Choir songs that carry the message of invitation

International Mass Choir of the Pentecostal Assemblies of the World. Bishop Horace Smith in the foreground.

International Mass Choir of the Pentecostal Assemblies of the World. Bishop Horace Smith in the foreground.

What should the choir sing during altar call?

Altar call (or “invitation”) is a special time during a church service, the time when people are encouraged to come forward either to make a commitment to God or to request prayer.

Here are some of my favorite songs that a choir can sing that invite people to come to the Lord.



Slow songs

Slow songs are traditionally preferred for altar calls. A slow and gentle tune gives a person space to do some soul-searching. Slow songs also make good background music while the speaker brings the message of invitation.

Come Home – by Hezekiah Walker

Come Home

Come Home

by Hezekiah Walker

“He is standing there with outstretched hands

To embrace you as His own

How can you refuse, your Father wants you to come home”

Link: Lyrics to Come Home.

In my opinion, the lead verse on this song is a little heavy-handed. But the chorus is nice, and if the choir is singing for altar call, they would probably go straight to the chorus anyway.

Luke 15:20-24

(20) And he arose, and came to his father. But when he was yet a great way off, his father saw him, and had compassion, and ran, and fell on his neck, and kissed him. (21) And the son said unto him, Father, I have sinned against heaven, and in thy sight, and am no more worthy to be called thy son. (22) But the father said to his servants, Bring forth the best robe, and put it on him; and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet: (23) And bring hither the fatted calf, and kill it; and let us eat, and be merry: (24) For this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found. And they began to be merry.

Key of Db.

Difficulty level:

  • For singers: 4/5 (difficulty level would drop to a 3 if you change the key)
  • For musicians: 3/5

Lead singer required? Only if you’re including the verses.

There is also an instrumental track for “Come Home”, available from Fruition Music. You can use the track for accompaniment if you don’t have a musician. Link: Come Home (Instrumental)


Don’t Let This Moment Pass You By – by Kristle Murden

“Don’t let this moment pass you byJesus is waiting with His arms open wideHe’s willing to supply all of the needs in your lifeTake my advice, don’t let this moment pass you by”Andrae Crouch wrote this beautiful invitation song. Kristle Murden’s recording of it is done as a solo with backup singers, but it also sounds lovely with just choir. We always end up doing it slower than the recorded version.

II Corinthians 6:2 — “Behold, now is the accepted time; behold, now is the day of salvation.”

Key of Eb.

Difficulty level:

  • For singers: 2/5
  • For musicians: 2/5

Lead singer required? Not really.


He’ll Make a Change – by the LA Mass Choir

He’ll Make a Change

by LA Mass Choir

 

“Give Him your life today. Only He can make a way. Give Him your life today. He’ll make a change.”

A sweet and melodic song, but with an unmistakable call to action. Anybody who doesn’t recognize that they need “a change” in their lives isn’t ready to come to Jesus.

II Corinthians 5:17 — “Therefore if any man be in Christ, he is a new creature: old things are passed away; behold, all things are become new.”

Key of Eb.

Difficulty level:

  • For singers: 3/5
  • For musicians: 2/5

Lead singer required? The lead verses are nice, but for years our choir did this one with just the choruses and the vamp, so having a lead singer is optional.

 


 Just to Be Close to You – by Fred Hammond

Just To Be Close To You

Just to Be Close to You

by Fred Hammond

“Just to be close to you, is my desire.”

Link: Lyrics to Just to Be Close to You.

Link: Piano tutorial on how to play Just to Be Close to You.

Simple, heartfelt, and beautiful. It feels like a spontaneous expression from the soul.

Psalm 42:1 — “. . . so panteth my soul after thee, O God.”

Key of Db.

Difficulty level:

  • For singers: 1/5
  • For musicians: 1/5

Lead singer required? No.


Renew – written by Bishop Charles Watkins

“Create in me a clean heart, O Lord. Renew in me a right spirit.”

This is one of my favorite songs. Taken almost verbatim from Psalm 51:10. A beautiful, comforting melody makes this a wonderful selection for altar calls.

The only recording I could find was from the P.A.W. Mass Choir album where it’s done as part of a medley of three Charles Watkins songs. Fortunately, the Amazon preview of the medley is an excerpt that contains Renew.

Key of F.

Difficulty level:

  • For singers: 1/5
  • For musicians: 1/5

Lead singer required? No.


Standing in the Need – by John P. Kee

Standing in the Need

by John P. Kee

 

A choir arrangement of a very old congregational song that comes from a personal declaration that each of us needs God.

“Not my father, mother, sister, or brother, but it’s me, oh Lord, standing in the need of prayer.”

