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Role of lower voices in modern worship

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  • Role of lower voices in modern worship

    There's something that's been on my mind and on my heart for a few years now, and I don't think I'm the only one who is maybe just a wee bit concerned.

    My concern is about the role of musically gifted people with low voices in today's modern worship settings. We've been seeing with the music that is picked for our choir that there is a very distinct lack of anything remotely resembling a vocal bass part in a lot of the music. Now I don't think everything still needs to be a traditional SATB format, but some of this music will have two parts in the bass clef and the lower part, what you would expect to be the bass part, has notes well above middle C. The other day I saw one song with an E and and F in it, with a tenor part a couple notes higher.

    What happens in a choir setting is that the men who have a traditional bass voice are left with two choices, either sit out completely or drop the part down an octave, which changes the voicing of the song. I consider myself a pretty talented vocalist. I have a two octave range, with my top note being a middle C. I've managed to get up to a D on a couple occasions, but I'm really straining up there, but I can drop two full octaves below that C quite comfortably. Keep me at the top of the staff line or lower and I'm really solid. Now in our choir, we've been dropping the octaves on the bass part so the men like me can actually hit the part, but like I said, the sound of the song is entirely different when you do that, but I don't think the sound is worse with the lower voices in there.

    Here's the question. Is it the desire of the people writing these songs to purposefully exclude any parts in the lower vocal range for stylistic reasons, simply a desire to aim for that tight triadic harmony? Do the writers consider the vocalists with lower ranges and even consider the richness of the sound that can be had with a proper bass part in the song? Sometimes we'll come across a song that has a good bass part that isn't so close to the tenor and it still sounds rather nice. Is it that people really prefer the sound of three parts or four parts with a bass and tenor that are only a note or two apart and nothing near the bottom?

    My concern is more than just a stylistic preference though. Here it is. I love the Lord. In previous churches I've attended that were more traditional, I had a pretty active role in leading worship and naturally I want to remain active in that regard even in the current church I'm attending. We do a pretty good blend of music with a lot of modern songs and the occasional hymn mixed in. I feel like God has given me a certain talent and with that talent comes the desire, and might I say responsibility, to use it in His service. But with that comes a certain frustration when I get the impression that what I have to offer isn't that high on the priority list in the contemporary worship setting. Worship teams are mostly people with high voices and most of the choir music is being written that way as well.

    The question is what can be done with the person who is gifted musically and wants to serve, but has a voice that is in that lower register? Do we just tell those people, "Tough luck, we're looking for this sound and you just don't fit in?", or do we maybe start implementing vocal bass parts in some modern songs? I feel that a lot of people are kind of being kicked to the curb these days, people like myself who want to take a more active role with the abilities we have, but don't want to have to go to a traditional hymn only church in order to do it. I like a lot of the new music, and some of it I don't like, but I feel that I have something to contribute to that setting and if I voice the concern I will hear people say things like, "But we have a bass guitar for the bass part", or "Maybe you just need to learn to hit the higher notes." I've already got two octaves. How much higher do I need to go?

    I really don't want to come across like a whiner, but this is just a concern I've had for a number of years now, that in a desire to reach a certain demographic, the church is leaving behind others who still have a lot to offer. A worship experience that is diverse and utilizes the various gifts and abilities of the body is a wondrous thing and is something I think we should strive for, instead of aiming only for a certain sound and excluding anyone who doesn't fit precisely into that.

  • #2
    Hey Charles,
    thanks for the post. I can relate to what you're saying here because I've been guilty of the same thing. We've had a volunteer choir now and then, and even with the choir, I'd typically arrange the music in 3-parts, leaving off the traditional, low bass part. Why? Adding that part seemed to clash stylistically with the music we were doing. It had a more traditional sound, and in some cases, almost Southern Gospel.

    The traditional 4-part harmonies, especially with the traditional bass lines, definitely lends itself to a more traditional sound. Choir anthems and hymn arrangements will have this typically.

    Is there anything wrong with that? Absolutely not and it can be beautiful. I honestly believe that the trend you're seeing is simply because of the style and arranging of modern worship vocals. When you listen to Hillsong, Integrity, Passion, etc., you hear 2-3 parts typically.

    When I did our volunteer choir at SSCC I had a few guys approach me and they were sad that they couldn't sing bass. My explanation didn't help and they didn't come back. I grieved it in a way and although I didn't change the arrangements of those tunes, it did make me want to find more diversity in the style so that we COULD add some songs with bass.

