An Anonymous Person was explaining to me why she is not attracted to the worship services at our church. Among other reasons, Anonymous Person said that the hymns that are hard to sing. I asked: Hard to sing how? Anonymous Person replied that they were too high. And the more I think about it, the more I think she’s right.
In the current Unitarian Universalist hymnals, the hymn tunes typically fall between middle C and high E-flat (i.e., C4 to Eb5, with male voices transposed down an octave to C3 to Eb4). This is a comfortable range for sopranos, and if transposed down an octave, for tenors as well. But what about those of us who have alto voices, like Anonymous Person, or bass voices, like me?
Let me speak for the bass voices among us. If my voice is fully warmed up, and if I concentrate on technique, I can reach E-flat above middle-C (i.e., Eb4). A trained bass voice should be able to reach that note regularly; but mine is not a well-trained voice, and if my allergies are acting up, or if my voice isn’t warmed up, or if I’ve just finished preaching a draining sermon, I’m lucky to hit middle C (i.e., C4). Even when I can sing that high, the most comfortable and powerful part of my singing voice is well below that, from the B-flat below middle C down to the G below low C (i.e., from Bb3 down to G2).
Thus today at church, even though I wasn’t preaching, my allergies were acting up, — so when we sang hymn #114 to the tune of St. Gertrude in the key of E-flat, I had to drop out on those high D and high E-flat notes. It would be great if I could sing the bass part to #114, which is comfortably pitched for my voice and is lots of fun to sing, — but I’m not a strong enough singer to sing it on my own, and hardly anyone sings in four-part harmony any more; sometimes I can follow the bass line on the piano or organ, but today our music director was improvising the accompaniment to #114 which meant I could not follow the bass voice line on the piano. So I sang the soprano’s melody line down an octave, dropped out on the high notes, and didn’t have much fun singing.
While I was struggling my way through hymn #114, it occurred to me that the way we sing hymns is the result of institutional inertia rather than good musicianship. A hundred years ago, our hymns were all written and pitched to be sung with four voices:– sopranos took the melody, and altos, tenors, and basses sang harmony parts. Today, not many congregations can sing in four-part harmony confidently. What usually happens is that all of us try to sing the melody part, which is pitched for soprano voices — yet only about one fourth of us have soprano voices. Most tenors can adjust pretty well by singing the melody part down an octave, but that still leaves half of us, the altos and the basses, unable to sing any of the hymns comfortably.
Even if you’re an alto or bass who can sing four-part harmony confidently, you’re still out of luck much of the time. The new Unitarian Universalist hymnal supplement, Singing the Journey, doesn’t have four-part vocal arrangements;– and perhaps a third of the hymns in the older Singing the Living Tradition lack four-part vocal arrangements.
I can understand why we’d drop four-part vocal arrangements (so few people can sing them), but if we’re dropping four-part singing, then why is every hymn written as if only sopranos are going to sing the melody? The two interlocking answers to this question are: (1) institutional inertia, i.e., “we do it this way because we’ve always done it this way”; and (2) poor musicianship, i.e., the arrangers and editors of hymns haven’t replaced four-part singing with a musically sound alternative.
Now some churches get past this problem by using over-amplified music. If the amplified praise band drowns out your voice, it doesn’t matter if you sing the notes or not, because no one’s going to hear you (you won’t even hear yourself). This is a sociologically astute solution, because most of the population is accustomed to a relatively passive consumption of over-amplified music. However, if you believe that congregations are not passive consumers but active participants in worship, over-amplified praise bands are a poor solution indeed.
I don’t have the ultimate solution to this problem. But here’s one short-term solution: ask the accompanist to transpose the key of all hymns down somewhat. I served in one church where there was an astute music director who did just this — he had a good sense of the average voice, and pitched the hymns downward accordingly. It would also make sense to occasionally choose hymns with a narrower range * — the narrower the range, the more likely it will be that average voices can sing them successfully.
What are your solutions to this problem? How can we help people with average voices, and no musical training, have fun singing in church?
* Examples of hymns with narrower ranges (less than an octave), and good keys to pitch them in:
#30 “Over My Head” — range of a major third — transpose down to key of F
#140 “Hail the Glorious Golden City” (tune: Hyfrodol; hymns 166 & 207 also use this tune) — range of a major sixth — transpose down to key of E
#131 “Love Will Guide Us” — range of a major sixth — does not need to be transposed for average voices