5 easy changes that will make you a better Gospel Soloist

If you’ve been to a musical or other “program” where there will be lots of Gospel music, you’ve seen more than a few people come up and sing a solo. When it’s good, it’s powerful and electric, and spirit-filled. It super-charges the whole audience. But sometimes a really good singer can have a not so good performance. And often it can leave not only the audience but the singer scratching his/her head wondering “what just happened there?” So in today’s blog I’d like to share 5 very simple tips that will make an already good soloist a better one; not by changing your singing, but by changing  “experience”. You’ll see what I mean. Here we go!

 

1. Always have at least one song ready- more if possible

It may not be exactly “P.C” of me to say this, but it has always kinda bugged me a little when soloists- meaning people who are always being called on to sing a solo- don’t have a clue what to sing. So you go through this whole awkward thing where you have to watch them fidget around and go whisper to the musician for what seems like way too long. And everybody’s waiting and nobody really knows what to do, and the moment is kinda dragging on, and the soloist looks completely caught off-guard. It’s just awkward all around!

If you’ve ever sang a solo at your church, you might as well assume that you’ll be asked to do so again, at any time. So a good thing to do is just always have a song ready in case you’re called. If you’re smart you’ll have more than one, because at a musical someone could very well sing the song you planned on doing. Seems really obvious, I know. But it wouldn’t be on the list if I didn’t see it happen all the time. So if I may state the obvious once again, a soloist should always have a solo ready- even if you’re not scheduled to be on program.

 

2. Know what key you do your favorite song(s) in.

 

Nothing feels better than when you can walk up and tell the musician what you’re singing and what key to put you in.  First of all it makes that conversation over there at the organ much shorter- which means it’s much less awkward for everybody. You walk up, tell the organist the song and the key and go on over there and do your thing. NICE! Now, if you’re intimidated at the thought of learning keys, there’s no need to be. First of  all you can learn your keys on the piano in 7 minutes. But an even easier thing to do is simply ask the musician.  The next time you sing a solo and you like how it feels for you right there, simply lean over and ask the musician what key that is. Make a note of it and every time you sing that song you’ll know exactly what key to tell the musician to play it in.

Have you ever seen or experienced that embarrassing thing where the soloist starts singing then halfway through the song he suddenly realizes he started way too high? I don’t know which is worse, when they keep going or when they stop and start over. But both are completely avoidable by just knowing what key you sing your most popular songs in.

3. Choose a well-known song for your solo

Yes, I know you listen to all kinds of Christian and inspirational music, not just Gospel. And that’s great! But it’s important to know the audience you’re singing for and what they’re most likely to be familiar with.  This is not nearly as important for the audience’s sake as it is for the musician’s sake. If, for example, you’re singing at an African-American church and you decide you’ll take that beautiful Contemporary Christian song you heard on the other station the other day and sing it as a solo, there’s a good chance the musician will have never heard the song. Which means both of you will struggle and stumble through the entire performance.

You singing mostly a cappella and the musician desperately trying to follow you but using chord progressions that don’t really follow the original because he’s never heard it. So now you’re thrown off because what he’s playing doesn’t sound like what you’re used to. And he’s thrown off because he’s flying blind trying to accompany you on a song he’s never heard. The whole thing is just “uncomfortable” for everybody. Choosing well-known songs for your solo will insure a smooth, seamless experience for everyone.

4. Testify, don’t apologize!

Here’s another thing that always kinda irks me a little.  That is when a soloist comes up and spends two minutes talking about how completely unprepared they are to sing, and how they’re gonna “attempt” to “try” to “take a stab at” (insert song title here).  And then almost every time they’ll quote the scripture that says “be ye also ready” as proof that they know they should but still aren’t, lol! God gets no glory from that, singers. What the audience wants and needs a soloist to do when they come to that microphone is give them something that connects you-and will connect them- to what you’re about to sing about. What does this song mean to you? Why do you love to sing it? Why or how does it minister to you? What’s the message you want to impart to them in the song? Stop coming down front and apologizing for how “not ready” you are. And stop saying you’re gonna “try” and “attempt”. Go up there, give your testimony and then sing to the glory and honor of God.

 

5. Don’t over-sing!

I realize that things like this are very subjective. One person’s opinion of over-singing may not be someone else’s. But here’s one thing that almost everyone sees universally. TIME. A solo shouldn’t last 10 minutes, gang. After you’ve gone back to that bridge for the 4th time, I think you’ve made your point. It is far better to leave the audience wanting more than wishing you’d end it already. So we kinda walked through a typical “not so good” soloist performance under item number 1. It was awkward, uncomfortable for the audience  and took way too long to get started. Let’s now compare that to a typical soloist performance using these 5 changes.

