Work at ensuring the keys you lead in are suitable for both men and women. It is not impossible; it just takes time to work these things through. You are a servant leader; the church does not exist to put songs in a key to suit you and show off your best vocal performance. Our role is to enable others: to assist every man, woman, and child in expressing the almost inexpressible, to release the song in their hearts to Jesus.
– Darlene Zschech, “Servant Leaders as Agents of Welcome,” in Worship Leader magazine, September 2012
First of all, for identifying an important “worship ethos” subtopic, kudos to Darlene Z — whose last name my fingers never want to type, even if my left hemisphere could be certain of the order of the letters. Whew, lady, where did you get that malphonic burst of letters? 🙂 Her contributions to WL magazine during a recent year or two (2010 and 2012 are roughly the recent volumes I’ve scanned) are unique, generally insightful in some way, and kissed with her personal touch. I don’t relate to her “complimentary close” sign-off style in her articles and blogposts, but I absolutely believe it’s genuine for her. Find her blog here.
For the uninitiated who either like to know such celeb-bits or have forgotten, Darlene was first catapulted into fame through her song “Shout to the Lord,” which I still consider nearly universally singable and worthwhile, and she has written many more songs and mentored many burgeoning worship leaders. (Is that even a thing?) Her home base is in Australia, and “Hillsong Music” was for many years her baby, so to speak, although she and her husband are now working with a different church. Darlene has also authored books on worship and appears to be a pure, trustworthy, scandal-free heart, although often and long in the public eye. She received a breast cancer diagnosis just last month; I look for some worship songs with an enhanced perspective within the next couple of years. Darlene is just the kind of person to be transparent in such a situation, for the good of humankind.
Back to the topic addressed in the quotation above . . . I would summarize it by saying that Darlene is seeking to bolster a strong congregational dynamic. Says she: it is not about individual performance; it is about gathered groups worshipping the Lord. And she’s right. We can all get that question correct on a multi-choice test, but we don’t necessarily know what to do in order to enhance the congregational dynamic.
Musical technicalities are of course just one aspect of “dynamic.” But indulge me for a couple minutes. . . .
The thing is, Darlene’s statement seems somewhat limited to pop-style, guitar-driven songs. This suspicion of mine is based, yes, on having heard quite a few of her songs — but also on her having addressed congregational vocals in terms of key instead of vocal range and tessitura. You see, the key is not the thing. The intersection of contemporary “melodic” construction and key — maybe.
This may not make as much sense to non-guitar-y readers, but the melodies of songs can actually take shape around guitar chords in the amiable keys of D and G. Contemporary songs written in D may hover around the tonic note and peak at the fifth (A), which is a nice, high-ish alto note, but only in the middle of the typical soprano range. Songs in G may actually do the same — start on a low-alto G, and ascend to D, or go up to the high “do” (G). Anyway, the main thing is not whether the song is in D or G or Bb; what matters most is how high and how low the vocal parts go.
If the song is too high, many church people chicken out. But it’s rare that songs are pitched too high, in my experience. Getting them too low is the main issue.
While a) female smoker voices and b) true altos may be able to sing a 5th or more below middle C, most women cannot do that with any power. Even if they could, in any part-singing situations that have an alto part below the melody, or a bass/baritone part, the simple fact is this: maintaining a vocal range that encircles middle C, or thereabouts, is a problem. There’s no place for the lower-pitched parts to go while remaining a viable part of the harmony! Congregational melodies ought to major in the range that starts around middle C and continues up for an octave+. That way, there’s room for all, and men can sing the melody with some volume in the octave below.
So, Darlene, thank you so much for identifying a regular problem in today’s contemporary-worship churches — songs that show off “leader” voices. We absolutely need to do everything possible to provide for, and enhance, congregational participation. Here, I’m seeking to expand the topic a bit: vocal range should be analyzed when determining a good key for a song. Examples:
If a song is in D and the melody ranges from sol to sol (A to A), raise it a step or two for congregational use. (Limited guitarists who can’t play well in keys other than D and G can at least put a capo up on the neck of the instrument!)
If a song is in C and ranges an octave+ from mi to sol (E to G), raise it a 5th!
Not every congregational singer will be able to identify the difference if the song is pitched well, but the overall sound — and psychological dynamic or feel — will be better.
Please read this post for more on vocal range in congregational worship music — especially the last half of it.