Serving with Your Voice

Serving with Your Voice
Randall D. Engle

Father, grant that what we sing with our lips
We may believe in our hearts.
And what we believe in our hearts,
May we show forth in our lives.
Through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
From An English Book of Prayers, Late 1800s

The Center Of Praise: Our Song

Our frank and loving friends Jon and Joy enjoy a new appreciation for the skills and thought of their worship keyboardist, which allows them to focus on God. They look forward to Wednesday evening choir rehearsals because the choir director is energetic and creative, while also musically gifted and spiritually sensitive about the choir’s work. They have a note posted on their refrigerator, reminding them of the profound words of Charles Wesley: “The word of God touched me, but the music moved me.” Because of the new vision of their church’s worship program, Jon and Joy are reenergized and immersed in the music programs.

Indeed, the unique activity of the church namely, the worship of God is energized by song.1 Our sung praise in worship is our response to God’s action. Whether a choir, ensemble, praise team, or congregation, the church gathers groups of singers to assist her in worship. Isn’t it wonderful that we are hard-pressed to find a church today that does not have singers assisting in worship? It only makes sense, for we were made to worship, and we were made to sing.

Like keyboard musicians (see the last chapter), singers serve to focus worshipers’ attention on God, not on themselves. Let’s now examine how singers can serve vocally in leading God-directed worship.

The Choir

The main purpose of the modern choir is to assist the congregation in worship. Before the reformation of the church in the 1600s, choirs were exclusively male and comprised only of clergy monks and priests. Pre-Reformation choirs worshiped on the people’s behalf, while the laity observed worship from behind closed iron gates leading to the nave of the church. After the Reformation, Protestant churches eliminated clergy choirs in an effort to give worship back to the people, while Vatican councils later made similar recommendations to Roman Catholic churches. Where choirs were reestablished, it was clear that they were not to “do worship” on behalf of the congregation; rather, they were to assist the congregation in singing their songs with renewed energy.

The Choir’s Involvement in Worship

Choirs can lead worship in many different and equally effective ways:

1. Choirs enliven congregational song by singing a single stanza of a particular hymn or song. Many times hymns or songs have several stanzas, each reflecting a different mood or idea. The choir singing in alternation with the congregation serves not only to interpret different ideas present in the text but also to give the congregation vocal rest during an otherwise lengthy song.

2. The choir can sing a descant (an alternate melody above the tune) on selected songs. This doesn’t need to be limited to sopranos, though it is the voice typically chosen for such a part. Having the tenors join the descant (an octave lower) gives the sopranos additional support. Descants can be found in many published hymnbooks and leader’s guides, or inventive choir directors can write descants of their own to fit a particular hymn and occasion.

3. Many hymns and songs lend themselves to canonical singing that is, the melody can be sung behind itself (much like a round). Choirs can sing the canon, following the congregation. Singing in canon is another musical way to illumine a text or to render a familiar song in a new way. If your congregation is not accustomed to singing in canon, you might begin by using the final stanza of “Amazing Grace.” The text focuses on eternity (“When we’ve been there ten thousand years”), so use the choir in canon to create the sense of a thousand voices singing in perpetuity. Indicate by verbal announcement or in the worship folder that the last stanza is to be sung in canon the congregation will begin, and the choir will join two measures later.

4. The choir can offer a hymn concertato (a hymn-based anthem inviting the participation of both congregation and choir). The choir can rehearse its part, and clear instructions can be given during worship as to when the congregation should join in the singing. Concertatos are especially useful and effective because typically they use instrumentation and varying harmonies not found in hymnbooks. Here is an opportunity to use instrumentalists from the congregation, should the score ask for them.

5. The choir can serve as group cantor, or soloist. The choir can sing the psalm, or it can lead in a sung response to Scripture or to other elements in the service. Choir directors can use a choir rehearsal to do a dry run of the week’s upcoming service, singing through some or all of the service music. On Sunday, then, the choir serves as a group of singers who have already familiarized themselves with some of the service music, which can be a great benefit to the congregation.

