Singers wanted, apply within

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.

About liberalreligiongetsloud

Contemporary Music and Worship Director (retired), First Unitarian, Albuquerque NM
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6 Responses to Singers wanted, apply within

  1. cindy says:

    I love this post!!

    I’m the volunteer music director of a small UU church (90 members). We play a variety of music in services–traditional hymns, folk, soft rock, pop, standards and (occasionally) classical.

    I sometimes feel troubled when I hear people talking about “quality” or “excellence” in relation to church music. It feels a little like a put-down at times. I want to let you know–the music at my church is imperfect. It might not meet some people’s high-minded standards of excellence. But our music program still blesses our congregation.

    I believe that any music, done with love and dedication, to the best of the abilities of the people at hand, will bless your small church congregation. And if the volunteers who are willing to make music practice regularly and focus on the strengths that they have, the music will get better over time.

    As a music director at a small church, you have to be flexible and creative. You can’t necessarily put together the ensemble you want, but you can look at what you have, and figure out what you can do with it. Then, just as it says in the post above, as the music gets better, more musicians want to get involved, and the music gets better.

    I strongly agree–limiting the selections of congregational hymns is the key to improving congregational singing. I was able to convince our minister to limit our congregational hymns to the 40 that the congregation already knew and sang half-way well. The congregational singing improved very quickly.

  2. Cindy, blessing the congregation with music is exactly what it’s all about! Actually, I revel in the little imperfections, because it lets the congregation know that we’re making music for and with them! It’s not a performance, it’s community in worship.

    BTW: those “hymns” in the “standard repertoire” don’t have to be from the gray hymnal, either. There are many in Singing the Journey that are worth checking out, and there are lots in the popular repertoire, as well.

    Here’s one we sang at an ordination last spring – awesome!
    Susan Werner – Help Somebody You could do this with a piano, a tambourine and some enthusiastic singing. If you happen to play bass, that would add a lot, too! (:-)

    Note: The issue with using pop songs is reproducing the words (and music?) for people to sing to. You need to have a legally purchased copy for everyone – no photocopies! If you’re projecting the words, one legal copy is sufficient, so if you’re already projecting, you’re good to go. If not, do the calculations and see whether it’s less expensive to just buy the sheet music.

  3. uuMomma says:

    Thank you! I just wrote about trying to come up with a worship service sans music director. I’ll be asking people to sing … giving them permission to sing. This really helps.

  4. Paul Oakley says:

    Thanks for this reply to my question!

    There are definitely hymns that should be reserved for soloists or choir. I did not know SLT #31 “Named Unnamed,” but I challenge anyone to show me a congregation who can do something meaningful from the pew with SLT #250 “purer than purest,” a lovely challenge of an e.e. cummings poem set to elegantly suitable 1950s Modern music by Vincent Ludwig Persichetti, Philip Glass and Thelonious Monk’s teacher at Juliard. I love it dearly. Anyone who would try it from the pew is either nuts or has balls the size of watermelons.

    I like your idea of working through the hymnal(s) together to discover what works and what doesn’t for a particular congregation. My congregation has done some of this but not systematically. We definitely discovered jewels we didn’t know were there but also discovered that some things are clearly “other people’s music.” Of course, there always is a certain amount of truth to the joke about people reading ahead to see if the theology of the hymn is acceptable to them. And that can be avoided if most songs sung in a congregation are well known to the congregation. Though sticking with a short list of artistically and theologically suitable songs has its own problems.

    There is also always a certain idiosyncratic element at work too that congregational education, trial, and error will not overcome. I, for example, do not sing “Amazing Grace” even though it is quite pleasing for many UUs. It has nothing to do with the word “wretch,” which is a fair enough description of the human condition of many for at least some part of their life. Rather, it is the reference to “the hour I first believed,” grace leading one home, and the entire 4th verse as printed in Singing the Living Tradition. It speaks of a vision of salvation that is not, IMO, compatible with UU.

    On the quality issue, I am completely and totally comfortable with “no-fault singing” from the pew. There is something mighty, something powerful about a sanctuary full of people singing with full and unapologetic voice that cannot be matched by much else. But the absence of worry about the skills of the congregation is one thing. The issue of quality among leaders, musicians, choirs, soloists, and so forth, is quite another. My concern with quality is that, given accidents of fate and (lack of) access to resources that are the reality of any particular congregation, the leaders, musicians, choirs, soloists, and so forth should be the highest quality feasible without distracting from the worship.

    Of course, the native skills of any leadership group can be improved upon. The Swedish film As It Is In Heaven just flashed through my head. In it, a very lackluster, resourceless, remote-village church choir, through the inspired leadership of a damaged conductor, becomes highly ranked enough to participate in an international competition. Don’t want to give too much away, but there are some wonderful ideas in the film about ability, developing one’s ability, forming group cohesion, learning to live in community, and so forth. But whatever the group’s possibilities, they did not rise to that potential without very talented leadership.

    But it’s definitely all a multi-tiered thing. I like your suggestions for starting with resources that are available for many congregations: hymnals and basic-level musicians to lead / accompany and then following where the possibilities lead.

  5. uuMomma says:

    Just wanted to check in with you: we went a capella and it worked well. Did, Come, Come Whoever You Are; Spirit of Life; and Do When the Spirit Says Do (I’d asked people to bring their drums, my lovely friend Karen lead the song in percussion and Board President and musician Don lead the congregation in all songs). I played a CD (Indigo Girls) for the prelude; my daughter played a song for the offering; and we drummed the postlude (I encouraged those who didn’t bring drums to use the gray hymnals). I was really impressed with my small congregation. They did it all and did it all well.

  6. And you gave them the gift of discovering the music inside them!

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