I had the good fortune to work with a great team of people during the weekend. This small band of musicians and singers were from Hope Church on Queensland’s Sunshine Coast. We covered a lot of ground during the full day workshop including an in-depth study of John 4 (Jesus and the Samaritan woman), the essential discipline of vocal warm-ups and a constructive workshop with the whole band as we took a fresh look at an old song on their repertoire list. It was during the practical workshop with the band that one of the singers asked, “What is the ideal range for a worship chorus?” Coincidentally, a good friend of mine messaged me on Facebook (not more than 48hrs after the workshop) to ask the very same question. My FB friend’s question reads,
Taking into account the different generations and genders, do you think there is an ‘ideal’ range for corporate singing (particularly corporate church singing)? The flipside question: is there a ‘no-go’ range (up or down) that you should avoid?
This is an age-old question, and a good one to be asking; it reveals a desire to develop an inclusive time of worship. There is a reason why the question is asked a lot, and why it is not easily answered: there’s no ideal range that will be the ‘one-size-fits-all’ solution. Why? Well, the different sexes of your congregation are one reason: male and female voices sing comfortably in different registers. What feels comfortable for men will not always be comfortable for the females in the church and vice versa. Secondly, the multiplicity of voice types within a single congregation creates an inherent challenge: what is comfortable for the lower female voice (alto) won’t necessarily work well for the higher female voices (sopranos). This all being said, there are a couple of guiding parameters which might prove helpful.
Highest and Lowest?
When I am asked the general question of ‘what’s the best vocal range?’ typically the interested person is seeking to be governed by a ‘highest and lowest’ note. Admittedly, I wish I could make things easy and give a definitive answer here. Over the years I have read many texts which have tackled this issue. Interestingly each text seems to offer different answers, so allow me to suggest that notes between G3 and G4 are singable by most people most of the time; with men singing an octave lower than the women. To the observant reader, this means that when we prescriptively apply the limits I have just suggested we are restricted to an octave: this in turn significantly restricts the choice of repertoire. There is a second rule that we can apply that offers a little more scope: tessitura.
William Vennard’s (1968) definition explains that the singer’s tessitura is “that part of the range in which the voice performs best, both as to sound and as to ease” (p. 67). McKinney (1994) furthers Vennard’s simplified definition by writing,
Two songs may have the same general range but different tessituras, as shown in this example [Figure 1]. There are some singers who can sing both of these tunes comfortably; there are others who can handle the range without any problem, but who find the tessitura of the second tune very demanding because it lies so high within the octave. (p. 111)
Figure 1: Low and High Tessitura
Our focus here is not vocal health, but it is worth noting that it seems the sustaining of a melodic line whose tessitura remains high for an extended period might predispose the singer to vocal wear and tear. Judith Wingate (2008) certainly thinks so. She writes, “If the singer experiences chronic vocal fatigue from singing in an extreme tessitura for long periods of time, vocal injury may result” (pp. 58–59). Daniel Zangger Borch (2005) complements Wingate’s concerns when he writes “Obviously if someone is forced time and time again to sing numerous choruses at the top of their range their voice will give out” (p. 93). Herein lays the challenge: people stop singing when they start to feel physical discomfort. Assessing the tessitura of a song requires that the worship/music director identify where the mean average of the melodic line sits. Again, one must avoid the temptation to be too rigid here. For example, once a congregation has sung a couple of songs they may feel more able to sustain a slightly higher tessitura and so different songs work better (or otherwise) at different points in a worship service. Effectively, the aim is to maintain the tessitura within the boundaries of G3 and G4 allowing for the occasional note to stray outside these parameters. Remember, the key is to have most of your congregation singing most of the time.
Finally, despite the guiding limitations that I have mentioned above I would encourage every worship/music director to take up the challenge of developing their congregation’s overall vocal capacity. Cherry, Brown and Bounds (2011) encourage the very same when they write, “each leader must discern what their congregation’s current singing capabilities are while leading them to grow in their singing skills to the glory of God” (p. 48). The wise music director will take a long-term approach to the congregation’s vocal range development; it will take years…not weeks or months J
I am conscious that I have not covered this subject comprehensively here, so I eagerly invite you (my readers) to add to this post in the comments section. We will all benefit from the additional hints and tricks that you have learned from your experiences.
Borch, D. Z. (2005). Ultimate vocal voyage: The definitive method for unleashing the rock, pop or soul singer within you. Bromma, Sweden: Notfabriken Music Publishing AB.
Cherry, C. M., Brown, M. M., & Bounds, C. T. (2011). Selecting worship songs: A guide for leaders. Marion, IN: Triangle Publishing.
McKinney, J. C. (1994). The diagnosis & correction of vocal faults: a manual for teachers of singing and for choir directors (2nd ed.). Nashville, USA: Genevox Music Group.
Vennard, W. (1968). Singing: The mechanism and the technic (5th ed.). New York, NY: Carl Fischer.
