The essential guide to healthy gospel vocals
Anyone who has sang in a UK gospel choir would know how difficult it is to belt those gospel songs and how they can wreak havoc on your vocals, leaving them tired, hoarse and sore…. and this is just from rehearsals!!
Most choir members are trying to ‘belt’ songs without a clue how to do it. As a result the choir’s overall vocal performance suffers and never seems to improve.
I have worked with many vocalists who are secretly struggling in the choir, but would rather keep it to themselves than be hurt by ‘misguided’ comments from others. But the catch 22 is this only serves to undermine confidence and promote ‘grandeur’ amongst choir members.
There is no blueprint to singing in a gospel choir, but there are things you can do to get the most potential out of your voice and give a great vocal performance every time.
Below, I share my top 10 tips to vocally survive the gospel choir. All my tips are based on 17 years singing in choirs and praise teams as well as 10 years directing and running public and private workshops as a vocal trainer.
Because these tips are based on my own personal research and experience, you won’t find these tips anywhere else.
To healthy Vocals
1. Always Warm Up
A lot of gospel choirs do not warm up before rehearsal or performances. In my opinion this is the one sole reason why a choir’s overall vocal performance never improves. When a choir takes a few minutes to warm up it greatly improves the final vocal performance and with every warm up a new exercise can be changed or added to help develop a specific skill, like diction. If your choir never warms up, then you should make sure that you do your own personal warm up routine before every performance. A warm up routine need only be about 10mins long and consist of a few simple exercises that can be done anytime, anyplace, anywhere.
Typical warm up routine
Gentle vocalizing (aeiou)
2. Always Warm Down
I have never seen a choir warm down after a performance. Never. For all the choirs I have sang in or seen perform I have never seen them warm down their vocals, either as a group or individually. Pray? Yes. But, warm down? No. If you choir warms up and down, then your vocals are being cared for, but if they do not then you should do your own personal warm down routine after EVERY rehearsal and performance.
Typical warm down routine
Gentle humming (sliding up and down)
Gentle vocalizing on Vrr (as in vroom)
Drink water with honey
Steam Vocals (at home)
3. Don’t Push Your Voice
If you need to ‘push’ your voice when singing, then you are not singing correctly. Many UK gospel choirs want their singers to give a lot of power during a performance - to get a more American feel perhaps - but if you do not know how to produce powerful vocals correctly then you are more likely to cause major harm to your vocal cords.
Pushing your voice
Tension in your upper chest
4. Attend Rehearsals Regularly
If you don’t attend choir rehearsals regularly, then you won’t learn the songs. If you don’t learn the songs, then you are making it harder to use your vocals correctly. For instance, can you remember the time when you missed a couple of rehearsals for a new song, but you were still required to sing for a Sunday performance? You knooow you don’t know the song well enough, but you won’t tell the director no, so you sing.
Remember how uncomfortable it felt trying to articulate the words, get the phrasing right and breath in the right places? Remember how your voice started to seize and tire halfway through and you were hoarse by the end? So, in the end you just end up miming, shining your teeth and try to look like your singing when actually you’re struggling big time?
Rehearsals give you the opportunity to work out how you will sing or ‘fit’ the song to suit your voice and ability. If you miss rehearsals you lose vital chances to develop your vocal skills.
5. Sing In The Correct Choir Section
Ok, hands up how many of you are singing in the soprano sections when you should be in the altos? How many of you are in the altos when you should be in tenors?
In most gospel choirs I’ve heard, most of the sopranos should be singing altos, but due to the lack of true sopranos, anyone with ‘high sounding’ vocals ends up filling out the sopranos. This can be harmful to your vocals as you are probably singing out of range and relying solely on falsetto, from which you can only get a certain amount of energy for long performances. Singing in falsetto is not necessarily bad (still a lot debate about this), but prolonged singing in this style is very hard to sustain, especially if you have to sing lots of songs in a short space of time like at a church convention or wedding.
