Singing is hard.
Singing might come naturally to you, or it might be something you struggle with. While everyone has a different starting place vocally, we can all improve from where we’re at. We’re all called to make a “joyful noise” (Psalm 98:4), but it doesn’t have to be pitch-perfect, or even good-sounding! So, why try and get better?
The better you get at singing, the more mental space is freed up for the other parts of leadership involved in being a worship leader. Being able to go on “autopilot” vocally while observing the response of your people in worship is a huge help. We should also strive to be good stewards of the musical gifts we’ve been given, and seek to bring our best to whatever position we’re in.
Here are some of the “cheat codes” that have made the biggest difference for me!
I used to chug water like a madman on stage on sunday mornings, thinking I was hydrating my vocal chords. I learned from a vocal coach years later that liquids don’t immediately impact your vocal chords. Water, tea, etc. may help your throat feel better, but honestly the best thing you could do is drink a lot of water two hours before singing. Hydration takes time. The first couple of Sundays I did this, my voice wasn’t tired after church for once. Vocally, I felt like I improved 10-15%, just from drinking more water, earlier! Also, keep in mind that coffee is a diuretic, so drink even more water to counteract it.
The best advice I got on singing was when I asked the lead singer of one of my favorite bands how he gets through singing hours every night on tour. He told me that your voice is a muscle, and the more you work it out, the stronger it gets. He said one-off concerts were the hardest for him, jumping into singing for two hours straight after months of rest was jarring. But actually being on the road, singing every night, working out the muscle, made his voice stronger! After a recent two-week run, I can attest to that being true for me too. My voice never felt better, or stronger, than after that tour. But exercise isn’t enough, you need to prioritize recovery. Sleep, hydration, and diet all make a difference.
I used to mix my in-ears like a record; loud drums, bass, guitars…loud everything! That approach works for a lot of people. However, I’ve recently realized that the better I hear myself, the better I do. Try making your vocal the loudest thing, pick an instrument for pitch reference, and ruthlessly turn down everything else. If individual channel EQ is possible, I tend to make my mic brighter than everything else so I can get more clarity. Vocal reverb is comforting, and can “inspire” you into a better performance. But with too much reverb, my pitch accuracy goes down, so I tend to use it sparingly. Lately my mixes have been basically just my vocal, click and guide, piano, and not a lot else. I set everything else to be just loud enough for me to be “aware” of what’s happening. Is it inspiring? Not really. But when listening to my vocal takes afterwards, the improvement is incredible.
Be more utilitarian, be selfish. Put yourself first, and set yourself up to execute well.
As singers, most of our attention is focused on the difficult parts of the song, instead of the more comfortable sections. Try and nail the low, chill notes in the verses as much as you’re trying to nail the big, epic high notes in the bridge. Nailing the “easy” stuff makes all the difference, so focus on the little things. Practice your entry note. If I’m struggling with the start of a section, I practice by singing my starting note over and over again, trying to nail the pitch dead on, without scooping.
KISS - Keep It Simple, Stupid. If it’s 50/50 whether or not you’re going to hit that high note in the bridge, it’s probably not worth it! Lay down your pride, and put your congregation first. A distracting worship fail is probably not worth the risk…so keep it simple.
Now for the final, and most important step of all…without which, none of these tips will help you.
You can’t get better, if you don’t know where you’re at. Find a barebones recording, and honestly listen and critique yourself. No tuning, no reverb, just the dry, horrifying truth. This is hard to do, but in order to see the growth as a result of implementing these tips, you have to be critically listening to your vocals consistently. Fight through the self-hatred, give yourself a lot of grace, and learn to laugh at yourself. Embrace the film room!
It’s a beautiful, mysterious thing that God calls His people to sing to Him. It’s such a bizarre command for an ultimate, superior divine being to give. But there’s so much kindness and love in the fact that God wants us to sing. It doesn’t even have to sound good! As a worship leader, performance isn’t the end goal, it’s a means to an end. And the end is His people singing, worshiping in spirit and truth, solely for the glory of God.