I suppose almost everyone can sing. Many of us do, in the shower, or in the car, driving along alone. But singing solos in public is a bit different. Audience expectations are usually higher, and that places a greater demand on the singer. While there are some who have a natural gift, the best singers are usually those who’ve had some training and experience.
Ministering for the Lord in music adds a further dimension of responsibility. We are singing both to others and to Him (Ps. 96:2; Col. 3:16), and that is serious business. It’s one thing to go to a nursing home and sing a little song for Grandma, but singing in the services of the church is another. Singing on radio or television, or posting a video of our singing, where thousands may listen, expands the audience even more, and it usually calls for a still higher standard.
A. Before You Sing
1. Those who are singing for the Lord should be born again believers, with Christian character and a godly lifestyle to match. To sing, “My Jesus I love Thee,” and have a life that shows anything but, is rank hypocrisy. No matter how talented a singer is, if the life does not measure up he or she’s not ready for ministry. Check your spiritual fitness to serve, and bathe your ministry in prayer, asking the Lord to help you convey His Word, without calling undue and distracting attention to yourself.
2. Get to know your voice, and your limitations. Have you ever watched a TV talent show? Sometimes an individual will deliver a simply awful performance, and become quite angry when the judges tell him he can’t sing. The response often is that “Mom and Dad, and all my friends, love my singing!” But of course they’re usually prejudiced, and may lack musical training as well. If you’re not sure about your voice, ask someone who can be impartial to evaluate your singing–not your best friend, who’s afraid to hurt your feelings!
3. Soloists should select songs that are within their vocal range, and suitable to their own Christian experience, so that they can sing the text sincerely. And if you don’t have adequate ability to sing solos, perhaps you can take some lessons and improve. Or you could consider being part of an ensemble, where some vocal flaws are less noticeable. I’ve led amateur church choirs in which there are few solo voices, but average singers did a creditable job when uniting with others. It’s not only love that hides a multitude of sins.
4. Having said all this, whether you have a mediocre voice, or the voice of an angel, modesty, and sincere humility are required. All that we have is a gift from God, and we are not to think of ourselves more highly than we ought to think (Rom. 12:3; cf. I Chron. 29:14; Jas. 1:17).
One of the reasons I don’t like a congregation to applaud after a solo is that it seems to put too much focus on the performance, and we need to recede into the background as much as possible, allowing the message of the song to be what people attend to. If your purpose is to glorify God and communicate His truth, you’ll want what John the Baptist spoke of: “He [Christ] must increase [in prominence], but I must decrease” (Jn. 3:30).
5. Further, since we are ministering in music, we will want to select songs that are doctrinally accurate, and songs that have meaningful lyrics. A ministry should minister! This also requires knowing our audience, and considering what will communicate best–though there’s a caveat with that. We mustn’t use the spiritual immaturity or carnality of a particular group as an excuse to sing in a worldly way, turning a ministry into mere entertainment. There are things that are “highly esteemed among men [that are] an abomination in the sight of God” (Lk. 16:15).
B. When You Sing
1. Proper voice production involves the use of the diaphragm, the muscle just below our lungs that controls the intake and expulsion of air. To produce a full and flexible tone, the voice needs to be steadily supported by the diaphragm.
Put your hand on your stomach, just below your lungs, and feel what happens when you sing something like “Huh, huh, huh!” on a note, in full voice. It’s your diaphragm that pushes the air upward. And it’s a mistake to think that we can ignore the support of this muscle when we sing softly. It’s needed then, perhaps more than ever to support the tone.
2. Work at producing a full and pleasing tone, that’s uniform through your vocal range. A uniform, firm tone should not require shouting or screeching on the higher notes. And avoid breathy, “sexy” singing that some singers use, almost seeming to swallow the mike in the process. You should also avoid extremes of vibrato, when the voice seems to wobble between one note and another. And do check to see that you’re staying on pitch. If you can’t “carry a tune,” you shouldn’t be attempting to sing solos.
3. Learn the proper timing of the piece of music, but don’t stick rigidly or mechanically to it, if a slight change will suit the words better. Vary tempo and dynamics to provide the best possible communication of what the song is saying. Use appropriate vocal expression. And most importantly, practice using clear diction. Pronounce words properly and make the consonants crisp and clear. In softer singing diction, the clear pronunciation of the words, is critical–and often where it becomes mushy and unclear.
4. One of the most common faults (a modern trend that should be vigorously resisted) is over-amplification. It isn’t necessary for a ministry in song to be loud in order to bless people. Not if our main purpose is for them to hear the words clearly and think about the message. A well modulated voice can be heard quite well in a small or medium sized auditorium with little or no amplification. Learn to sing without it, then use it sparingly as needed.
5. Accompaniment, if there is any, should be carefully balanced with the voice or voices. It should support the voice, not overpower it. The accompanist should not draw attention to what he or she is doing, but rather seek to enhance the message of the song. If there are several stanzas being sung, the accompaniment should be varied if possible, so it’s not using the same repetitious chords throughout. The accompanist should work with the soloist and find out which parts of the song will, perhaps, be better sung more softly or loudly, or more slowly or quickly (etc.), and learn to provide a background of music that is appropriate to this.
6. You may call it a matter of taste and preference, but I abhor the constant and intrusive percussion of much popular music today. It’s sad that this fashion has been carried over into contemporary religious music. Percussion instruments, if they’re included at all, should be used for occasional accent, not to beat time incessantly.
C. Platform Presentation
1. The message we convey when we sing a solo involves more than just what we sing, and the quality of our voice. Practice singing in front of a mirror and watch the expression on your face. Is it appropriate to the song you’re singing? It should be. You are interpreting a song, and “selling” its message. Try standing before a mirror and simply reciting the words, without singing them. Think of it as if you are giving a testimony, or teaching a lesson in Sunday School. Is the message coming across clearly, and does your facial expression suit it?
2. Speaking personally, I think soloists should use only very limited physical movement. Stay put, and let people focus on the words, not on your actions. And there should be no “grandstanding,” striking supposedly pious poses. Such theatrics too often look phony. Some even make the singer look as though he had stomach cramps! And this caution also includes hitting dramatically high (or low) notes that are unnecessary to the melody, notes simply intended to show off the voice.
3. Dress should be neat, and modest, not calling attention to itself. Avoid extremes of fashion, and don’t have clothing that’s either too tight, or too limited in what it covers! Modesty is needed if we’re to communicate the message of the song, and glorify the Lord.
4. Watch your actions before and after singing. Will you be sitting on the platform through the service, or will you come up from the pew to sing? Work with the service leader to choose what will be the least distracting. Sitting the shortest distance possible from where you will stand to sing is usually best.
5. A word about introductions. If you are singing in your own church, or one where you are well know, no introduction is necessary. The service leader doesn’t need to announce you with, “Now here’s Joe Smith to sing for us.” The accompanist can simply begin the musical introduction to the song. If you are to sing in a place where you are not known, you might ask if an introduction could be included at the time of the announcements. In this way, there’s less focus on you, when the time comes to sing.
The bottom line: I hope pray that those few ideas will be useful to you. Not all will apply in every case. But I believe there are things here worth considering. Singing for the Lord and ministering to His people is a great privilege. Treat it seriously, and determine to do your best, for His glory.