Sunday, December 18, 2011

Carol Singing School

Ever since we started leading congregational singing at Ashland First I have wanted to have a "singing school." Singing schools were a regular feature of American Protestant churches in the 19C. The idea was to improve the quality of a congregation's singing and sell the self-published songbooks of  the many itinerant singing masters.

A few of these songbooks became famous, notably The Sacred Harp (1844). This songbook used a system of notation that used shapes to represent the relative intervals of notes. These were then sung in the "Fa So, La" scale. It sounds complicated, but the underlying idea was that regular people could learn to sing hymns in three and four part harmony.

The fact that there are "Sacred Harp" and "Shape Note" singing groups still in existence suggests they were on to something. If you go to a one of these "sings" you will notice that the singers are not arranged like a choir; instead they sit in a hollow square formation with each section facing the middle. There is no audience, only congregation. These sings often take place over a whole day with the singers breaking for dinner on the grounds. You can get a sense of this tradition from the trailer to the amazing documentary Awake My Soul.

Sacred harp singing is now divorced from regular Sunday worship as the hymnody is  no longer sung in services. I wanted to reconnect the idea of the congregation singing in harmony with  the hollow square, the singing school and food!

Christmas seemed like the perfect time to introduce this experiment. This Sunday we held our first Carol Singing School. We had about 25 adults stay after church for a pot luck lunch and then Libby (my wife and personal choir director) led us through Silent Night, O Come All Ye Faithful, Hark the Herald Angels Sing and (by special request) Angels We have Heard on High. We will be singing these carols next weekend -- it will be interesting to see if we can hear any harmonies coming from the congregation.
The participants expressed their enjoyment so I think we can say that the Easter Singing School will be coming our way before too long.


There has been plenty of singing already this Advent. Here is the congregation singing Come Thou Long Expected Jesus on December 4. The thumping noise is my right foot and the awesome fiddling is thanks to Mary Kettering (no one used microphones).

Merry Christmas!

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Singing at the fore

There is an interesting article by Steve Thorngate over at Christian Century. It is a study of four congregations in Chicago that are moving beyond the worship wars. It includes musical samples, so I encourage you it check it out. I was particularly struck by the description of a small Methodist congregation in Rogers Park. Its music director, Mark Bowman believes in congregational singing.

When Bowman leads a song, the congregation follows him readily and ably. Typically he splits the room up by location rather than vocal range. Assisted by other leaders he's trained, Bowman teaches music by rote and quickly produces rich, full part-singing—made all the fuller by the octave doublings of low and high voices.

He is clearly influenced by Jon Bell, both in method and in his understanding of the importance of congregational singing.

That's "what worship is all about," he insists, and it's a practice that excludes no one. With singing at the fore, genre matters less. Bowman laments that "people get hung up on the worship wars—'we do the traditional music; we do the praise music.' That's not the issue. All forms of music have a legitimate place in worship, but neither a blaring organ nor a blaring praise band is conducive to leading singing."
Cohesive programming matters; so does the overall quality of material and execution. But in church music of any style, the values of excellence and inclusion ultimately can't be separated, because whatever one's aesthetic standards, the musical form itself is a participatory one.
"The question," says Bowman, "is this: How do you get the congregation to lift its voice in praise?"
The idea that "with singing at the fore, genre matters less" strikes me as very important and actually corresponds with our experience at Ashland First UMC. I went snooping around on the church's web site and found they organize regular workshops on leading worship. This multi-ethnic congregation is one I'd love to visit.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

All Welcome in the Tenderloin

I had the remarkable experience of worshiping this morning at Glide United Methodist Church in the Tenderloin district of San Francisco. This is a church which is, in its own words, "A radically inclusive, just and loving community mobilized to alleviate poverty and marginalization." This welcoming congregation has an extraordinary musical expression of this community of dissimilar people.
Most of the music was led by the Glide Ensemble (the choir) and people stood up and clapped, swayed and some sang along. There was only on song that was meant to be sung by the whole congregation--Leaning on the everlasting arms. It had everyone singing.
I had my camera handy and managed to capture some of the song. I remembered not to sing . . . but forgot not to sway. (So sorry if this makes you feel a little sea sick at the beginning. Enjoy the horns!