6. When the congregation is learning a new song, the choir can assist by singing the song through first. This allows the congregation to more quickly focus on the text and removes some of the apprehension that accompanies an unknown tune. When the congregation does begin to sing, the choir continues to provide strong vocal support.

7. The choir can offer an anthem (a musical work written for choir alone). Too often this is the only way choirs participate in worship in most churches. As the choir sings the anthem, the congregation is asked to participate, not with voice, but with mind. The idea is that the choir offers a piece of music on the congregation’s behalf.

Let me add a couple of notes about the anthem:

* If the congregation is asked to worship by means of the choir anthem, then it is important that the congregation knows and understands the text the choir is singing. Choir directors can insist on clear diction and uniform vowels. Worship planners and bulletin editors can see to it that a copy of the text appears in the worship folder or on an overhead screen.

* The anthem does not always have to be in the “anthem slot.” Rest assured, no “worship police” stand by, ready to arrest a church that moves the anthem out of the regular slot! Look at the text of the anthem: What does it say? Is it a call to confession? Then use it as such. Does it thematically tie in with the Scripture passage? Then use it as a response to the Scripture reading. Does it complement the sermon? Then use it as a prayer response to the sermon. Does the text ask others to join in the praise of God? Then use it as the call to worship. Use your choir anthem to assist in the flow of worship and to direct people’s attention to God whenever and however it can best do so.

The Choir Member

Choir members function best when they understand that, above all, they are part of a team. As team players, they show up! They prioritize choir rehearsals as a commitment, and even let this commitment override emotions of the day (“I’m tired”; “I don’t feel like it”). They concentrate on the music and on the instruction of the director. They have a sharp pencil in their choir folders and use it constantly! While choir members listen and carefully watch the director, they know that they are really singing for God and that singing the “sacrifice of praise” is leading God’s people in worship. They know that their participation in the choir is a holy calling, and they thrill to being part of something unifying and beautiful within the church.

The Choir Director

The choir director is equal parts musician, accountant, cheerleader, minister, masseuse, and counselor. Rarely does a job in the church expect so much from one person, and rarely does the church receive so much from one person. Choir directors are beacons of hope who never let singers settle into mediocrity. They give them repertoire and musical experiences to grow into, not out of.

A choir director naturally understands his or her role as the leader of a group of singers who make music. Music is not a god unto itself but exists in the church to point people to God the One seated on the throne. A choir director understands this so choir directors go about their work with this intentional purpose and in the process discover a holy, fun, and musical calling.

Choir directors prepare well. Before the singers arrive months before the choir director is busy. When singers arrive at the first rehearsal, there are no distractions that will waste time or cause frustration. The music is there purchased (not photocopied!), three-hole punched (if that’s how your singers store music in their folders), stamped with the church’s name (for all those pieces of music that seem to walk out of the music room), and plentiful in number (to avoid the “but I don’t have that one!” cries during rehearsal). Inside the folder is a printed worship and choir schedule. Singers know the Sundays they will sing and mark their calendars (or PDAs) accordingly. When the director anticipates these things, distractions can be removed from the rehearsal. (Perhaps a volunteer could be recruited from the choir to assist in some of the logistical details and the folder and music preparation.)

Choir directors work with other church and choir leaders so that choir rehearsals are easy to attend. Would having a nursery allow more singers to join the choir? Is another evening or another time slot more convenient for all members? Is the rehearsal space roomy and conducive to singing? Choir members will soon learn by your attention to detail that you consider the music program significant and their participation in it crucial.

Choir directors provide balanced repertoire that is new, old, interesting, challenging, and simple! Know your choir’s skill, and then push them within those limits with certain selections, while rewarding them with well-known favorites. Stylistically, repertoire should be balanced by the use of the best of all eras of church music.

