When the Soloist is Out of Tune

microphoneI received this question from a leader who recently had a young girl sing a very off-key solo in his church. He had worked with her to improve her pitch, but it was to no avail. Her parents didn’t recognize how poorly she sang, so he wrote:

How do you deal with a scenario like this? Singing is evidently not a gift that this girl possesses, yet her parents encourage her. I wouldn’t want to hurt anyone in this family, but should I continue to allow her to sing in services? If not, how would you recommend dealing with this issue should it arise again? I have no problem being “confrontational,” but I certainly don’t want to dash hopes or discourage this young lady or her family from any service for our Lord. Any suggestions?

I’m happy to respond to this question since I’ve faced similar situations in the past.

First, always audition the people who are going to sing (or play) a solo before you commit to using them on Sunday. It’s not enough to go on someone else’s recommendation, unless you really trust them. In all other instances, listen to the soloist yourself.

Second, you definitely shouldn’t allow someone like this to continue to sing solo in the main meeting. We aren’t serving the individual or the church when we let bad vocalists sing solos. 1 Chron. 15:22 says, “Kenaniah…was in charge of the singing…because he was skillful at it” (NIV). Of course, the standard will be lower in a small church than in a large church, but no one shouldn’t sing publicly if their lack of talent distracts or offends people. God gives us gifts for the edification of His church, and it’s the leader’s job to make sure someone’s gift will be a blessing and not…something else.

Third, we need to remember that though the truth might hurt, we don’t need to communicate it in a hurtful way. Telling someone that they’re not gifted as a vocalist is not “dashing their hopes.” It’s giving them hope for what God is doing in them. They might feel you’re being unfair, critical, and harsh, but that doesn’t mean you are. You’re helping them see more clearly where God’s grace is and isn’t active in their life. Any time I’ve had to tell someone they shouldn’t be on the team, I’ve tried to help them see that serving on the music team keeps them from using the gifts God has given them. Of course, we need to do that graciously and kindly. We’re not discouraging them from any service for our Lord; only service in a particular area. We take seriously the words of Romans 12:3-6:

For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned. For as in one body we have many members, and the members do not all have the same function, so we, though many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another. Having gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, let us use them.

And remember – desire is not the same thing as gifting.

Fourth, I’d make sure my pastor was aware of the situation, and wouldn’t try to communicate any of this by e-mail. I’d pull the parent aside one Sunday, or call them. I’d thank them for their desire to serve the church, but explain that with all the work you put in with their daughter, she still didn’t sound very good. If I thought the daughter could sing, and was just nervous, I’d provide opportunities for her to sing for a smaller group, or maybe in a choir. If I didn’t think there was hope, I’d encourage the parents to help their daughter find other ways to serve. It always helps when we follow up a week or so later to find out how they’re doing.

Finally, recognize and repent of your desire to have everyone think you’re a great and wonderful leader. We often put these decisions off, resulting in greater problems down the road. People are deceived about their gifts, others struggle with why they aren’t being used, some wonder about your discernment, and those who are truly gifted have fewer opportunities to serve. Situations like these help us put pride to death and learn what it means to truly care for people.

May God give us the courage both to speak and to receive the truth as we seek to glorify him with our gifts – gifts we’ve received for that very purpose.

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8 Responses to When the Soloist is Out of Tune

  1. Mike October 13, 2006 at 10:17 AM #

    “Finally, recognize and repent of your desire to have everyone think you’re a great and wonderful leader. We often put these decisions off, resulting in greater problems down the road. People are deceived about their gifts, others struggle with why they aren’t being used, some wonder about your discernment, and those who are truly gifted have fewer opportunities to serve. Situations like these help us put pride to death and learn what it means to truly care for people.”

    Thank you, Bob, for this thoughtful response. I am going to print this out and keep it before me. When it boils down to it, I believe you’re right. Though not harsh or brash about pride, it is easy to fall into the quieter side of pride that causes you to overlook the main issue. It would, in the end, be very self-centered to allow this to continue and not confront it in the loving fashion you have outlined. Thanks be to God for His wisdom and work.

    Mike

  2. Josh Deason October 17, 2006 at 8:39 AM #

    I think this is a great response to this issue. As far as an audition goes I was wondering if you had any specific suggestions on the best way to hold an audition. Should it be with the band? A one on one audition? A song that they would like to sing or something you would like them to sing (or play if it’s an instrumentalist)? Just some questions I had about the practical way to do this.

    Josh

  3. Donovan Salt November 13, 2007 at 2:42 PM #

    Thanks for taking this topic on. I appreciate your approach to being honest and thoughtful toward this girl and her parents.