Sunday, November 6, 2011

All Saints Singing

In this Sunday's service we celebrated All Saints Day (11/1) and Veterans Day (11/11). The first remembers great victory and the second terrible tragedy. It was also communion and I was reminded how when we sing as the saints of God we  "join our voices with angels and archangels and with all the company of heaven" as the Anglican communion service states.
When we sing God's praises as the people of God we join in song with all who have gone before.
You can hear the congregation singing in the recordings I made this morning (click on the links). I find this sound, this act, this joining our voices "with all the company of heaven" the most moving experience.

How Firm a Foundation/How Deep The Father's Love for Us
The congregation really raises the roof for the second hymn (2:41). I took the first two lines of Townend's first verse and stuck on the first two lines of the third. Ending on "I will boast in Jesus Christ, His death and resurrection" seemed a good way to go into the eucharist.
Be not afraid
We played this during communion. I like the way you can hear the administration of the elements in the foreground. Mary did a great job on her violin. The congregation's voices swelled in the last chorus.
Let Children Hear the Mighty Deeds 
This is Isaac Watts' metrical setting of Psalm 78. We are using the tune DUNLAPS CREEK which we took from Southern Harmony.

Choir of Angels mosaic on the ceiling of the Baptistry of St. John in Florence, Italy (mid 12th century)

Saturday, November 5, 2011

More Comments on Volume

I am busy researching contemporary worship music for a paper I am giving at the American Academy of Religion in a couple of weeks time. This currently has me wading through forty years of articles in Christianity Today. I have found a couple of comments that tie in with my own blogging on volume.
In 2009, John Stackhouse (prof. at Regent in Vancouver) wrote an opinion piece called"Memo to Worship Bands: Turn It Down Please!"He makes some good points including a fine whistle stop tour through the history of church music:
By the time church music matured into Palestrina and Co. in the 16th century, it had become too demanding and ornate for ordinary singers. So Christians went to church to listen to a priest and a choir.
The Protestant Reformation yanked musical worship away from the professionals and put it back in the pews. Luther composed hymns with simple (and beautiful) tunes and meters. Calvin insisted on taking lyrics from the Psalms. This was music in which almost anyone could participate. The problem today, to be sure, is rarely elaborate music. We could use a little more artistry, in fact, than we usually get with the simplistic and repetitive musical figures of many contemporary worship songs.
No, the contrast with the Reformation is the modern-day insistence that a few people at the front be the center of attention. We do it by making six band members louder than a room full of people. But a church service isn’t a concert at which an audience sings along with the real performers. Musicians—every one of them, including the singers—are accompanists to the congregation’s praise. They should be mixed loudly enough only to do their job of leading and supporting the congregation. . . But when you are leading us in singing, then lead us in singing. 
You can read the whole article over at Stackhouse's Blog.

I found another ally in Gary Parett (Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary) who in 2005 wrote 9.5 Theses on Worship. Thesis number 8 included this:
On many Sundays, nowadays, it seems that it does not matter if I sing during worship, for I cannot hear myself even if I do. Nor can I hear the brothers and sisters sitting near me. In fact, we can only hear those few people standing up front with their microphones. . .The Bible commands us to "speak to one another" in songs, hymns, and spiritual songs (Eph. 5:19; Col. 3:16). I find myself longing for such experiences today. I need to hear my sisters and brothers confessing the faith into my ears, and they need to hear me. Surely it is not only the professionals or the gifted who believe the things we are singing. Those who lead us in song must do precisely that—lead us, not replace us or overpower us. Let the amplifiers provide for a volume level loud enough to help us do our job, for it is the congregation, and not the band, that is the true "worship team."
It is reassuring to know that I am not the only white goateed theology professor who has strange ideas about congregational singing!

Sunday, October 16, 2011

It Ain't No Funk Like N.O. Funk

Corey Richardson - our intrepid tuba tooter
In our pursuit of congregational singing we may have gone too far this morning.