Singers come to sing, not to sit through a lecture or to be bothered with shortages of music or with unclear demands. Let singers sing! Help them sing well. Some choir directors lead rehearsals where there is more talking than singing. Instead of using words of correction, try modeling by singing the line correctly and musically; to do so can often communicate more clearly than obscure remarks such as, “I need more legato there.”

Choir directors pace the rehearsal so that it is energizing and rewarding. Start with physical warm-ups that release physical tension (back rubs, loosening-up exercises, a moment of silence, lying down on the pews). Slowly introduce vocalists into the warm-up. Listen for tension in the sound, and relax the tension through more loosening-up exercises. Aim for a free flow of the voice unencumbered by fatigue or physical tension in the neck, back, and larynx. Begin rehearsal with a hymn or song preview for Sunday’s worship and insist on singing it with as much energy and interest as you would expect from an anthem. Then vary the rehearsal repertoire with selections that move from difficult to easy, from major to minor; end with something that is a guaranteed success.

Choir directors weigh their words carefully. Like all volunteers, choir members respond when they are verbally pulled, not pushed. Speak clearly, slowly, and with an economy of verbiage. Remember that every comment is an indirect suggestion. Use communal language to reinforce the reality that a choir is a team (“We can do more with the commas on page 4,” not “I wanted you to observe the commas on page 4 and you didn’t!”). Use suggestion rather than command (“What would happen if we shaped the phrases around the word “holy” on the first page?” not “Sing it like it’s printed! “). Be sure to negate the negative, and give praise every chance you get (“Can we have a softer sound from the sopranos here just like you sang it so beautifully on page 2?” not “You’re singing too loudly again! “). Use the passive voice (“The organ could play more loudly on the last chord,” not, “Anita, shouldn’t you pull out another stop there?”) Like it or not, singers form perceptions of the choir director based on and shaped by the words used and the experiences shared with that person in rehearsal.

Working with pastors and worship boards or committees in the church’s overall worship program, choir directors are specifically in tune with that week’s worship service. They plan ahead. Where will the anthems best fit? Can we be creative with the placement of the choir this week (a call to worship that echoes from the balcony; a response to God’s blessing that resounds from the fellowship hall)? Then and this is key choir directors think through the plan and communicate it dearly to the choir.

Sometimes the choir director uses creative communication to save the choir from a list of verbal reminders. Directors might publish a monthly one-page “Choir Chatter” newsletter that touches base and includes logistical and schedule reminders and also contains a list of choir members’ birthdays. They consider an e-mail newsletter for choir members. During especially hectic holiday times, maybe they distribute a “what you need to know for this Sunday” sheet in order to preserve valuable rehearsal time.

Choir directors come to rehearsal prepared for anything. Oftentimes our ideal plans must be laid aside, given the reality of certain situations. How well can we improvise? What’s in our arsenal of musical techniques that will help us handle the musical train wrecks that knock us off balance? These “tricks in the hat” are picked up by observing other directors, attending conferences, or participating in another choir as a singer.

Choir directors model effective worship leadership. They remain calm, they guide, and they facilitate worship. They arrive early, they anticipate questions and concerns, they check in with other worship leaders and gather the choir and prepare them for worship.

Cheerleading is part of a choir director’s job description as well. After worship, the choir director has honest and edifying comments to share: “Altos you were so ‘on’ today!” “Brent, I loved the organ introduction it made that hymn sing with new life for me!” “Pastor Beem, thanks for letting us put the anthem after your sermon this week. I thought it really fit well there, didn’t you?”

Choir directors give members time off. In today’s fast-paced world, a night at home is a gift. Be sure to give this gift on occasion. When planning a semester’s schedule, call the local school district to find out when spring break will be held or winter break (usually in February) and see if there are any three-day weekends scheduled. Perhaps one of those would be a Sunday you’ll give the choir a break or not hold a rehearsal that week. Another idea: Give the men a week off and work only with sopranos and altos, and switch the next week. Consider “seasonal choirs” that gather only for a particular service or season, say, Christmas or Easter. Maybe even consider recruiting a “choir for a day.”

