Hi. I know this has been talked about before and I have read all the posts I could find on the subject. I thought I had a handle on this issue. I've been rekeying songs down to make them more singable by our congregation for years and we seem to get a high level of participation and energy from our congregation during worship. I, my team, and people in the congregation that I talk with regularly thought things were going pretty good.
Our church rotated pastors this year. The new pastor is great and his wife is also very involved with his ministries. She is telling me that most of our songs are keyed too high. She has the vocal range most females in any congregation has and she finds our songs unsingable. She is telling me that it's also making it hard for my female praise team vocalist to sing and most of the women in the congregation. Since more women than men normally sing I need to key everything to their vocal range. I'm being told that's why more people aren't singing. When I look out on Sunday morning I see many lips moving and hear a strong voice form the congregation.
I've been trying very hard the past month to work on my key selections and have been trying to lower everything to never go above a C note so as not to wander into her (and all the other women's) voice break area. She is telling me that we can never have a C# or above at all. Some songs have to be lowered many steps to get them to never, ever, reach above a C note and those just sound dead now when they were high energy songs.
My female vocalist and other team members are telling me they like things where they were before and they are having a hard time recently when I've tried to drop the key from what we have been doing. I'm also getting feedback from the congregation that "something is off" recently and the energy isn't there that there was before.
Hmm.... this sounds like I have an issue with the pastor's wife. That's not the case at all. I am working with her on a lot of things and she has a lot of great ideas that are working well. I just can't wrap my head around this key issue to get it right where we are pitching things low enough for the congregation but not mess everyone up on the praise team and in the congregation.
One thing that would help is if anyone does any of the following songs, what key do you do them in?
Doxology (Praise God from whom all blessings flow)
Grace Like Rain
Not To Us
Sing Sing Sing
Give You Glory
These are a few that have given us problems trying to adjust the past few weeks.
I want to do the right thing but it feels like we are going overboard to never, ever, have a note run above C to maybe C# or D occasionally and some of the key adjustments to accomplish this are kind of extreme and make the songs just sound wrong or dead.
Unfortunately, this is reality. Some modern songs are too rangy to start with, others will need to be keyed down or up. I'm surprised you have to lower things "many many steps".
Two ways I've dealt with this:
- I usually try to look for a good example singer in the praise team. If they can sing it, the congregation can. In my case, I'm lucky that it's me. I have a pretty common-denominator range.
- Some songs should be raised, not lowered. That is, by going up a half step or two, they might be able to get back down into their ideal range because it's all about octaves. This will also help keep it from sounding dull or dead. I think we do this more often than the other way around.
I would also suggest that you may have to push back on her. She's not the ultimate call here, so if you are sure of something, you need to learn how to sell it to her. And she also has to realize, as do you, that there is no perfection. Songs that don't challenge SOMEONE's range are generally boring.
Thanks Stevo. I just spent some time up at the church with her actually pulling out songs and trying them in different keys and looking over the melody lines on sheet music. I did some selling I think we've reached a compromise. Some examples:
Doxology in G in the hymnal, there is one quick D note near the end dropping the key to F gets the high note down to a C. Not a big change but our congregation has never had a problem with it. So we left it alone.
Grace Like Rain. Originally in Dm, we've always sung it in C#m which does run the first note of the chorus up to an E. The suggestion was to drop it down to A#m or lower to get that one E note down to a C. That is a big change. Singing that song in that key brings the rest of the song down to an extremely low range. We worked on it a bit and found a compromise.
I think we've agreed that every note in a song doesn't have to be a C or lower depending on how many of them there are and how long you have to hold on them. Some songs that have a higher top note can actually feel more comfortable to sing than a song that has a slightly lower top note, depending on the song. So, instead of going by the literal "no note can be higher than a C" we are going to actually sit down together and sing more songs to find where they are comfortable to sing for her. What we came up with today shifted two songs out of six one full step down and didn't seem to effect the feel of the songs.
When you go for a high note, the temptation is to stretch your neck up and back. It's a HIGH note, right, and you've got to reach for it. Physiologically though, that's the opposite of what you want. You are stretching out your vocal apparatus and choking it as it tries to vibrate the air fast enough to get the note. I've had a couple of years of attending a weekly lunchtime choir led by a singing teacher and she (FWIW, I have been the only regular male voice; most of the others there have been women) has amply demonstrated that even above that 'high' D is perfectly obtainable even with an average voice.
The simplest mental trick boils down to getting out of reaching up for high notes. Sing while walking round or using your arms to mark the pulse of the song left and right and a wide range comes into reach.
If you have someone locally who really understands the voice, perhaps they can help release people from the fear of high notes. Otherwise, once you've found a range that the whole congregation can sing comfortably, you'll have a span of about a fifth and very few songs to pick from (sing low enough for a standard female voice and the male voice, typically an octave lower, will need to jump an octave higher and be up into high F's and G's). Another tack might be suggesting that people explore harmony - as you build confidence singing above or below the central line, you can contribute to the song even if there sections where the main part doesn't suit your voice.
