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.

 

 

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Thanks.  I was reading something written by David Crowder the other day about his music.  He said something about he likes to pitch songs he does live just a little high so people have to reach just a little bit.  That it gets them more engaged if they have to put just a little effort into to singing.  I know there's a find line in there somewhere between reaching just a little bit and being uncomfortable to sing.  And that line is different for different people.  So you can't make everyone happy in a crowd of over 100.

 

Part of the issue is new seekers.  We are part way through completion of our first permanent worship space.  We've been worshipping in school auditoriums, then in a revival tent on our property, into a modular space (a fancy name for what is essentially a triple-wide mobile home space.  With our permanent structure underway we are starting to see a rise in new faces.  The pastor's wife wants the music to be easily singable by new faces so they can feel comfortable worshipping with us.

 

However, applying a mathematical rule to every song setting the absolute most highest note at C doesn't work.  We will be having more meetings about that to find what is the right thing to do.  I certainly don't feel that I know everything and don't need to make some changes.  But they need to be the right changes gradually so as not to mess up the worship experience we seems to have going already.

 

Also, as I stated above, the reasoning of setting the key specifically to be easiest for women to sing since they are the majority of the singers in any congregation seems to make sense but feels a little wrong.  I was talking to another worship leader friend of mine that leads at a bit of a larger church than mine.  He shoots for the opposite.  Here is what he had to say.....

 

Singable keys:  The way I see it is pretty much this.  In general, in mixed company…women sing, men don't.   Starts in children's ministry, see it in both Jr and Sr high, and beyond.  Go stand in traditional worship, and women hold the hymnal and sing and men stand there with a stern, serious look on their faces.  So, what we do is try to make the song singable for men in general.  Which means that if Chris Tomlin is singing the song on his recording in D, we are singing it in A or B.  I'm kind of lucky in that I have a baritone voice.  I don't sing as high a tenor like Tomlin, but then again, very few men do.  So if I can cover it, it usually works for the room.  

As far as the songs that you used to do that engage the room, and now you've dropped keys and people are befuddled.  Well, the first thing that comes to mind is "if it ain't broke don't fix it."  Maybe tell her that the rule can apply to new songs that get added, but let's grandfather in the songs that are hits and not mess them up. 

Lastly, I'll say this, whoever is leading the song has to be comfortable singing the song.  Because if your leader is totally uncomfortable, everybody else will be too.  Speaking of Tomlin, I've seen him lead worship a dozen times or more.  I've never heard anyone walk out going, "that was great, I just wish he sang everything in a different key."  He is leading, either you're going with him or you aren't.

This confused me about if only women sing then why are you setting the key specifically for men?  Here is what he had to say.....

 

Yeah, I'm trying to invite the men to sing. Because there's just something special that happens when men lift up their voices. I don't know why, but in the church, as a generality, men don't sing. Neither do they run the nursery, volunteer with children and youth, and make up the majority of your volunteer workforce. In the life of the church, men are the trustees and money counters, and the ushers. Jobs that are very unemotional and dont require much by way of personal vulnerability. Singing in public is vulnerable and men just don't do it often. However, you go spend time with men on a job site, or at the bar, or having a cookout...and there's music. Men love music. And in their environment they'll sing along with country songs and rock songs in their "manly voices."  Good example, play an Aerosmith song around a bunch of guys. The men will belt it out...until Steven Tyler goes in the upper register. Then, everybody just stares at each other!  Long story short, Men love to listen to music, and engage with it, play it, have fun with it, and we as the church have to figure out a way to bring that out of them. Ignoring them in worship and catering to women basically sends a subliminal message "this isn't for you".

Best example of when I started to pay attention to this was a conversation my friend Andy had with a 4th grade boy during children's worship one time. Andy pulled the young man aside and said "why are you not enjoying this?". The boys response, "my dad said that singing was for girls." and this was a "church kid". I've been trying to change the culture of church music for men at our church. Maybe its a discussion that you and others at your church should have. Even here, there's people that would probably disagree with me. Thats ok. However, all I have to do is have them stand where I stand, I witness what I witness.

I can say that this church is one I, and our youth and adults, love to visit every year when they host a huge week long mission and outreach program.  Their worship experience is amazing and full of energy and engagement.  I've never considered the whole issue of men not singing before and trying to do anything to change it.

I accompany for high and middle-school choirs.  This year's sign-up for the non-audition group:  Girls, 42, Boys 0.  Well, at least we can be glad there's a lot of good SSA music out there!  The "problem" of finding decent music for young men to sing is disappearing, simply because the boys aren't showing up -- even with the fantastic possibility of a ten-to-one "ratio", they don't want to embarrass themselves in front of all those girls.  In the higher-level audition-based choirs, we do get boys -- those from homes which encouraged singing, and who stayed with learning music.  These are admired (I should say, coveted!) by the girls and directors, whether they can actually follow a part or not:)  

At the leadership end of the spectrum, we see ensembles (for instance, the worship team), which are led almost exclusively by talented male singers -- in fact, it's somewhat a problem for girls and women with leadership ability that the "glass ceiling" is still firmly in place in Christian music.

When men get together by themselves, they do indeed love to sing.  I used to lead music at a Rescue Mission (the most male-dominated congregation you can get).  Their hymnal was pitched two to three steps down from standard -- nothing ever reached that "C".  

One thing these "octave leap" songs that give us leaders fits do accomplish is that they give something good-sounding for guys to sing without the onus of having to sing (shudder) high.

 

I applaud Mr. Tomlin, then, who has a goal of changing the culture of church music for men.  

Hi Pete!

From my experience I've found that B-D (or even as low as A!) for the highest melody note is okay, but I follow a few rules which has worked for our praise team and congregation:

1. If most of the melody are close to each other and are all close to the high end, consider changing the key to the lower spectrum (A-B range).