If you are singing in the wrong section ask to be moved ‘down’ a section. If you are not allowed to move, consciously change the way you use your voice during rehearsal or performance. Instead of trying to power your way through, use the microphone to alleviate some of the pressure by coming in closer and easing off ‘pushing’ from the throat. This mean you can reserve your singing energy for when it is needed most, usually during the soprano sections ‘solo’. You know… that bit when the director makes each section sing or hold a long note alone and everyone can hear just how good or bad the section sounds through the speakers!
Unable to sing in chest or mixed voice
Straining to hit notes
Off pitch (flat or too sharp)
Singing feels unnatural
Voice sounds tired
6. Ask for the Key
Don’t be afraid to ask for the key a song is being played in. Worrying if you are singing in the right key not only can affect your vocals, but also eat away at your confidence.
I think nothing is worse than always having to rely on your neighbour to find the key because this means that too much of your attention is diverted to listening rather than vocalizing. If too much of your attention is about finding and holding the key rather than ensuring you are using your vocals correctly then the likelihood is your performance will suffer as a result anyway.
Finding the key when singing, doesn’t have to be difficult. There are many ear trainer courses available on the internet that you can use to train your aural skills. You can find a few at my website www.sosvocaltrainingbeds.com
7. Work with the Choir Director
Choir directors are usually the most prominent roles in a choir. They have to lead, direct and co-ordinate singers and musicians to bring a song together. So their attention and skills are pulled in many different directions especially during a performance. They too are under pressure to get (several) songs ready and often in a very short space of time. If you’ve never directed then it is difficult to understand just what a director has to achieve, but working with the director and taking on their instructions can actually improve your vocal performance. If you are always at odds or disagreement with the choice of song or who is singing lead etc then you are less likely to give your best vocals.
There will be times when you disagree or the director disregards input from the choir, but the chances are you end up stressing out which, ultimately, will impact on your voice and performance.
Saying that, it is true to say, regrettably, that probably 99.99% of the time the director is not thinking about your individual vocals and how they feel, so whilst it’s important to work with the director, it is equally important to let them know if your voice is suffering. Do not suffer in silence or you could find you remain that way…. permanently!
Relax and go with the flow
If your voice is tired or sore, tell the director
Ask for vocal training.
8. Get to Know Your Choir Members
Getting to know members of your choir can be hit and miss. Some members want to keep themselves to themselves or you have cliques that form, for example, all the good singers stick together and appear to only have time for each other. Or the other classic scenario is where it appears every other member is related in some way even if they are second cousin twice removed!! It can seem intimidating, but it is still worth getting to know as many members as you can, especially in your section.
Being able to give and take encouragement from others can really boost your confidence, which ultimately will have a positive impact on your vocal performance.
So the more people you know and socialise with from the choir, the bigger network of people you can turn to if struggling with your vocals, and visa versa.
9. Strengthen Your Vocals
Keep your vocals strong with a daily routine. Get into the practice of strengthening your vocals on a daily basis with simple vocal exercises. Your vocals cords are tiny folds of muscles and like any other muscle needs a ‘work out’ everyday to develop strong and vigorous vocals. An exercise routine need only last about 10 minutes, but when done daily can send your vocals soaring in a way you never imagined possible.
Ultimately, if you look after your voice, your voice will look after you and give you those sweet sounds you’ve always dreamt of.
Typical Routine includes
Body warm up
10. Use a Vocal Tutor
There is no substitute for professional face to face advice. You can go on the internet and research symptoms if you think you are sick, but in the end you will still go to the doctor to get checked out, for your own peace of mind.
It is the same for your vocals. There is lots of info on the internet you can download about looking after your voice including exercises, videos, audio, singing programmes etc but when it comes right down to it, you still need to see a specialist to ensure you are doing the exercises correctly.
This is because there is one feature that nearly ALL online content cannot provide and any good vocal tutor worth their salt would know this secret. This essential ingredient is firmly embedded into SOS’ new 30 day singing programme due out later this year guaranteeing a fully comprehensive online singing course.
By all means check out what’s available on the internet but, if you are serious about your singing, make sure you get professional face to face advice from a vocal coach or speech therapist.
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© Dionne Shand, ISI Ministries