Part of the trick with making music for a congregation to sing is that you have to take into account the skills of the musicians at your disposal . . . and we have Corey and his tuba. What hymns lend themselves to a tuba? I wrote a few weeks ago about our foray into Oktoberfest territory. Well German Town is a fine destination -- but this Sunday I thought we should head over to the French Quarter.

I took the kids out on Saturday and left Libby--our arranger and creative genius--with a cd of Rebirth Brass Band and instructions to get a tuba line to fit the old chestnut Si Ya Humba (We are Marching). She took inspiration from their track Feel Like Funkin' It Up. I didn't try announcing the title in the service--there may have been some confusion!

Corey did well with a piece in E (fine for guitarists, horrible for tubas).

See if you can spot any similarity between the two.

Red Team - We Are Marching (Click to Listen) 

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Listening to the Persecuted Church

Chris Rice, a colleague and friend of mine, is currently travelling through Romania as part of his work for the Duke Divinity School's Center for Reconciliation. He just posted this over on his blog Reconcilers:

Over 10 days  in Romania and Poland, I am learning how this post-communist context speaks to challenges facing the church in peacemaking.  Romania was my first time in Eastern Europe, and the resides of communism there are striking:  the leftover ugly concrete housing “blocks” everywhere; former Party members and leaders and informants still in government; one Romanian evangelical’s confession “I realize I am still very communist” 23 years after liberation.  Alexander Solzhenitsyn was right about the oppression; it is my first time engaging the pervasive white-on-white form.  Of course there is much more to say about Romania than this, and I will blog more.  Yet on such pilgrimages I try to tune my ear beneath easy explanations to hear both the deeper story of pain (what happened?  why?) and of hope (what shows the way things are is not the way things have to be?).  One sign of hope was a hymn written from the persecuted Romanian church during communism.  They sung it for us at our host Danut Manastireanu’s church and he recorded it (I’m back left with my colleague Gann Herman from the Center for Reconciliation).  Some lyrics follow.  Listen, and imagine this kind of beauty emerging from pain.

Tears of Pain
Oh my tears of heavy pain will they ever end?
Oh, my people, when will you be free?
Breaking now the heavy chain
Like a falcon in the sky I would fly
I’d fly to my homeland
My heart flies away toward heaven
My mind goes up forever
Up there’s my homeland
Oh that much torment will it ever end?
Will justice ever blossom for us?
Breaking now the heavy chain
Like a falcon in the sky I would fly
I’d fly to my homeland

Monday, October 3, 2011

Writing a hit for the 18th century

Sunday's service set us a bit of a challenge. The lectionary gave us Exodus 20 as a reading but we couldn't find any decent hymns on the giving of the Ten Commandments. In googling, my wife Libby noticed that couplets from Isaac Watts' setting of the commandments for children fit the meter of the tune Old 100th. More googling revealed that an English translation of Luther's hymn  Dies sind die heil'gen zehn Gebot (These are the holy ten commands) was in a similar meter.
Figuring out the meter of tunes and lyrics is an old skill that enables the matching of words to a myriad of different tunes--hymn books have indexes of tunes by meter in the back. Since working with Red Team, we have had lots of fun trying out well known hymns to different tunes. Paying attention to meter also means you can introduce a completely new hymn (the words) with comparative ease if you pair it with a well known tune.
So late into the night on Wednesday (music has to be in on Thursday morning) we struggled to combine a verse from Watts with a few lines from Luther. We filled in the gaps (see below)  
We ended up with a Frankenstein's monster of a hymn that would, I am sure, have been a big hit in the eighteenth century!

Ten Commandments
Tune: OLD 100, Words:  Watts, Luther, Slade

These are the holy ten commands
For Israel’s children from God’s hands
“I am the Lord, your only God,
who brought you out of servitude.

You shall have no more gods but Me
Before no idol bow your knee
Take not the name of God in vain:
Nor dare the Sabbath day profane.

To both your parents honor give
So in the land you long may live
No murder, no adultery
These are my laws, pay heed to me

No stealing. No dishonesty,
shun slander and duplicity
Do not desire your neighbors’ goods,
their spouses, homes, or livelihoods.

This law fulfilled in Christ, we’re free
To serve each other joyfully
LORD, grant us strength to follow You,
And give You praise in all we do.

