How to Sing Gospel
If you’ve ever listened to the gospel greats, you may have wondered about how to sing gospel the way they do. I’m always amazed by the splendor and power of their voices coupled with the incredible energy of their performances.
Given that gospel songs are so powerful and expressive, why does the average church choir just not reach the same level of emotion and musical glory? Well… to really sing gospel music well, different techniques and importantly a different mindset is necessary.
How to Sing Gospel
Birth of Gospel
The birth of gospel music came from the African American spirituals of the south in the mid-to-late 19th century. African slaves brought with them a rich musical heritage and part of that was the rhythmical call-and-response style singing. As many were taught the Christian faith, it was a natural thing to incorporate the teachings into this style of spiritual singing. Also, many slaves were illiterate so much learning and passing on of knowledge was done through songs and stories.
A call-and-response song revolves around a leader singing a phrase and the others in the group repeating it straight after. Everyone then joins in together for the chorus or refrain. It’s beautiful in its simplicity and togetherness. The repetitive lyrics mean everyone can easily join in and create real emotion and meaning to the song.
Classic church hymns such as those written by Isaac Watts or Charles Wesley have a lovely quality but are more complex which means less people can sing them well. Multiple verses and a lack of swinging repetitive lines mean that many congregations and choirs don’t seem to sing these hymns with that much heart. In addition, some churches do frown upon too much emotion being displayed in front of others.
The Right Mindset
Singing great gospel though requires a mindset that reflects “Make a joyful noise unto the Lord!” This means loosening up, feeling the song deep down and not being afraid to let it out! However, for those of us who really want to become skilled, it doesn’t mean you can forget about vocal technique. Gospel, after perhaps opera, is possibly the most demanding and difficult music to master.
Breathe support and power in the voice is paramount when singing gospel well. Phrasing is often long, dramatic and moving. You are conveying a story to people that needs to be sung with total belief and feeling so as to bring the audience with you. Anything less reveals a lack of authenticity or commitment to the song.
Check out Al Green singing Jesus Is Waiting. Al has had an amazing career and is still as vital as ever.
If you really want to learn how to sing gospel well, the first step involves your breath. Supporting and controlling your breath is vital. A great method is the Fontanelli Exercise.
To do the exercise, stand up in a good posture in front of a full-length mirror. Inhale through your mouth while mentally counting to four and then exhale all that air (to the count of four). Be sure to fully expand your belly and then maintain that expansion when exhaling.
Once doing the exercise to the count of four becomes easy, increase the count to five, six and upwards. When counts of seven or eight are comfortable, start doing a hold phase. This means inhale (count of four), hold (count of four) and exhale (count of four). Keep watching yourself in the mirror to make sure you maintain good expansion of your midsection. Gradually increase the times.
Next up is dynamics and an excellent exercise is the Messa di Voce (‘placement of voice” in Italian). Remembering what you just learned with the Fontanelli Exercise, take in a well-supported breath and sing a comfortable pitch in your mid range. Start off very softly and progressively get louder, then gradually bring it down again. This helps build good support and control of your voice which will allow you to create dynamic passages during songs.
Proper breathing and dynamics are great skills but they don’t add up to much if a singer can’t express the meaning of a song. It’s not enough to just sing the words as a story must be told to really capture the listener’s imagination.
To begin the process, study the lyrics of your song and think about the message. Read it out loud to yourself as though you’re telling a story. You may notice yourself reading some parts more vigorously than others, or some parts may feel better to be read quietly. This is you interpreting the story naturally and is a good indicator of how you should sing the song as well.
Search for videos on Youtube of great gospel singers such as Mahalia Jackson, Mavis Staples, Andraé Crouch, early Aretha Franklin and Sam Cooke, Soweto Gospel Choir etc. Watch closely how they interpret the songs and express themselves during their performances.
And remember that gospel music should be a joyful and UPLIFTING experience for you and everyone around you. Enjoy these moments and let yourself soar high in the sky!
To help you increase your vocal range and develop beautiful tone, we recommend Roger Burnley, the founder of Singing Made Simple. He provides a very comprehensive and professional course that includes dvds and a members website. Roger has coached many successful singers including Macey Gray. You also get access to some amazing interviews with music industry veterans. Check out Singing Made Simple.