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Training Gospel Choirs: Caring for your voice and talent

A temporary voice problem led Charsie Randolph Sawyer to create a DVD to help gospel choirs protect and improve their voices for more effective ministry. Her colleagues in African American churches say that learning to read music helps congregations deepen worship.

A temporary voice problem led Charsie Randolph Sawyer to create a DVD to help gospel choirs protect and improve their voices for more effective ministry. Her colleagues in African American churches say that learning to read music helps congregations deepen worship.

At a recent Calvin Symposium on Worship, Charsie Randolph Sawyer noticed that none of the vendors had anything about gospel music or leading worship in the black gospel tradition. Sawyer is a professor, vocalist, and scholar who also conducts the Calvin College Gospel Choir.

During that symposium, Sawyer—despite taking good care of her classically-trained voice—was “having throat issues. I’d had to cancel performances. I was asking myself, ‘What good can come out of this?’ And Divine Providence gave me a spiritual revelation.

“Running out of voice happens to gospel singers, because some sing so hard. And as I travel to give concerts and workshops, I see church choirs that don’t properly warm up,” she says.

So Sawyer decided to create her Instructional DVD for Gospel Choirs, the first in a vocal master series.

Sawyer and other African Americans with music degrees say that many choir directors, choirs, and worshipers want relevant training. They want to stay in good voice and expand their repertoires to minister more effectively.

Why excellence matters

If you were brought up in a congregation that values reverence above all, you might find a rollicking gospel music interlude enormously freeing. In fact, do exuberance and sincerity trump any need for excellence?

Charsie Sawyer would tell you no. “Excellence matters. Excellence is singing with anointing, expressing the text, knowing what you’re singing about. I’m not talking about perfection. That’s a different thing.”

For example, she explains on her DVD why gospel choirs need vowel and style uniformity to sing with excellence. “We all come from different places and have different ways of saying a sound as simple as ah. It’s hard to minister when your diction is all over the place,” she says.

Explaining that jazz, black gospel, southern gospel, country western, and classical each have their own sounds, she notes that each style requires excellent breath support. Singers who breathe improperly feel sore when done singing. They damage their vocal cords and their voices sound airy instead of powerful.

Sawyer’s Instructional DVD for Gospel Choirs covers breathing, posture, warming up, technical skills, resonance, and other vocal basics for excellent singing. Choir directors and singers on the DVD describe excellence as “stewarding the instrument God gives you, your voice.”

One explains, “If you want to give true glory to God, then study, train, and practice. Otherwise people won’t listen to the message that you, as a singer, are trying to deliver. Instead, they’ll listen to your faults.”

When gospel choirs and music leaders take care of their voices and bodies, they teach the congregation something beyond the words that they sing. They model a way of life that others can apply to their own gifts.

Staying down to earth

People singing anthems, hymns, and European classical styles easily accept the need for training. Sawyer says it’s relatively new for “the body of Christ to see the need for pedagogy in the gospel tradition.”

That’s partly because many music leaders and choir directors in African American churches learn and teach by rote, rather than by reading music. It’s also because church choirs across the theological spectrum and student-led ensembles at public universities “want to be more versatile and sing gospel,” Sawyer explains.

Coming across as stuffy or arrogant wouldn’t help her deliver her message of training and excellence. That’s why Sawyer keeps things clear and simple. While demonstrating warm up ideas, she says, “Stand with your arms up like you’re praising God. Stretch for your daddy. Go up on tiptoes, like you’re trying to get something on that shelf. Pull down that gift that God has given you.”

To help singers feel proper and improper posture in their bones, she has them walk as if pulled by the forehead…or jaw…or chest. They giggle while circling her as if led by their knees. “We are in church. We really dressed up. We want everyone to see what we got on,” she jokes. Everyone chuckles.

“We laugh, but it’s what really happens. Humor lets us engage the community, so as not to seem above them. If you’re teaching a choir or congregation, relate in a human way. Don’t use technical terms that people without degrees can’t understand,” Sawyer advises.

Eager to pass on new ideas

Many gospel singers in churches with multiple services ask Sawyer, “Why am I constantly clearing my throat?” She explains that our bodies naturally produce phlegm to coat our vocal chords when we don’t warm up our voices.

