Vocal Efficiency and the Worshipping Artist

Much has been written and discussed regarding the topic of worship and its practices around the world from the early centuries up to the contemporary era. We have read some interesting views on the whole idea of true worship. It will not be wrong to say that the Bible does not give a clear cut one definition of worship that would work for everyone once and for all. Hence, what we see today is an attempt at defining worship based mostly on their experiences in their church or in their other ministries. And this gives more room for definitions because each one brings a different experience from the other. While experience is truly a wonderful teacher of things, it does not always necessarily teach the right thing. However, due to lack of space and time, I will not delve into the matter. Let me focus on the topic assigned to me today.

The Worshipping Artist
A worshipping heart is what comes to mind instantly when I think about the worshipping artist. A lot of what is seen on the outside can either be genuine or fake regardless of how bad, beautiful or sublime they look or sound. There is no guarantee which proves by default that a particular way of presentation and or expression determines true worship. However, the heart that worships will eventually find God says Jeremiah 29:3, and yes, even in his/her imperfections.

King David is a great example of how God chose the ordinary man based on the condition of the heart and exalted him beyond our understanding. It really intrigues me to think about the manner in which the new king of Israel was chosen after God announced to Samuel that He has rejected king Saul.

When Samuel arrived at Jesse’s house and saw Eliab the first born, his eyes were greatly pleased and he thought Eliab was the one God was going to choose. However, God had a different opinion, and we hear the most important thing we would ever need to hear from God – “Do not consider his appearance or his height, for I have rejected him. The LORD does not look at the things people look at. People look at the outward appearance, but the LORD looks at the heart” (1 Samuel 16:7). To cut to the chase, seven of Jesse’s sons were rejected by God before the youngest one was brought in. David, the last born, the one in charge of tending the sheep with the least expectation was anointed as the new king of Israel, and it was God who made that call.

Much of what we do today in our church and other worship services would really mean nothing at all to God if our heart is not in the right place. We look at the church’s practice today around the world and we see plenty of drama or non-drama in worship and I can’t help but wonder if we are really still on the right track. To miss out on the true nature of worship would be the scariest thing a worshipper can ever experience. As cliché as it may sound, it is like the athlete competing at the race and being disqualified. All those years of hard work, sweat and tears and time and money, all came to nothing when it mattered the most. I can relate to this metaphor very well because I have been in the worship music ministry for more than 15 years now, mostly as the one leading in the front. God has given me the talent of singing and leading. Needless to say, you are showered with praises and respect by people by default of your position and also by the talent that others see in you. How do you stay humble and right before God when you are lifted high on a pedestal by people around you? The answer is simple. You can stay humble and right by simply acknowledging that it is not really about you, rather it is about God. He is the reason why you do what you do, and he is the giver of all good things. You get this right, you get everything else right. Of course, it is easier said than done. The greatest challenge, then, for the worshipper is to make sure his worship is acceptable. One of the passages that will put all worshippers in check is found in the book of Amos. "I hate, I despise your religious festivals; your assemblies are a stench to me. Even though you bring me burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them. Though you bring choice fellowship offerings, I will have no regard for them. Away with the noise of your songs! I will not listen to the music of your harps (Amos 5:21-23). Were the musicians or worshippers not skilled enough in their music playing or arrangements? Were they not doing it the right way in terms of musical production, or other technical display, etc.? By now, we must know fully well that only skilled individuals or groups were chosen to execute specific task in God’s ‘business.’ The Israelites were already an experienced lot in terms of their outward forms or expressions of worship to God by the time this prophecy was spoken. And yet God rejected their worship. The reason is obvious. The Israelites had reduced worship into mere external ritualism. They did everything right, except they did not do it from their hearts. Someone has said it rightly when he said, “the heart of the matter is a matter of the heart.” I am reminded of a song that my friend wrote during our college days to perform at our fresher’s welcoming event. It was titled “check your heart.” The song was not a hit with the people, but we still remember vividly the words that repeated every now and then throughout the song– check your heart, check your heart! As a worshipper and an artist, I need to constantly check my heart to make sure I am honest before God and not simply performing a ritual. I can get away with people by putting up a good show producing artistic and sublime music. I may be able to evoke even the right response from the congregation by doing all the right things. However, I may still miss God. There is a word called “sayang” in Tagalog (The main language of the Philippines) which is used to express great regret or sadness when you miss something that you should not have. Missing the very object of our worship in spite of all the artistic details and technical efficiency would truly be a “sayang” situation to be in. And that brings us to the question, “Does efficiency matter in worship?” If it matters, what can I do to be an efficient worshipper in terms of skill. Again, due to the specificity of the topic assigned to me, I will address in regard to Vocal Efficiency.