Link: Lyrics to Standing in the Need

Luke 18:9-14 —

“(9) And he spake this parable unto certain which trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and despised others: (10) Two men went up into the temple to pray; the one a Pharisee, and the other a publican. (11) The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, God, I thank thee, that I am not as other men are, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this publican. (12) I fast twice in the week, I give tithes of all that I possess. (13) And the publican, standing afar off, would not lift up so much as his eyes unto heaven, but smote upon his breast, saying, God be merciful to me a sinner. (14) I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other: for every one that exalteth himself shall be abased; and he that humbleth himself shall be exalted.”

Key of Db.

Difficulty level:

  • For singers: 1/5
  • For musicians: 1/5

Lead singer required? Definitely preferred.


We Fall Down (But We Get Up) – by Donnie McClurkin

We Fall Down (But We Get Up)

by Donnie McClurkin

 

“For a saint is just a sinner who fell down

And got up”

Resource links:

This simple tune carries the message that nobody should consider themselves a lost cause. No matter what mess a person is in, they can come out of it with God’s help.

What I like about this song is the fact that at the same time it shows understanding to people who have fallen, it tells them not to be complacent about remaining in a fallen state. The line that repeats over and over is “get back up again — get back up again.”

Psalm 40:2 — “He brought me up also out of a horrible pit, out of the miry clay, and set my feet upon a rock, and established my goings. “

Key of Ab.

Difficulty level:

  • For singers: 1/5
  • For musicians: 2/5

Lead singer required? No, but it’s a nice addition if you have one.

There is also an instrumental accompaniment track for “We Fall Down” available from Daywind Studio Musicians.

 


Will You Be Ready? – by Commissioned

Will You Be Ready

by Commissioned

 

“Will you be ready

When Jesus comes

Will you be ready when Jesus . . .”

There is a very long lead verse at the beginning of this song, but the part you would want your choir to do is just the repeating chorus at the end. Beautiful, simple, and unforgettable.

Matthew 24:44 — “Therefore be ye also ready: for in such an hour as ye think not the Son of man cometh.”

Key of Db.

Difficulty level:

  • For singers: 1/5
  • For musicians: 1/5

Lead singer required? Not for the part you would want to do for altar call.


Video: Bishop Charles Watkins sings Renew

There’s a rather long introduction by Bishop Arthur Brazier before the song starts.



 Fast songs

Yes, fast songs can be good for altar call as well. A fast song can add a sense of urgency, the feeling that one needs to take action NOW! If the speaker is giving a rousing and forceful invitational message, a fast song might be better background music than a slow one.

One of the ways that I love to use fast invitational songs is as the closing number for a concert. Ending concerts with an uptempo number is always nice, and if the song has a good repeating vamp, you can just keep on singing it as you hand it over to the preacher to make the altar call.


At the Table – by Richard Smallwood

 

This one is based on the old congregational song that says, “Come over here where the table is spread and the feast of the Lord is going on.” There are many places in the scriptures where communing with God is compared to eating.

Link: Lyrics to At the Table

John 6:32-35:

(32) Then Jesus said unto them, Verily, verily, I say unto you, Moses gave you not that bread from heaven; but my Father giveth you the true bread from heaven. (33) For the bread of God is he which cometh down from heaven, and giveth life unto the world. (34) Then said they unto him, Lord, evermore give us this bread. (35) And Jesus said unto them, I am the bread of life: he that cometh to me shall never hunger; and he that believeth on me shall never thirst.

Key: Starts in Ab, then moves to Bb, then Db.

Difficulty level:

  • For singers: 4/5
  • For musicians: 4/5

Lead singer required? Yes.


Choose Ye – by The Winans

 
“Choose ye whom you will serve

Will it be God or man”

Link: Lyrics to Choose Ye

The message of this song is that everyone has to make a choice. Not only is coming to God a decision, if you DON’T come to God, that’s a decision, too. There is no such thing as neutrality.

Joshua 24:15 — ” . . . but as for me and my house, we will serve the LORD.”

Key: Verses are in Db, choruses are in D.

Difficulty level:

  • For singers: 2/5
  • For musicians: 3/5

Lead singer required? The lead verses are nice, but optional.


Look and Live – by the Michael Fletcher Chorale

“Look and live, my brother, live. Look to Jesus now and live.”

A contemporary spin on the old hymn of the same name. Here’s a link for the original hymn: Look and Live.

All of the links I have seen with lyrics for this song did not have the correct lyrics. They had the lyrics for the original hymn, even though they said it was the lyrics for the Michael Fletcher song. But the words are pretty easy to understand on the recording, so you’ll be OK.

Isaiah 45: 22 — “Look unto me, and be ye saved, all the ends of the earth: for I am God, and there is none else.”

This song also goes well with sermons about Ezekiel preaching to the valley of dry bones.

Key of Bb.

Difficulty level:

  • For singers: 2/5
  • For musicians: 2/5

Lead singer required? No.


