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Charsie Randolph Sawyer on Healthy Gospel Singing

Having a good voice isn’t enough to sing gospel music well and lead people into worship. This ministry requires health in body, mind and spirit.

Charsie Randolph Sawyer is a music professor and directs the Gospel Choir at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan. She tours extensively as a concert artist, conductor and clinician. In this edited conversation, she talks about her new book and CD set, Gospel Vocalises & Warm Ups: Engaging Mind, Body & Spirit.

Why did you use the term "vocalises" in your title?

Most musicians know that the term vocalise [pronounced vo′k?-lez′] is an exercise in which you sing sounds or vowels to warm up the voice for performance. If you warm up your voice first, it enhances what you do next, including leading God’s people into worship through song. As a classical singer, however, I think of vocalises as more than just warm ups or articulating vowels. I think of them as technical preparation.

Why did you decide to do this book and CD set?

I have many vocalises books for my classical music students, but those books don’t get into the meat of doing ministry. Meanwhile, people all over the world now sing gospel. They like the energy, movement and improvisation of gospel. But I’ve seen disturbing things happen when people sing gospel music without knowing how to maintain their vocal, emotional or spiritual health.

I hope this book and CD will help gospel singers, worship leaders, psalmists and choirs—especially those without a lot of knowledge or training on gospel music—grow in the ability to lead congregations in worship.

Can you say a bit about the structure of this resource?

To lead worship with grace and integrity, we need to prepare with God’s word, prayer and meditation. We also need to prepare our voices—so we don’t end up with sore or hoarse throats. The book and CD tracks are structured like a worship service, with seven exercise sets in this order: worship [praise], repentance, hope and assurance, commitment, gathering, admonishing and surrender. Each set begins with scripture, a meditation and a prayer written by a colleague in music or ministry. For each set, I wrote a short lesson to explain the how and why of each vocalise, and to teach a technique, like proper breath support while doing a vocal slide.

I wrote a melody for each exercise. The accompanying CD has two tracks for each musical piece. The first lets you hear the flavor, emphasis, accent and emotion so you understand how to sing a specific gospel style or groove. The second track is just music. You can sing along with performers on the first track and sing by yourself on the second.

What can make singing physically unhealthy?

It’s physically unhealthy when you try to force your voice into a sound, timbre or volume that doesn’t fit. I remember, as a youth, going to a huge workshop with an international gospel singer. The conductor tried to make a bass sing tenor instead of letting him sing an octave lower. Forcing your voice hurts. But doing vocalises and warm ups that are carefully chosen with modulations will sustain your vocal cords so you can praise the Lord year after year without damaging your vocal instrument.

How might gospel singing be emotionally or spiritually unhealthy?

It’s emotionally unhealthy when you worry too much about getting “amens” from the crowd instead of doing your best with the voice God gave you. Some singers worry about sounding “white” or weak, so they end up damaging their voice. Some classically trained singers have trouble letting themselves sing an authentic gospel style, because they fear that the gospel tradition isn’t aesthetically legitimate.

It’s spiritually unhealthy when the focus is not on God. Sometimes when we get ready to lead the congregation, our minds are on something else. Isaiah 26:3 (ESV) says, “You keep him in perfect peace whose mind is stayed on you, because he trusts in you”. Spiritual preparation helps us to  hear God’s voice, in response to how God is moving in the worship service. 

How do you hope your new resource will be used—or how is it already being used?

People buy Gospel Vocalises & Warm Ups at every workshop I give. Worship leaders tell me they’re using it to do warm ups. The CD is short enough that you can sing through each track while driving to church. Recently a public school elementary teacher told me, “We’re not supposed to do religious stuff in school, so I use the vocalises as preparation to get the kids warmed up for the songs they’ll sing in choir. They really love your ‘Joy of the Lord’ exercise because it’s got a calypso beat.”

Buy Gospel Vocalises & Warm Ups: Engaging Mind, Body & Spirit from Baker Book House, Meyer Music or NtimeMusic. You can order it from the Calvin College Bookstore by calling 1-800-748-0122 and using your credit card. Or, buy it at the 2016 Calvin Symposium on Worship, where Charsie Randolph Sawyer will present.