Choir directors share their expertise beyond the choir. Insightful choir directors use church publications to write about the work of the choir. They write about worship. They coordinate a monthly column in the church newsletter to increase awareness of the choir’s activities and its significance in the life of the church. Perhaps they even put a short paragraph in the weekly bulletin about the anthem being sung or about the history of a song. Choir directors use 1 Corinthians 14:15b as their theme verse: “I will sing with my spirit, but I will also sing with my mind.”

Finally, choir directors watch an intimate small group grow right in front of them. Choir members will relish not only times of making music together, but they’ll want times of fellowship as well. People will want Christmas parties, year-end parties, and kick-off potlucks. As choir members come together socially, they’ll also bond musically as a team. Choir directors facilitate this social aspect of choir and even encourage it. When a member is ill or experiences a significant life event, cards are passed around and signed during rehearsal. When a member is absent, the director notices and places a personal call or sends an e-mail message to say that he or she was missed. The choir director takes an interest in each singer’s life as a person and shares with him or her in the journey.

Through careful planning, along with realistic assessment of the strengths of a particular church and choir, the choir director leads the choir and ultimately the congregation in meaningful times of worship.

The Choir as Outreach Tool

Beyond the weekly worship participation, several other opportunities exist for choirs to be used as outreach tools for the church.

First, consider doing advertising in the community to recruit new choir volunteers. Many local newspapers will run religious ads for free. Many persons are seeking musical experiences, so why not invite them to a church choir church member or not? All it takes is a simple paragraph in a newspaper, such as “This Wednesday the choir of Community Church begins its season of meaningful music and memorable fellowship! Won’t you consider joining us? No audition is necessary, and there is no cost. Join us at 7:00 P.M., and we’ll be glad to meet you!” End your notice with simple directions to the church, and include a phone number of an e-mail address. You may be surprised at how many people want to join your choir!

Here’s another outreach idea: Plan a year-end festival worship service. This is the one service where all the choirs and musicians pull off a “no-holds-barred” worship service heavily advertised in the community. Perhaps the choir can learn a magnum opus work from the choral repertoire.2 Service planners can develop a theme and then balance the rest of the service with other anthems and songs. Plan for lots of congregational participation hymn concertatos, songs, and responsive readings. Use various instruments to accompany the choir and congregational singing perhaps a small string quartet, brass, handbells, or a full-size orchestra (maybe even all of these!).

In one church I served, we concluded each choir season with such an event. We even invited a guest conductor to lead the choirs. I began preparing the choirs months beforehand, and the guest conductor then took the choirs to new levels of finesse plus I could relax and enjoy singing with my choir once the guest conductor took over. Working on a magnum opus piece of choral repertoire strengthened the choir and put quality literature into the music files, while challenging the choir with a worthy goal.

Ask choir members and congregation members to invite family, friends, colleagues, and neighbors to this special worship service. Ask the evangelism committee to produce brochures and mail them to the community, and then to be present that evening to greet guests. Design posters, and ask choir members to distribute and post them at work, at neighborhood grocery stores, or at local coffeehouses. Send publicity notices to local newspapers, community calendars, community cable stations, and radio stations. Plan to have a social hour after the service.

To balance the year-end festivities, perhaps the choir could take the lead in a special worship service halfway through the church year perhaps in December. This could take many shapes: a service of nine lessons and carols, a Christmas Eve candlelight worship service, or maybe even a choir caroling night that would take the place of a rehearsal.

The choir will not only feel good about working together to achieve a great musical accomplishment on such projects, but they’ll also feel delighted to serve the church in drawing new people into the congregation.

The Praise Team

The praise team is really a small(er) choir with a different name. The purpose is the same: to enable the congregation to sing their songs of praise to God. Thus, a praise team can benefit from the same list of ideas as the choir to fulfill its role in providing musical leadership for the congregation.

However, because the praise team evolved out of the “performance” emphasis of a rock band, there are more obstacles to overcome on the road to success (success being defined as “assisting and enabling the people to sing for themselves”).