Friday, September 30, 2011

A Hymn Singing Tradition

There are very few places where people get together and sing anymore. Church is perhaps the only place left in America where this still happens consistently.
When I first came to the States, I was struck by the silence at sporting events. In the UK, crowds sing and chant together--often unrepeatable versions of popular songs--but over here, there are cheerleaders who do most of the cheering on behalf of the crowd. Even during the national anthem most folk stand silently clutching their ball caps.  When did Americans stop singing their own national anthem at public events? Is it a misplaced mark of respect? Is it because it has become a performance by the diva on the field rather than a community coming together in song?
All I know is it wouldn't happen in Wales!
In Wales they sing their national anthem. Here is a fine example of congregational singing outside of a church context:
A Welsh Apostolic Pentecostal Missionary once complained to me that if you get a welshman drunk, he starts singing hymns but you'll never get him to go to chapel. They will sing hymns when led by Tom Jones:

They will also break into CWM RHONDDA spontaneously when they get excited:

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Congregational singing by any means necessary

In my response to comments on my last blog post I wrote: I am neither a luddite nor a purist -- I am not arguing against technology nor for a certain repertoire. I am the Malcolm X of worship music: congregational singing by any means necessary!
In my work on congregational singing (both academic and practical) I want to avoid the sad and absurd situation that afflicts so many churches: internal division over musical tastes. The idea that folks fight pitched battles over music genres and traditions, choice of instruments and equipment etc. would be farcical if it were not so tragic.

A horn section and a medieval church.
I believe that many of these problems result from people loosing sight of the simple fact that the purpose is to enable a group of people to sing together. This is not to trivialize this act of worship. I believe this simple act of singing together is actually a profound spiritual activity. I argue elsewhere that singing together is a constitutive practice and discipline of the Church, by which I mean the act of singing together is one of the things we do which makes us who we are and that we should do it. Lets start all our discussions and worship planning, all our song writing and hymn choosing with this simple question: how can we get people to sing together?

This is why I don't care what means you use. You can use a pipe organ, an electric guitar, digereedoo or a symphony orchestra--it doesn't matter to me. You can sing Palestrina or Chris Tomlin, Handel or Kirk Franklin-- I don't care a hoot. I have been involved in all kinds of church music over the course of my life and to suggest there is "a right way" to do it goes against all of my experience (I have included a couple of examples for your amusement).

If we ask, "how can we get people to sing together?" The answer will not be monolithic. The answer will change with the skills of the musicians and the availability of instruments (or no instruments). The solution will be different as you move from one congregation to another; one worship space to another; one service to another.

It is important to realize I am not talking about all the music that happens in and around church. We have choral anthems and solos, instrumental pieces for meditation and prayer, concerts of sacred music and CCM artists. All of these bring glory to God and have their own internal logic that governs the performance aesthetic. I am not talking about all music -- I am only talking about congregational singing.

In this blog I am reporting on one experiment in leading congregational singing. I do not mean for  Red Team  (currently playing acoustic music in a white mid-western Methodist church) to be in anyway normative for other church musicians. I doubt there will be many other groups and congregations that will lead singing with a tuba, accordion and guitar combo! This is what happened last Sunday (with random percussion from my 5-year old).
Red Team - I Hunger and I Thirst  (Click to listen)
But I think the question we are asking--how do we unite a community of dissimilar people in singing God's praise?-- is (or should be) normative for congregational singing.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

St. Augustine and Sound Reinforcement

It has been a few weeks since my last post and Red Team has continued with the mic-less experiment. The new semester is also well under way and I am teaching a course on the history of christian worship. Inevitably, I am drawing comparisons between contemporary worship practices and the description of older practices.