    Typically when I have a guy who is in that register, I have them come up and sing the melody, or double the melody low.
    Fred McKinnon, Pianist/Composer/Worship Leader
    blog: www.fredmckinnon.com

    Please check out my piano/instrumental music at:
    www.soundcloud.com/FredMcKinnonMusic
    www.youtube.com/c/FredMcKinnonMusic

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    • #3
      Great questions, Charles. I'm interested to see what others say on it. From my perspective, any talented musician SHOULD be apart of a local worship team. I'm not sure the reasons why vocal bass parts are not used as frequently as they used to. Of course, I have my own thoughts. I agree most, if not all, modern worship music do not have the vocal bass element to the songs. At the same time, how many worship teams desire to think creatively to include the bass vocal range? (Just me thinking hypothetically)

      I'm a trumpet player, so I have a similar issue. Most music in the church today does not include trumpet, but God is bringing me back to playing trumpet again. Go figure. :-) My husband and I developed a mindset that people won't know what it sounds like with the "missing element" until they hear it first. So, we work on the modern day worship music with trumpet parts to see what kind of original sound we can develop; I spend a few hours trying to write my own trumpet parts for these songs. Recently, we presented the ideas to our worship leader, and she LOVED them. So, we'll be using trumpet in some of our songs now. :-)

      So, one suggestion is ask your worship leader if (s)he is open to hearing some non-traditional ways to blend a vocal bass. If your WL agrees, see if you can think creatively about how to use your voice. One idea is to try singing vocal bass "sounds" as a filler to the melodies. The vocal bass does not need to be SATB. It could add a new dimension to the song by singing filler words or filler sounds like "oo" and "ah." So, I'm curious what ideas you already have to utilize the vocal bass in a non-traditional way.

      Many blessings to you, Charles!
      Melanie Siewert, Christ's Servant
      BLOG: http://www.worshipvanguard.blogspot.com

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      • #4
        As to the trumpet thing, we have an instrumental ensemble that plays once or twice a month and we always have written parts for brass and woodwinds. I'll take a look at who the publisher is Sunday, but there is plenty of arranged music out there for most of the contemporary worship songs. I play Irish whistles and flutes and I can usually just play the written flute parts.

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        • #5
          That would be awesome if you can provide me some resources. Since I'm the only brass player in our congregation, I tend to play a modification of what a lead guitar would play. I'm learning to play by ear since our team does not play a song the same way twice. It's all a stretch for me, but it's a joy at the same time.
          Melanie Siewert, Christ's Servant
          BLOG: http://www.worshipvanguard.blogspot.com

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          • #6
            Most of the choir music we use at church that comes from contemporary songs has the bass line singing the melody an octave low. Kind of an afterthought...

            I don't know whether the lack of a creative bass line is stylistic, or just laziness on the part of the arranger. What some of our bass singers do when the music isn't suitable is to sing the notes of the bass guitar, which is usually written above the music. It gets a little monotonous, but at least it is not the melody, and is not too high to sing.

            Me-- I'm really a tenor, but I sing bass because there aren't enough basses for the songs that have a real bass part.
            Tom

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            • #7
              You could sing an altoish part an octave lower. Basically the sing the interval directly under the male melody.

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              • #8
                Southern Gospel/Quartet/Barbershop/Classical Choirs good for Basses...

                Sounds like you are a true Bass. You're right, seems most commercial CCM Praise songs are sung by high Tenors. Doubling the melody down an octave is good, as is doing a harmony part.

                In our Gospel choir we have sopranos (melody), altos, tenors, and a couple of guys down in your range. Most Gospel is written rather high, 3-part SAT w/tenors going up to G-A above Middle C, like a 2nd Alto part. So I find myself transposing songs so that the Tenors don't go too high.

                One of those lower voices is a Baritone who likes to sing down, and the other a Bass who has trouble finding his pitch. In the beginning I said 'Just sing the melody' and kept him away from the mike; however as his voice has improved I have had him double the Tenor line with our Baritone, an octave down. We don't sound like Ricky Dillard's choir but it works for our 10-12 person group...

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                • #9
                  It would be good to see more mainstream songs incorporate more vocal dynamics with counter-harmonies, responses, etc. The straight up doubling is ok, but doesn't work good for more than 2-3 people.

                  Of course, many singers aren't trained to sing those parts like they used to be, either.

                  This is a good discussion. Many churches aren't really using choirs anymore, but still have more than 2 singers. Sharing ideas on what to have them do so they aren't singing over the top of each other is helpful.
                  If we want to go places we haven't been, we will have to do things we haven't done.

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                  • #10
                    About a year ago, I went to a vocal class in which the chair of the Wheaton vocal department was speaking and I expressed to him the frustration of arrangements in choir that were "too high" in my opinion; He informed me that it was not unreasonable for a bass to sing up to a G above middle C. = ( And so, there went my argument for my choir director the following Monday...