The MC calls your name to come up for a solo. On your way to the front you stop by the organ and whisper the name of your song and the key you like to do it in. Takes about 5 seconds. You walk up to the microphone, give honor and greetings where appropriate and begin a brief testimony or words about the song. You give the nod for the musician, who is already doing soft music in the exact key you need him to be in because you told him. You sing your song and the Holy Spirit moves mightily. You go sit down.  :O)

 

4 things every good choir director must do

If you’ve never walked down to the front of the church, centered yourself on that choir and felt the pressure of every person in the audience at your back and every member of that choir hanging on your every movement, you might think directing a choir is much easier than it really is. And yet, in churches all over the nation and even abroad, people are finding themselves being thrust into that position without really being prepared for what it takes to really be effective at it.

Being a great choir director is much more than just waving your arms to the beat and mouthing the words, as many first-time directors find out the hard way at that first rehearsal. However, there are a few things every great choir director has in common. These are things that will make almost anyone a powerful, confident, effective choir director if they simply take the time to learn and master them. In today’s article I’ll take a look at them one by one, in detail. Every great choir director must do the following:

1. Know The Material

As choir director, when you have a new song to direct with the choir, it’s imperative that you know that song inside and out. If you don’t, you can’t give clear direction. Now, the more you know the more effective you are. But at the very least the choir director absolutely HAS to know:

A) The format of the song. This is how the song flows. What happens first. What happens after that. How many repetitions is that sang? Where do we go after that? We’re speaking of course of the various parts of a song and how they are arranged. The most effective way to learn this is to sit down with the song and write it out. Make notes of the various parts of the song as they happen, and label them. Use notes or brackets or asterisks- whatever you relate to the most – to help you remember what happens when and how many times it happens before going to the next thing.

b) The choir’s lyrics. As the choir director you absolutely MUST know everything the choir has to say and exactly when they need to say it. If you can also know what the leader says, that’s great. But generally just knowing when the leader comes in and when the choir comes in is enough. The leader usually understands that learning his/her verses is his responsibility and as such, isn’t often looking at the director for words.

2. Communicate Clearly And Early

The choir director is called by that name because that’s exactly what that person is doing. Giving directions. It’s no different than when you ask someone to drive you some place they’ve never been. You must communicate ahead of time and in a clear manner when you want them to turn left or right, and where. In other words, you don’t wait unti the driver’s bumper is approaching the street you want and then yell “TURN HERE!!” . This is a common mistake most new directors make.

To be effective in leading your choir you must do with them the same thing you do when you’re giving someone directions in a car. You must think “down the road” a little musically. Just like you say to the driver “ok not this street, but the next street, turn right”. Or “get in the left lane, we’re going to be turning at that next light”. You can only do that because you’re thinking ahead of the car. In a similar way, effective directors think ahead of the music and give signals or gestures that clearly communicate to everyone what’s coming up next.

A good director makes sure he has the attention of everyone involved before he makes the gesture to start that next thing, whether it’s another verse or simply to come out of the vamp. He quickly scans the choir, the band and the leader looking for eye contact so he knows everyone is aware. His gestures and/or facial expressions tell everyone “we’re about to do something different, watch me”.

3. Understand How Music Is Measured, Or “Counted”

This one confuses a lot of new choir directors. Have you ever seen a choir director who clearly gave the direction to go to the next thing, gave it early enough, did everything right, but somehow it just didn’t happen right? It felt awkward, like you knew what to do but couldn’t do it right there? That happens a lot when a choir director gives the right command at the wrong time. Music is very repetitive. It repeats, usually in cycles or multiples of 2. For example if something is being repeated, it will repeat twice, 4, 6 or 8 times. Sometimes if you give the command to do something on an “odd beat” your musicians and choir will have a hard time carrying it out for you simply because the rhythm was thrown off.

Gaining a better understanding of this “count” or rhythmic flow and how it works can be as simple as listening to the song, counting and tapping your foot along with the beat. This could get pretty deep so I won’t go into much detail here. But a good director either has that sense of timing naturally or needs to learn it by learning just a little music notation. You don’t have to learn how to read music, just how to count it. Look up how to count “bars” or “measures” on the internet. In fact maybe I’ll do a YouTube video on that soon.

4. Be Consistent; Use The Same Gestures All The Time

The word “gestures” here refers to the actual hand and/or arm movements you use to tell the choir what you want them to do. Every director is different and has their own style. However I always recommend that directors use as much as possible, gestures that have become somewhat “universal” among Gospel Choir directors. Placing your hand over the top of your head to signify “Go back to the top of the song”, or pointing your thumb over your shoulder to signify “Go to the vamp” are just two examples I can think of.