Praise teams usually contain fewer members than choirs do, and more often than not, the team selects its singers from the congregation but it’s crucial to move beyond any exclusivism in establishing the group. Like the choir, the praise team’s membership should be open to all. This is not an elite group; it is a group whose purpose is to help the congregation better sing her songs of praise.

To enhance its opportunities for success, a praise team should carefully consider its positioning within the worship space, for logistical placement is crucial. A praise team’s job is not to sing at the people or for the people; it is to sing with the people. Personally, I like to see the praise team stand in the same place as would a choir in an area that allows them to lead but also to assist and support the congregation’s voice. If the praise team needs to be amplified (and it may not need to be), be sure that its volume does not overwhelm the congregation’s sound.

Many praise teams prefer to use texts projected on a wall or screen rather than hymnals. The goal is to get worshipers to look up, and, indeed, the congregation’s singing is often improved tonally by this upward-oriented posture. However, consider these concerns: Is the text large enough to accommodate worshipers with poorer eyesight? Are we unknowingly limiting worship for the aged, those with visual impairments, or those seated in an area with poor sight lines?

Think about this question regarding projecting only text with no musical notation: Are we limiting participation to only those who happen to know that particular tune? Would guests in your congregation be able to sing with full voice if they don’t know the tune and don’t have music to guide them?

Like the choir, the praise team is not an end unto itself. The praise team exists to enable the congregation to better sing her songs of praise.

The Soloist

The church soloist is a one-person choir. The solo presentation of music boasts a long heritage in the Bible. Miriam, Deborah, Daniel, David, Mary, and Simeon were all soloists. Later in the church, chants required a soloist to sing the text, while the congregation sang a refrain the same “call and response” form echoed in modern-day spirituals.

The soloist aids worship in much the same way as a choir or praise team. He or she can sing selected song stanzas, offer a sung prayer, sing responses throughout the service, help teach the congregation new tunes, and offer an anthem written for one voice only. Of course, the goal should never be to interrupt the worship by having soloists sing “special music” random selections that have nothing to do with worship or the service theme but simply call attention to the singer.

Like the choir, the soloist can be used creatively and effectively in the worship service. Logistically, a soloist can easily be placed anywhere in the worship space. Some worshipers will appreciate a soloist who sings out of the congregation’s view, allowing the congregation to focus more on the text than on the singer. For worshipers who are not accustomed to seeing the choir, placing the soloist in front might be beneficial, because worshipers will not only hear the words but also see the singer’s posture and facial expressions. Discern the needs of your congregation and study the song, and then determine where the best placement would be.

Appropriate repertoire selection is crucial for the soloist:

* Did the soloist select a piece of music that falls naturally into his or her voice range?

* Is the piece of music well chosen for this particular congregation?

* Can our accompanist handle the music, or is it too difficult to play well?

The soloist the one-person choir has lots of sources from which to select music for worship. Sometimes singing directly from the congregation’s hymnal is the simplest and the best thing to do. There are also many volumes of collected songs. Be sure to buy two copies one for the soloist and one for the accompanist. Soloists can also look at larger vocal works, such as Handel’s Messiah or Haydn’s The Creation, and excerpt solos or arias.

The Children’s Choir

Jesus urged little children to come to him. No wonder, for children are energetic, loving, open, and eager to participate (well, most of the time). Their simple faith is a winsome model for adults. When Isaiah and Zechariah describe the way they see heaven, both note the presence of children: Isaiah sees children playing near the holes of cobras in a perfect land of peace (11:8), and Zechariah notes that children are playing in the streets of the new city (8:5). Heavenly worship will certainly include the inquisitiveness, freshness, and vitality of youth.

It makes sense, then, to involve children in the heart of earthly worship. Far too often, children are talked down to in worship, used as cute props or, worse yet, totally ignored.

