Last week I was at a Pastor’s Conference where many different worship bands and leaders served leading us in worship before the sessions. Almost all of them fell victim to the trap of overusing vocal cues in their leading. What is a vocal cue? Why would someone use them? How can someone overuse them? Well, let’s talk about it.
WHAT IS A VOCAL CUE?
The dictionary defines a “Cue” (pronounced ‘Q’) as a “signal, sign, or prompt”. This is not to be confused with a “Pool Cue” (sticks) or a “British Que” (a line of people). So at its most basic definition, a vocal cue (VC) is simply using your voice as a signal or prompt to someone, and in the context of leading worship, it would most likely be to the band or the congregation.
Practically speaking the most common examples of VC’s are things like “Let’s sing that again” or “Let’s go back to the first verse” or saying the first word or line of a verse before singing them, i.e. “We exalt” before the line “We exalt you oh Lord for the things you have done.” etc.
HOW AND WHY DO PEOPLE OVERUSE THEM?
The “How” is pretty straight forward. If you’ve been around the average church for a while you have probably come across a worship leader who talks a lot during a worship set. They shout out the first words of the next line before every new line in the verse, even though the words are on the projector screen. Every time they repeat a chorus they give you plenty of ample warning. “Again! Again!”.
The “Why” is a little trickier. I’m convinced that the majority of VC over users simply do so because they think it’s what a good worship leader is supposed to do. They saw worship leaders before them do it, so they do it. That 1st time they yelled “Let’s sing the chorus again” they thought they had arrived. I know that’s how I felt at age 18 in my first church as worship leader. I believe that the majority of people who over do it on the VC’s have just been poorly discipled as worship leaders (or not at all) and they are just trying to lead the church in praises the best they know how.
Then there are the nervous folks. I know, because I struggle with this. Some people get really quite when they are nervous. Some people (like me) can’t keep all that nervous energy contained and their natural defense is to start blabbing. I believe the same is true with worship leaders. They pray before service with the band and say things like “Lord, help us to just disappear” or “we want to just fade away”, but when they get on stage they just can’t keep their mouth shut.
I’m sure there are other reasons, but I’m pretty sure these are the two big ones.
WHEN SHOULD I USE A VOCAL CUE?
Now, don’t get me wrong. VC’s are great, and they are incredibly useful for leading the church in worship. Just because someone overuses them doesn’t mean we should stop using them.
A classic example for me is the song “Holy and Anointed One”. The two verses start out exactly the same “Jesus, Jesus” and then go either to “Holy and anointed one” or “risen and exalted one” with no indication for which one is which. Often, because the song is so short lyrically, the slide will have all the words on one screen which makes it more confusing. So I’ve learned to use the VC “You’re the” or “You are the” before the 2nd verses’ “risen and exalted one” line, this lets the congregation know, at least on a subliminal level, that something is different, and that we are on that 2nd verse.
Another example is on the song “Mighty to Save”. If I want to repeat the chorus at the end I have a little ‘hook’ that I use where I sing a little higher and go “oh and my Savior” leading into the standard “Savior, He can move the mountains” first line of the chorus. While the cue for Holy and Anointed One was mostly for the congregation, this cue is for the band. It’s a very organic way to let them know we are going back to the chorus.
Now, this is in a situation on a Sunday morning with a full band and a working projector. What happens with your overhead words fail? The last time this happened to me was August of last year. The words froze, and once I realized this, then I started to call out the first line or word of the verses. Here it was appropriate because we had no words, and I wanted the folks who didn’t know the songs well (they were all pretty standard songs, no obscure ones in this particular set) to be able to participate as best they could.
Another situation you might find yourself in is around the campfire at a church camp or in a living room at a home bible study. Sometimes in these situations I’ll call out a change like the chorus or the bridge. But again, you want to be careful not to overdo it. In these situations you should be doing well known songs anyway and most of the time it’ll be obvious where you are going.
NON VOCAL CUES
Your voice isn’t the only tool at your disposal to give a cue to the band or congregation. Rhythm can be a very useful tool. If you’re strumming on a guitar and go into a down strum only build up it’ll usually clue people in that something is changing, often going into a bridge or back into a chorus, etc. Piano players can easily accomplish the same thing. I had a friend who lead the band, but only sang, so he used hand signals to the band, and they knew that if he put his hand behind his back and gave a signal like a catcher in baseball that each had a meaning (1, slow it down, 2, build it up, back to the chorus, 4 end, etc).
My band knew that if I started waving the neck of my guitar that it was the signal to come to the end and if I started stopping my right foot it was the signal to go big.
All of these are great, subtle ways to communicate to the band without distracting the congregation. So feel free to steal an idea or two. Have any of your own? Drop a line in the comment section.
WHAT’S THE BIG DEAL?
Over the years I’ve heard people talk about having no distractions in worship, and then they sight as examples things that are just personal preference. Is this just personal preference on my part? That is a possibility, and something you’ll have to consider. But I think in general this can be a real distraction. Most of the time worship leaders like ourselves would do better to just shut up and sing. The words are up there for a reason, so let the people sing. People can read the words, and if you just starting singing the chorus again, they’ll follow naturally, we don’t have to tell them every little thing we are about to do. Leaders lead, so lead the church in worship and they’ll follow you.
Agree, disagree, think I’m way off, have a question? Drop a comment.