Weekly Teaching Tip – October 5, 2015
by Dr. Steven Sims
My practice is based in Chicago and the location lends itself to a rich tradition of Gospel Music. Between Chicago, Detroit and, recently, Indianapolis, I have the wonderful privilege of caring for those who lead worship. I grew up in a singing family, so this is as much a mission ministry as it is a practice. It is home for me, so I welcome you to a wonderful world.
We begin by recognizing that Gospel singing comes from a unique, venerable, and passionate cultural experience. All culture has its language and norms, so this is a good place to start.
I would not suggest that anyone not familiar with the vernacular begin using the terms with clients. Most people are perceptive and we wouldn’t want anyone to feel mocked. It is helpful, however, to have a common understanding of how some terms are used and what ideas are often being conveyed by the usage of these terms. For example, if a patient explains to you that they “blew,” “tore it up,” or “sang hard,” chances are there may be a pattern of voice overuse to deal with. Listening—then taking care to process and contextualize what the patient says—is the beginning of any healthy interaction between a care provider and someone in need of care.
It is equally important to remember that Gospel singing is not synonymous with vocal abuse. This common misconception often drives a wedge between clinicians and patient. Far too many patients have come to my office primarily to feel a sense of vindication after having been told that if they wanted to take care of their voice, they should stop singing gospel music. It is, however, fair to assess the singer and what they know about voice production. Here are a few example questions:
Have you ever worked with a voice coach or voice teacher?
When did you start singing?
Do you know your voice part?
Do you warm up? What do you do when you warm up?
Does your choir director talk about taking care of your voice?
The answers to these five questions not only help establish a rapport with the patient, they also help you understand the singer. A person who started singing at a very early age may have continued singing during puberty and developed some bad habits while their voice was changing, this is good information to have. A singer who does not know their voice part is more susceptible to singing out of their natural range and running into vocal fatigue issues.
An experienced runner would never get up out of bed, put on running shoes and head for the door to run a ½ marathon without stretching. Yet, experienced singers often embark on a vocal ½ marathon without conditioning the vocal tract muscles. This question not only gives you important information, it provides an excellent opportunity to explain why a voice teacher can be helpful. You acknowledge the natural talent while simultaneously making the case for professionals who help develop the talent. Even the greatest athletes have coaches and trainers.
After looking at the singer, we can ask about the singing environment:
Does the church have a sound system?
Who runs the sound board at your church? Professional or volunteer?
What’s the background music? What is competing with your voice?
Old or new building? Acoustics?
How long is the average song?
Once again, these questions help the clinician build an accurate picture of what the patient’s voice is being asked to do. The call and response tradition of African-American Gospel music lends itself to comparatively long songs. One song can last 10-15 minutes with an upward modulation of the key (often 2-3 times) as the emotional intensity in the congregation builds.
For choir singing, the typical structure is a 1-3-5 chord triad with a relatively high tenor and taxing soprano line. The brilliance of the music is maintained by the piercing sound of men and women singing in full voice at the upward end of their vocal register. Typically, the accompaniment includes a heavy bass presence and liberal percussion. So, a good sound person elevates the voice over the music by using a microphone and an amplifier. This is far preferable to having the singers “clench harder and sing louder,” as is sometimes the remedy suggested.
We honor the Gospel tradition by understanding that a quest for brilliance is not designed to ruin voices, but rather to underscore the tradition of a psalmist. Few could read the writing of King David and not understand the emotional weight of “as a deer pants for water, so my soul yearns for you.” These words carry such heft as to inspire exuberant singing. So as we seek to instruct Gospel singers, we create alternatives to convey the message. Hand and body gestures, enunciation, and proper phrasing can accomplish the same goals.
Keeping Gospel tradition in mind, we work with the singer to optimize their individual voices and not to transform them into Bel Canto artists. We try to adhere to a few simple principles. I also usually couple this with scripture because it makes sense to stay in the frame of reference of the performer.
1. Stay focused on what the goal is. Praise is not performance
2. Don’t overcomplicate things
II Kings 5:13
3. We should study to show ourselves approved
II Timothy 2:15
4. You don’t have to lay your voice on the altar every Sunday
5. Pride is an enemy
6. We must all know our limitations and use our own, unique gift
I Samuel 17:37-39
We seek to help singers to continue to make a joyful noise.