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 . . .

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