Say the Word – by Rodnie Bryant

“If you want to be born again say, say the word”

Link: Lyrics to Say the Word

This song is a lot of fun for the choir to sing. The best feature for altar call purposes is the vamp that repeats over and over, “Say the word: I want to be born again; I want to be born again.” It’s a very catchy line that usually inspires the audience to sing along. It’s almost like subliminal advertising for salvation.

These days a lot of people talk about “speaking the word of faith” and often refer to the passage where Jesus said to ask and it will be given to you. But it seems like people mainly focus on asking for earthly prosperity and blessings. What Jesus told us to ask for is the Holy Ghost. That’s the miracle that we need to be looking for when we “say the word.”

Luke 11:9-13

“(9) And I say unto you, Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you. (10) For every one that asketh receiveth; and he that seeketh findeth; and to him that knocketh it shall be opened. (11) If a son shall ask bread of any of you that is a father, will he give him a stone? or if he ask a fish, will he for a fish give him a serpent? (12) Or if he shall ask an egg, will he offer him a scorpion? (13) If ye then, being evil, know how to give good gifts unto your children: how much more shall your heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to them that ask him?”

Romans 10:8 — “But what saith it? The word is nigh thee, even in thy mouth, and in thy heart: that is, the word of faith, which we preach”

Key of Bb.

Difficulty level:

  • For singers: 2/5
  • For musicians: 2/5

Lead singer required? No.

 



POLL on altar call practices

Does your church include altar call as a regular part of services?
 

 



Hymns

There are so many wonderful hymns of invitation. If you use a hymn, you may have to figure out your own arrangement to turn it into a choir song. Here are a few of my favorite altar call hymns:

What are your favorite choir songs for altar call?

This is a photo of me directing the New Hope Gospel Choir.

This is a photo of me directing the New Hope Gospel Choir.

“Be content with such things as ye have: for he hath said, I will never leave thee, nor forsake thee.” — Hebrews 13:5

If you don’t have a church musician, it can feel like there is a missing piece in your choir ministry. But for whatever period of time you have to deal with this situation, here are three ways to make the most of what your choir presents.

 

 

The three strategies for choirs that don’t have an instrument player

#1: A Cappella Songs

#2: Super Easy Songs to Play

#3: Instrumental tracks

I recommend that you try a combination of all three of these strategies. You’ll have much more variety in your choir presentations.

 

Strategy #1: A Cappella Songs

“A cappella” means singing without instruments

The best musical instrument of all is the human voice. When a choir does a good rendition of a great a cappella song, no one will even miss the instruments.

To do a cappella music well, your choir needs to be very strong on keeping their pitch and staying on their parts. Give the songs plenty of rehearsal time to make sure you’re ready to sing with confidence

These are some nice a cappella gospel songs for choirs. I’ve rated them for difficulty on a scale of 5.

God Is Good (Regina Belle)

Tempo: Moderate
Key: Bb
Difficulty level: 2 / 5

Lead singer required? You could do it without, but it’s better with the lead.


King Jesus Is A-Listening (L. A. Mass Choir)

Tempo: Moderate
Key of Eb
Difficulty level: 3 / 5
Lead singer required? No

Lily in the Valley (John P. Kee)

Tempo: Moderate

Key of C

Difficulty level: 3 / 5

Lead singer required? You could do it without, but it’s better with the lead.


A Testimony (Rodnie Bryant)

Tempo: Slow, but with a strong beat

Starts in the key of B, then goes to C, then Db, then D

Difficulty level: 2.5 / 5

Lead singer required? Probably so, if you do all the verses

The recording includes some instruments, but the instruments really just hit some accents in a few places. The song would go just fine without them.

When My choir sang “A Testimony”, we didn’t use the same lead verses they have on the recording. We made up our own verses based on real-life testimonies of some of the choir members.


Video: New Hope Choir singing an a cappella song

The New Hope Gospel Choir has wonderful musicians, but this particular song is a cappella — “King Jesus Is A-Listening”.

 

Leave a comment at the bottom if you have suggestions for other good a cappella songs for gospel choirs!

Strategy #2: Super Easy Songs to Play

Even if you don’t have any musicians in your church, there are some songs that could be easy enough for a non-musician to play (even a child!).

I know several songs that have a pattern of a few chords that just repeat over and over all the way through the song. If somebody learns that one progression, you’ve got an accompaniment for the song.

You may be able to find chord charts for some of these on the internet, or perhaps you can ask a musician from another church to write out a little chart that your designated person could play from. And who knows, maybe it will be a stepping stone toward someone really learning to play!

Some member of your choir could probably learn to play songs like one of these. The difficulty ratings are for the singers, not the musician.

Oh Lord, We Praise You (originally by Hezekiah Walker)

Tempo: Fast

The song starts in the key of Db. Of course, it’s usually done with lots of key changes, but you don’t have to do that.