Something I will be researching and writing much more about is the movement in American Protestant churches to model (or re-model) their sanctuaries as concert venues. Consider this example of a church in Alabama.
The worship center was originally part of the First Baptist Church's campus in the heart of Bessemer, Alabama. The room was a stylistically traditional facility with a typical stage, choir loft, organ and bacony [sic]. Ricky Todd, worship pastor, expressed concerns early into the project about the traditional nature of both the acoustics and the unusually high ambient light levels due to the 20-foot tall windows running down either side of the facility. . . In late 2006 The Foundry pressed forward with the complete renovation of the facility's interior.
The renovation included the instillation of theater lighting, a complex sound system and state of the art video and projection equipment (hence the concern over the "unusually high ambient light levels"). It also included "acoustical materials that were installed on the side walls and the balcony face, as well as the materials that would be suspended overhead" to remove those troublesome "traditional acoustics" (acoustics which were designed to naturally enhance a congregation's singing but which prove too live and unruly for an amplified rock band).

"Their desire," the article explains "was to transform the space into a uniquely modern, multi-functional venue." Now, since remodeling, the building "has successfully hosted a number of concerts and community events, as well as their regularly scheduled Thursday and Sunday night worship services." What I want to draw attention to is the implicit assumption that the physical and technical properties of a concert venue is the same as a sanctuary. The two are now interchangeable.

While most small to mid-sized churches cannot afford this sort of renovation, many aspire to it. My guess is that this concert venue aesthetic only really started making inroads into regular sanctuaries in the last 15 years. What this means is that there is a new generation of Christians who have very different expectations for Sunday morning worship than their parents. Just consider the change in congregational singing. Most people focus on the change in repertoire, but in this post I want to think about volume.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Worship Music for Reconciliation and Justice

By a fantastic stroke of good fortune I stumbled across New City Fellowship's music conference in St Louis. It has the intriguing title "Worship Music for Reconciliation and Justice." The lucky part is I am actually in St. Louis teaching at Covenant Seminary for a couple of days.
The New City Fellowships are a group of congregations in the PCA that are deliberately multi-ethnic. They each--apparently--work to develop their own worship music that is authentic to their congregations. This means not just embracing different styles but also different languages. The New City Fellowship congregations in St Louis include a significant number of West African immigrants (I met people from Congo and Liberia this evening).
I gatecrashed the first evening session and recorded the worship group Voice of Africa from St Louis. Here is a sample. It is Brule En Moi (click to listen)
And here is there opening number Yeasu-way Mar-waya (click to listen)
It was incredibly moving to sing in this congregation.
I spoke with Elaine Ramos, the director of music at New City Fellowship in Fredricksburg, VA. I asked her if it was demanding to have a congregation sing in different languages -- she answered that of course it was but "praise is a sacrifice."

Monday, July 18, 2011

A Singing Congregation

Sunday was wonderful -- the congregation demonstrated its growing confidence in its own voice. We continued to apply the lessons learned. We mixed familiar tunes with hymns new to the congregation. Two of the hymns we sang a cappella. 

This was the first Sunday I used my new audio recorder (Zoom H2). It proved a wonderful little device that can record in 360 degrees so it points at the congregation as well as the musicians. I plan to use this recorder as I travel the country in search of congregational singing . . .

Anyway, you can hear the results below. As you listen realize that this is a very average congregation led by musicians with no amplification.

The opening hymn/call to worship was a setting of Psalm 139, "Search Me O God" by J Edwin Orr (1936). We set it to the tune EVENTIDE by Monk (1861) which is associated with the hymn Abide With Me - but the mood seemed to fit and it is too good a tune to leave just for funerals! (click to listen)

We chose "How Deep the Father's Love" by Townend (1995) as the second hymn.  This is a beautiful hymn (We have re-written a couple of lines to take out the echos of the doctrine of limited atonement and (to my mind) a cold understanding of penal substitutionary atonement that takes away Christ's agency). (click to listen)

Our closing hymn (coming after the offering) was Isaac Watt's setting of Psalm 106 (1719) to the OLD 100th from the Genevan Psalter (1551). We book-ended the psalm with the familiar "Praise God from whom all blessings flow" (Doxology). The congregations volume swells as the psalm progresses. From the front we could hear harmonies coming from the pews. (click to listen)

After the service we received a great deal of positive feedback. It was not the generic "we enjoyed your music today." Instead, we had people asking us about tunes etc. Libby observed that folk are starting to have a sense of ownership of their singing in the service. One father of an eighteen year old said his son loved singing his own harmonies . . .

