Is there an absence of male presence in your church vocal music ministries? The following article explores this topic, its causes, and how to effectively support the male vocalist in your church.
It’s not a stereotype issue, if that’s what you’re thinking.
I’m talking specifically to gospel music ministries, those who focus on that rich, three-part harmony gospel sound.
I’ve spent just about my entire life singing in church ensembles (choirs and praise teams), and I wouldn’t trade these experiences for anything. These experiences and ministries have played a major part in who I am today. At age 20, I began directing my college choir, which led to leading and directing my church youth/young adult choir back home in Raleigh, North Carolina. After graduating with a B.A. in Music Education, my vocal experiences continued in gospel choirs, praise and worship teams, and also with singing and leading contemporary Christian worship. However, as a male vocalist in the church, I began to grow weary. I was tired of losing my voice each week, feeling inadequate because of an unreasonable expectation placed on me to sing songs out of my natural range, and vocally trying to survive songs rather than ministering the lyrics. It became too much.
I know I’m not alone in this, so my intention here is not to degrade the art of gospel music. Rather, I’d like to focus on how we as musicians and vocalists choose to execute our vocals in the church. I’m primarily addressing choir directors, music ministry leaders, and worship leaders and sharing my thoughts on ways to support our male vocalists. We need our male vocalists in the church just as much as our female vocalists, but in so many instances, they’re missing. Supporting the male voice in the church has truly become a passion of mine, so I want to share with you what I’ve experienced and discovered, in an effort to impact how we as musicians and vocalists can strengthen our ministries.
“We need our male vocalists in the church just as much as our female vocalists, but in so many instances, they’re missing.”
In gospel music, the vocal makeup usually consists of a three-part harmony, as stated earlier. I believe it’s a beautiful sound, a style that works with just about every lyric written in the church. This rich three-part harmony can be sung in a variety of ways, but in many cases is sung using a vocal style called “belting,” a full, exciting vocal sound that uses much of your vocal strength. However, have you ever considered how we’ve limited singing to only three voice types (soprano, alto, and tenor)? In a standard church gospel choir we assume/audition our female vocalists into soprano or alto, and in some cases tenor. However, for our male voices there’s an assumption that they can or must all sing tenor, no matter what their range may be. Is that fair?
Let’s consider a few thoughts:
- As a male vocalist, what if my voice rests lower than the given tenor range, but I really love and desire to sing, would you still expect me to belt out the tenor part even if it’s outside of my range? Would you neglect me in the choir?
- If so, wouldn’t that be called ignorance or vocal abuse?
- When wrestling athletes compete, one wouldn’t expect a wrestler to compete outside of their given ability or weight category. They would probably suffer an injury, and if you’re the coach, you would be held responsible for their injury.
Let’s look at a few examples. As the vocal director, you may have witnessed men who have a heart to sing join your praise team or choir and do at least one of the following:
- Holler to hit the correct notes.
- Hide behind other vocalists on certain parts (usually the higher parts).
- Sing the parts well, but always find themselves vocally fatigued or hoarse.
All of these are signs that they’re probably singing, or trying to sing, outside of their individual vocal range (assuming that their technique is correct and they are resting and caring for their voice as they should). Now an easy response to this concern might be: “Well…these men with lower ranges don’t have to join the choir.” But with that thought alone you’ve just eliminated at least half of the male voices in your church from singing in your ensembles. In addition, you’ve also devalued all other male voice types except for the ones who can successfully sing the tenor range.
“It is our responsibility to provide safe, nurturing, and encouraging environments for our participants and their voices.”
Why is This Our Concern?
As the vocal director or lead of a vocal ministry, in most cases the voices of our ensembles are our responsibility. These volunteers have chosen to become a part of our ensembles many times with a passion to sing and a voice, but may lack the education. Who do they look to for guidance and instruction? They look to us. It is our responsibility to provide safe, nurturing, and encouraging environments for our participants and their voices. I’m not saying as directors we should cater to any type of mediocrity or laziness. However, I am saying we should be aware of the voice types in our church ensembles and know how to educate, strengthen, and maximize the talent lent to us.
Studies have shown that the most common male voice type is baritone. A typical baritone voice range generally lies between F2 (a little more than an octave below the middle C) to G4 (above middle C), with a natural flip into a male falsetto around D–E-flat (above middle C). A bass voice would rest lower than this. A natural tenor range would lie between B3 (one octave below middle C) to C5 (one octave above middle C), with a natural flip into a male falsetto around G-A-flat (above middle C). From my experience, the tenor range is where most gospel tenor parts exist. By knowing that alone, when focusing on only a tenor range, you’ve eliminated or vocally strained more than half of the male voices in your church.
“Remember, no one should ever leave your vocal ministry singing and sounding worse than when they joined.”
Now that we see the problem, what can we do? How can we support all of our vocalists? Well I never like laying out a problem without a solution, so here goes.
You probably remember me mentioning that this “talk” is targeted primarily at gospel music ministries. This is because this has been the bulk of my vocal experiences. I know you’re not considering altering your musical culture or the style of your ministry. I don’t expect you to, so here are a few options.
- Consult with or hire a voice/music expert, one that has experience working with voices, their ranges, and how to care for them.
- When selecting and teaching music, don’t only focus on creating a great sound; think about the voices you’re working with. Maybe this song doesn’t have to be executed exactly like the recording. Use your creative ear to make necessary adjustments for your team.
- Could the key of this song be lowered for the voices in your ensemble? If your ensemble is really struggling to sing a particular song, and necessary adjustments have already been made, then perhaps this song isn’t the best for your vocalists? (As the choir/praise team director, if you’re unclear about altering keys, consult with your head musician.)
Remember, as the director, you are the musical expert. At times this may require conversations with your head musician, and even your pastor. You were brought into your position to be the expert and the director over your given voices. Be sure to care for them; this, too, is part of your ministry.
If you decide to continue as you are without any functional change, just be mindful of your male vocalists, and do your best to educate your singers on proper vocal health, how to care for and prolong the life of their voices. Remember, no one should ever leave your vocal ministry singing and sounding worse than when they joined.