I'm trying to be accommodating and open to constructive feedback. This is a strong suggestion that I'm getting every week now. This is a new pastor just coming into this church and his wife is a "Church start coach" that runs her own coaching network. I think we are receiving a lot of free coaching which for the most part has been good church wide. We have about 135 in worship each Sunday. They have been very engaged is worship, so this feels a little like trying to fix something that isn't really broken. I've ha da few in the congregation call me at home this past week asking me what's wrong with the music, lately, it feels off.
When the pastor had small group meetings with different segments of our membership upon arriving, the one overriding comment from members was "Please don't mess with the music". Not to discredit what she is saying, but she herself has a break in her voice right above C and doesn't like to sing there. I can't help but think this has something to do with all the suggestions I've been getting.
Keeping everything under C can create issues on the lower end if you're not careful. You will find many songs going down to A regularly. We take the general approach that a D is okay on the high end and try to go no lower than A on the low end. With this in mind, if a song stays in the higher register for a prolonged portion of the song, the D can become unsingable. If a song stays in the lower register for a large portion of a song, the A can become difficult to sing.
Other areas to consider include the possibility of singing songs in keys that allow the ladies to comfortably sing in the lower octave. The guys on our praise team have excellent range so we will occasionally do some songs such as Kristian Stanfill's "Say, Say" in the key of B. The ladies find the song comfortable in the lower octave and men can sing in down an octave comfortably as well if necessary.
I received some pressure recently from a couple of people who went to our personnel committee with a complaint. In their case, they felt we should do all songs in the original key the artists do them in. In this case, I had to stand my ground in stating that as the Worship Leader, and keeping in mind that none of our praise team members or congregation were professional "artists", the opic of song keys was not open for discussion as long as our congregation could sing the songs we share in worship. I haven't heard another word from anyone.
We do Gateway Worship's version of Doxology in D, Not to Us in G, Grace Like Rain in D (we will do it in C if we sing it again), we don't use Sing, Sing, Sing and we did Give You Glory in C.
First time I've heard someone request/complain that songs be done in original keys. Funny thing, what's written isn't always the recorded key. And if we all tried to do Tomlin's stuff in original key, we'd be out of voices soon.
Wow, the original key? There goes most Tomlin songs off the list. I've noticed that Chris lowers the key of his songs when he leads worship in concerts. I've been going under the assumption that D is ok in moderation for short duration in one or two places in the song as long as the rest of the song is in range and a very occasion E if the rest of the song would be too low if dropped any more. But that being said, it seems we sing a full step higher than you do.
Not To Us we've always sung in A. I've tried G and it seems to work ok except we've been doing it in A so long that my team and congregation give me funny looks and tell me it feels off. Give You Glory we've always done in D. Grace Like Rain we've always done in E. So we are a little above the norm. I'm thinking I need to give most of my attention to lowering the key to new songs. I'm getting a lot of pushback on the older songs because they seems "off" when I try to adjust them down.
I lowered Handel's "Hallelujah Chorus" by a full step for our choir, and had absolutely no regrets. In fact, it made the music closer the what Handel's singers actually sang in 1741. Before we had the chord system and ways to instantly transpose music, orchestras would scooch their "A" up just a few cycles-per-second, to give everything a brighter feel. Since the 1700's, basic pitch has gradually risen by a half to even a whole step. The tenors weren't screaming those high A's -- they were actually singing what we call G's.
Actually, tuning forks ranged from A=380 cps to as high as 480; there was no real standardization; but a forks associated with Handel (A=422.5, year 1740), and A=409 (1780) illustrate the un-absolute nature of pitch historically. Today, of course, A=440 is fast becoming the norm, almost a requirement, being built-in as the default pitch in keyboards, and heard regularly on recordings. It's really cool -- I can listen to a symphony on the radio, and switch to a Christian station on K-Love and heard old Tomlin starting a song in the exact same key, then flip back and forth (digital radio) for an amazing musical trip.
How on this green earth can you limit range to C#? Just another case of blunting off anything that is challenging or majestic or full of character or excitement in favor of not offending some imaginary Seeker with a tone that is too high. Our ancestors routinely included "E" as a high note in their hymnbooks -- and young people generally have these high notes, or happily octave them down if the song gets too high. People LIKE to occasionally reach for those wonderful high notes -- they represent the Glory of God!
There are numerous factors involved with high notes -- particularly the tessitura of a song. If your song rides right around the break between chest and head voice, it's going to be irritating no matter what the high note. But if it leaps up to a single note (Joy to the World), it can go all the way up to E flat and discomfit no one.
There are a fair number of songs out featuring a tenor lead, and deserve to be taken down. There is a certain point, in my experience, that the song, almost suddenly, feels heavy and low; and heaviness is indeed a worse state of affairs than the occasional strain for a high note.
The thing I note the most is the common problem that the pastor's wife gets feedback from a different segment of the congregation than you do; and each receives compliments or complaints that reinforce their own feelings. Perhaps it's time for more meetings on the subject of key and some comparing of notes.
And you just can't make everybody happy.