Sunday, July 3, 2011


It is the 4th of July weekend - always tricky for an Englishman in the US - even trickier for Christians wanting to be avoid idolatry while at the same time recognizing the importance of place, tradition and history.
This was our first time leading worship after our last slightly tricky attempt. I am pleased to say that we actually managed to implement the lessons we learned. Libby did a god job of leading the congregation in the Tallis Canon. We also reintroduced Libby's hymn Make Us New set to Cyril Tawney's frequenty covered folk song Grey Funnel Line (the refrain is based on Barry Dransfield's version).

I say reintroduced because we had played this hymn with the old amplified Red Team. Now without piano and with the need for multiple voices to make the harmonies heard, Libby worked up a new arrangement.
One point of interest in the arrangement is that the tune is in the tenor sandwiched between treble and bass lines. We learned this lesson/trick from the shape note arrangements in the 1834 Southern Harmony hymnal. Men and women can sing the line (an octave apart) giving a strong lead to the congregation. It tends to mean that you can keep the range within the abilities of the average worshipper (not too high or too low) without pushing it too high because of the need to fit 3 parts underneath it. Also the strong male voices can carry the tune and lead the singing.
I first ran into this at River Hills Church of Christ in Oxford, Mississippi in 1997. River Hills is a small African American  congregation with a fantastic singing tradition shaped by the Church of Christ's prohibition on the use instruments in worship. It is where I first heard and sang Charles Tindley's hymns . . . but I digress.

We knew this was an unfamiliar melody for the congregation, so we used the first verse as a call to worship - we had eight voices. It then served as a closing hymn with 2 guitars, 2 violins and a cello (thanks again to all the fine musical volunteers).

We were able to set up much closer to the congregation this week and from where I was strumming and singing it felt like it worked. By "worked" I mean I could feel my own voice as part of the congregation all raising our voices together.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

U2, Glastonbury and Congregational Singing

Last night I watched the BBC broadcast of U2 at Glastonbury festival. Towards the end of their set there was an extraordinary moment. Bono led the tens of thousands of festival goers in singing Coldplay's "Yellow."

It would be fairly safe to say that the vast majority of the audience singing at the top of their lungs in the dark and the rain at Glastonbury do not sing hymns in church. Rock concerts and football/rugby matches probably  serve as the last remaining place British 20-somethings experience the power of congregational singing. 

I think there are more similarities between this singing and congregational singing than simply a bunch of people singing at the same time.

This struck me a couple of years ago listening to Coldplay's free live album. U2's music is famous for its spiritual leanings and anthemic sing-a-long songs (Pride, Sunday Bloody Sunday, Where the Streets Have No Name, One etc.). I think of Coldplay as a kind of U2-light. They are clearly influenced by the seminal Irish group both in sound -- anthemic songs replacing Edge's sonic pallet with Chris Martin's piano-- and in lyrical content (a little more deeply meaningless perhaps).

Now at Glastonbury 2011, Bono leads his congregation in singing a song from this new hymnody they helped create. Interestingly enough the crowd is able to join in because they are all familiar with the song.  To enable congregational singing you need a common musical vocabulary. Also  interesting is that as U2 and countless other rock bands know, if you want to move people from being a passive audience to one that sings loudly together with you then in addition to singable choruses, the band has to drop its volume so that people can hear themselves. It is this group/congregational singing that creates the community whether at a U2 concert or in church.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

A Tricky Sunday

Come, O Creator Spirit BlestRha­ban­us Mau­rus, c. 800; trans Cas­wall 1849, TALLIS CANON
Thomas Tallis 1505-1585
Clap your hands, ye people all, Charles Wesley, LLANFAIR 
Servant King, Kendrick
Soon and Very Soon, Andrae Crouch
Jubilate Deo, Praetorius c.1600 
Come to the Water, Foley
Well it had to happen, we have had three successful unplugged Sundays and so we should have expected a bump or two in the road. So what happened? Well it was an all singing all dancing Cecil B. DeMille cast-of-thousands service. Ascension Sunday + Baptism + Confirmation + Communion + Big choral number.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Hearing Others Sing - A Lesson Relearned

