How to Improve the Performance of Your Church Vocalists

by | Jun 9, 2022 | Audio, Production, volunteers

Whether the title is “Music Minister”, “Worship Leader”, “Coordinator of Music Ministry”, or “Choir Director”, the general premise is the same: You have been entrusted with overseeing the worship ministry. It may take the form of a single cantor and pianist, a praise and worship team, a chancel choir, a Gospel choir, or whatever possible configuration you can imagine. (I’ve worked with all of the above, including a Latin Salsa band.) Your team is leading the congregation in worship.

There are certain factors that will affect the overall ministry: Pastoral oversight, your employment/servant agreement, church size, financial resources, available musical instruments, the sound system, available team members, their backgrounds and training, etc. Most of these you will have limited control over. My suggestion is that regardless of your starting point, you should be prepared to push for as much investment in your ministry as you need to do your best work. (Pastors may address all objection mail directly to me.)

Now, how do I define “your best work”? The ability to effectively lead your team. Notice that I did not say “Your ability to perform the music.” You could be the winner of the most prestigious vocal competition in the world, but that does not mean you are an effective leader of either singers or instrumentalists. Musical direction is not about being the best performer on the stage; conductors don’t make any (audible) sound while waving their batons in front of orchestras. Musical direction is about leading your team and making sure everyone is going in the same direction. Musical directors make sure the people in their care have everything they need to do their best work.

If you want your church vocalists to be better, then you have to become better at leading them! How can you do that?

  1. Stop thinking from Sunday to Sunday.

I will acknowledge that some suggestions on this list may lead to improvement as soon as this weekend. It’s possible… but the real dividends come over time. Ministries and worship programs are not built overnight. Everything you can do in 2023 will be earned from seeds you plant and nurture right now. Ministry is relational. Relationships are developed over time. You can drown your team in vocal exercises and repertoire, but you will not get the best out of them until you know what their best is!

There are no shortcuts.

  • Lead by example.

Chances are that you have come to your position because you have a degree of talent and training. Great! I’ve been directing musicians for over 25 years. That experience lets me know how long it takes for me to learn music well enough to play it on the piano, lead a band, or teach it to singers. If you want your vocalists to bring their best, you better be prepared to do the same. Phoning it in every Sunday is not only disrespectful to God, but disrespectful to your team. Why should they do their best when you won’t?

  • Learn the music.

Even if your worship team and choir is made up of all the stars from Gospel and Contemporary Christian music, it will be mediocre at best if you arrive at rehearsal having never studied the music. You should know the music better than everyone on your team.

Note that by “learning the music”, I am not suggesting that you fanatically reproduce everything on a recording. Whether it be a hymn, mass setting, or praise and worship song, you should know it well enough to sing (and ideally play) it the entire way through. If you don’t know the music yourself, how can you coach your singers? How can you communicate with the choir or the instrumentalists joining you?

  • Get away from the professional recordings as soon as possible.

I have nothing against recordings. They are a great resource where it comes to learning music, regardless of whether you are using sheet music or chord charts. I can throw on The Housefires and listen to them all day! That said… You will only be hurting yourself in the long run if you insist your team reproduce everything on them week after week. Leave Tasha Cobbs Leonard’s vocal runs to Tasha Cobbs Leonard. Your vocalist will figure out something else to do.

The idea when you rehearse with your singers – you do rehearse, right? – should be to have them practice what you expect them to do at the worship service. If you are planning to use tracks, they need to get used to them. If they are singing with a band, my suggestion is to coach them while playing (or having someone else play) a guitar or piano.

  • REHEARSE PROACTIVELY.

Mid-week rehearsal saves nerves if planned appropriately. If you are working with a band, my suggestion is to rehearse the singers separately and then with the band. I am all for prioritizing the upcoming Sunday, however you’ll get more in the long run if you make time to work ahead with the singers. They will have more opportunities to run through their songs with your supervision and shore up harmonies. You can also set the keys to best reflect the unique strengths and qualities of your singers’ voices.

Important: Don’t do too much, but also don’t waste time. Taking time in sections to shore up harmonies? That’s okay. Rehearsing each song five times in a row? That’s going through the motions, burning out your team, and will likely bleed all musicality right out of the song.

Your main goal is to build confidence in the music. If your singers feel confident in their ability to sing it and know what to expect, then they will deliver.

  • Know your people.

This is something that only comes week after week. Get to know the qualities of your singers’ voices. People are not interchangeable. Different singers have different strengths in different areas of their voice. Their training, background, learning style, and experience may be completely different. The ability to belt higher notes does not necessarily mean better! One singer’s superpower may be belting notes in the stratosphere. Another’s superpower may be a wider range. There may be yet another one with immaculate voice control that can change tones from clear to gritty. Get to know your people and adapt the music to showcase their strengths.

  • KNOW YOUR PEOPLE.

Wait… Didn’t I just use this one? Yes, I did.

Believe it or not, your singers have lives when they are not with you. That school teacher may have broken up three fights before arriving to choir rehearsal. That one guy that appears to have everything together may be battling severe depression and anxiety. You don’t have to “get all up in their business.” (Boundaries, boundaries, BOUNDARIES!!!) Just know that you can’t expect people to drop their crosses outside the church door before they come to rehearsal or service… They are supposed to take them to the altar.

  • Take notes. Give Feedback. Repeat.

Learning involves repetition, not just in rehearsal, but in service with a live congregation. Even if your band never changes, you will have a different team six months from now simply from experience alone. Take notes about what works well, what needs improvement, and what needs reinforcement. Was the key too low? Did the singer have stage fright? Did a spontaneous moment land well with the congregation? Your people need feedback on how they can improve.

And you need feedback on how you can better lead them!

  • The music is not the most important.

Yes, the music is why you are coming together, but that is not why you are coming together.

Thirteen years ago, I was serving as a Minister of Music at a Catholic church. We were preparing for Pentecost and I was aggravated that the praise dancers were late for rehearsal with the choir. There were a lot of moving parts and one of the dance leaders was upset that the song we were singing was coming out different from the recording. Again… Super aggravation. The choir was getting anxious and I was faced with making a decision that was going to make people upset. (Get used to it. If you are doing anything of value, this will happen at some point.)

A lady walked into the sanctuary off the street. She was not part of the church and to my knowledge had never been there before, but she was in distress. I do not have the knowledge to even guess whether it was mental illness or some other factor. Two of my choir members took her into the office nearby to speak with her and calm her down. They knew exactly how to handle the situation while waiting for help.

Rehearsal was over. Make no mistake; the Lord commands us to worship Him with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength. Music is important! What kind of sacrifice would it have been if we had just continued with “business as usual” while one the Lord’s own Beloved was in need? Even if everything had come together perfectly, it would have been garbage. 1 Corinthians 13:1-3. We weren’t there just to study God’s Word; we were there to live into it.

Pray for your team. Pray with your team. Be the church with your team. Care for your team. Love your team. Strive in your every dealing to carry the Love and Grace of Jesus Christ. Just know that God may send you the opportunity at the most inconvenient time.

It’s not really your team; it’s God’s team. Regardless of what you are doing, you are called to remember Who is in charge.

T. Kareem Powell is a pianist with more than 25 years of experience as a musical director for vocal and instrumental ensembles including theatre orchestras, gospel choir, chancel choir, and church worship teams. Powell has a Bachelor of Science from Florida A&M University in Music Education and a Masters of Music Theory from Indiana University School of Music. He enjoys getting people involved in the worship in various ways and champions teaching liturgical traditions in the service. 

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