Difficulty level: 1.5 / 5

Lead singer required? Yes

 


Holy Spirit (New Jersey Mass Choir)

I’ve written a web page with the exact instructions for how to play this song! Check it out: You can play “Holy Spirit”.

Tempo: Slow
Key of Eb minor

Difficulty level: 3.5 / 5
Lead singer required? Optional


I’ll Make It (Hezekiah Walker)

I’ve written an instruction page for this one, too: You can play “I’ll Make It”.

Tempo: Fast
Key of Ab

Difficulty level: 2 / 5
Lead singer required? Yes


Awesome (Charles Jenkins)

Tempo: Moderately slow
Key of E

Difficulty level: 2 / 5
Lead singer required? No

 

Strategy #3: Instrumental tracks

Another popular alternative is using pre-recorded instrumental tracks. These are made specifically for singers and choirs to use for accompaniment.

An advantage to these is that, of course, you get a very nice, professional sounding instrumental backup. One disadvantage is that you have no flexibility. You have to sing the song in exactly the same key, at the same speed, and with the same sequence as the accompaniment track. You can’t do one more reprise if you feel led to.

There are many tracks available in MP3 format from Fruition Music.

Soulful Sounds Gospel also makes accompaniment tracks that they sell in CD format.

You can do it!

If you’re a choir director, having a good relationship with your musician is essential.  For the two of you to be an effective team, your musician needs to know that you value him or her, and that you consider their needs and don’t take them for granted.

Here are a few things to keep in mind to make sure that you’re treating your musician right:

  • Know how much advance time they need to learn music. A typical amount of advance time would be two weeks before the first rehearsal (the rehearsal, not the final performance). But talk with your individual musician to find out if they need a different amount of time than that. If you are not a musician yourself, you might not have a sense of what music is easy or hard. It is always better to give it to them too early rather than too late.
  • Know how comfortable they are with playing in different keys. Ask them about this, but ask them in a way that is not judgmental. Work with them on choosing keys if this is an issue. And after they have learned a song in one key, they might not be able to change at the drop of a hat. Don’t suddenly decide during rehearsal that the song is too high and you want to change. When you first choose a song to teach, think about whether the key on the recording is right for your choir. If it’s not, plan in advance and talk with your musician about choosing another key.
  • Know how to signal them when you’re conducting. Sometimes if you’re going to a different part of the song, the musicians have to make a shift before the choir does. When you’re planning your conducting, listen to the places where chords change as the song goes from one section to another. Make sure you signal your transitions early enough for the musicians to be able to make their moves. Ask your musician to let you know if there are any places where your signals are too late or are not clear.
  • Also, make sure that your signals are consistent, that you always use the same ones to mean the same things. This is important for both the musicians and the singers.
  • If you want the musician to help you figure out the choir parts, tell them in advance. You know that bad dream that people have sometimes where they find out that they’re enrolled in a class they never signed up for, and today is the final exam? That’s the situation you’re putting your musician in if you ask them during rehearsal, “What’s the alto part on this line?” when you never told them that they needed to study the vocal parts.
  • Just like you select music that works with the skill level of your choir members, keep in mind the skill level of your musicians as well. There may be some songs that they’re not ready to tackle at this stage in their development. If you’re unsure about whether they would be ready for a particular kind of song, check with them (in a friendly, open-minded way, of course!).

As you can see, a lot of these tips talk about communication. Having good communication is a vital part of working successfully with your musician. Appreciation is also important. Be thankful for everything your musician offers, and let that attitude of thankfulness and appreciation be evident in when you talk with them. Encourage and pray for them, and let them know how much you value them as a part of the ministry.

Someone asked about “ways to help choir members stay on pitch and not be tone deaf”.

Are they tone-deaf?

Sometimes there will be that person in a choir who is singing their own note, totally different from everybody else.  Are they tone-deaf?

Probably not

There are very few people in the world who actually have amusia (tone-deafness).  A person with amusia has more going on than just trouble singing the correct note.  They also can’t recognize differences between notes when they hear them — they can’t tell the difference between “Amazing Grace” and “Happy Birthday”.  If someone is wondering whether they are tone deaf, there is a test they can take here: http://tonedeaftest.com/

They just need training

If they’re NOT tone-deaf, then they have some ear for music.  But they have not learned how to synchronize their ears and their vocal chords.  So what they need is training and practice (and, of course, some people need a lot more training and practice than others).

A suggestion for how to start ear-training someone

A lot of the articles I read on this subject made this suggestion — when start teaching someone has trouble singing in tune, don’t start by asking them to match a pitch that you sing or play on an instrument.  Instead, have them sing a note of their own, and then you match that pitch with your voice or an instrument.  This gives them the understanding of how it sounds when two voices are in tune with each other.  Then you can build their skills from there.