Wingate, J. (2008). Healthy singing. San Diego CA: Plural Publishing.
I love to serve my home church by leading the congregational singing. I enjoy the hours of preparation required to seamlessly tie the songs to the general theme of the bible readings and sermon. I receive a great sense of personal satisfaction from the vocal practice that I employ so that my singing enhances and guides the participation of my fellow worshippers. As recently as a couple of Sunday’s ago I was fortunate enough to lead one of our morning congregations through the songs that thematically centred on singing God’s praise through the generations. The service went smoothly and a deep shared sense of God’s presence rested on the meeting as we sang songs that connected us with lyrics taken from today, the 8th century, as well as words penned by David in the Psalms. One of our pastoral staff led us through Ps 145 and drew our attention to the centrality of Christ. Wonderful! Wonderful that is until I started the final song…
The song we had chosen as the final piece was the new song by Jonas Myrin and Matt Redman (2011), 10,000 Reasons. For those of you unfamiliar with the piece, the song commences with the chorus and then leads into verse one. I had decided that I would attempt to dovetail a solo presentation of the opening chorus neatly against the end of Ps Phil’s closing prayer. An excellent idea…until I missed the entrance note by approximately a 4th. “No problem” I thought…it kind of worked in a kooky indie kind of way…”I’ll just make a quick adjustment when I invite the congregation to join me for verse one…how hard can it be for a doctor of musical arts?” Ha! Very hard it seems…I couldn’t find the right key/note to save myself. Fortunately, after what felt like an eternity of ‘awkward’ I had a friend in the pews that came to my rescue by belting out the right notes so that the congregation could commence singing. Actually, in the end, what took place was beautiful. In the midst of my broken attempts to find the right notes the congregation’s voice rose above mine to the point that they were leading me. It was so good that every time we sang a verse (there are three) I handed the leadership of the melody over to the 100 strong voices of the congregation. I would go as far as to say that the service may not have been as rich an experience had I got the entrance into the final song right.
Paul, in writing to the Corinthians, reminds us that “we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us” (2 Cor 4:7). A common vessel for grains, water and oils in New Testament times, the household ‘jar of clay’ was given to breaking and spilling its contents. Even the well-crafted glazed pot or jar was vulnerable to mishap and structural failure. While reminding us that we are made of fallible materials Paul celebrates our earthiness; our imperfection and vulnerability. Paul reminds us to revel in the way God is glorified and revealed in our weakness.
Admittedly, I am not going to go searching for opportunities to fail in my responsibilities of leading the congregation in worship. I am however excited to know that God is more than capable of using our wrong notes stored in clay jars.
A couple of weeks ago I had the great experience of being swept up into the singing at church. “What?” I hear you ask. “You don’t get ‘swept up’ every Sunday?” Well…no. To be perfectly honest I don’t!
Now for some of you this will come as a shock – and for a few of you I will go down a couple of notches on your ‘spiritual gauge’; but ultimately I have become quite settled with the fact that not every Sunday service is a ‘heaven touching earth’ experience. In fact I have come to understand that the times that I do feel God in a tangible way are the exception, and not the rule – more on this in my next post!
On the Sunday that I refer to it wasn’t even that I was getting goose bumps, or seeing tongues of fire on my fellow worshipper’s heads. What lifted me to a heightened sense of God’s presence was hearing my voice join with those around me as we sung about God’s majesty and awesome power. In this single moment I was also aware that our voices, only about 50 in total, had joined with the heavenly hosts in the continual declaration of God’s greatness (Rev. 5).
Sadly, I don’t always recall the corporate aspect of our worship. I, like many western Christians, have been lulled into a desensitised state that all too often alienates me from the very community to which I have been accepted. Constance M. Cherry (2010) in her recent book The Worship Architect furthers this thought when she writes,
“We have been indoctrinated to think that we are individual worshipers who happen to form the constituency of a local congregation. We have mistakenly viewed our weekly worship as an opportunity for each person to pray individually to God, to hear the word individually, and to respond individually” (p. 13).
Guilty as charged.
This is the wonderful thing about singing in church. We do it together – at the same time. The act of singing in church is unlike any other activity of our corporate worship. Even when we pray in our services, one person speaks and the rest listen, whereas with our singing we participate simultaneously. What a magnificent gift God has given us. Bob Rognlien (2005) suggests “There is nothing that quite compares with singing a meaningful worship song to God” (p. 133). Moreover, there is nothing that quite compares to singing a meaningful worship song to God together!
I would love to hear about your experiences. Leave a comment about the times when you have become aware of your voice joining with the congregational voice to declare God’s goodness.
Cherry, C. M. (2010). The worship architect: A blueprint for designing culturally relevant and biblically faithful services. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic.
Rognlien, B. (2005). Experiential worship: Encountering God with heart, soul, mind & strength. Canada: NavPress.