Vocal style is one of the most powerful tools we have to help us express our hearts through song. Style is the palette of colors that we use to express emotion. When style is used at its best, we capture the essence of a song, connect our hearts to what we are singing, and find a full spectrum of colors that will communicate to our congregations. Style not only allows others to hear the language of the heart, but invites them to engage their hearts in the same way. But style can alienate and distance our congregations as much as it can invite and engage them. The right song, the right message, and the wrong style can render all of our efforts in rehearsal and preparation (and even in vocal development) a profound waste of time.
Our voice can sound amazing, and we can develop all of the range, dynamic control, and technical ability in the world, but if we do not have control over style, we may as well be a pastor at a church in Texas, preaching in Japanese. That pastor could have passion and skill, and the right heart and motivation, but people just aren’t going to get it. The inability to effectively use style can be just as much of a hindrance to our ministry in worship. For most singers I begin working with, style is an elusive aspect of singing that they feel they have very little control over. They would explain style as the unique quality that defines their voice. It’s what you hear when they sing—it’s their style. Other people on their worship team have their own style. Someone on their team sounds really good on a certain type of song because that is their style. Another person sounds best on another type of song because that is their style. But style isn’t something they feel they have any control over. Style is what defines them.
But this is not the case for those vocal artists who see style as a tool bag of resources that help them communicate their hearts through their voices. Style serves vocal artists but does not define them. Style is the palette of colors that they get to use as they create a work of art, painting a picture and communicating a message through song.
So how do we make that shift? How can we develop the ability to be served by style rather than defined by it? Can style be learned, or do you just do the best you can with what you’ve got?
Breaking Down the Mystery of Vocal Style
The first step in mastering style is to break style down into manageable pieces. We all have a broad understanding of style. We like certain styles and dislike others. We recognize when we move from one stylistic genre to another. But what are the specific characteristics that really define style? Nearly all of what defines style can be broken down into four stylistic tools:
• Tone Color
• Pitch Fluctuation
We will break style down, look at each of these defining characteristics, and discuss how we can develop control and mastery over each area. As you gain control over these tools, your palette will expand and style will become an invaluable resource in helping you express your heart through song.
Different Types of Singers
In the church, I have found there to be two different types of singers who need to work on their stylistic ability: what I will call the untrained singer and the choral singer.
Most often, the untrained singer performs in a style that fits the music that is being sung in services. For the most part, these singers work in a modern style and sound pretty cool singing worship. Their difficulty comes when any stylistic adjustments are required that fall outside of the context of whatever comes naturally. They are not thinking about style, and they are not in control of style. Whatever comes out of their mouths is what they’ve got.
Their main focus is on sounding nice, singing in tune, and remembering their words. But when they find themselves with me in a group rehearsal, or even working on a solo, and I ask them to straighten their vibrato, or to use a more hushed, breathy tone, or to bring more vibrato to a certain section, or to eliminate the breathy quality from the voice, they have no ability to make these adjustments.
The Classical/Choral Singer
I probably could have made a living by working exclusively with “recovering” classically trained singers, or singers with a strong choral background who wanted to learn how to sing modern styles. They’re everywhere! This is more prevalent in the church than probably any other environment. Many singers grew up singing hymns and anthems in the church choir before the day that modern worship became the dominant style. Those singers still have great voices, and many of them have amazing hearts that connect to the messages of worship choruses with as much depth and conviction as they did when they were singing hymns. But the stylistic model that they learned to sing with doesn’t work in a band-and mic setting with new songs. I have met many singers who feel disillusioned, like there is no longer a place for them to serve. They wonder how or if they can fit in, and many have simply stepped aside and let the next generation lead the charge. I’ve known many of these singers who couldn’t be more open and willing to grow and expand so they can use their gifts and talents to contribute to the ministry that they love, but no one is showing them how.
The Truth About Style
For both of these groups of singers, the good news is that the challenges and limitations they face are all surmountable. Using style is a learnable skill, and I’ve seen singers go from having no stylistic control to possessing mastery over their voices. I’ve also watched singers who first walked into my studio sounding dated in modern repertoire walk out months later with a cutting-edge style that sounds as cool and accessible as any “twenty-something” on their worship team.
The key is to deconstruct style, break it down into these four manageable tools, and then develop the ability to control and master each one. A full palette of colors to help you express your heart awaits.
Excerpted with permission from “The Worship Vocal Book” — Chapter 6 (63-65) By Tim Carson