Stay in their same range

Another suggestion is to make sure that the teacher and the student have similar vocal ranges.  I have experienced this issue myself.  When I am teaching parts to bass singers, there are some notes they have that are outside of my range.  If I sing the bass part an octave higher, there are some bass singers who can easily translate my notes into their octave, while other bass singers have trouble making the connection between the G that I’m singing and the G that they should sing.  So if you working with a beginning singer, you might need to make sure that they are taught by someone who is singing the exact same notes, not an octave above or below.

Location, location, location

If most of the singers in the section hold their part well, but there are a couple of them who have trouble, it can help a lot to place a struggling singer next to a strong one.

Talk about the importance of blending!

Some people will tend to sing a little sharp or flat because when they’re on the note exactly, they feel like they can’t hear themselves. Make sure they understand that it’s a good thing when they’re blending well with the other singers, even if it seems like they’re getting “drowned out”.

Resources

Here are some of the articles I read when I was researching this issue.  You will see the suggestions I just gave you in these articles, along with more ideas:

The best choir songs from the vast Walter Hawkins collection

Walter Hawkins, singing with the Hawkins Family and with the Love Center Choir, has brought us so many essential gospel choir songs that it’s difficult to narrow down a list of favorites. But here’s my list of the very best of his contributions to the choir repertoire.

 

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Changed


Changed

“He changed, my life complete

And now I sit, I sit at His feet . . .

A wonderful change has come over me”

Lead singers love this song, but I think the best part is the gorgeous choir harmonies. The harmonies and rhythm on the verses were a departure from what everyone expected from gospel music at that time. And so beautifully done.

Tempo: Slow

Key: Ab

Resource links:

Difficulty level:

  • For singers: 4 / 5
  • For musicians: 4 / 5

Lead singer required? Yes

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God Is Standing By

 

“Everywhere you go, there is trouble

Everywhere you go, there is strife . . .

God is standing by, no need to cry”

This is the old-school gospel blues sound that we all grow up with. And so well done.

Tempo: Moderate

Key: Bb

Resource links:

Difficulty level:

  • For singers: 2 / 5
  • For musicians: 2 / 5

Lead singer required? Yes

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Goin’ Up Yonder

Going Up Yonder

“I’m goin’ up yonder

Goin’ up yonder

Goin’ up yonder, to be with my Lord”

A classic selection for funerals.

Tempo: Moderate

Key: Db

Resource links:

Difficulty level:

  • For singers: 2 / 5
  • For musicians: 2 / 5

Lead singer required? There are two terrific lead verses, but sometimes choirs will just sing the verse in unison.

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I’m Going Away


I’m Going Away

“I’m going away . . .

To a place prepared just for me

A special place, I’ll live eternally”

I especially love this one as a piece of songwriting. Some progressive harmonies for his time. Another good choice for funerals, too.

Tempo: Slow

Key: Db, then Gb

Resource links:

  • Lyrics for I’m Going Away
  • Chords for I’m Going Away

Difficulty level:

  • For singers: 4.5 / 5
  • For musicians: 4 / 5

Lead singer required? Yes

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Jesus Christ Is the Way


Jesus Christ Is the Way

“When I think about

The hour

Then I know what I must do . . .

I will open up my heart

To everyone I see

And say, ‘Jesus Christ is the way'”

I love the message of this song. Sweet, but purposeful at the same time.

Tempo: Slow

Key: Gb

Resource links:

Difficulty level:

  • For singers: 3 / 5
  • For musicians: 3 / 5

Lead singer required? They have one on the original recording, but it’s optional.

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Thank You


Thank You

“Thank You, Lord, for all You’ve done for me”

I wrote a whole web page about “Thank You” because it’s one of the most important songs in the gospel choir repertoire. A lot of people would consider this to be Walter Hawkins’s masterpiece.

I was at a convention once and one of the bishops just started singing the verse out of the blue. Even though we were not his choir, he just knew that we would be ready to back him up. Even if there isn’t a choir in the stand, you could start this one up and the congregation would do the choir part for you, probably in harmony and everything. Every choir should know this one.

Tempo: Moderately fast

Key: Ab

Resource links:

Difficulty level:

  • For singers: 3.5 / 5
  • For musicians: 3 / 5

Lead singer required? Absolutely.

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There’s a War Going On


There’s a War Going On

“There’s a war going on

And if you’re gonna win

You’d better make sure that you have Jesus

Deep down within”

The interplay between the lead and the choir on this song is really good. Some interesting harmonies, too.

Tempo: Fast

Key: F

Resource links:

Difficulty level:

  • For singers: 3 / 5
  • For musicians: 2.5 / 5

Lead singer required? Yes

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Until I Found the Lord


Until I Found the Lord

“Well, I cried and I cried

I cried all night long

I cried and I cried

Until I found the Lord”

An energetic one with a great groove.

