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.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Unplugged - the new experiment

Its the first Sunday after Easter and we have just had our first service unplugged!
Unplugged Fiddlers:
Mary Kettering and Alli Squires
I realize this needs a little explanation:
     For nearly four years my wife and I have led a small team of musicians at a fair sized Methodist church here in the Midwest. We were asked to lead a team (Red Team) to provide the contemporary music for the regular Sunday morning service. I am a theologian/Church historian and I have experience in church music ranging from English cathedral choirs, Vineyard Praise and Worship, Black gospel music, and Wild Goose worship from the Iona Community. I also have a love for folk and roots music from America and the British Isles. Libby, my wife, is a classically trained choral conductor with a similarly eclectic church music background (from early music in the Church of the Advent's choir in Boston to modern chant at the TaizĂ© Community in France).
     Inspired by John Bell's book on Congregational Singing, the music we brought to the services for the last few years had one objective - to enable the congregation to sing God's praise. There are many things that have come to work against congregations singing -- too many to go into here. After a year of playing with some talented musicians we made a CD. We called it Church Music - you can hear the results by clicking on the player on the right. We summed up our philosophy on the sleeve and in the notes for cdbaby:
Red Team plays music for congregations to sing: this is Church Music.
This music will be of particular interest to ministers, worship leaders, church musicians (and anyone else) who wish to put the worship wars behind them and get on with the business of everyone singing God’s praises in the same place at the same time.
     For the last few years we have struggled using the church's sound system. The church is not unusual in having a sophisticated 24 channel mixing desk with monitors etc. and we were rarely able to achieve a decent or consistent sound mix with the team of volunteers. This is not their fault as a good sound engineer is hard to come by. It is, however, disheartening to have arranged and rehearsed vocal harmonies only to be told after the service that your mic was never switched on! I decided to take some advice from Reinhold Niebuhr and accept the things I cannot change and change the things I can.