Singers ask, “Why can I sing only one service and then go out of voice?” She explains lifestyle choices, physical techniques, and soundboard skills that help or hurt singers’ voices.

Sawyer offers tips gleaned from her own experiences of getting her voice “100 percent back” and learned from other music leaders.

“Gospel choir directors don’t want to damage their singers. They’re always curious for new ideas to help a choir member who can’t get a certain breath technique.

“I did a workshop at the Hampton conference (for pastors and music leaders) before the DVD was edited. People swarmed to sign up for advance orders. It’s something the body of Christ is really looking for,” she says.

Expanding Repertoires in the Gospel Tradition

To someone who must see notes or words to sing and play, rote learning—the ability to do music simply by hearing and repeating it—seems amazing.

Tony McNeill and Sheneice D. Smith agree there’s a lot to admire in gospel singers and musicians with the ears to memorize by heart. Yet they strongly encourage colleagues in African American churches to add and use the skill of reading music.

Reading music, they say, is a key that opens doors to worship that is more spontaneous, participatory, and meaningful.

More spontaneous worship

“From my experience in the African American tradition, it’s a mixture of reading the musical score and teaching by rote. It’s probably tilted toward rote teaching because some music leaders can only do music by ear or rote.

“Congregations catch on a lot faster than we give them credit for—when choirs demonstrate a song clearly and succinctly,” says Tony McNeill, minister of music and arts at Friendship Missionary Baptist Church in Charlotte, North Carolina. 

"Being able to read music can open doors to more spontaneity in worship. At Friendship Baptist, we plan worship in advance. But if, in the context of worship, the Holy Spirit begins to move, it leads you in a different direction. You have to have the gifts of discernment and musical fortitude to follow that leading. When we’ve responded, it’s invariably been profitable.”Still, McNeill says, if music leaders can’t read music then the choir and congregation are limited in how they can respond to Scripture, sermons, and prayers.

“Churches that do a lot of singing from a hymnal have the flexibility to go from this page to that page to another page,” he says.

McNeill estimates that in his tradition, more churches don’t have hymnals than do. Besides missing out on opportunities to respond to the Holy Spirit, he says they’re also missing out “2,000 years of gifts”.

“Churches with screens sometimes do away with hymnals. They see hymnals as symbolic of tradition and cliché, something to throw out along with the communion table and baptismal font. Other worship leaders have taught me to see hymns as the poetic theology of our faith. They’re worth reading as devotionals.”

Taught or entertained?

At Friendship Baptist, worship leaders often share a brief story about how a hymn has sustained the church. They do it within worship or in the church bulletin. Services also include gospel, spirituals, chant, psalmody, and Taize music.

“It’s a disservice to us and others if we don’t expose ourselves to other philosophies of music and worship. One of my favorite questions to ask is ‘What is your inspiration or process for selecting appropriate music for worship each week?’ ”

Though McNeill has a specific point of view, he advises, “Don’t come across as ‘this is the way.’ When I’m in front of other pastors and worship leaders, I hope they’ll pick and choose from my philosophy and integrate it with their own.”

He teaches about worship and music at Friendship Baptist, at the Church Music Summit (offered in even years), and through his email list, The Call 2 Worship Newsletter.

Why all this emphasis on learning, whether to sing with excellence or learn new music? McNeill explains that people come to worship “with standards they’ve seen in radio, TV, and newspapers, with ears attuned to music that’s been highly manipulated in the studio. There’s so much competing for people’s attention. Mediocrity does not get attention.”

But McNeill wants worshipers to participate, not view themselves as an audience for pastors, choirs, and ushers. “I’ve often heard James Abbington quote A.W. Tozer, who explained that congregations who are not taught to worship must be entertained.

“We’ve gotten wonderful feedback from congregations that have implemented new ways on including Scripture in worship or involving the congregation in song. They’ve gone from an entertainment style of worship to one that holds congregations more accountable to participate in worship,” he says.

Music means more

High school music teacher Sheneice D. Smith and her husband, William E. Smith, assistant pastor of Progressive Church of Our Lord Jesus Christ in Denmark, South Carolina, both have music degrees. As they lead worship and music training throughout their denomination, they’ve found that many church musicians play by ear and not all churches have hymnals.

