Paul Oakley asked But do you have any ideas about bridging the desire-quality gap? Not every small church that wants to do new stuff can afford to pay for external resources.
Well, for starters, not every traditional church has quality music now, for lack of funds. So, little to lose, right?
My attitude is to empower people to make music. They sing in the car or shower, they hum along to hits played on the grocery store sound system – they can make music, but they’ve been taught that they aren’t good enough to do it in public. Bosh.
So, I have several things to suggest. First, find one person with some talent and an interest in making things happen. The talent quotient is important, but not as much as the passion. Competent and committed. They may be singers, pianists, guitarists, percussionists, flautists … the main thing is that they know they are helping something important happen and are committed to it. Teach that person how worship works, how it goes together, how to be a worship leader through music.
Second, get the minister, the music director, the accompanist – everyone involved in creating worship – and go through every song in the hymnal together (singing them!). They should note which hymns have lyrics that are clear and singable, that contain a single well-articulated thought; hymns that have melodies that can be sung easily but have a “hook” that makes them distinctive, that fall in a range appropriate to their use (e.g. low register for meditative songs sung sitting).
They should come up with a repertoire of 20 or so hymns that have deep meaning for us, are enjoyable to sing, and are within the capabilities of untrained singers. Introduce them one or two at a time, until the whole set is familiar to everyone. Then, use them and stick with them! Don’t give in to the temptation to use another hymn because it has a verse the minister thinks fits with the reading. You’ve already been through the whole book and you rejected that one for a good reason! When people feel confident (they know the song, they know they can sing it), they sing better.
Third, have you heard the joke about why Unitarian-Universalists sing so badly? (“Because they’re too busy reading ahead to see if they agree with the words.”) That’s probably not it. It’s probably because so much of the music we sing together is either worn out, uninspiring or simply unsingable. (I’ve already counted the 17th-century German organ tunes in a previous post. My favorite example of the “unsingable” is No. 31 in SLT, “Name Unnamed”, which has about 75% too many words and a tune that is atonal and literally unsingable. It’s an intellectually elegant piece, but emotionally inaccessible.)
On the other side of this issue, have you ever been to one of Nick Page’s workshops? He practices “no-fault singing”. He says “if you can walk, you can dance; if you can talk, you can sing”. I grew up in a similar faith tradition, where unaccompanied singing by the whole congregation was the whole of the music “program”. Guess what? Alone, maybe no one in a congregation has a gorgeous voice, but singing with 80 others, the sound is pretty darned good. Give people permission to sing (even if they “don’t have a good voice”). In fact, set the expectation that singing is an indispensable part of worship; if you’re not singing, you are missing an important part of the experience! It’s not a contest, it’s not a recital – it’s a chance to join your voice and your spirit and your nervous system in synchrony with those in your spiritual community!
This stuff all takes time. Not everyone will like it at first. You may have to do workshops or special worship services to introduce new concepts and expectations. You may not find your passionate musicians until after you have started doing things differently. In fact, I can guarantee that, once you have a lively and engaging music program going, there will be someone who suddenly “remembers” their desire to make music. That’s what happened for me. But if you don’t have a plan for getting everyone involved and feeling joyous, you’ll make no progress.
That’s my take on it, based mostly on personal experience. I expect From a Mustard Seed to show up any day now, and there may be radically different recommendations there. But I feel strongly that if we get out of our intellectual cages, choose songs that lift up the heart, and let people know that they can and should sing, the music and the worship will get better fast.