   This was the second Sunday of the music team playing unplugged and again we experienced that the QUIETER the accompaniment, the LOUDER the congregation sings. Why is this?
I think the answer was given to me after the service when one of the older women of the church said to me, "It is nice to hear that we are actually singing."   Iona's John Bell wrote in his book The Singing Thing:
"If people sit more than four feet away from each other, they won't sing in case they are heard. If they sit less than four feet away from each other, they will sing because they hear others singing."
   Not only can they hear themselves but they apparently like what they hear: I know I did on Sunday.
   We opened the service with The Lord's My Shepherd (CRIMOND) with just two acoustic guitars and a fiddle. We repeated the last verse without any instruments and the voices swelled in the large sanctuary. I don't think I know of anything more moving than a large group of regular folks singing together - "lustily and with good courage" as John Wesley said. This particular hymn (a metrical psalm) comes from the the Scottish Psalter of 1650 (though the tune is not nearly so old (1872)). These metrical Psalms were traditionally sung unaccompanied and some smaller Presbyterian denominations still continue this tradition. I am not in danger of joining their ranks for theological reasons . . . but man, they can sing!
So some areas for us to think about:
1. Repertoire: It is not surprising that songs designed for unaccompanied singing work well, but AFUMC is not about to ditch its hymnals and projector for a 17C. Scottish psalter (nor should it). I would love to get to the place where the congregation is singing in harmony. Perhaps this is a wild fantasy but the starting point is singing rounds - or hymns with a fugue (women and men) in the refrain.
2. Instruments as accompaniment - we need to continue to work on our instrumentation so that we accompany the congregation singing. Thinking of a pianist accompanying a soloist, the accompaniment gives instrumental queues at the beginning of phrases but then drops back and lets the soloist lead. Similarly with our unplugged arrangements, the instruments can provide the intro's to verses etc.but then must play a supporting role.
3. The Voices Lead . So what then "leads worship." The answer has to be the human voice. it is the singing of the worship leaders that leads the congregational singing. This means that Red Team needs to think about increasing the number of singers - particularly if treble harmony lines will be heard. It also creates another question. If the volume of congregational singing increases over time, the song leaders will be less audible. So how do you lead if your unamplified voice blends into the voices of the congregation?
There seem to be two ways to do this:
i) Visually - this does not necessarily mean having a conductor. If the song leaders can be seen by the congregation, they can give less formal but equally physical queues for tempo, entrances etc. Oddly enough the right hand of the guitarists strumming is a strong indication of tempo, as is the physical movement of the musicians (swaying etc.).
ii) Singing in the Gaps - i.e singing instructions or first lines when the congregation is taking a breath or break between verses -  we are all familiar with this. My favorite example is Joseph Shabalala's sung direction to Ladysmith Black Mumbaza  to "sing." 

Pete Seeger would sing (not say) the words to guide the large audiences in folk singing . I am a little apprehensive to try this on the unsuspecting Methodists, but the time may come . . .

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

A Place for Appearing

I am currently reading Mary McLintock Fulkerson's remarkable book Places of Redemption: Theology for a Worldly Church. At the heart of the book is Fulkerson's participant-observer study of Good Samaritan, a small Methodist congregation in North Carolina. This congregation was so remarkable because it was not only multiracial (equal parts African,White, African American) but it welcomed people with severe disabilities from local group homes. This book is not about congregational singing, but it is about how we think about church theologically. This is a serious academic book and the descriptions of the congregation are framed in plenty of post-modern theory. It is an inspiring and challenging work and has moved me to tears a number of times already. Fulkerson argues that theologies that matter originate at the scene of a wound (13). The wound she addresses in her book is the obliviousness of the dominant society to the other. Church worship should be the place where these others (black, poor, immigrant, disabled) are no longer invisible.Church should be the place for appearing (123). For this to happen "social habituations of participants" must be challenged.
As I am reading the book a (considerable) part of my brain is thinking about the music for this coming Sunday. We are continuing with the mic-less experiment and Libby, Jen and Allie will be out of town leaving Red Team depleted. For our congregational singing to really be a sounding image of the unified church then we need to identify and consider including those bodies which are normally marginalized.