17 August 2014 by Tim Ong –
As a trained vocalist, I know that what can hurt our vocal chords. I have friends who could no longer sing due to continuous strain of their vocal, which were torn. It is sad to see this happening because our throats’ diaphragm cannot be repaired or replaced once it is damaged.
I would like to bring forward a topic, which would probably get a lot of disagreements from people especially worship leaders today. However, it’s my personal opinion and in no way, it reflects the philosophy and theology of the church I attend. Most importantly, I still love all of you no matter you agree or disagree.
Many would argue that if you can sing along with the key of the songs played in your iPods or phones, so why can’t you sing it in that same key at church? This key only applies to keys that are above normal range.
When I say ‘above normal range’, it’s at a point where most people generally no longer sing but shout or yell. I have been a vocal trainer, so I know the average vocal range from the majority I heard.
Here is why I do not think playing in this abnormal key range is a good idea for church services.
Worship is not about the band but it’s between us and God. This statement is overly used and also, overly misused. I feel that when people say that, most of the time, they meant it more as a justification than having a true understanding of what it really means.
One of the words that translates to the word ‘worship’ is first mentioned in Genesis 4:1 KJV, “And Adam ‘knew’ Eve his wife; and she conceived, and bore Cain, and said, I have gotten a man from the Lord.” The word ‘knew’ in Hebrew is Yadah, which is one of the many words that translates as worship.
If you are with your partner and you feel uncomfortable, can both of you still get intimate? Say, if I am going to serenade my wife, knowing that I will be pitchy, will I be comfortable singing? Perhaps, it makes sense for me to lower my key to sound sweet to her.
Hence, if I would not subject my wife to that kind of singing, even more so, I would not subject God to that.
How many of us are self-conscious by nature? I would say that most of us are. The fact that we put on make-up (for the ladies, not me, I promise) or comb our hair or wear the clothes we wear, prove that we are self-conscious to some degree.
But when I am alone, I do not mind embarrassing myself (trust me; I have heard myself singing in the shower). Would I do the same with others around although they have nothing to do with my singing? I can honestly say I would not because I have laughed at myself in the shower when I sang notes I could barely reach and went off-pitch.
So, here are the reasons I often do not play many of the praise and worship songs in their original keys, while singing it live:
1. I don’t want to be embarrassed
Even though I know singing off-pitch has nothing to do with the person standing next to me, it is still embarrassing. Many say that it’s okay because they can still praise God in their hearts. But let me explain to you why I feel that it’s wrong to say that.
As a worship leader, I do not want you to be too embarrassed to offer up praise and worship to God. My goal is to encourage the people in the congregation to sing to God during praise and worship. And praises are meant to be audible, not silent meditations.
O Lord, open my lips, and my mouth will declare your praise. (Psa 51:5 ESV)
The word ‘praise’ here is Tehila, which meant to sing or to laud. It is to declare audibly. Have you tried praising someone quietly in your heart? I am pretty sure most people have not. Why?
The whole reason to praise someone of their achievements is to let them know that we have taken noticed of what they have done, and we appreciate it, we feel proud to be a part of it, and at the same time, we want others to know how it has enriched our lives.
Praises cannot be silent.
But there is only one reason when silence is acceptable.
The dead do not praise the Lord, nor do any who go down into silence. (Psalm 115:17 ESV)
Firstly, the dead cannot praise God, for obvious reason.
Secondly, anyone who is silent cannot praise God either. And unfortunately, the psalmist regarded those who are silent as the same as those who are dead, when it comes to praising. I will say it again: you cannot praise God in silence.
2. I do not want to be a distraction
Some people may not be affected by this as much as me. But I believe if a neighbour kept switching octaves mid-chorus because he or she could not reach the vocal range, thus becoming too pitchy, I believe that would affect all of us.
Someone may also highlight those who are tone deaf. Am I telling them to not sing at all? No, I am not!
Tone deafness is a disability and affects about four percent of the population. We should offer up to God the best we can offer. If the tone-deaf person offers his or her best to God, then I am sure that it will still be sweet sounding to God’s ears. I am talking about the other 96 percent of the people who can carry a tune.