“Most times our musicians hear and teach a song off the radio, something relatively new and popular, or songs passed down by oral tradition. We like a lot of jubilees (call and response songs) and up-tempo singing.

“As a choral director, I’ve been to many trainings. My repertoire is large. And being exposed to more than just what you’ve become accustomed to is important as our churches prepare the next generation,” Sheneice Smith says.

Besides encouraging parents to put their children in private lessons, Smith suggests that music leaders can expand repertoire by teaching from CDs, such as 49 Hidden Treasures from the African American Heritage Hymnal.

While researching denominational archives, she found song selections from past Holy Convocations (annual conventions). “Goodness! Our church was based on hymns and anthems a long time ago. What happened? We’re trying to bring it back,” she says.  

She says some music works well for testimonial services and special events, while other types are especially appropriate for Sunday worship. “When people can look at the words in a song, they’re able to interpret and apply it to themselves. It’s broadened the worship experience in our congregations.

“We’ve even done a choral anthem at a Holy Convocation. It went over so well. People are really excited by the variety. The music has more meaning to them. Choir members want to make sure people understand what the music is saying.

“Individually, they feel good about themselves, like ‘Hey! I never sung an anthem before. It may be challenging. If I get through with it, I feel good about it,’” Smith says.

Learn More

Buy Instructional DVD for Gospel Choirs with Dr. Charsie Randolph Sawyer from Calvin College or from (site goes live in fall 2007).

Read Charsie Sawyer’s Reformed Worship story on four African American religious songs. Listen to Calvin College Gospel Choir sound clips, buy a CD, or hear them in concert or on tour.

Long interested in black composers, especially females, Charsie Randolph Sawyer recorded all the tracks on The Unknown Flower, which features classical female composers. She is working on a book of classical music by African American women composers. “The book will be a teaching tool for classical music. It’s a justice issue. Women writing music. You don’t hear about it much, but there’s so much out there. Hopefully, we can put more of it out there on the shelves,” she says.

Attend a conference to improve your skills in leading choirs, singing gospel music, or leading worship:

  • Calvin Symposium on Worship, every January at Calvin College, Grand Rapids, Michigan
  • Hampton Ministers Conference, every June at Hampton University, Hampton, Virginia
  • Gospel Music Workshop of America, every August, location varies by year
  • Church Music Summit, November in even years, Friendship Missionary Baptist Church, Charlotte, North Carolina

Sign up for Tony McNeill’s email list, The Call 2 Worship Newsletter. Read books that have helped McNeill and Church Music Summit attendees teach their congregations about worship:

Check out a long-ago Mystery Worshiper account of Friendship Missionary Baptist Church.

Watch video clips of live gospel music at Progressive Church of Our Lord Jesus annual Holy Convocation.

Order African American Heritage Hymnal and a companion CD set, 49 Hidden Treasures from the African American Heritage Hymnal.

Give yourself an online crash course in gospel music roots, including the branches of black gospel and southern gospel

Browse related stories about African American church music, equipping worship leaders, mentoring musicians, multistaff ministry, and the late Robert E. Webber.

Start a Discussion

Feel free to print and distribute these stories at your staff, worship, or music committee meeting. These questions will get members talking about training gospel choirs:

    • Read Exodus 15:1-21. Psalm 33:1-5; Ephesians 5:1-20; and 2 Timothy 2:1-15. Discuss their relevance to your choral and congregational singing practices.
    • In what ways does gospel music bless your congregation? Do your music ministers and choirs have the training and habits to protect and maintain their voices?
    • What roles does music play in your church worship? Which music dynamics (entertaining, not worshiping; limited repertoire; tension between excellence and perfection or hospitality) would you like to discuss?
    • How do people in your church choose appropriate music for worship? Who decides what’s appropriate?

Share Your Wisdom

What is the best way you’ve found to train gospel choirs or teach new music? Please write to us so we can identify trends and share your great ideas. Whether you do these or any other things, we’d love to learn what works for you:

      • Did you create or discover a music teaching method that’s especially good either to teach people to read scores or learn by ear?
      •  If you worked with other churches on teaching your congregations about music and worship, which were your most and least successful projects? Which aspect of leading music or worship did you have the hardest time finding resources for? How did you overcome that lack?

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This article was first published by the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship,