Local congregations use music in their services in most Christian church contexts. This is true of almost every denomination and facet of Christianity. Even the minimalist approach of using no instruments still requires attention to vocal operation of music concepts. In fact, those using extensive instrumentation must be even more wary of accomodating instrument and musician preferences that compromise the ability of the vocal engagement of the congregation.
But before we talk too technically about music, let's step back and begin with some clarifying foundational points.
PART I: FOUNDATIONS- WHY CARE ABOUT VOCAL RANGE?
Before getting to work on practically establishing and using a vocal range in your local church worship, Let's talk first about the values and issues that make this an important topic to be looked at seriously and implemented by worship leaders.
Worship Connected to Vision
In many cases, the primary goal of worship and music in your local church will often be connected to your church vision, such as -
- to glorify and enjoy God forever
- to make God famous
- to love God and love others
- to build a community of love where Christ is lifted up and people are set free
- to reach the world of Jesus
You may insert your local church vision statement above to the list. When we look at these kinds of statements we must draw from them a sense of honesty about how people in our local churches will actually participate in what you intend, and how we believe God is leading our congregation within that purpose. Regardless of what your vision is, you must find a way that your worship and music fit into it.
Vision Connected to Community
Some people will say "it is all just for God's glory". This is true enough, but if we stick strictly to that statement, each one of our church community members can stay home, pray and worship God with no need for any community gatherings. We could trace through scripture and build a clearer understanding, however, especially through the book of Acts, and on through most of the New Testament (Paul's writings, John's writings and even Peter). The truth is that the New Testament church formed into community based not only on cultural forces, but based on the model of Jesus, who lived and declared he would build his church (his community) through the faithful obedience of his apostles and followers that would come after them. Jesus treatise of prayer and community in John 17 is a powerful expression of his divine community (in the Trinity) and his explicit prayer for our own unity and community that reflects his love (towards the end of chapter 17). This is synopsized well in his statement in John 13:35 "By this eveyrone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another".
On that basis, we find Paul expounding on Christian church and community throughout almost all of his letters, constantly encouraging people to love one another, wait for one another (in communion gatherings), defer to one another (related to husbands and wives), honor one another (younger and older people) and on and on. The writer of Hebrews says its succinctly-
And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching. (Heb. 10:24-25)
The point of exploring all this (very briefly) is that we can see a theme of "prefering one another" that resonates through the entire New Testament, from the teaching of Christ to the applications of the apostles and writers of scriptures. As we look to pursue the vision God has given our local congregations, we must find ways to encourage all our people to engage, if we are to pursue God and give Him place to accomplish his mission through us.
Community Encouraged Through Engagement
If you believe that community is a necessary value in our mission for the church, then you must find ways for that "community" to be manifest in reality. That reality could mean many things- gatherings, prayer groups, support systems, pastoral teaching, counseling and much more. But the clear nuance across it all is engagement. If the history of our two thousand years has taught us anything as a people of faith, it is that we must engage with God and with one another if we are express our love.
If you do not believe that we need to engage with one another to be in the community of love (we call it the church), then you will not agree with rest of the premise of this article either. But if you do believe that we must engage with one another to live in a communit of love, read on.
Let's assume for a moment that you have properly addressed the heart issues of what worship and praise are, why it is a part of individual lives and congregational gatherings, and why music and singing are woven into those patterns. This article is intended to address specifically churches who use music as part of your worship and praise activities within your community gatherings. Moving forward from there, and reaching back to the initial points already made about church and community and engagement, I offer this essential premise-
The music performance and leadership in the congregational gathering is primarily intended to engage and support congregational participation in the singing.
Before forging on too quickly here, let me point out something here- I am speaking strictly related to the musical considerations of your worship and praise. I say "singing" and "music" in the above point, because I don't want you to confuse singing with worship and praise. In this context I am assuming that you understand and nuance the heart aspects of this topic. My goal heretofor is about explaining the practical musical aspects of helping congregations engage in the singing. Heart and foundational understandings of worship and praise are not part of the intention of this article.
Engagement Connected to Access
So then, assuming we want our churches to be a place where our community can engage together in the corporate act of worship and praise we must find, as best as possible, the most helpful ways to assist them in engaging with the congregational songs. One very basic task that a worship leader or music minister has in this regard is to select songs that allow the congregation to actually sing. The goal here is to set a musical context in which most of the people can participate together vocally. Simply put, we encourage engagement in the music by giving them access to it vocally. If we wish to have the congregation sit and listen, then we needn't concern ourselves with vocal range. This kind of example I dealt with extensively in another article (more..). But if we wish them to engage, vocal range must be a deciding factor in our evaluation of songs to be used.
PART II: PRACTICAL APPLICATION- FINDING AND USING A VOCAL RANGE
Vocal Range Factors
Vocal range is simply this- the range of notes (from lowest to highest) that a person can sing. A person's vocal range varies by individual and is impacted by several factors. A commonly presented range for congregational singing often accomodates the fact that both men and women will be present to sing, as well as children and adults. These are important factors, since they limit your vocal range significantly. Women's voices are typically able to sing much higher, and men's typically have the ability to sing much lower in a vocal range. Children can often sing higher than adults. All this is due to simple physiology, the size of the throat and voicebox of the person and their accumen in using it to sing notes.