Tempo: Fast

Key: Eb

Difficulty level:

  • For singers: 3.5 / 5
  • For musicians: 2.5 / 5

Lead singer required? Yes

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When the Battle Is Over


When the Battle Is Over

“Don’t wait till the battle is over, shout now

You know in the end, you’re gonna win”

You hear people quote this song all the time in church, so it’s clear that the message has impacted a lot of people.

Tempo: Fast

Key: Ab

Resource links:

Difficulty level:

  • For singers: 3 / 5
  • For musicians: 3.5 / 5

Lead singer required? Yes

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What is your favorite Walter Hawkins choir song?

Photo from Wikimedia Commons

Photo from Wikimedia Commons

Growing as a gospel choir singer

Tips for increasing your knowledge and skill in choir singing

” . . . add to your faith virtue; and to virtue knowledge” II Peter 1:5

If you’re a member of your church choir, I hope and pray that the reason you joined the choir is because of your love for God and your desire to worship and serve Him. You have the faith part already, and the virtue (righteousness) part is between you and God (or, at least, if you have issues in that area, you need to be seeking help from someone other than me 🙂 ). The purpose of this page is to help you in adding knowledge that will help you in your ministry as a choir member.

Learning how music works

Music is something that comes to us naturally, just like language. As toddlers, we learn to talk long before we learn reading, writing, spelling, and grammar. In the same way, we learn to hear music and sing it without knowing anything about tonality and scales and meter.

keyboard_picBut if you never learned how to read and spell, you would miss out on much that the English language has to offer (great books, magazines, the internet). Similarly, learning a little about the technical aspects of music can enrich your experience of music as well as making it easier for you to perform as a choir singer and do more advanced types of music.

That’s what we’re going to talk about here.

Understanding music: Keys and scales

What does it mean when we say a song is in the key of C or B-flat or whatever else? It’s something that’s become a part of all of us as we grew up listening to music. When you hear a piece of music, you can tell that there’s one note that’s the foundation of the tune. That’s the note that everything is leading to. When you reach that note, you feel like the tune has come to a resting place. Listen to this example:

Phrase 1

Does it feel like it’s finished yet? It’s still hanging, isn’t it? Here’s the next line:

Phrase 2

Now it feels like it’s come all the way home. That last note is the key note for the song. In music terms, it’s also called the tonal center or tonic. In the clips you heard, the tonic was an E note, so the song was being sung in the key of E. We can sing the song with a different tonal center and make the same melody. Here is the tune in the key of A-flat:

Verse in Ab

(That song, by the way, is Jesus, the Son of God written by Bishop G. T. Haywood.)

***************

A scale is the series of notes that are used in a particular key. In the key of C major, the notes that make up the scale are:

C – D – E – F – G – A – B – C

These notes are the scale tones for the C major scale. If you sing them in order, they sound like the familiar “do-re-mi” song: C major scale

Numbers are assigned to each scale tone. The tonic gets the number 1, the next note in the scale is 2, and so on. So in the key of C major, tone number 1 is C, number 2 is D, number 3 is E. There are seven scale tones in a normal scale, and after number 7 then you’re back to number 1.

In other keys, different notes make up the scale. In the key of E major, the notes of the scale are:

E – F-sharp – G-sharp – A – B – C-sharp – D-sharp – E

The tonic is E, the 2nd is F-sharp, the 3rd is G-sharp, etc.

If you sing those notes, you get the same scale, just in a higher key: E major scale

If we go back to the song we were using, we can express the notes in the first line by using the scale tones:

5 – 3 – 2 – 3 – 2 – 1 – 1 – 1 – 6 – 1 – 6 – 5 – 1 – 1 – 1 – 3 – 3 – 2

No matter what key we’re in, those scale tones in that order will produce that melody.

As you practice singing and listening to music, you’ll start to get a feel for what the scale tones sound like. This will help you understand and remember your choir parts. For example, on a particular song, the sopranos might be starting on the third, the altos on the tonic, and the tenors on the fifth. If you understand that, it will help you keep your place and know where you’re going.

A tip for hitting that first note right

Sometimes when singers are coming in with their first notes of a song, I will hear them start on a note that’s close to the right one, but not quite there. Then they have to slide up to the real note.

One way to avoid this is to sing the note to yourself very quietly, or even just sing it in your mind. It really will help you get that first note straight on. Try it!

Tutorial video on singing high notes

Everybody can profit from this. Here’s another instructional video from Eric Arceneaux. This one is about hitting high notes smoothly without screeching.

World Children's Choir

The World Children’s Choir with President and Mrs. Geroge W. Bush — Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

Choir decorum

Elisha Mitchell has a nice list of suggestions about choir etiquette. Some of them are practical tips, others are spiritual.

Some of my favorite practical suggestions from the list:

  • If you know you need extra help, bring a portable tape player. Record the rehearsal so you can practice at home.
  • Try singing music from a different era or style. This may be challenging but it serves to reach a diverse audience. And sometimes an “oldie but goodie” is right on time.
  • Whenever possible, a lead singer should test the microphone before a program. If this is not possible, you can also hear what it sounds like when someone else is using it. Then you’ll know how far away to hold it or whether to use it at all.

