It's a common problem that plagues all worship leaders, from suit-wearing song leaders to skinny-jeaned hipsters: off-pitch housewives (henceforth referred to as OPHs) who demand to sing on your praise team. (By "demand" I mean they march up to you after church and announce they'll be singing next week. Oh, really?)
An Ongoing Problem
I've encountered OPHs in every church I've ever been in—traditional, blended, contemporary and the most cutting-edge. Maybe that's one reason why even praise teams (preceded by choirs) are going by the wayside these days—too much drama! It's so much simpler for a male worship leader to have just one trusted and talented female worship leader by his side. This worship paradigm is becoming more and more common.
I was happily working as a music director in one church until a rich lawyer became an elder, and of course, his OPH expected to be singing on the praise team. I did all I could to help her fit into the group but it didn't work—she simply couldn't sing on pitch or blend with others. And what's worse, when I'd schedule other people for the praise team, they'd ask "is [insert name of OPH] singing? Oh, she is? Darn, I just remembered I'll be out of town that weekend!" Here's a great rule of thumb for worship leaders: volunteers who can sing don't want to sing with volunteers who can't.
Naturally this all came to a head and I was dragged before the [non-musical, businessmen] elders, who were baffled as to why I wasn't allowing people to "use their gifts." I describe the outcome in this article—basically, American Idol saved my job.
To Sing or Not to Sing
It's a struggle, isn't it? As a worship leader you want to be nice and affirming to everyone. But some people who really want to sing with your praise team just sound so ... awful!
A soundman once suggested we let our OPHs sing, and he would simply turn off their microphones in the house. No, this just didn't seem honest. Let's not play games and demoralize our team in the process.
My philosophy is one of common sense. If you can sing, you can sing on the praise team (assuming the person walks with the Lord.) If you can't, find another place of service. One of our worship leader responsibilities is to connect the right person to the right ministry—and this might mean a ministry outside of music. You do this with much prayer and consideration.
Unfortunately, in our celebrity-crazed culture, if someone has made up their mind they're the next famous pop singer and you discover they can't carry a tune in a bucket, you can be in for some major trouble (one OPH tried to get me fired.)
Actually, it's all about pitch. I don't really care how "good" of a voice you have—what I care about is if you can sing on pitch and blend with others. I once knew a top-tier Nashville session singer who sang on all the big records. You'd never want to hear this guy make his own solo recording, but he had a unique voice that could blend in harmony with anyone, and he knew how to use it.
Two Types of Singers
Some people are soloists; some are choir/praise team singers. Your job, in auditions, is to figure out who's who. Some people can be both, and some choir singers can grow into soloists.
I'm not a vocal soloist. To my amazement I always found my way into the elite choirs in college because, in auditions, I'd sight-read music like a maniac and sing the correct notes. I can blend and am your dream choir singer.
Then I ended up leading worship in a church. At that time there was a really famous worship leader who had a thin, nasally voice. As you'd listen to his music you'd think, "how on earth did this guy get a record contract?" I figured if he could lead worship, I could, too. The more I sang, the stronger my voice became. However, I'd never sing a solo and always had a good praise team singing behind me as I led to mask my vocal deficiencies.
Not Simply a Small-Church Problem
I know of a 10,000+ member megachurch that has only one good male vocalist (the main worship leader) and one good female. That's literally it. If, in my little church, I had at any given time two or three OPHs demanding to be on the praise team, he must have 200-300.
He candidly told me they started having auditions to help relieve the OPH problem. Evidently the OPHs were nearly going to riot and the pastor actually had to preach a sermon about the situation to calm them down. Oh, how they hoped they'd find someone, anyone with talent. They had over 100 people come to auditions, and not a single person had enough ability to even sing halfway decently on their praise team.
The sad reality is very few people these days have contemporary vocal abilities. Maybe it's because high schools don't have the music programs they did years ago. Maybe it's because churches don't have choirs like they did years ago. Some people are over-trained. I've known talented music majors who just couldn't cut the praise team because they were classically trained and couldn't handle the simplest contemporary syncopations.
A Simple Solution
One megachurch music director once gave me a wonderful piece of advice that helped his OPH problem. Before auditions, he stated that to be on the praise team one MUST be able to sing parts. This makes sense: as most worship leaders are male tenors who sing too high, a soprano can't merely sing the melody an octave higher without sounding like an opera singer and must sing a lower harmony part.
He told me this eliminated 90 percent of the OPHs during auditions with no drama. They knew the requirements going in, and they quickly discovered they couldn't sing a harmony part by ear.
Bottom Line: One of our worship jobs is to help people find their proper place in ministry.
Composer/arranger Don Chapman is the editor of the weekly WorshipIdeas.com newsletter that goes out to more than 50,000 worship leaders every week.
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