One common practice related to vocal range considerations in congregational music is to limit songs primarily to the range between Middle C (fixed sofege "do", or scientific pitch notation of C4) and the next C (called Tenor C, or scientific pitch notation of C5). Specifically, in the key of C, the range looks like these notes:
What I would recommend is that you review your songs against this type of range as a guideline to see how much of your music is accessible for your local congregation to actually sing most of the time. Like any "guideline", sticking to it too strictly will remove some added flavor and interest in your music. If you never allow a song to be used in congregational worship that has any notes outside of this range, you will be ignoring a solid slice of very good songs. You may keep the "meat and potatoes" songs that help everyone engage, access and sing along, but you may be leaving out some "spice" that will help keep things interesting to your congregation. But if you vary too far or too often from this type of guideline, you risk loosing engagement of your congregation.
If you are in a well trained musical culture, perhaps you can expand the range a note or two on either end. For my personal guideline, I use a range that is from Bb to D when I lead worship. This is partly because I use mostly modern contemporary worship songs in my repertoire and many of the congregation have learned some these of songs by singing along to them on the radio, and the songs often have broader ranges than the simple praise and worship choruses of the 70's and 80's and 90's. Additionally, the groups I lead for are typically between teenage years to 60, and I very rarely have the opportunity to lead for older congregations who are primarily just 50+ in the age group. If I led groups of just 50+ age ranges I would adjust my vocal range down to the standard Middle C to Tenor C (at the highest).
Again, this is the place where you must use good judgment and take the input of your congregation. Yes, worship leaders, listen to your people. Not each and every suggestion will be applicable, but taken as a collective, you will find wisdom in talking to them about how accessible the music is for them as it is being sung. I typically never hear the young people say "that was too high", but I occasionally hear that from older people.
There are a plethura of other side notes and commentary that relate to this point of vocal range, including such things as song familiarity, male/female melody leading, harmonizing, and such. For those growing muses who would like some additional information on vocal ranges, I actually do recommend the WikiPedia page on this (here), since it is fairly accurate (unlike somethings on there) and helpful for folks needing more details . But remember, if your goal is engagement in singing during your praise and worship time you will help your congregation gain access by establishing a vocal range guideline to your song selection- a range that is comfortable to them. The key here is that you must return to the goal of preffering others above yourself. What can they sing, not what can you sing. Without making it a monotonous and letharigic exercise, find a way to occasionally spice your service with exceptions to your guideline, while still keeping every song accessible for the congregation.
Listen to Your Congregation
Find your own way to reach into your local church by asking people you trust who do not have your musical/vocal abilities about their ability to join in. I occasionally ask my family about the singing with this in mind. Our family has a variety of range abilities. Two of my sons can sing well and have extended higher ranges, while one son has a limited range. My wife, likewise, has no musical training and limited vocal range. Like most people, all of them could expand their range with vocal exercises. But that is the point- like most people, they aren't musicians or singers, and they don't have time to spend on expanding that ability. So let's help them find a "home" in our worship and singing by giving them a repeteroire of songs that they can engage and access. My wife will often just stop singing, and start humming when she can't reach notes. My sons will sit down. Some times they will just mouth the words when it is too high or too low. Looking for congregational participation may help you see if your vocal range is actually working in your local church.
So what do you do if a song has notes out of the acceptable range you've established as a guideline?
Change Key- The first thing to try is to move the song key to see if that places most of the notes inside of the range. For example, us guitar playing worship leader guys might select a song in a key such as G that might be best sung in E, because the notes allow a range that fits within our guideline.
Leave it in - if the song has one or two notes that are out of the vocal range guideline, but they are sung only once in the song, you can probably get away with using the song and most people will not feel left out in the singing. If the song repeats those out-of-range notes many times, then you may have a problem. Use your judgment, based on others abilities, not yours. The goal here is not to show off your abilities as a worship leader and vocalist, but to engage your congregation by giving them access to the song.
Drop it out - Some songs are best used for performance, allowing people to listen and be inspired by it. But using those songs in congregational worship may have the effect of making them feel left out, or worse, that the leader is showboating their talents. If the song can't be accessed by most of the people in the time of worship and singing, why are you including it in your set list?
This article is intended to give you basic thoughts on vocal range, how it should be considered as a component for granting access to your local congregation, to help them engage in your singing and worship.
This kind of topic is often considered, and often discarded by many worship leaders and musicians because the musical abilities of those leading will almost certainly exceed the abilities of those being led. This is where the pastoral overseer of your worship minsitry must teach and lead the ministry into humility, helping them learn they are servants to the people, not performers for them to listen to (primarily).
I am sure there are many considerations and additional points that could be made in this regard. I encourage you to join the discussion and leave your thoughts and points here, so others can benefit from reading them as well.
Joining with you,