Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Showers and Sanctuaries

David Neff has some good words to say about congregational singing in an article over at Christianity Today. He is affirms what many of us know, that congregational singing is a central practice of the church. He offers this good advice:
Allow people to listen to themselves and their neighbors. Our voices should not be overwhelmed by the band or pipe organ. Some of the best congregational singing is a cappella, because unaccompanied singing lets us attend to the voices of our neighbors. In addition, our voices shouldn't be muted by dead acoustics. We are all tempted to sing in a tiled shower. Conversely, nothing discourages singing like an acoustically dry, carpeted worship space with low ceilings and padded pews

Thursday, May 8, 2014

Saturday, March 15, 2014

Hymns & Friends

Church musician and fellow traveller Wendell Kimbrough has posted his new album Hymns & Friends over on bandcamp -- you can stream the whole thing and even pre-order your own copy. Wendell is the musician at the Church of the Advent in Washington D.C.
I love what he says about the hymns he has recorded:
I have heard 20-something young professionals and retired grandparents sing these songs with equal love and enthusiasm.
The hymns on this album also transcend musical styles. Their basic components—text, melody, and harmony—are so well built that they can be led by choirs and pipe organs or by guitars, bass, and drums. When sung in the Spirit’s power, they can shake the walls of cathedrals or bring a living room full of people to a foot-stomping crescendo.
Now that's what I am talking about!

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Getty's tips on Congregational Singing

Contemporary Hymn writer Keith Getty offers some advice on congregational singing in a blog post Five Ways to Improve Congregational Singing. He has just returned from a tour that involved meetings with pastors and worship leaders. Reflecting on this he makes the observation that I myself have made and that never fails to amaze me:
In each of those leadership events, I posed the question, “What are the things you ask yourself on Monday morning, in reviewing Sunday’s services?” Generally, the responses centered around production values, stylistic issues, people management, pleasing the pastor, or finishing the service on time. I do not recall that any one asked, “How did the congregation sing?”
It seems curious that in a generation that has produced innumerable conferences, articles, blogs, and even university degree programs on “worship,” the topic of congregational singing hasn’t been raised more often.
He then offers his five suggestions--check them out for yourself. He concludes with this suggestion:
Why not in 2014 begin the Monday morning review by asking, “How did the congregation sing?” and, “How can we help them do it better?"
Good questions Keith!

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Pete Seeger: "It sounds so good when you all join in."

Singing "If I Had a Hammer" at a Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee Rally in Greenwood, MS, 1963.
I woke up this morning to the news that Pete Seeger had died.  He is, perhaps the biggest influence on me as a singer and leader of songs.  If you have time, I recommend you watch the documentary film Pete Seeger: The Power of Songit is a tribute to his life and will inspire you to song and action.

As I bounced around the internet watching YouTube clips, I found this example of the song he made ubiquitous: Michael, Row the Boat Ashore. Just watch the joy in Seeger's face when the audience really starts singing and he can step away from the microphone and join with them as their voices resound off the walls.

I found myself reworking In paradisum from the requiem mass. It is my prayer for Pete Seeger: 

Pete, may singing angels lead you into paradise; upon your arrival, may the martyrs join the song and lead you to the holy city of Jerusalem. May the choirs of angels receive you, and with Lazarus, once a poor man, may you have harmonious rest.

Thursday, October 31, 2013

Matt Redman and the theology of '10,000 Reasons'

We are preparing to introduce Matt Redman’s song “10,000 Reasons (Bless the Lord)” to our congregation this Sunday. This song is number one in the CCLI charts which means it is currently being sung in more churches than any other contemporary praise song (it also won two Grammies back in February)--so we are a little behind the times here a Ashland First United Methodist!
"10,000 Reasons" has a satisfyingly singable chorus echoing the familiar and often sung opening words of Psalm 103: "Bless the Lord, O my soul." The verses are less singable: the melody is not as strong as the chorus and contains irregular syncopation to accommodate the lyrics. This will not be a problem for Redman fans as they will have it memorized from the recording but it will be tricky for the uninitiated.
Redman and his Swedish co-writer Jonas Myrin, as Redman explained, have written a song “about the many, many reasons there are to worship God.” The second verse, drawing inspiration from Psalm 30, claims there are “ten thousand reasons” to sing God’s praises.  The number ten thousand is familiar to practically anyone who has ever drawn breath to sing in church. It is from the "ten thousand years" in the last verse of “Amazing Grace” (a verse not in John Newton’s original hymn) and Redman explicitly quotes it in his final verse. He acknowledges giving “a nod to the old hymn” in an interview about the hit song.
So my first impression was that here is a singable song with some familiar words: this is a good formula for congregational singing.
There is, however, something much more theologically profound going on in this hymn than Redman alludes to in his interviews or in his downloadable devotional guide to the song.
Consider the opening lines of the first verse:  
The sun comes up, it's a new day dawning
It's time to sing Your song again
The singer is not claiming it is time to sing my song of praise to God again: the singer is addressing God and declaring his or her intention to sing "Your song."  What is God’s song that we are supposed to be singing?

