But what about the lead vocals?
There is no question that the lead vocals are the most important piece of the worship team musical pie. While the Bible repeatedly commands us to make music to the LORD, more than twice as many times we are commanded to sing to the LORD!
The singing is greater than the making of music. The lyrics are more important than the chords and the beat. Let us never forget this!
The book of Psalms is a sort of “Greatest Hits” from ancient Israel. It is literally Israel’s “Song Book” containing songs that the people of God used to worship Him for generations! The musical foundation for these 150 songs has long been lost, but the lyrics remain. This is important.
While it is certainly Biblical to play musical instruments skillfully unto the Lord (see Psalm 33:3), this command is actually only given to a specific group of people -the musicians! The music that the musicians make is for the benefit and edification of everyone, but the command to make it (and specifically to do it skillfully) is only for the musicians. Singing, on the other hand, is a command for literally everyone! And, quite importantly, we are never Biblically commanded to sing skillfully. We are simply commanded to sing.
All of this information is incredibly important for us to consider as we look at how the lead vocals fit into a church worship team. If you are a lead vocalist, or a Worship Leader who is trying to speak their language and give them direction, here are some helpful tips to keep in mind (appearing in no particular order).
The fundamental frequencies for a typical male voice range from 85 to 180Hz. The female voice ranges from 165 to 255Hz. With the lead vocals being the most important piece of the musical pie, sound men should work to carve out space in the 80 to 300Hz frequency range to ensure that the lead vocalist can be clearly heard above the musical foundation. Obviously there are many harmonic frequencies above the foundation, and the intelligibility of the vocals will be most clearly found anywhere from 300Hz to 3.5kHz, but leaving space in the foundation is a good starting point. While we’re at it, since there is nothing helpful happening below 85Hz, sound men should always use a low-cut or hi-pass filter on the vocals. This will also minimize the popping “p” sounds that can be so prevalent in the vocals.
Most wrong chords will go completely unnoticed by the majority of the congregation (they are not overly musical), but wrong words will be noticed by everyone. Good musicians work hard to memorize music. Good lead vocalists should work hard to memorize lyrics. Personally, I like to physically write out the lyrics to the songs I will be leading on scrap paper. When I am finished, I throw it away (or recycle) and do it again. This has proven to be an excellent approach to memorizing lyrics. Once the lyrics are memorized, I can spend more energy actually reflecting on the words we are singing. I can personalize them. I can own them. In this way, the songs that we sing become personal prayers from my heart. That’s really what they were always meant to be, anyway.
Some of the best singers I have ever heard are terrible worship team lead vocalists. How could that be?! Remember that the Biblical command is not actually to sing skillfully, but to simply sing. With this in mind, I believe that the role for the lead vocalist is to sing in such a way that invites others to sing along. When we sing on stage in a way that is overly skillful, the vast majority of the congregation simply cannot sing along. At this point we are doing the people a huge disservice. Always remember that our job is to point people to Jesus -not distract them from Him! You can easily distract people from Jesus in a typical worship team setting by singing really poorly, or by singing too professionally. Both approaches miss the mark.
Everyone should sing, but not everyone should sing on stage. The Biblical command to sing really is for everyone. Let everything that has breath praise the LORD (see Psalm 150:6)! I believe that God is blessed by the tone-deaf worshiper who passionately pours out their praise in the midst of the assembly! However, if you can’t hold a note, you should not be on stage. There is no skill level requirement for the people of God to praise Him with singing. There should, however, be a skill level requirement for people to lead the congregation in singing.
Keeping in mind the fact that the vast majority of the congregation are not overly skilled in singing (and they don’t have to be!), we need to be careful about how low or how high we sing the songs. We have all experienced the unfortunate moment when “Happy Birthday” or “The Star Spangled Banner” was started too high or too low. How did that turn out? It usually ends with a little groaning and chins tucked deep into the chest (if the song was keyed too low), or with eyebrows raised, necks stretched out, and vocal squeaks (if the song was keyed too high). It always results in a bit of laughter, the uncomfortable glances, and ultimately many people no longer even attempting to sing along. That is not really the effect that we are going for as a worship team lead vocalist. You may have an amazing vocal range, but the congregation does not. Many worship leaders I know try to keep the highest note of the melody line for congregational singing no higher than 294Hz. That note ends up being the D above middle C. I think this approach is loving and helpful. This approach may not yield the most exciting results (it is always more exciting to sing as high as you possibly can), but it will certainly yield the most Biblical results -our goal is to invite the people to join us in the Biblical command of singing to the LORD.
Artwork provided by my good friend, Brooke Gehman, an authentic and wonderful man of God, devoted follower of Christ, and an amazing husband and father. Brooke is a gifted Worship Leader, an incredible artist, and a Potter by trade (check out his website).