The most important thing is to make your gestures easy to understand and as obvious as possible. If you find at rehearsal that people are constantly missing the cue even when you give the direction in plenty of time, you may need to explain to everyone what is expected when you use a certain gesture. For example “when I make this circular motion with my finger it means I want you to repeat”. Just holding up a peace sign could mean “go to the verse” or it could mean “two repetitions left”. See what I mean? So don’t be afraid to explain what your gestures mean. Your choir will appreciate this because it helps them understand and execute what you want.

The most important thing you can do though, is be consistent. Use the same gestures for the same things all the time. This way everyone in the music department becomes familiar with them and knows exactly what you want when they see one of them.

There are so many things we could discuss about being a great choir director. This is by no means meant to be a complete study of the subject. These 4 steps however, will take you a long way towards becoming an effective choir director. If you’re new to the position of choir director and would like some one-on-one coaching/mentoring, you can either book Ron Cross or Book Shena Crane for private coaching any time. We can help you get ready for your first song or just become a better director in general.

Be blessed!

My top 5 blogs of 2011

Acrylic Laser Cut 2011 CalendarAs we come to the end of another year it’s customary to not only begin setting goals for the coming year but to reflect on the year now behind us. 2011 was a year of many changes for my company. One of the biggest for me though was to start this blog.

Honestly I didn’t think I could come up with enough content to write a blog twice a week. I knew that I was following the path God wanted me on, so like everything else about this new venture I decided to just step out on faith and do it.
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Talent/Skill vs. Anointing; Does God Really Care If It Sounds Good Or Not?

Balanced debateI don’t expect that everyone who reads this article will be happy with it’s content. Because today I’m going to challenge one of those old sayings that people have heard recited and repeated for so many years that nobody ever questions it or even bothers to look for any biblical proof, one way or the other. But the bible is exactly where we’re going today to get some answers.

“God doesn’t care what it sounds like, as long as my heart is in the right place”. It may have been said slightly different one way or another when you heard it, but no doubt you’ve heard people make this statement many times.
But is that really true? How does God really feel about the quality of the music we offer up to Him? Does He care about skill or talent? Is it really even necessary to perfect it? Rehearse and polish our harmony and sound? Is it really worth it to train your voice and perfect your gift? Or is this all just vanity for the sake of our own egos?

Many don’t think He cares at all. In fact some believe as long as you’re singing for, to or about God pretty-much anything is ok. Often you see this argument come up when people are being pushed past what they can comfortably do with a minimal amount of effort and/or rehearsal.
For some reason people really resent any extra work, training, effort or rehearsing to perfect music done for God. Let’s set aside for a minute the curious change of attitude you find in the same people if they were, for example, rehearsing for a secular music performance. Perhaps we’ll discuss that in another blog.

Today though, let’s see if we can get some idea from the Word of God how He really feels about musicians and singers and what they offer in His service. We’re talking specifically about talent and skill, and what scripture has to say about it.

When you start to really study scripture relating to music ministry; in particular, musicians and singers; one of the first things you notice is that almost every time scripture speaks specifically about a singer or musician, it goes out of the way to point out that singer or musician’s high level of skill. Take a look at a few examples here:

Often when a musician is summoned, it is made very clear in the request that the musician be highly skilled:

I Samuel 16:17 “And Saul said unto his servants, Provide me now a man that can play well, and bring him to me.”

Psalms 33:3 “Sing unto him a new song; play skillfully with a loud noise.”

Only the most highly skilled were appointed as song leaders and instructors:

I Chronicles 15:22 “And Chenaniah, chief of the Levites, was for song: he instructed about the song, because he was skillful.”

David had a choir of 288 voices, and all of them were skilled singers:

I Chronicles 25:7 “So the number of them, with their brethren that were instructed in the songs of the LORD, even all that were cunning, was two hundred fourscore and eight.”

I could go on here, but clearly when you really search the scriptures you see skill and cunning given high regard in music ministry. But you also see that skill alone is not enough. David was famous not only because of his high level of skill, but because of the anointing on his music.
In fact most of the time in scripture you see anointing mentioned in direct coloration to skill ( I Samuel 16:14-23, II Kings 3:15).

And yet even though we have scriptural proof that skilled playing and singing is clearly highly regarded in scripture, we’ve all seen that little choir singing in unison or that little mother stand up and sing a song and tear the church up- even though neither of them were necessarily “highly skilled” singers. The anointing definitely makes the difference, and breaks the yoke (I Samuel 16:18) .