And some of my favorite spiritual points:

  • Sing the song you aren’t particularly fond of with a good attitude. It may be exactly what someone else needs to hear.
  • Harping on someone else’s inability will reduce the choir’s overall effectiveness to minister. Edify or hush.
  • Open your heart to be a channel for God to minister to others. To have that focus is especially helpful when you’re asked to sing a song–again!

Here’s the full list.

Vocal warmup tips – A video series from Eric Arceneaux

This is something we can all work on together. I need to strengthen my vocals as much as anybody.

In these videos, Arceneaux talks about warm-up exercises that can help develop your singing technique. In this first one he spends some time introducing the series and then gets into the first exercise. Check out his whole series.

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“Thank You (Lord, for All You’ve Done for Me)” — A gospel choir standard

Everything you need to know to teach “Thank You” by Walter Hawkins to your choir.

“Thank You (Lord, for All You’ve Done for Me)” by Walter Hawkins and the Love Center Choir, was a part of the “Love Alive IV” album that was released in 1990. The song is immensely popular with gospel music fans and is a standard in the gospel choir repertoire.

Everybody knows this song and everybody loves it. As I said on my web page about Walter Hawkins songs: “Even if there isn’t a choir in the stand, you could start this one up and the congregation would do the choir part for you, probably in harmony and everything.”

What’s great about “Thank You”

What makes it one of the best choir songs around?

The message of “Thank You” is an easy one to love. Being grateful for the simple blessings of life

It’s a modern-sounding song, with references to the problems that are often faced in today’s society. The song was released in 1990, just in time for the recession of the early ’90s, so people identified with the line that says “the economy’s down, people can’t get enough pay” and “folks without homes living out in the street”. But in all of the intervening years, times have never been so perfect that the song no longer felt relevant, especially in the black community.

Lead singers love this song! The melody on the lead verses is simple but lends itself well to bending and intonation to let a singer mold it to their own style and be expressive. And the chord progression starts out very laid back and builds tension as it gets to the end of the verse where the singer and the musicians can all let loose on the last line — “Thank You Lord, for all You’ve done for me”.

Choirs love it too. The choir part has an easy groove to get into and the parts are easy to learn — even though you might not be doing it exactly the same as it is on the album. It doesn’t go too high or too low, and it’s an easy song to sing expressively.

Buy the song!

Actually, you’ll have to buy the whole album. “Thank You” isn’t sold as a single.

Overview of “Thank You”

“Thank You” was originally done in the key of Ab. It’s written for three choir parts — soprano, alto, and tenor — and a lead singer. On the original recording the choir it is accompanied by a standard gospel band.

Songwriter and publisher info for “Thank You”

“Thank You” was written by Walter Hawkins, one of the most important gospel choir songwriters of all time.

According to BMI, the publishing rights are held by LEEODD MUSIC, MALACO MUSIC COMPANY, and PEERMUSIC III LTD.

Mechanical licenses for “Thank You” can be obtained through the Easy Song Licensing.

How does the bridge really go?

The part where the lead starts with “It could have been me . . .”

I’ve heard different choirs sing that middle section different ways, and they all sounded good. But what are the real notes?

After listening repeatedly to the original Hawkins recording, this is what it sounds like to me. The top line is the soprano part, the next line is the altos, and the bottom line is the tenors:

Bb —- Bb —- Bb — Bb — Bb — Bb — Bb — Bb

Gb —- Gb — Gb — Gb — F —- F —– F —– F

Db —- Db —- C —- C —– C —- C —– C —- C

Thank You – Thank You – Thank You – Thank You

 

Bb —- Bb —- Bb — Bb — Bb — Bb — Bb —- Bb — C

F —— F —— F —- F —- Ab — Ab —- G —– G — Ab

D —— D —— D —- D —- Db — Db — Db —- Db — Eb

Thank You  –  Thank You – Thank You – Thank   You  Lord

 

Bb —- Bb —- Bb — Bb —- C —- C —- Db —- Db

Gb — Gb —- Gb — Gb — Ab — Ab — Ab —- Ab

Db —- Db —- C —– C —- Eb — Eb —- E —– E

Thank You –  Thank  You – Thank You –  Thank  You

 

So if you look at that, combined with the bass line from the instruments, these are the chords that the choir is making:

Ebm7 – Ab9 – Db6maj7 – Db6maj7

Bb – Bb – Ebsus7 – Eb7 – Ab

Ebm7 – Ab9 – Dbmaj7(9) – Bb 1/2dim

Pretty cute!

