Construct, Culture, Environment and Voice
After 5 years and 10 months of reading, researching, thinking, analyzing, writing, and editing—it is done! The examiners have reviewed my dissertation and deemed it worthy of doctoral status…such a relief! I would like to take this opportunity to thank my two supervisors, Dr Scott Harrison and Prof Paul Draper, who both contributed mightily to the dissertation. Their careful and considered input never wavered during the arduous journey and as a result the final presentation of the data and my analysis thereof is all the more richer and robust. Thank you gentlemen!
For those of you interested in the finer details, the document is approximately 83,000 words covering some 330 pages; organized into 6 chapters. It sports approximately 800 references taken from over 200 books, articles and recordings. The research queried 85 online survey contributors and 9 interview participants. The results brandish a collection of 19 distinctive features that distinguish the Contemporary Worship Singer as a unique vocalist in the wider community. The implications of the study find their climax in the Contemporary Worship Singer Assessment Tool which all singing teachers who have the opportunity to instruct today’s church singer will find invaluable.
Many of you have asked for a copy of the dissertation once it is ready for distribution. The document can be downloaded from the Griffith ‘open access’ portal here – http://bit.ly/IXArES
Now to the exciting bit…
Over the coming months I will be writing about my research findings; hopefully in a manner that enables church worship directors and Contemporary Worship Singers to apply the information to their current and future activities. As by way of introducing the research findings I will now briefly outline the structure which governed my conclusions. This structure nominates four main pillars of influence on and in the task and identity of the Contemporary Worship Singer. The four research pillars of enquiry are construct, culture, environment and voice.
The label of ‘construct’ acknowledges that the Contemporary Worship Singer exists within the wide and vast framework of Christianity. The construct is serviced by the rich history of Christian worship which can be shown to pre-date Christianity; including and embracing Jewish worship practices. The historical footings of Christian worship have included the practice of singing as an integral activity of the worship construct almost inclusively across theological bounds. The multiplicities of theological positions however have formed ideological camps and these competing views have drawn battlefronts known as the ‘worship wars’. Essentially, what seems to be in continual conflict is the worship style (liturgical, traditional, contemporary, blended and emerging) and the worship form (modular, thematic and flow).
Of course, the multiplicity of worship construct in turn forms specific subcultures. These subcultures can be viewed at various levels: Christianity, denominations, local church etc. The modern western church is grappling with a number of key subjects in the area of worship; especially when considering the persons involved in presenting and leading worship. These contemplations arise, in part, from the prominence of worship in today’s church culture. The label ‘worship,’ as used in my previous sentence, is often contextualized to include those parts of the church service ordered to music. While I am the first to acknowledge that this is a limited view of worship and all that it may (and should) encompass for today’s Christian, it is nonetheless the terminology that many church attending Christians use to describe that which can be also termed congregational singing. While reflecting on the culture of today’s modern worship matters such as the celebrity status (intentional and otherwise) of those leading worship should be considered. My research enquires as to the heightened status of the Contemporary Worship Singer in these modern cultures and in doing so also considers the attributes and place of ‘performance’ as a part of the role. Furthermore, the theological consideration of the ‘anointing’ is reviewed/researched as well as the concept of excellence. Both subjects (anointing and excellence) are found to be contextualized and held in direct relation to the multiplicity of each Contemporary Worship Singers church context.
The practical nature of both construct and culture are observed under the heading ‘environment’. Winston Churchill stated, “We shape our buildings, and afterwards our buildings shape us.” The truth of this statement is undeniable and exemplified in the task of the Contemporary Worship Singer. Church architecture plays a major role in shaping and presenting the role of the modern church singer. Whether hearing the singer’s voice emanate from the wings (transept) of an Anglican cathedral or viewing the enthusiastic energies of the Contemporary Worship Singer on a raised stage in a modern auditorium, the architecture serves to accentuate the voice(s) of the singer and the voices of those that they lead. Herein lies a challenge that Contemporary Worship Singers face every time they seek to lead the congregational voice: acoustic space balance. Inherent to the task of leading the congregation in song is the prominent presentation of the leader’s voice. Sing too loud and the congregation may be ‘drowned out’ by the leader’s voice. Sing too quietly and individuals within the congregation may be ‘socially uncomfortable’ and in so feeling reduce their vocal participation. If the acoustic space balance is not managed well, congregations reduce/discontinue their involvement; the very opposite of what the Contemporary Worship Singer is seeking to achieve. Also queried under the label of ‘environment’ is the use of modern-day equipment such as microphones and foldback. Briefly, it would seem that the vast majority of singers are utilizing these modern pieces of equipment, but few have considered their implications upon their role as a Contemporary Worship Singer, and thus little attention is given to developing better strategies for their inclusion in the role.
