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.
     The decision to go unplugged this Sunday was precipitated by the desire to find a solution to the problems we have been having with sound, but it was also an opportunity to take the next step in congregational singing. Our main purpose as a music team is to enable the congregation to SING together. Volume from the front actually reduces the level of congregational singing as people cannot hear the other voices around them. In extreme circumstances--and I have been to plenty of churches where this is the case--you cannot even hear yourself sing. This effect can be created just as well by an organ as an electric guitar!
     Our initial plan was to use a couple of area mics for sound reinforcement and simply to blend our voices and instruments the old fashioned way. This created some logistical problems. We had to place ourselves where we could best be heard which meant at the front of the platform but it was communion Sunday and so we had to be off to one side of the table. It also meant we couldn't use the piano as it is tucked away at the back behind the lectern and Libby who is our pianist is also a key singer. After some fidgeting around we realized that moving the area mics would be inconvenient and we decided to do without microphones altogether and see how it went.
     We had an unusual lineup for a church music group - five voices (3 men, 2 women), two guitars, two violins and an accordion. Libby had arranged some of the piano riffs for two fiddles for the occasion.
    The result was better than we were expecting. No one complained that they couldn't hear us and one of the die-hard CCM music fans in the congregation made an unsolicited comment that "it was nice to hear the voices coming from behind me as well as coming from in front."
     Repertoire: We knew we had to pick music that would encourage the congregation to raise their voices. We chose the classic Easter hymn Thine be the Glory to open and we had the organist play (the versatile Sue Gregg) with three trumpets (thanks Rachel and Corey). The second hymn marked our big departure from a regular service. Libby taught Praetorius's 16C. round Jubilate Deo. We then dispersed the music team to the four corners of the church as we split into two, then three parts. With a bit more organization we will get two four parts. It sounded wonderful and the volume of singing noticeably increased -- and we had the whole congregation (kids to pensioners) singing a renaissance round unaccompanied!
     The hymns for communion were What Wondrous Love is This--we used the three part shape-note harmonies from Southern Harmony (1834) that can be heard on our album--and the Catholic folk mass staple  I Will Raise Them Up (with a more modern accompaniment arr. by Libby). The closing hymn was The Head that Once was Crowned with Thorns to the tune AZMON -- we sang two verses acapella and the congregation were singing well.
     Lessons learned and moving forward: I think that reducing the volume of musical accompaniment really seems to increase the level of singing from the congregation -- they don't get quieter to hear what you are doing. Our volume level was WAY lower than the traditional accompaniment on the organ or the amplified worship group.
     The biggest challenge is going to be bringing out the female vocal harmonies. Our old set-up for shape-note singing with four voices was two voices carry the tune (Adam and Jen), Libby sings a high harmony and I sing bass. For the more contemporary songs, Libby would sing a harmony line. It turns out that we have come to rely on amplification to bring  Libby's vocals .  If we continue unamplified we will probably need to add one or two more women's voices to carry a harmony line.
     There is always the possibility of sound reinforcement, and I am going to look into the best single area mic we could use and position ourselves around it strategically. . . However, one key lesson learned is that losing the microphones and amplification breaks down a significant barrier between the musicians and the congregation. It subverts the tendency towards the performer/audience dynamic. It means we all join our voices together in praise.


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