1a Exception - When your lead vocalist is a very strong and charismatic singer, which in this case a higher range will actually be more preferable because sometimes singers often get "lazy" (for a lack of better word) when they are too comfortable with a key...sometimes they sound "dull" or "unexcited" :)

2. If the melody has a wide range of low and high notes, be on the safe side and use B-C - this makes sure that the melody doesn't dip too low for the men and not too high for the women

3. Take your lead vocalist's range into account. Learn each vocal leader's range - know what the highest note that they can reach, transpose the song to that key and apply rule #1-2 if to accommodate the congregation.

4. Take the type of congregation into account. Apply rules 1-2 if its for something like sunday worship, where a wide range of people of different ages are present. for things like youth fellowships or praise night/concerts, always transpose to your lead vocalist's key.

Also slower songs are harder to sing in higher keys :)

Hope that helps!

Angel

PS -  this is my first post (i'm a new user) - Praise God for this site, I love it! =)

I would agree that b-D is a good "normal range".  There may be occasions to "peak" on higher notes -- some songs are written especially so that peak note will glisten just like a mountain-top glistens.  If the song itself is inspiring, people will generally sacrifice themselves for the special high points. 

Many people have a "break" around Bb or B as they get up into their head voice.  If your song dwells in this area, even if it doesn't seem high, it may cause people to feel weary. (this idea is similar to your #1 comment). Same goes for songs that stay low too much (b-e) for too long.  I wouldn't be afraid of a "pickup" that is low, a or even g. If people can't sing those, they will simply find a higher pickup, and no one will even hear the difference.

Sometimes I like to pitch a song down simply so the ALTOS can have something nice to sing for once in a lifetime. 

After a while you drive yourself mad trying to please everyone.  I’m not saying you shouldn’t make the keys comfortable but for heaven sake, this just sounds a bit rigid (or maybe I’m just not rigid enough).  I commend your patience and willingness to be accommodating!  I hope you come to a solution.

One of the things I do is try to balance the range of the songs within a set so I’m not doing a whole set full of songs that have just a narrow range or songs with just a very wide range.  The other thing we do is have 2 different leaders within the sets so some of the songs are led by my husband and some are led by me.  This way, some of the songs are a little more comfortable for the men and some are more comfortable for the women.  This whole idea of one size fits all with regard to picking keys kind of baffles me.  I guess maybe it’s my lack of education on these matters, who knows.  There are 4 vocal parts.  How do you narrow them down into one?  If you stay in the soprano/tenor range then the alto/bass singers are short changed and visa versa.  I’m probably in the minority on this one but I like to mix up the keys so there’s a little something for everyone.  I know it is probably a schizophrenic approach.

Why is it schizophrenic to give people of one range something they can occasionally sing without choking or straining?  Is it schizophrenic to be kind and offer a pregnant lady a seat on a bus?  No -- we are glad to make ourselves a little uncomfortable!   Is it weird to go the second mile?  Is it odd to offer hamburgers in a Chinese restaurant?  If we're going to be servants of all, we ought to at least bend a little.  Goes with the territory.

In a typical choir, the altos can sing as high or higher than the sopranos -- they are usually the strongest musicians, but they have learned to do the more difficult thing to beautify the music in its totality.

Thanks Greg!  I lack any formal training, so I sometimes have to go by instinct.  Flying by the seat of my pants mostly.  There is a process I go through to pick music which is by no means scientific but it gets me to my endpoint.  I start in the Word and study the key verses.  Spend time in prayer to determine God's leading.  Then I list all the songs that pertain to the verses.  I slowly eliminte the songs that are not congregationally friendly and finally I have a set.  As I noted before, my husband and I both sing so we divide the songs based on who is more comfortable singing what, or who is more connected to a given song.  It is not uncommon to have a song that was sung by my husband one week be sung by me the next time we do it, so things really get mixed up.  We always consider the congregation when we are choosing the keys but my husband has a smaller vocal range than I do so his keys won't vary as much as mine will.  When I pick a key I use him as a litmus test.  If he can't sing along with me somewhat comfortably then I either adjust the key or nix the song.

One thing that we haven't really talked about is the idea that some people have an easier time shifting gears musically.  What I mean by this is, as I noted above, my vocal range is much wider than my husbands so I'm going to be more comfortable singing in more keys.  The other thing is that some people don't have  the greatest ear and will not be able to make the adjustment up or down an octave.  Oh and then there are the tone deaf people who could care less what key you sing in because they are going to sing no matter what key the song is in.  We have one man like this who sings his heart out.  God Bless him!  Makes me smile each week.

 

Hi Jorn

Your instincts sound good to me and are serving you well.  I'd say 'Stay with them'.  Have faith in what you got gal, it's not everybody that has your sensitivity and consideration for the music and the people.

God Bless.

Lorraine 

Wow!  Thank you so much!  That really blesses me! 

 

SCIENCE is looking at all the stuff that seems right, tossing out what, upon closer examination, is seen to be not right, and living for awhile with what's left until we get more data or more understanding.  By that measure, your approach is quite scientific!  Starting in the word and prayer makes for sound procedure both in the world of music and in the world of science.

  Thank you Greg!  We can never go wrong with the word and prayer :-)

Saying there is a range isn't the same as saying there's one key to fit all. All you're saying is that for the men there is a certain range of melody notes they can hit and something higher for the ladies. There is a lot of flexibility for parts that go above or below that melodic range. And there is plenty of opportunity for different keys within that.

But looking at Mr. Bower's original comment, I would say that the pastor's wife is wrong to think that she represents "most singers" in any congregation with a maximum high note of C#. The old b-D rule is pretty standard and generic. But that doesn't mean you can never go above that, it just means that you would do well to avoid going above it often.

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