You can speak, then you can sing:
There is an interesting theory regarding singing. One vocal teacher said that if you can speak, you can sing. That is great news for so many who thought singing was a distant wish that would remain unfulfilled. While it is true that anyone can develop a singing voice, it is also true that not every singing voice will find a professional platform, including the church. I have been in church services where the praise and worship sessions are led by great singers right from the backup vocals to the lead singer and well complimented by the music band that produces music that gives you a sense of awe and technical satisfaction. There seems to be very little distraction with the seamless transitions of songs or music, and the congregation responding very well to the leadership of the one leading. The sound engineer seems to know his/her job well by giving the right sound effects and keeping in check the undesirable feedbacks that usually distracts and disturbs the congregation. This is one of those moments when you say to yourself, “music ho toh aisi…This is how it should be.”

Then I have also been to churches where the singers and musicians do not seem to have any connection with the songs, music or congregation. Choice of songs could have been better, I’d say. And what’s up with the back-up vocals? There’s no harmony at all! Are they even singing in the correct pitch? The lead singer does not really even have a good voice too. Is there no one better to lead? You get what I am trying to say. To be fair, I agree that these are two ‘one sided’ examples I am giving to simply highlight scenarios for the sake of our discussion. If I were to ask you, which one of the above worship services you’d like to be in, I am quite sure you would all easily choose the former, and rightly so. But if the question is, which one do you think is an acceptable type of worship service to God? Then it becomes a difficult question to answer because we don’t really know the heart of those worshippers. Only God himself would be able to answer the question perfectly. In order to make things slightly easier, let’s take a quick look at the importance of singing in the Bible to give us an idea of how seriously we should take this ministry. And depending on the scale of seriousness we arrive at, I believe we will be able to get a clearer picture of what we are searching for. Our quest for today is to arrive at a best possible conclusion to help us worship God better as we bring our mosaic of talents in praise and worship of our God Almighty.

Colossians 3:16: “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God.”

Ephesians 5:18-19: “And do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery, but be filled with the Spirit, addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart…”

That singing is a vital part of the Christian community is a non-contested statement. I believe that every believer has the right to sing out to God without any fear of judgement as and when s/he desires. We are called “…a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light,” 1 Peter 2:9.

The happy truth is that God will not judge our voice at all in this situation. Only the song that comes from the heart will reach its destination. This I would like to get it out there so that there is no miscommunication regarding acceptable singing unto God. I truly believe that any singing that is from the heart and directed to God will reach the heart of God. So what/why vocal efficiency?

Consider this definition:
Vocal efficiency is a quantitative measure of the ability of the larynx to convert the pressureand flow of the pulmonary system into acoustic power that is transmitted through the vocal tract and measured at the lips (Tang & Stathopoulos, 1995). A scientific explanation like this never fails to humble me because it makes me realize I really know very less. Why am I even getting into this scientific thing? Well, simply because our human antennas are receptive to signals in different ways. Therefore, I am including this definition for those science students who might receive the message better this way. Otherwise, I have very little interest in the above definition because frankly, I have no idea what they mean by that. Let me try to simplify it in my own words as a singer with no or very less scientific knowledge regarding the same. As far as singing is concerned, I would say a voice is efficient when it can do at least the following:

1. Consistently sing in the correct pitch
2. Hold notes of his own range consistently for the required duration
3. Bring out the dynamics of the song/music
4. Have a good sense of tempo and rhythm

I am quite sure different people will have different opinions and criteria and that’s perfectly fine. Also, the presence of YouTube has made it a lot easier to self-learn. However, a good vocal teacher can actually help you grow as a vocalist by leaps and bounds. Please note that I have not included elements like good voice, high range, good expression, etc. in my list of vocal efficiency mainly because these, I believe, are individual preferences and I would like to leave some space for freedom. Consistency is the key for any musician to have a great music production. I would like to suggest one or two simple practical exercises that I think would help a singer have more vocal freedom and power.