Many churches harness the energy of children and involve them in worship as a children’s choir (variously called Junior Choir, Children’s Choir, Sunday School Singers, and so forth). Whatever you call this group of singers, a good children’s choir director embodies all the things described in this chapter under the heading “The Choir Director” and more. In addition to being able to run an effective rehearsal, in addition to being organized, thoughtful, theological, and communicative, in addition to having the patience of Job, the children’s choir director also needs an accurate understanding of the child’s developing voice and the ability to communicate this awareness effectively to children, using age-appropriate language.

Children’s choir directors understand that many children have not been taught how to use their singing voices in a healthy way. Schoolteachers have spoken to them about an “inside voice” and an “outside voice.” Parents have asked them to whisper during church. They’ve been asked by well-meaning volunteers at church school to “sing louder so Jesus can hear you.” But few children have learned to experience their singing voices in a healthy manner.

Like all things in life, they need to be taught, so children’s choir directors find creative ways to communicate and to model a healthy singing voice to children. They make sure that the music is not pitched too low. One way to enable children to sing brighter and better is to get them to focus on their “head tone”; music that is pitched correctly enables them to do so more naturally. Children’s choir directors use object lessons to teach children in concrete and visual ways: a helium balloon on a string shows children how to hold their heads high but not tight; throwing an imaginary baseball while the choir sings a certain phrase gets them to project sound. Children’s choir directors focus on vocal production, uniformity of vowels, breath support good singing skills that will serve the singers their entire lives.

Most songs should be done in unison. Perhaps some could employ canon. And some more challenging pieces may include partner tunes or even two-part writing. But the difficulty of the anthem must not be such so that it obscures the teaching of healthy singing. So many common pitfalls of a children’s choir can be avoided with thoughtful and quality repertoire! Feed children quality age-appropriate and musical repertoire, with text that is not silly (that’s not to say it can’t be fun) and, at the very least, text that makes theological and biblical sense.

If your church doesn’t have a children’s choir, could not the children of the church school form a youth choir? You could build into their weekly schedule an allotted time of singing that would include some basic teachings about worship and their role in it. You could sing through any choruses or responses or hymns that will occur in worship that week.

There are a plethora of resources to consult in your planning for involving children in worship and for helping those who lead a children’s choir.3 But the larger goals are to involve children in worship in meaningful ways and to feed them quality literature, while at the same time teaching them about healthy singing.

“All God’s children have a place in the choir,” sings the old spiritual. We were all made to sing. Whether in a choir, praise team, chorus, children’s choir, or ensemble, God’s people love to sing together. When voices are added to voices, a wonderful result is achieved that blesses God and God’s people singers and hearers alike. But like all blessings, a responsibility is attached, namely, to use music to point to God, the One seated on the throne, who delights in our song.

This article Serving with your Voice was excerpted from the book Serving in Your Church Music Ministry by Randall D. Engle. It may be used for study & research purposes only.

This article may not be written by an Apostolic author, but it contains many excellent principles and concepts that can be adapted to most churches. As the old saying goes Eat the meat. Throw away the bones.

1 Anyone not convinced on this point could read John L. Bell’s The Singing Thing (Chicago: GIA Publications, G-1550), a handbook that explores the reason we humans are compelled to express ourselves in song.

2 By magnum opus works, I mean such works as Handel’s Messiah (in entirety, or doing individual parts); Robert Ray’s Gospel Mass; Handel’s Coronation Anthems; Mendelssohn’s Hear My Prayer; Gabriel Faure’s or John Rutter’s Requiem; Mozart’s Solemn Vespers; John Ferguson’s Passion of St. John; or Randall Thompson’s Psalm of Thanksgiving just to name a few. Each of these high-quality works is satisfying to sing, has a variety of instrumentation options, and is doable for the average choir. Each also presents an obvious theme that could be complemented by hymns and other brief and simple anthems.

3 I recommend the excellent resource A Child Shall Lead: A Sourcebooh for Christian Educators, Musicians, and Clergy, edited by John D. Witvliet (Garland, Tex.: Chorister’s Guild, 1999). Available online at