Encouraging Spontaneous Singing on Your Team

I received this question from Steve:

In the past year or so I’ve been encouraging the vocalists on our Sunday morning worship teams to feel more freedom to sing spontaneously between verses or musical lines. They hear me speaking or singing during a song and a few of them are beginning to grow in freedom. I think it’s generally been a positive contribution to our corporate worship. However, on a few occasions it’s misfired: we’ve spoken/sung over the top of each other, what they contribute wasn’t clear, or it wasn’t musically fitting. And on at least one occasion a vocalist’s contribution had the effect of momentarily blurring who was leading and it felt a little like they were moving things forward in a way that probably I as the worship leader should have done. Do you have any regular guidance you give your vocalists on speaking out or singing out beyond the written music?

Before I answer this question, I wanted to share a few thoughts on vocalists singing in between lines of a song. Some people discourage this practice because they think it’s distracting and draws attention to the person singing. I think that’s often a result of seeing it done poorly. That’s the case when a vocalists simply repeats lines from a song, sings between lines constantly, vocalizes for an extended period of time, or uses melodic fills that draw attention to themselves because of volume or complexity. We’ve all heard enough worship leaders and vocalists who are frustrated CCM artists.

But ad libs can be beneficial when they add content or a new perspective to the lyric, are done occasionally, and are brief and supportive to the song. Their purpose is to increase people’s engagement with the truth so that it impacts their hearts and minds more deeply. It also shows the church that we’re doing more than simply mouthing words. I wrote more about this idea in a previous post.

When I’m encouraging a team to step out in spontaneous fills, I need to be clear that I’m not asking them to lead. So their fills will be more occasional, and probably towards the end of songs. I might ask one vocalist to provide fills for a specific song. Sometimes I even say where in the song I’d like someone to ad lib. I’ve also asked two vocalists to “trade off” fills if I’m planning on repeating a portion of a song numerous times.

If a vocalist sings so often that people are confused about who’s leading, they’re singing too much. I’m not asking them to fill at every opportunity. I want them to interact with the lyrics and respond in ways that reflect what they’re thinking or how they’re being affected. I also encourage them to leave room for other folks. Generally, it’s wise to lay out after a fill and listen for others. As in everything we do on Sunday morning, our heart is to serve others with our gifts, not showcase them.

Another important element to think about is evaluation. Steve mentions people singing on top of each other, not being clear, and singing lines that were inappropriate musically. A leader needs to get back to his vocalists with those kinds of specific observations. And it’s good to share these thoughts with the team, rather than just the individual involved, so that everyone can learn. One of two things will happen as a result. Either the person will grow in their understanding of how to encourage the church through their voice, or they’ll find out they’re not really gifted to do this. In either case, something good will come out of it.

Hope that’s helpful. Feel free to leave a comment or question.

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10 Responses to Encouraging Spontaneous Singing on Your Team

  1. Matthew Westerholm January 11, 2008 at 11:29 AM #

    Really well thought through and well written.

    I think this is a result of a culture that encourages feedback and dialogue. So often, we’re afraid to branch out on this because we’re worried about a person not doing it well. And the difficult conversation that will follow.

    Your points about content, timing, and amount give great topics to discuss with our volunteers.

    I feel a great way to encourage a culture like this is to make a point to give evaluation even when there is nothing “urgent” to talk about. When I simply make it a regular part of the team, and it very rarely becomes the big deal I fear.

  2. alex mclean January 11, 2008 at 12:01 PM #

    Great resource – thank you!

  3. Jeff Locke January 11, 2008 at 12:46 PM #

    Bob,

    Thanks for your thoughtful, wise post. I’m encouraged by it. It is difficult to lead humbly yet firmly enough that the congregation (and the worship team) is sufficiently cared for. You are a gift to Christ’s church.

  4. Steve January 11, 2008 at 1:10 PM #

    Bob,
    That’s helpful. I’m seeing that I need to be more active in communicating things and giving guidance like this to the team. We probably don’t spend enough time discussing how to serve effectively together.

    Thank you!

  5. Trill January 11, 2008 at 2:18 PM #

    Thanks Bob. This was helpful. I’ve always had questions about this. Would you say that you “govern” the teams spontaneous singing like a pastor over the prophetic mic? It’s spontaneous but controlled. That’s just how I understood it from what you just wrote. We don’t actively sing out but I am sure this is an area our team leaders would like us to grow in. I think I’ll bring it up in our next meeting.

  6. David S. Spaggiari January 11, 2008 at 3:35 PM #

    “Their purpose is to increase people’s engagement with the truth…”

    Excellent comment Bob! One of the main purposes of corporate worship is for believers as a body to engage together in worshiping the Lord. Any ad libbing by members of the worship team should be to this end; not to (intentionally or unintentionally) draw attention to the individual.

  7. Gabriel Gagnon January 12, 2008 at 12:19 AM #

    Thank you Bob, and man this is true that it is encouraging for the church, but how do you build this kind of culture if it has never been done before?

  8. Christina Greene January 12, 2008 at 10:41 AM #

    Thank you so much for this resource. I have been in worship teams in the past and spontaneous singing (or what I would call, freestyling) can be very effective. Of course, it can also be overdone if it isn’t done right and is used to emphasize the skill of the vocalist. I, in all honesty, love to sing spontaneously (in fact, I do it everywhere including at home) but I haven’t done it recently in church since the worship leader is very against it with her backing vocalists. When I get really into the singing, I tend to do this sometimes so this really prevents me from getting into the worship of the song.

  9. Krysten January 15, 2008 at 12:00 AM #

    What a great topic. As a vocalist, I find that adlib in songs can really add on to the worship experience to allow freedom. Sometimes; however, I find that when the Spirit leads you into a direction you go with it. There are times when I feel moved to sing something during an instrumental break, whether it be humming the melody or singing a prayer that the lyrics have established in the verses or chorus.

    I believe also, that during the time you’re leading you need to be more aware of what is going on and you have to sometimes alter your worship experience for the congregation.

  10. Ryan January 17, 2008 at 11:18 AM #

    Fantastic point about evaluation. One of my weakest areas is just plain having good, open converstaion often with people.

    So here’s a question: How do you get singers who have grown up in a fairly “tight” background (Lutheran, in my case :-) to learn to try things like this? I know you can have them listen to recordings, do tons of encouraging, etc..but how do you get people to break out of the fear of something new?

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