Article: Vocal Maintenance
Our next article is from Abigail Rhodes, a professional singer / coach and also serves through leading worship at Holy Trinity Coventry. I'm so thankful for Abby in sharing this wisdom and highlighting the importance of looking after the instrument of voice that God has given... something I'm trying to grow in! (Chris Sayburn)
If you think about it, a singer’s instrument is their voice and, like any good instrument, it needs properly looking after to stay as good as it can be. What worship leader can honestly say that they haven’t sung themselves hoarse at least once?
God has given us voices to praise Him. Just because they don’t need strings tuning or levels set, doesn’t mean that we should take these gifts for granted!
As a professional singer and vocal coach as well as a worship leader, I’ve learnt most of what I’m about to suggest the hard way, so I offer it as shared practical experience and hope that some or all of it helps…..
Be still and know that I am God...
Sometimes the best preparation for singing is, well, to not sing. Voice rest can feel a bit extreme and is not always entirely practical but it is an important part of keeping your voice in shape. A two-day recording session or a long rehearsal and two services can tire a voice beyond the point where technique can help it. So keeping relatively quiet around times you know you are going to need your voice at full strength is a good idea.
Also remember that pushing your voice when it's not happy can do more harm than good. It's vital to get to know our limitations and respond accordingly. I once decided I was going to have to be fine to lead worship even though I was pretty sure something wasn't right, vocally. Inevitably my voice gave out halfway through the service and I had managed to make what turned out to be a bout of laryngitis much worse by trying to sing.
Come all you who are thirsty... (and hungry...)
There are lots of theories about what and what not to eat or drink before and during singing. My only advice is to see what works for you and whatever else, drink plenty of water. Staying hydrated is more than just a few swigs of water while you sing – it’s consistently drinking plenty throughout the day. This is good for the rest of you, as well as for the voice so it’s a win-win.
As for the rest – I’m afraid it’s trial and error. Certain foods create excess saliva (sorry...) and some create extra mucus (again, sorry…), both of which can make singing uncomfortable, but this won’t be the same for everyone. See what works for you and stick to it!
Ready for you…
This may sound obvious but a good rehearsal is really important. In terms of protecting and maintaining our voices, we have to be really aware of where the hard singing is going to come, where there are places where we can “rest” (not sing so hard), where the particularly high or low notes are going to be so we are ready for them and any other danger zones that you know you might need to deal with. Without a rehearsal, this is much harder to know and plan for, vocally. If you rehearse the pressure points, you can also rehearse the breathing, projection, or other techniques you might need to help you with them and protect your voice from tiring too quickly.
It’s rising up…
Always try to warm up your voice before you lead worship. The services I lead generally start at 9.30am and so we need to be ready for soundchecking etc by 8.45. Even after over 15 years of doing this, that always feels a bit early to be singing, so a warm up is vital! Whether it’s just 10 minutes in the car or on the walk into church, simple exercises like sliding up and down scales from the very bottom to the very top of the voice and back again (on a “ng” sound is good) or singing up and down arpeggios, can make all the difference to how ready your voice feels.
It’s your breath in these lungs…..
Without good breath control, singing just feels and is harder than it needs to be. We need to work on breathing to fill our lungs up and controlling the breath as it flows, using the diaphragm muscle under our rib cage. This helps us sing longer phrases without pushing the voice and gives us a better tone generally, which helps lead a congregation more clearly.
Sing it out…
One of the biggest dangers about singing with microphones is believing that they will do all the work for us! Ideally, we should be projecting our voices as if the mic wasn’t there, and letting the sound team do the rest. This will keep your technique working – breathing, projection, where you place your voice – and may help you stop pushing from the throat, which is where we can often end up doing damage.
- Open your mouth as you sing – big, open vowel sounds will help the voice resonate and carry well without any pushing or straining.
- Sing out as though you are trying to reach the person at the back of the room – I don’t mean shouting or pushing the voice too hard but just directing it out well. It sometimes helps to imagine your voice is on a ribbon connecting you and the back of the room.
- Imagine your head is the speaker system for your voice – lift notes out of your throat/chest and let them float up. This is a win-win as it will take the pressure off the larynx (voicebox) and will also often give a clearer tone to a voice. It’s often much harder for a congregation to follow a low-set voice over a mic than one that is using the head resonators (nose, sinuses etc).
- Keep your words clear – these are surely the most important things, expressing ourselves to God in so many different and vivid ways, and as worship leaders we have a responsibility to make sure that they are heard. A congregation will follow song words much more easily if we make our words clear as we sing. The added advantage, vocally, is that good diction helps keep our voice forward, as that’s where all the consonants are made – at the teeth, lips, tongue and palate - not sitting back and being pushed from the throat.
“I will sing to the Lord for he is highly exalted.” – Exodus 15:1
As a professional performer, as well as a worship leader, the most important thing for me is to remember why I am singing, as well as how. It’s something I’ve wrestled with for a long time: Of course we want our worship to be of the highest standard we can muster, because God deserves that and so much more than we can ever offer. But if it turns worship into a technically perfect performance and nothing more, then aren’t we missing the point?
For me, protecting and caring for our voices is more than just a way of singing better, it’s about looking after the gifts that God has given us and using them well, to his glory, and for as long as possible!