If you have ever heard Andrae Crouch or the great Mahalia Jackson sing gospel songs, you probably marveled at the power and beauty of their voices, as well as the energy and expression of their performance.
If gospel songs can be so powerful, why do they fall flat when the average church choir attempts them? To sing gospel music, you need a different mindset and different techniques than traditional, classical church music.
Gospel music arose from the Negro spirituals of the American South in the mid-to-late 19th century. African slaves were mostly illiterate (and in some areas forbidden by law or by their owners to become literate), so they were taught the Christian faith through repetitive call-and-response songs.
In a call-and-response song, a leader sings a line or phrase and the group repeats it back. There is usually a refrain or chorus that is sung by everyone. The structure is simple, the lyrics repetitive, and the emotion heartfelt.
Compare that to the classic hymns by such writers as Charles Wesley or Isaac Watts. Though beautiful, the lyric isn't repetitive and there are multiple verses. A person who can't read, can't sing them! Far too many choirs and congregations deliver them with little to no emotion. In some churches, there is a general belief that too much emotion is inappropriate or unseemly.
The mindset required to sing gospel is, "Make a joyful noise unto the Lord!" Relax, let loose, and have fun! That doesn't mean you should ignore vocal technique, however. Some believe that, after opera, gospel is the most difficult and demanding type of music to sing.
Singing gospel well requires a powerful voice and very strong breath support. The phrasing is long, dramatic, and emotional. You are telling a story, and to convey it effectively you need to feel it and believe it yourself. Your listeners will be able to tell if you're not authentic.
If you want to sing gospel, the first step is to work on supporting and controlling your breath. A good way to achieve that is the Fontanelli exercise (named for the person who developed it). Stand with good posture and slowly breathe in through your mouth while mentally counting to four, then exhale slowly to another count of four, trying to expel all of the air you took in. Watch yourself in a full-length mirror to make sure you fully expand your midsection, and try to maintain that expansion while exhaling.
When you can easily do the exercise to a count of four, increase the count to five, then six, and so on. When you work up to seven or eight, add a hold phase. Breathe in for a count of four, hold for a count of four, and exhale to a count of four. Watch to make sure you achieve and maintain good expansion. Gradually increase the count.
The next thing to work on is dynamics. A good exercise for dynamics is called messa di voce (Italian for "placement of the voice"). Take in a good, well-supported breath and sing a comfortable pitch in the middle of your range. While sustaining the pitch, start very softly and gradually get louder, then gradually get softer again.
To work on expression, study the text of your song. Try reading it aloud as if it were a poem or story, then try to sing it with the same expression you used in speaking it. Watch videos of great gospel singers, such as Mahalia Jackson (there are several on YouTube).
The words are paramount when you sing gospel. Remember, it originated as a way to teach people who couldn't read, so they had to be able to understand the text. Enunciate your words as clearly as you can. Again, watching videos will be helpful.
Above all, have fun! More than anything else, gospel music is JOYFUL. Sing it like you really mean it.