Friday, October 18, 2013

Chris Tomlin's Lessons for Worship Leaders

“This is about all of us singing”

On Wednesday, Oct 16, I went to the Q-Arena in Cleveland to hear Chris Tomlin. He is by far the biggest artist in the contemporary Christian Praise & Worship industry. Back in 2006, TIME magazine announced that he was “ the most often sung artist anywhere.” CNN recently backed this claim with their own math:

In 2012, Christian Copyright Licensing International paid out $40 million to artists and musicians, and Tomlin got a healthy slice of that pie. Churches around the world used 128 songs he wrote or co-wrote last year, [Howard] Rachinski [CEO of CCLI] said.CCLI estimates that every Sunday in the United States, between 60,000 and 120,000 churches are singing Tomlin’s songs. By extrapolating that data, Rachinski says, “our best guess would be in the United States on any given Sunday, 20 to 30 million people would be singing Chris Tomlin's songs.”
As the most successful songwriter and worship leader in the church today, a master of his craft, I want to present some of the lessons for church musicians that I drew from watching him work.
1. Being a musician and worship leader is about Congregational Singing
Despite the rock concert aesthetic of Tomlin’s show -- the big stage, light show, massive PA and strange skippy dancing around -- as the words to the first song appeared on the huge video screens, it was obvious that we were expected to sing.  
Talking to Worship Leader magazine about his new album, Tomlin said “songs of worship are meant for community and are meant for the people coming together to sing.”
In a sound bite from a
televised interview on CNN, Tomlin said: “I strive to write [songs] that people can sing, that people want to sing, and that people need to sing.”
2. You need to encourage the congregation to sing
Sing with me!
Many things in the show let us know that we were not singing-along to the songs but that the songs were for us to sing. Throughout the evening Tomlin encouraged us to sing. This should come as no surprise from the man whose biggest hit “How Great is our God” includes the injunction “Sing with me!” in the chorus.
How did he encourage us to sing? Well in a few different ways:
3. You need to choose/write singable songs
Whether you like Tomlin’s style of soft pop/rock anthems, you have to acknowledge he writes a catchy singable chorus. He told CNN “I'm trying to think, how can I form this so that everybody, people who are tone deaf, who can't clap on two and four, how can I form this song so they can sing it, so that it is singable?”
Two days after the concert, the chorus to “Indescribable” is still stuck on constant play in my head.
4. You need to teach them the new songs (and worship God while you do so).
For me the most interesting moment came early in the night. Like in any rock concert, Tomlin played the material from the new album early in the evening. “I promise to you at some point we will sing ‘How Great is Our God’” he says to reassure us.
He then eases into the new song “Lay Me Down” singing the chorus with muted accompaniment.
“I lay me down I’m not my own . . . “
At the end of the chorus he addresses the crowd. “This is a new one so we’ll do it again.” And the band repeats the chorus.
This is a revealing moment. Tomlin clearly understands himself primarily as a song leader. He wants the audience to sing along to every word and he is following the basic rule that when you introduce a new song to a congregation you must teach it to them. The band then ploughed ahead into the Mumford & Sons-y foot stomping guitar strumming number with the congregation singing along lustily.
5. You must make space for singing
Of the sixteen songs Tomlin sang that night, ten were specifically arranged to accommodate and encourage congregational singing. (And three others had intentional audience participation - dancing, waving flags and bouncing balls!)
a) in arrangements
Chris Tomlin’s band is loud and the crashing wall of ringing guitar that kicks in on the choruses of the U2-ish praise rock anthems is overwhelming. (Just listen to the chorus of Awake My Soul, or Whom Shall I fear [God of Angel Armies]).  Even in these full on rock numbers, Tomlin created space in the arrangements for the congregation to hear ourselves and that clearly signaled to us that we were expected and needed to sing.
There was significant dynamic range even in the loudest songs but his most obvious device to get us singing was stopping the band completely. The second song of the night--the Coldplay-esque I Will Follow--had crushing power chords and pounding piano in the chorus but Tomlin inserted an acapella final chorus (immediately followed by a drum solo!).
But singing to this level of noise is not satisfying for a congregation and Tomlin the song-leader knows it.
b) by dropping the volume
Of the sixteen songs in the set, six of them were played by smaller acoustic ensembles (2 acoustic guitars, solo piano, acoustic guitars and cajon) --and these were the moments of greatest singing and emotional connection between artist and audience.
Talking to Worship Leader magazine about the hymn “Crown Him With Many Crowns” Tomlin reflects--perhaps unintentionally--on congregational singing and the volume of the band:
‘Hark how the heavenly anthem drowns all music but it’s own.’ It just cannot be written any better than that. When I think about what we’re doing as worship leaders, when we’re bringing a song of praise, a heavenly anthem of praise, it drowns out all music and drowns out all other noise … That’s why there’s so much peace when people come to sing; God drowns out every other competing thing.
I think worship leaders (and church sound engineers) need to ask themselves, ‘Who is being drowned out?’
6. You should love the voice of the Church (more than your own)
It was fascinating that Tomlin, the king of the contemporary praise song, used old hymns, “Nothing but the blood of Jesus” and “Amazing Grace,” to create the emotional touchstones of the evening. After leading us in a simple arrangement of “Nothing but the blood,” during which he stepped away from the microphone, Tomlin said “There is no other sound like it on Earth: when the people of God sing the praises of God. It is a special thing.”
In his recent interview with CNN Tomlin reflected on his concert at Madison Square Gardens and his desire to step away from the microphone:
It was just so beautiful, because I feel like it says something. It's not just like, ‘Hey, listen to me sing.’ This is all of us together. I think when you step back from the mic and it is not about you - and yeah, the light may be on you, but this is about all of us singing. This is about a bigger story, it's about a greater story. It's about a greater name than my name. My name is on the ticket, but this is about a greater name.