As a worship leader, I should help people to bring out the best in them, so that they are able to offer their praises to God; not merely to bring out the best in me while others find it difficult to follow. As a congregational member in a worship service, I want to be able to offer up my best to God and hope that I will not end up being a spectator during the service.
3. I cannot get passionate when I cannot sing like me
When a key is too high, I would usually have to compensate the high notes by going into falsetto; because if I don’t, I will be pitchy.
For those who are not musically trained, falsetto is a method of voice production used by male singers to sing a note above their vocal range. So, they compensate their voices by singing high-pitch like a female but they lost the depth and power.
This occurrence only applies to male singers because it is how our male vocal diaphragm is designed. However, for female singers, their vocal diaphragm is already stretched out and cannot be stretched any further. Therefore they don’t have falsetto range and would just end up sounding very pitchy.
As a worship leader, I need to keep in mind that not everyone has received training like the worship team. We need to learn to apply grace. As part of the congregation, I do not want to be singing half-way and start laughing at myself, which take the focus off God and turn the focus on myself instead.
4. I don’t want to damage my vocal chords.
I am a baritone. Baritone singers have a slightly deeper tone and cannot go as high as tenor. An example of a baritone would be Michael Buble, and a tenor would be Justin Timberlake.
Many songs on the CD nowadays are a bit too high for the average person because majority of them are tenors. Singing one song in those keys may be manageable but for more than one, your vocal chords can be strained.
If you ever start losing your voice after singing, you are starting to damage your vocal chords. Be very careful. Like I have said in the beginning, once you damage it, it cannot be repaired or replaced.
As a former recording artist, I can safely tell you that most of the time, we would try to push the songs key from half a key to a key higher for the recording.
If you know what you are doing and you are trained to do it, you will definitely sound more awesome. With a higher key, you will sound more passionate with more depth in your vocals.
Chris Tomlin revealed this trade secret not too long ago in one of his interviews with Discover The Heart Of Worship. New Song Café at worshiptogther.com for the song Amazing Grace/My Chains are Gone. But when he plays live for a worship service, he would bring it down one key lower for congregational participation. Check out his official music video for the movie Amazing Grace and compare it with the live versions. You will hear the key difference.
Some of you may not know this but during recordings, we get to take breaks in between verses, as and when we need to give our vocal chords a rest and have our personal concoctions for our throats on standby for us to sip whenever we need to.
In conclusion, as a worship leader, I do not want to be the cause of damaging your vocal chords. Some people say, “If you can’t sing it, then don’t sing.” But neither do I want to be the one who encourage people to go down into silence.
I believe a worship leader’s calling is to help people get into God’s presence in consideration of where the majority is vocally, spiritually, emotionally, and theologically. Sure, there are going to be people who are superb singers, who might even be able to win The Voice or (Insert your Country Name) Idol, but they do not make up the majority.
Also, I am not trying to be overly critical over all the songs in the worship albums nowadays. At least, I hope I do not come across that way. Most of the songs in the albums are not that ridiculously high in key.
However, you will notice that most of the favourites in the albums are songs that are slightly above the normal range. Why did they become favourites? This is because the singers sound more passionate and for that, we can take it back to the recording trade secret.
Again, I am not criticizing anyone but it is only a personal point of view and also principles I uphold to make sure the majority get to declare God audibly during praise and worship. God Bless y’ all !
Tim is a Christian singer/songwriter and was one of the founding members of Joshua Race Ministry (JRM) band, which also became the first Christian band to be signed by a major label in Malaysia. He has been involved in worship ministry for more than 20 years. Tim received his training from School of Worship, Kailua-Kona, Hawaii and had the privileged to sing backup for worship leaders such as Paul Baloche and David Ruis. He was also given the opportunity to serve along side songwriters such as Malcom Du Plesis and worship leaders like Tom Inglis in worship conferences. JRM produced 3 albums from 1992 – 2000; Unity, Heavenbound and Experiment (Sony Music). In 2011, Tim recorded a solo album called Right Here and Now … The worship journey. It is free to download at http://www.noisetrade.com/timong. If you want to support his future music projects, you can leave a donation at the website itself. Tim now lives in Australia with his wife Christina and 3 children, Robyn Mae, Tammy Ann and Julian Ray. You can follow him on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/timongmusic and Twitter: @TimOng72
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