    Please be careful though before communicating that someone is not gifted in music. I don’t know the author of this question or what they tried in teaching this girl so I can only respond to what I often see. Our culture is extremely quick to label someone as not gifted.

    We joyfully listen to hours, weeks, months and even years of a baby’s incomprehensible babbling and get all misty eyed when we hear one ‘mama’ or ‘papa’ out of the mix. If they don’t do this in an appropriate amount of time we hire specialists. We do this because we assume that everyone can speak unless a disability interferes.

    Often we listen to one child try to sing once or twice and all too quickly label them as musically challenged or ‘not gifted’ because they sing off key. Matching pitch with another is a learned skill just like talking. Sometimes a long time (by listeners standards) is needed for this skill to be mastered.

    If a person can hear, understand and respond to spoken language then they are demonstrating highly skilled pitch recognition and production. If they are truly ‘tone deaf’ then it is extremely difficult to communicate in spoken language (which is just a series of pitches).

    I believe that God created all of us with an inherent ability to sing. Certainly some are specifically ‘gifted’ as leaders and soloists. And certainly there can be specific physical and learning disabilities that get in the way. Just as in all kinds of learning it can be difficult to tell the difference between not knowing how to teach someone and them not being able to learn. Extremely gifted musicianship is no guarantee of an ability to teach, especially at ‘lower’ levels of learning like pitch and rhythm that most of us are not aware of having had to learn and don’t know how we did.

    I would tactfully speak the truth to these parents about the vocal problems and stop putting her up front just as you suggest. Then unless the Holy Spirit prompted otherwise I would urge them to seek out gifted voice teachers who have made the art of teaching their study.

    One more thing, there is a difference between voice teachers who teach the stylistic parts of music to those that can already sing, and those who really know how to teach the most basic skills. Both skills are good but relatively few voice teachers can really do the latter. If anyone has a strong desire to sing, I say to them keep seeking and praying for a teacher that can help.

    Donovan

  4. Scott Hill January 23, 2008 at 7:29 PM #

    “Finally, recognize and repent of your desire to have everyone think you’re a great and wonderful leader….”

    That might be one of the most convicting things I have ever read given its context. I have a guy who really wants to sing, but I don’t let him. I have never told him why.

  5. abide_in_Him May 20, 2008 at 4:36 PM #

    What do you do when the person leading who can’t sing is the Pastor’s wife who also has a Masters in music (emphasis on Classical music) and who is a Music Professor. She has been using full classical voice and vibrato on modern contemporary songs (ie. Lincoln Brester, Mercy Me — very ambitious music). Her mic is up over everyone else. Many people in the congregation avoid the contemporary service all together and others just stand there and laugh. Unfortunately, the other praise team members including myself have been asked repeatedly by congregation elders to “play louder to drown out the vocals”. We’ve got to talk with her, but I’m struggling with having tact and also with the potential this situation has to hit a wall of pride. I can’t tell whether she really can’t hear the difference or if she knows she’s singing classically to contemporary music and just disagrees musically with contemporary vocal style. (the rules for singing contemporary are almost the opposite for how one sings classically).

    I remember when a worship leader first told me I was singing with too much vibrato. It really hurt me, because in my heart, I was worshiping God truly with my voice. After getting over my hurt, I realized that God was giving me an opportunity to learn again and I embraced it. On the other side of it, I am glad to have had and to continue to have the opportunity to learn.

    I’m hoping to share my experiences with her. But I can’t assume that dropping subtle hints will fix this issue. People are getting turned away because of the vocals at our church. The Associate Pastor won’t even invite guests because it’s so bad.

    Does anyone have any tactful suggestions on how to discuss this? If my family ends up having to leave this church, they will be stuck with only a guitarist (pastor) singer (Pastor’s wife) and bassist (pastor’s daughter) – do you see another theme here?

    God Bless,

  6. Judah October 27, 2010 at 12:46 PM #

    Great post, Bob. Another point to consider is that if an individual has been gifted and called to serve in a certain way then God will open the right door at the right time.

    A leadership decision or perspective won’t damage or incapacitate gifts/burdens that God may plan to use in other contexts, if that is a concern.

  7. Andrew October 27, 2010 at 3:46 PM #

    I appreciate your post. It gives great insight into how to deal with potential problems that develop on your watch. My question is what to do with a problem that existed before your watch began. What if the person is already firmly entrenched in the music program before you arrive on the scene? And a number of people ARE blessed, encouraged, or ministered unto by that person’s singing?

    • Bob Kauflin October 28, 2010 at 2:38 PM #

      Andrew, I think the response is the same, only you have to make sure your pastor is on board with any changes you want to make and is there to support you should the individual and/or others disagree with your assessment.

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