Legendary gospel singers like Andraé Crouch and Mahalia Jackson have long wowed audiences with the sheer power and beauty of their voices, as well as their energy and expression of emotion, whenever they sing gospel songs.
While gospel songs have the power to move hearts and souls, the question that begs to be asked is why these songs fall flat when rendered by a mediocre church choir? This is because singing gospel music requires techniques that are different from traditional, classical church music as well as a different outlook.
Origins of Gospel Song Singing
Gospel music originated from Negro spiritualists of the American South during the mid-to-late 19th centuries. Because most African slaves were illiterate (and in some parts of the country, it is illegal or forbidden by their owners that they get even the most basic education), they were immersed in Christianity through a song cycle called “repetitive call-and-response”.
In this type of song cycle, the preacher sings a line or phrase from the song and his congregation sings it back. Usually, everyone sings the refrain or chorus. The simple structure of the song as well as the repetitive lyrics allows the singer to express his or her emotions through their singing.
In comparison, the classic hymns by composers Charles Wesley or Isaac Watts, though beautiful and awe-inspiring, have multiple verses and they do not have the repetitive lyrics that are characteristic of gospel music. As a result, a person who cannot read cannot sing these hymns. Most choirs and congregations sing these hymns with a minimum of emotion, with some choir masters even going so far as to say that an excess of emotion is not appropriate for the hymn.
Gospel music has a distinct mindset: “Make a joyful noise unto the Lord!” It is required to relax, let your emotions flow and have fun. However, this does not mean that vocal techniques do not have a role to play in gospel. In truth, next to opera, gospel is one of the most difficult and challenging music genres to perform.
The two primary requirements for gospel music singing are a strong, powerful voice and exemplary breath support. The phrasing is often described as long, emotional and dramatic. In order to convey God’s message through song to the listener, you need to feel and believe in every word that you sing. If you are sincere in your song delivery, your listeners can feel the authenticity of your emotions.
More Tips – Sing Gospel
If you have ambitions of becoming a gospel singer, you should first work on your breathing techniques. One way you can control and provide support to your breathing is by performing the Fontanelli exercises. In one exercise, you must stand with good posture and inhale slowly through your mouth while counting to four. Then exhale all the air out slowly to another count of four. Do this exercise by observing yourself in a full-length mirror. Make sure that your midsection is fully expanded, and maintain that expansion even while exhaling.
When it has become easy for you to perform the exercise at counts of four, increase the count to five, six, and so on. Once you’ve reached the seven or eight count, include a hold phase. For example, inhale for a count of four, hold for another count of four, and then exhale at the last count of four. Look at yourself in the mirror to make sure that you have maintained good midsection expansion. Gradually increase the count to five, six, and so on.
The next step is to work on vocal dynamics. An example of a good dynamics exercise is messa di voce (“placement of the voice” in Italian). Inhale deeply and sing a comfortable pitch in your mid-range. As you sustain the pitch, slowly and gradually increase the volume of your voice, growing louder, and then slowly get softer again
Emotions in Gospel Singing
Developing expression requires that you study the lyrics of the song. You may want to check out the Bible for some passages. Next, try reading it aloud as you would a story or a poem, taking note of your emotions during the recitation. Then, sing the song with the same expression you used while reciting it. For good examples to follow, check out YouTube videos of gospel greats like Mahalia Jackson.
Lastly, it is very important that you pronounce the words clearly when you sing gospel. Don’t forget that gospel was originally intended to teach people who are illiterate. Everyone listening to you should be able to understand each word in your song, so practice careful pronunciation. Again, watch some gospel videos to get an idea on what to do.
Most importantly, have fun, rejoice! Gospel music is intended to praise the Lord. So sing it with all your heart and soul!
Above all, have fun! More than anything else, gospel music is JOYFUL. Sing it like you really mean it.