That’s the quote you hear most often when people start making the argument that God doesn’t care if it sounds good. But let’s take a closer look at the real motivations behind this argument.

You see, often it’s not a passion or even a genuine concern for doing right by God that causes people to begin protesting against the work that goes into perfecting music ministry. It is the disdain for the work itself.
The truth is, to play or sing skillfully in music ministry does take a lot of work. Anointed Gospel choirs don’t just walk into the choir stand and automatically sing like that. Exceptionally gifted musicians don’t just wake up playing that way one Sunday morning. It takes work and hours of practice. It takes higher levels of training and study. It takes going over parts over and over. And quite honestly, there are many who would much rather phone it in every Sunday than to do that work.

Not everyone has the same level of natural ability, that’s true. But many people who don’t could certainly get there with some extra work. Or some training to hone their craft. But rather than do that work they would rather give themselves a pass by making the argument that “God doesn’t care about all that”, or it’s not about being perfect, it’s about what’s in your heart”. The problems often arise when these people want to be elevated to leadership positions often reserved for those with the highest levels of skill (I Chronicles 15:22) without having to put forth any extra effort to perhaps tweak or improve their offering.

Ironically that statement about how God really cares more about what’s in your heart couldn’t be more true. God doesn’t care if your gift is perfect. What He does care about though, is whether or not what you’re giving Him is your best. That explains why those singers and musicians and groups and choirs who train and practice and perfect their musical gifts and ministries are often bestowed higher levels of anointing.

It also explains why that little old lady singing off-key and that little choir singing in unison can also minister under the anointing. The anointing makes the difference but the anointing only comes when you’re giving God your best.
Sadly though, rather than give God their best, many people opt instead for Giving God their best excuse. (Gen. 4, 2-7).

From the choir to the praise team; 4 adjustments most singers fail to make

It’s common, at least in smaller churches, to find members of the choir also on the praise team and vice-versa. Many don’t realize though, that the two are completely different when it comes to your vocal approach.

What flies in the choir stand doesn’t work in front of a microphone singing on the praise team. It’s a whole different ballgame. Here then, are the common mistakes singers make as they move from the choir stand to the praise team.

1. Adjusting the volume

As I mentioned above, the first big difference in singing in the choir stand and singing on the praise team is that most of the time every singer on a praise team is singing directly into a microphone.

Which is not at all the case in the choir stand where you’re standing there with a large group of other people, nobody on a microphone.

So choir members who join the praise team often bring that habit of singing really loud to make the sound carry and hit the notes along with them to the the praise team. Only now it’s way too much, because every singer has a microphone.

2. Not understanding/knowing your parts
The choir is a very forgiving place to sing. Numbers hide a multitude of faults, lol. Often people who are not as skilled at harmony can be comfortable singing in the choir because there are so many people around to help out and “lean on”. When you come to the praise team you really can’t do that anymore. You have to stand on your own and know that part. On the praise team that tends to go away. Praise teams are much smaller, so it’s much more important for every singer to really know and understand harmony and their parts. Often people who are used to relying on fellow choir members for their parts fail to fully understand that, so they struggle with that aspect of being on the praise team.

3. Not understanding/learning proper microphone technique .
Aside from those who lead songs regularly for the choir, most choir members don’t have much experience with the microphone.
It’s important to learn how to sing into it properly. How to hold up to your mouth, or stand in front of it in the microphone stand. How to adjust the stand quickly when you walk up to it.More importantly though, every singer should be taught how to pull the microphone away a little when you know you’re going for a really high, powerful note. This is a very important thing to practice on especially when you’re used to singing in the choir stand.

4. Not investing in vocal training

This is probably the most important thing a praise team can do as a group to dramatically improve their overall sound. Choirs can slide without vocal instruction for years because of the nature and make-up of a Gospel choir. But praise teams really don’t have the luxury of large numbers to camouflage things. The sad reality, in fact, is that the average Praise team in the average-sized Gospel church doesn’t do a very good job, I’m afraid.

Some simple training as a group would make an amazing difference in the ministry of most praise teams. I recently started a workshop series with the praise team at my own church where I’ve been training them on pretty-much every aspect of praise team ministry that Iv’e discussed here, plus a few I haven’t mentioned. Taken together, just about any praise team can realize a dramatic improvement in the power and effectiveness of their ministry by investing in this type of training as a group. Take your praise team from simply another musical spot on the program to a powerful tool God uses every week to change the atmosphere at your church and prime it for a move of God.

Did you find this article helpful? You can get it and 12 others like it for your praise team in my new e-book Praise Team 101.