Music in Church is Only for Pop Tenors
An open letter to contemporary worship leaders: Let me begin by saying that singing has always been important to me. Growing up in a musical family, I have always been aware that I am only an above-average musician, never destined for the spotlight, but very capable of making a solid contribution to a choir or band. As someone who was raised with classical and Broadway as my staple genres, I am finding myself a little lost in the current American church musical culture.
As more and more protestant churches go to what I call the “Rock Band” worship style, as I call it, I find myself at a bit of a loss musically, for several reasons.
Serving: First, the rock band model typically uses a lead singer, who is typically the worship leader on guitar or sometimes a keyboard/piano, maybe a couple other backup vocalists, drums, bass guitar, etc. Even with churches that have multiple teams or bands in rotation, there’s really no place for a kind of overweight, middle-aged, not-so-pop singer like me to serve with her above-average musical talent.
Some of my fondest memories of serving at churches we’ve attended in the various places we’ve lived was singing in choir. But more and more, churches are dumping their choirs for various reasons. Some think they are culturally irrelevant to church attendees younger than Gen X. But is this because many churches stopped offering choir as a service opportunity and didn’t cultivate corporate singing, rather than younger Christians rejecting it? Whatever the cause of church choirs’ impending extinction (at least here in the mid-Atlantic where I live) the result is non-spotlight, non-rocker musicians like me no longer have a place to serve musically.
Singing in a service: The rock band model of church, when it employs a male lead singer, can be extraordinarily frustrating to female congregation members who enjoy singing. Why? Because of the choice of key signatures many of these leaders employ.
OK, I get that you, worship band leader, want to sing up in the high-tenor range that fits the pop style of the worship music you are choosing. I (unfortunately) get that some worship leaders count it a matter of pride that they CAN sing songs in the original key Chris Tomlin wrote them in. But when a worship leader sings a song in a high tenor/pop key, guess what happens? Nobody can sing with him.
I end up waffling between trying to sing in the part of my register that is comfortable as a soprano, which means singing an octave up from the worship leader—which ends up sounding dumb at best and shrieky at worst. So in self-consciousness, I end up trying to sing in unison with the tenor. I happen to be blessed with a pretty wide vocal range, so I can usually sing all but a couple notes in this manner. But it feels terrible and it’s so distracting to me that any worship that’s supposed to be happening gets shortchanged.
Occasionally, one of the backup singers in a rock band service will sing a harmony that’s above the tenor melody line and fits comfortably within my normal range. But I’m not a skilled rote learner, so I consider myself lucky if I can pick out this harmony and sing it. And once again, I’m stuck fishing for notes instead of focusing on worshipping God. (I submit that some of these issues are my own hang-ups, but I know for sure, at the heart of them, I am not alone.)
I can’t figure out exactly why worship leaders don’t select an accessible key where the average guy or gal can actually sing along. Is it that this generation of worship leaders (didn’t saying it that way make me sound old? I guess I am) has decided congregations are there to stand around in the dark and watch the show, so it doesn’t matter to them if the key they perform in can be comfortably sung by the people who attend their church? I imagine some of them are just inexperienced, so they don’t realize what’s going on out there in the congregation where 10% are singing and really into it, some percentage, like me, are fishing and struggling, and the majority aren’t participating at all.
And what about decibels? (A secondary concern, but since I'm at it...)
A year ago, I was in such bad mental health that I had to wear earplugs to church because I was overstimulated to the point of going into fight-or-flight by the volume of music in church. I’m glad to say I’m not in that place anymore, but worship music at 75 decibels or more creates another problem for me: I can’t hear myself. When I sing, if I can’t hear myself, I can’t sing. It’s another distraction that sets my mind going: I don’t know this song, am I even singing it right? I’m all for churches introducing new songs or singing across a wide repertoire, but as a person who wants to sing as an act of worship, when I can’t hear myself, I never feel like I learn the songs I encounter. I can only imagine this lack of being able to hear oneself is also unsettling for those who are not at home with their singing voices.
This all brings me to the overarching question: what is the purpose of the musical portion of a typical contemporary-style worship service? Is it to provide the congregation with a concert they can watch and feel that the words and music they are seeing/hearing glorify God? Or is it to lead them into participating in this worship by also lifting their voices to sing? If it is the latter, then I beseech anyone in music ministry to consider: can the music you are offering be sung by the most average-ranged alto out there? Because that’s what the untrained, average female congregant is. If you want the congregation to sing with you, the keys of most, if not all songs, need to work for altos and baritones.
And a subset question: if you are offering solely a contemporary style of worship service, does it matter to you that a percentage of your congregation: the non-solo singers the wind/string/percussion instrumentalists have no outlet in which to offer their musical ability in service to their local body?
There are those that would state that the modern church has no interest in choral or instrumental music, or even singing in the congregation, for that matter. Would I have developed a love for classical music and trained singing if I had not been exposed to it routinely as a child? I can’t help but fear that lack of interest in anything besides pop-contemporary Christian music doesn’t come from the congregation, but from leadership that has killed, either intentionally or not, any style that cannot be executed by guitars and drum set.