 

How to play “Thank You” – A video tutorial from Jarreau24 on YouTube

PART I

PART II

Richard Smallwood – A songwriter’s songwriter

Smallwood stands unchallenged in his niche as a creator of gospel music. He brings classical elements to black gospel music in a way that incorporates the best of both traditions. A lot of his music is not for novices, but for experienced singers and choirs, he inspires us to work harder, refine our skills more, and bring ourselves up to the level of this splendid music.

The songwriting of Richard Smallwood

His style of songs

One of the things I mentioned on my Andrae Crouch fan page is that much of Crouch’s music adapts well to singers and musicians of all different skill levels. Well, Smallwood stakes out a different territory. His best songs are challenging ones, the songs that you have to take some serious time rehearsing. Hearing an inexperienced choir attempt a Richard Smallwood song when they’re not ready can be painful. But when a choir is prepared and executes well, it’s a transcendent experience.

He has songs that make classical styles sound soulful and others that make gospel and blues styles sound elegant. And every composition he writes makes it clear that he understands music inside and out.

Sheet music for Richard Smallwood songs.

Sheet music is available for a lot of Smallwood’s songs, especially his later work. Sadly, some of his older songs are not available in sheet music form.

Check out his music on MusicNotes.com

I think sheet music also sends a message to directors like me about what Smallwood wants for his music: Don’t guess at how the song goes. Do it right.

 

Richard Smallwood majored in piano performance at Howard University.

During his time at Howard, Smallwood and some of his classmates staged a protest.

They took over the Fine Arts Building for two weeks, demanding that Howard start including spirituals, gospel music, and jazz into their music curriculum. (McCoy)

“There is good and bad music in every genre.”

Richard Smallwood

Richard Smallwood’s musical background

The influence of many different styles of music are clearly heard in Richard Smallwood’s songwriting.

As a child, his mother took him to classical concerts frequently. Meanwhile, his stepfather made him learn and practice hymns to play on the piano at church. Richard was also listening to soul and R&B music, but that was a secret from his parents at the time (they didn’t approve of “worldly” music). Smallwood states that there is good music and bad music in every genre, there is no type of music that is all good or all bad. He never makes a conscious effort to incorporate particular musical styles into his writing. He just immerses himself in music that he loves, and it naturally flows out in his work. (McCoy)

I admire that mindset. I hear music sometimes where it sounds like the artist is trying a little to hard to write in a particular style in order to prove how sophisticated or intellectual or hip they are. It feels very self-conscious. Richard Smallwood’s example to us is to just dig into as much music as we can, follow our passions, and see what comes of it.

Richard Smallwood’s eighth-grade public school music teacher was Roberta Flack!

He says that her approach to playing the piano was a great influence on him. (Joy97)

A glimpse into Smallwood’s writing process

Here’s what Smallwood says about what makes for a good song (McCoy):

  • A song should be singable.
  • It should be memorable.
  • It ought to have a “hook” (some musical element that will stick in your mind when the song is over).
  • It should be structurally sound (have a beginning, middle, and end, just like a story).

I think one way that Smallwood follows the “singable” ideal in his music is the fact that he writes almost everything in 3-part harmony. I’m certain that he would have the knowledge and talent to write things for four-part choir with full classical counterpoint any time he wanted to (remember that last line on “Calvary”?). But he knows his target audience. He’s writing for church gospel choirs. In those choirs, the singers are used to singing in three parts, and all the harmonies go in similar motion.

One of the things I’m always curious about with other songwriters is the “chicken and egg” question — Which came first, the words or the melody. Here’s what Smallwood says: “It can come either way. Many times I’ll get a melody or a musical phrase that I’ll elaborate upon and then the lyrics will come. Other times I’ll get a lyric or a theme and then the music will come.” (GospelFlava)

Another aspect of his songwriting — “I am sort of a perfectionist, and I probably throw away more stuff that I write than I keep. I’ll go through three or four versions of a song before I get to the final version and then if I don’t like it I dump the song” (GospelFlava). I can definitely relate to that. For me, the process of songwriting includes writing lots of weak materiaI on the way to writing the one that will be a keeper.

Here are a few songs that showcase Smallwood’s songwriting talent:

Total Praise

“Total Praise” is considered by many (myself included) to be Smallwood’s masterpiece. The harmonies in this song are like no other. Through most of the verse (the parts that come before “You are the source of my strength”), every single syllable of the song makes a different chord.

Smallwood shared that he wrote the song when he was going through a very difficult time in his life, and it’s about faith triumphing over sorrow. (BostonFab)

Calvary

The studio version of “Calvary” is better than the live one, but either way it’s an unforgettable song. The blues influence beautifully complements the theme of the crucifixion.

Smallwood is on the piano in this performance.

Bless the Lord

On “Bless the Lord”, Smallwood drops some classical-sounding counterpoint right in the middle of the song in a very fun way.


Bibliography

I found several interviews with Richard Smallwood that provided first-hand descriptions of his musical philosophy and process. These are the references: