The amazing thing about putting vocalists together is the new sound that emerges in unity that an individual could never create on their own. This is called blending, and for it to work, each person must choose to lay down his or her own way of singing to adopt the elements of the other voices in the group.
As a lead singer, there’s the opportunity for individuality. Vocal nuance can create beautifully vulnerable moments of ministry when someone sings with their own personal style. It’s powerful, and we love and welcome unique sounds in worship! With group singing, however, the power is in the unity, so it requires an entirely different approach – listening and adapting.
I spent years in the music industry as a session singer and background vocalist, and the most valuable assets I brought to any studio were my ability to listen and my willingness to adapt. I sang country, pop, worship, gospel – you name it, I probably sang it. To do it well, I had to abandon the way I would personally approach a song and adapt to the soloist or other singers. That doesn’t mean I was never able to sing with my own unique style – it just meant I had to know when to use each tool in my tool belt. Blending is the tool you use when you’re singing in a group.
The Three V’s
Group vocals in a worship setting get the opportunity to function as a singular instrument. Rather than a bunch of instruments playing together, think of it like a pipe organ or a harp and each voice is a pipe or string that collectively makes up that instrument. In this context, a unique style (no matter how cool it is) can actually disrupt the unity and ruin the blend. So, surrendering in these moments and letting your voice become a part of the other voices around you is the secret sauce to incredible group singing. And to do it, we focus on what we call the three V’s: Vowels, Vibrato, and Volume. For a great blend, each voice in the collective has to listen and adapt to agree on these three things.
We learned in Kindergarten that there are 5 vowels in the English language, and when you’re talking about letters, that’s true. Phonetically, though, we actually utilize 21 different sounds for our vowels. Twenty-one! So, it takes careful listening to identify the accurate vowel sound being used by the leader you’re trying to blend to. It takes even more discipline to surrender how you would say that vowel and instead say it the way the leader is saying it. For example, you may sing “Deliverance” and pronounce it “You are my Deliver-UH-nce”, but the leader is singing, “You are my Deliver-IH-nce.” If you’re singing “UH” while they’re singing “IH”, your sound will not blend and may even sound off pitch because the vowels don’t match.
As you listen for vowel sounds, the most important thing is to pay attention to what you’re actually hearing, not what you think you’re hearing. Your brain is going to assume it knows what it’s hearing, and will connect the dots and categorize it with what it would hear if the word were being spoken. But vocalists often change the way they pronounce words in order to produce the sound the way they need to vocally. Great example: Justin Timberlake singing “It’s gonna be MAY” instead of “ME”. For the tight, pure pop tone he was singing with, he changed his vowel pronunciation to keep his tone consistent. If you were a member of NSync, you may feel super weird saying “May” instead of “Me”, but to get a unified blend with the rest of the group, you’d simply have to swallow your pride and form your vowels like his so that you don’t stick out like a sore thumb.
Vibrato is another significant element to achieving a good blend. There are two components of vibrato: Extent (how much the pitch changes up and down) and rate (how quickly the pitch oscillates). The most important thing is to agree on vibrato – if it’s fast and shallow (like it often is in pop music) or slow and deep (like you’d often find in gospel music), just make sure you’re doing it together. In worship music or as a beginner vocalist, it’s sometimes best to start with very controlled vibrato, or no vibrato at all and work your way from there. Depending on the style of music you’re worshipping in, using no vibrato can sometimes offer the cleanest backdrop for the lead vocalist to be able to volley around as they need to.
Those of you who have been singing for a long time have muscle memory that dictates your vibrato. You probably don’t even think about — it’s just how you sing. So, it may be difficult for you to change how you approach your vibrato. One practical tool would be to record yourself singing and listen to your natural vibrato. If it is wide and slow, it’s going to be important for you to learn to control it as you continue in your vocal training. The more intention you bring and the more you practice, the more quickly and successfully you’ll retrain those muscles.
Lastly, let’s discuss volume. Now, on most platforms, we have the luxury of a production team who help us achieve blend by adjusting our volume as needed. That being said, we don’t want to entirely depend on them to ride the fader for us the whole service, and even more importantly, volume can affect your tone and ruin the dynamic blend. Dynamic is simply the combination of volume and tone. Again, listening is key. Listen to the worship leader. What tone are they using? Are they driving, energetic, and loud? Are they soft and intimate? Pay attention and emulate that volume and tone.
A great way to ingrain all of this is to practice intentional listening. Choose a worship song you love and print out the lyrics. Then listen to the leader’s vocal and take that thing apart. What vowel shapes are they forming? What kind of vibrato are they using? How much is volume playing a role in the dynamic shifts of the song? Take notes. Lots of notes. Experiment until you figure it out. Then sing along, being very intentional to copy what you hear. Record yourself and make more notes to learn your own tendencies.
Now that I’ve talked obsessively about technique and details, let me offer one last encouragement. Practice with diligence and excellence as your goal, but when the time comes to worship, lay all of that down. Whether it’s as you step out onto a platform or pick up a guitar at home, trust that the foundation you built in your practice will carry your technique. Remember, the whole point of learning all this is so that we can be confident and undistracted. So, keep your eyes on the Father. He delights in your worship!
Loisa Matthys approaches worship with a passion for intercession and spiritual warfare. She has served in multiple capacities of ministry over the last 25 years, including worship leader, vocal director, choir director, and is now an Associate Pastor of Worship Content for Gateway Church.