Finally, my research reviews the use of the voice as the Contemporary Worship Singers primary tool. The teaching and learning of singing (vocal pedagogy) is a well-researched and heavily documented discipline. This being said, the Contemporary Worship Singer and their unique vocal task has received very little (if any) critical enquiry. Much more work is needed in this area, but I am hopeful that my initial findings will be helpful as future research is embarked upon. What I have concluded from this work is that the Contemporary Worship Singer must determine what vocal discipline is best suited to their needs; classical or contemporary. Typically in Australian churches either hymns or choruses are used; generally a mix of both. These two musical idioms fall neatly into the vocal disciplines of classical (hymns) and contemporary (choruses) instruction. Given that most modern worship constructs are using a combination of both musical genres the Contemporary Worship Singer (along with their singing teacher) needs to determine what vocal discipline best suits their overall vocal development. Also exposed by the research is the poorly practiced activity of vocal warm-ups and cool-downs by Contemporary Worship Singers. Anecdotally I believe the findings in this area simply mirror the wider vocal community’s poor practice of caring for the voice through such practices as warm-ups. Regardless, due to the Contemporary Worship Singer’s desire to present a standard of excellence in their worship (culture) they must be encouraged to develop higher standards of voice care and practice; including regular warm-ups and cool-downs.
Over the coming months I will endeavor to unpack each of the ‘pillars’ (construct, culture, environment and voice); breaking down the details, highlighting the findings and offering suggestions for practical implementation. As always I eagerly invite you to write your comments and open dialogue around your views and experiences.
Task and Context
A few posts ago (Thai Duck and the Impending Doom) I made a commitment to disseminate many of my research findings through my blog; highlighting the various unique facets of the Contemporary Worship Singer. I am still committed to that promise but alas I have not yet received my examiners results. It is therefore prudent that I exercise restraint and only present a brief introduction to my work at this time. I maintain my commitment to release the body of the work once the examiners have had their say and I have responded to their requested changes.
What’s so special about the Contemporary Worship Singer? Good question. At first glance it appears that the modern church singer is like many other vocalists who sing repertoire that is categorised as ‘contemporary’. Prior to the study I had contented myself with the misnomer that today’s church singers predominantly sing choruses. The modern church chorus stylistically vacillates between pop/rock to pop ballad and rarely strays to other genres. My research has revealed that the minority of churches (18%, n15/83) use only choruses. The majority of my research participants indicated that their church use a balanced amount of choruses and hymns. This is perhaps the most fundamental (but certainly not the only) challenge facing the Contemporary Worship Singer: the vocal task must address repertoire that is technically different. Hymns are best sung with a classical discipline, while the modern chorus is best served with a pedagogy that is contemporary. This poses the question: Can a singer learn to do both? Moreover, can the singer learn to switch between the different styles (classical and contemporary) all within the confines of one worship service? As many of my vocal students would tell you, it’s difficult enough to learn proficiency in one discipline without the heightened task of freely activating either/or. For the volunteer church singer who has little to no vocal training the modern church environment creates a difficult vocal task. I can hear many of you sighing, “Sure, that’s an interesting feature of the modern church singer…but it’s not enough to declare them unique!” I agree. I made the same observation at the conclusion of my Master’s Degree. The vocal task in and of itself does not separate the Contemporary Worship Singer from their vocal peers in the wider community of singers. So what does?
Reviewing the singing task of the Contemporary Worship Singer reveals what the singer does, but it stops short of identifying who they are. Herein lies the challenge facing my research. The context of the Contemporary Worship Singer has a multiplicity that other singers do not need to grapple with. At a superficial level it is helpful to separate the contexts into traditional and contemporary. The traditional church environments are typically conservative in their theological orientation. This conservatism is observed in the architecture of the worship space, the manner in which modern equipment (PA and Video projection) is used and the presentational modes of those presenting the worship service. The alternate mode of church presentation is as its namesake suggests: contemporary. The Contemporary Worship Singer who practices their craft in the contemporary environments are more exposed in their presentation with both PA and video projection used to enhance their audial and visual leadership. This heightened exposure can lead to a cultural dilemma: if the general purpose of worship is to corporately direct adoration to God, how then does the Contemporary Worship Singer ensure that they are striking the balance of necessary encouragement to the worship participants without drawing undue attention to themselves or their performance? This is a unique feature. No other singer in the wider community has to draw attention to their task without drawing attention to themselves. This has broader ramifications for such considerations as excellence and how the individual singer might develop their craft. Again, I need to stop short of unpacking this until I have been given the ‘all-clear’ by my examiners…but I think you can gain the general picture. What makes the Contemporary Worship Singer unique is both the task and the context combined.
I’m looking forward to delivering a more in-depth account of my work and its findings in the coming months. I can assure you no one wants the examiners comments more than I do, but wait we shall. Once I have a definitive indication of the work and it’s approved finality I will step us through the outcomes/findings of the research and disclose the conclusions including the ‘Contemporary Worship Singer Assessment Tool’ accompanied by the nineteen distinctive features which collectively form a detailed role description of the Contemporary Worship Singer. I can’t wait to reveal all.