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.