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                    • #11
                      Additional thoughts on an old thread

                      I'm facing the same issue. Diminishing or no support for true bass vocalists in modern worship music arrangements.
                      In my case, for other reasons I've changed churches for one with an active worship chorus and wondering what they'll have in the way of music for me to do? Where I served for a couple of decades, in a small church, whoever the worship leader was seemed to want me to sing, along with one to three other vocalists, but left me alone to find my own arrangement and musical way. Which was never a problem for me. I seem to "hear" or "feel" the harmonies in my head - sort of as vibrations - and can usually easily match up the vibrations of my vocal pitch with that of the lead and group vocals. On some occasions the leaders even asked me to sing vocal lead. Most recent was just before Christmas, when I did "Mary Did You Know".

                      Going into the new church my repertoire is quite similar to theirs, but concerned as I join them beginning tonight they will find a place for me to serve the Lord.

                      I'd be interested in hearing from other basses, and how they've adapted to this musical change, too.

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                      • #12
                        Something that hasn't been mentioned is the impact on the congregation ( especially men ) if the key is set for tenors. If it's a performance with no congregational singing, that's one thing, but if you want the people to sing the key is important. Until moving to Washington State this year I led worship in California for many years. As a baritone, leading on guitar, I set the keys where I could sing them and both the men and women seemed to approve. The female vocalists on our worship team would sometimes sing melody, sometimes harmony. Occasionally, in an attempt to find a key that worked for a song with quite a range, the key chosen would be tough for one of the female vocalists who only sang melody, so we'd negotiate up or down a semi-tone.

                        It does seem that most of the male artists in contemporary Christian music are tenors, so I never hesitated a second in adjusting the key. If the voicing or whatever was different, would the congregation notice or care -- I doubt it -- especially if they could now hit the notes.

                        Some of these artists focus on music useful to a worship band ( Chris Tomlin comes to mind, although again, key changes required ). Some others like the lead singer for Mercy Me and Big Daddy Weave put out some songs that seem to go up into falsetto. Not many of us can sing falsetto in a pleasant way, so no amount of jiggering with the key would allow me ( or the people ) to handle it. Big Daddy Weave's latest song " The Only Name " is turning out that way. Love the song but the range is probably beyond me.
                        Carvin AE185 guitar

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                        • CreatioExNihilo
                          CreatioExNihilo commented
                          Editing a comment
                          Wow! Thanks for the great tip for a challenging number. I am a high bass. I can def sing "The only name" and so can you. Let me know if you need some help to learn how. Generally speaking, singers in modern culture will guess at their register break being higher than it actually is. That said. identify your theoretical break and start working on singing head voice over the break. You too can learn to negotiate your real range with the top chest voice resonance matching that of the next semitone (and vice-versa on the resonance), which will be in head voice. This has to be a very deliberate process to bring the head voice into your technique. You can do it and it will be very satisfying. I will actually lower the key of "The only name" for the sake of the congregation, although I am the only real bass in the church.

                      • #13
                        Thanks for a great post. Arrived here via a specific web search. I am a trained basso contante myself: register break @ C#4. I have just turned the corner in vocal study. I really enjoy leading worship. It's a different world than that of George Beverly Shea (bass-baritone), Johnnie Cash and whatnot. Sounds like you are a basso profundo breaking at C4.
                        Here are some observations.
                        -- A dedicated singer should STUDY voice. This doesn't mean donating tons of money to a teacher, like I did. Self study can really work in today's information world. I think it is important to communicate that to your singers. Also, IMHO a "worship leader" would be someone who takes an interest, learns, and passes on information to help singers improve. That said: any male singer should ultimately be able to sing up to F4, if not a basso profundo: higher. Being a bass that goes up there, I have to tell you it is really satisfying and unique. Besides, you set an example to inspire other frustrated singers.
                        --I think the worship industry is off the rails. If you page through hymnals, you will see that melody lines typically top @ D(4 for a male) or Eb(4). E's are rare and F's about non-existent. So the fact is a TRAINED male voice can reach there no matter what their timbre. This is the practical top for congregations also. It is supposed to be about participation.
                        --In my Lutheran church, they get the hymn scores which they put in the bulletin from the synod. Of course we do plenty of modern music too, which words are put up on the overheads. They are only melody line scores. IMHO, again: this is a sin, and speaks to the devolution of culture in "the church". Congregational singers should be able to participate. Many of them can read music enough to follow their voice part in a score, or will pick it up as they go.

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                        • #14
                          Originally posted by guitar_goob View Post
                          About a year ago, I went to a vocal class in which the chair of the Wheaton vocal department was speaking and I expressed to him the frustration of arrangements in choir that were "too high" in my opinion; He informed me that it was not unreasonable for a bass to sing up to a G above middle C. = ( And so, there went my argument for my choir director the following Monday...
                          This is true in the "trained / professional opera singer" use of the word bass... the same folks that say tenor should sing high C's. Back to the reality of church singers... they're not pros.

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