Consistency in pitch:
I know of people who are simply not able to sing in pitch at all. I sincerely feel for them and I try my best to help them if they’re interested. There are various methods that singers can practice to help them sing in pitch consistently and with ease eventually. Firstly, learning to listen carefully is very important. Only if you listen well, you’ll understand what sound you’re hearing, and only then can you reproduce the sound precisely. I know this sounds like teaching you to eat cereal, but that’s how we all began. I normally practice on the piano/keyboard by using solfeggio and mixing it up with different syllable sounds like loo, ah, or nay, etc. It is more fruitful to start slow and less and progress to the faster and more. For example, I would take intervals between one to five only at first and make sure I am very comfortable in singing all the pitches in between these intervals. Once that is covered, I could always add intervals according to my progress. As you progress, you can try the minor scales and chromatic scales and get creative to challenge your ‘pitching’ abilities.

Holding notes consistently:
For a singer to be able to sustain a note according to the demands of the music, one has to have good breath support. Breath and sound are directly related to one another. Breath is like the carrier and sound, the passenger. Breath acts as the springboard for the sound to do wonders. Failure in breath support would automatically mean failure in sound. There are various exercises to help in building breath support. A simple exercise such as breathing in deep and releasing with a hiss keeping specific counts can be of great help. The hiss can be replaced by sounds using syllables like ‘la’ or ‘ma, etc. As you progress, you could start singing short and long phrases or lines as you desire.

Dynamics in singing:
I always tell my students that no matter what personality they have, once they are on stage, they need to become actors and act out the script in the given music. Proper interpretation of any song or music is vital. Just like actors memorizing their scripts properly so that they may act confidently, singers must do the same. You can only do justice to the dynamics of the song if you can sing confidently. In order to be able to sing confidently, you need to know the song really well that you can sing it even with the greatest distractions around you. Therefore, memorizing and ‘over memorizing’ helps. If you still need to see it for confidence, you can keep a copy in front of you for quick glances every now and then. But never ever let your eyes be glued to the music in front of you. With a good breath support, you can practice the different dynamics exercises like the ‘swell’, crescendo and decrescendo, soft and loud on different sections, etc. Once you’re comfortable with these exercises, you may pick up a music or song with dynamic signs and try to sing it accordingly. If there are no signs, you can get creative and insert the signs yourself in different sections and test your dynamic expressive abilities.

Tempo and rhythm:
You might wonder what tempo and rhythm has to do with voice efficiency, and it would be a valid point. You may a great voice, and may be able to hold notes for the longest time possible, and be able to execute all the dynamic expressions, but if you can’t keep the tempo while singing, everything is going to go off track. It is imperative that singers and musicians keep the tempo. Practicing with a metronome is the classic way of keeping the tempo, and always the best. Again, start slow and practice on different simple time signatures. Rhythm is what keeps the music interesting and exciting. It is the color of the music. Failure to sing in the correct rhythm will rob the music of its original intended color and make it dull and often monotonous. Always do your best to get the correct rhythm by practicing the difficult spots slowly at first and in the right tempo, and then in the original speed once you are comfortable. Finally, I would like to add this point by saying that vocal efficiency also means vocal longevity. Many singers, and I am included, are guilty of abusing the voice and cutting short its life span. We need to maintain certain discipline to make sure that the gift of voice go all the way as we serve our God. Let us be good stewards of the gift given to us. The above points are meant to help develop a better singing voice. In no way does it mean that you cannot worship God if you are not an efficient vocalist. However, I believe that we are blessed with different talents by God and we need to excel in whatever field we may choose to serve him. Do you really need to be an efficient vocalist to lead in worship singing? The answer can be both yes and no depending on the situation and context. There are so many churches in different parts of the world where there are no ‘efficient’ singers. What will they do then, hire an ‘efficient’ singer from somewhere else? That is practically not possible for most. We need to start with whatever resources we have. If there is a willing worshipper who would like to try out, allow him/her to do so. Eventually, as the church progresses, you will get to know the singers better and have a clearer picture of how to go about it and whom to be given the leadership. Choose ‘the best’ from the lot. Your best may be the worst for others, but that is where this ministry takes a different turn. Offer the best you have without comparing with the best of others, and make a constant effort to be better for the glory of God.

Last month, I got a call from a senior guy who said he wanted to take some vocal classes from me. I inquired if he was the worship leader or a serious singer. He replied and said that he simply wanted to sing better during worship time. That is a very good attitude. We need to excel in all that we do even as a worshipper in the congregation. Even more so as a vocalist, you must do everything you can to be vocally efficient. May God constantly stir the hunger in us to know Him more and be like Him more. May we be the kind of worshippers who worship in truth and in spirit. May we give our best knowing that God deserves nothing less than our best. May we delight in the truth that God looks at the heart and longs for His children to come to Him in praise and worship. May we be the kind of worshippers whom God will say at last, “well done, good and faithful servant.” To God be the glory! Amen.