We worship leaders feel an insane amount of conscious and unconscious pressure to sound as good as the latest recordings and rising-star reality shows. Even if we’re not in “fancy” churches with great sound systems and heightened expectations, we all are pressing against the heavy burden to measure up. Sometimes, that pressure leads us to feel that we need to have that “artist’s voice”–wispy, soulful, quirky, frilly, bombastic, indie, overstated, understated, or whatever else is our ideal. We seek to have something that makes us “legitimate” as a singer.
I confess that I feel a kind of reversed version of this every time I step up to a mic to record a vocal track. Let me explain. When I first started out formally leading music in churches, I had a handful of mentors who (wisely) encouraged me that my most important duty was to tow the melodic line with a clear, consistent, straightforward vocal tone. I was to give the people a strong lead by sticking to the rhythmic patterns that were “on paper,” avoiding fanciful runs and ornamentation, and offer a clear, bright, cutting tone that let everyone know where the musical ground zero was. I wasn’t to be overly stylized or artsy, for that would have created unnecessary difficulty for the congregation in trying to sing along. In other words, I was taught that overdoing it, in the congregational setting, was selfish rather than serving.
Well, as it turns out, after years and years of doing this on a week in and week out basis, this bland, straightforward voice became my voice. I didn’t have any other voice. And then I stepped into the recording world. I found my voice dull, a little operatic (because my training, thank God, was classical), uninteresting, and even unpleasant to my ears (a lot of great vocalists still feel like this…self-criticism never stops). And to this day, every time I record, I have anxiety when it comes time to lay down the vocals. The voice that plainly and simply leads congregations isn’t always the best voice on a recording.
Many people will pause here to point out that this is the crux of the problem: recording and performance-driven sensibilities (all part of the “industry”) have injected their sensibilities into the bloodstream of congregational music, making every worship leader feel like they need to be the next great voice, and brainwashing congregations into having unreachably high standards for their “artist.” And while this is true, I think a case can be made that a worship leader, if their calling is to record, should try to learn to wisely straddle these two worlds when it comes to their vocalizing.
To summarize, first, a song-leading voice isn’t always a good recordable voice. My own recorded voice is something about which I still admittedly feel a fair amount of insecurity. But I’ve somewhat made my peace with the fact that my primary vocation is not as a kind of soloist-in-residence but as a pastor and congregational song-leader. I think the best worship leaders, who really care about the church singing, pursue a pretty straightforward vocal tone and presence.
Second, a recordable voice isn’t always a great song-leading voice. I’ve worked with singers who have beautifully stylistic, curiously interesting, brilliantly unique voices, and many times, those voices are horrible lead voices for congregational singing, even with well-done amplification. (As a sidenote, I’ve also noticed that people with stylized voices have trouble leading in acoustic settings with no amplification, because they don’t necessarily know how to focus their tone and provide a loud, clear melody for people to follow.)
Thirdly, I know several worship leaders whose song-leading and recording voice are one and the same, and they work perfectly well in both settings (I wish I were one of them, frankly). It’s a nice balance of simplicity and elegance.
Finally, it’s okay to pursue both if one is called to both. I admire the worship leaders who get the difference and understand how to live in and transfer between contexts. And I think any vocational artist who’s called to serve as songleader in a local church should make this a pursuit.