Singing in harmony

We had our teacher training here at the Palo Alto church this morning. There were 25 people present, and at one point, partly as an experiment, I taught the group a simple Zulu song, “Thula” (available in The Folk Choir Song Book). I am neither a trained choir director nor a particularly good musician. Our group today had some people who are good singers, but most of the group probably only sings at karaoke and campfires. Yet in five minutes, I had the whole group singing in three-part harmony. We sounded fabulous.

Some of us were talking about this after the training. We agreed that society at large trains us to understand ourselves as consumers of music product. We do not have the sense that participating in music is a normal part of human life. And even our churches have become places where the music is produced only by professionals (and trained amateurs), while the majority of us have become passive consumers of music. We don’t even have church karaoke, for Pete’s sake.

Mostly, I think — at least mostly in Unitarian Universalist congregations — no one takes the time to really teach congregations how to sing. We let the professionals do the music for us, or we let the trained amateurs sing for us, and we sing limply along on the hymns (hymns which are rarely in keys suitable for our untrained voices). Sometimes the music professionals do things like offering hymn sings before the worship service, which increases the volume a little bit but does not make the congregation sound fabulous. Sometimes the ministers choose hymns which are fun to sing, rather than choosing hymns where the words fit the theme of the sermon, but still the congregation doesn’t sound as fabulous as they could.

Singing harmony in a large group can cause beneficial physiological changes in people; it can induce transcendent experiences; it can cause little children to dance and sway in time to the music. Why do we settle for anything less than singing so we sound fabulous?

Read the follow-up post.

10 thoughts on “Singing in harmony

  1. Jeremiah

    Amen, Dan! Our church sounds horrid half the time, but our mighty Hooks and Hastings organ tends to cover up the mess unless the organist moves over to the Chickering.

    And harmony isn’t the only problem – rhythm. Oh, dear lord it hurts to see and hear it sometimes.

    We should ask more of ourselves.

    Let’s all pledge to be fabulous!

  2. Dan

    Ms. M @ 1 — Yes, at least we could do karaoke church….

    Jeremiah @ 2 — Oo, you have a Chickering piano? Back when my keyboard skills were somewhat better, I got to play a Chickering, and I loved the sound.

  3. VB

    “Why do we settle for anything less than singing so we sound fabulous?” This is exactly the philosophy behind the contemorary services we do.

    “Singing the Living Tradition” did communal music a great disservice, IMO. Or maybe it’s the music directors who love its esoterica. Anyway, there is far too much in that book that is unsingable, unsingable without much practice, unsingable except by skilled musicians, or singable but unlistenable. My favorite “see here” exhibit is No. 31, “Name Unnamed”, wordy and atonal and wholly unsatisfying. (Sorry if you’re the author/composer, but that’s how it is.)

    You’d be surprised — and pleased, I think — to hear the lusty and enthusiastic singing you’ll get when you choose songs that sound good when people can sing them. Wait, you won’t; you did that already.

    Why are Unitarians such poor singers? Because they’re reading ahead to …. No, wait, it’s because most of the music in the hymnal is not very musical, or isn’t any fun to sing. Want good singing? Give people something they can sing well, and watch what happens.

    Carry on with what you’re doing, and may you be blessed with the joyous response of people given permission to make a joyous noise.

  4. Dan

    VB @ 4 — You write: ““Singing the Living Tradition” did communal music a great disservice, IMO.”

    Well, I’m not sure it’s that bad. Singing the Living Tradition has some real gems in it — lots of hymns from the black church and spiritual traditions, lots of tunes by Ralph Vaughan Williams, rounds, chants, and songs by contemporary singer-songwriters like Holly Near and Carolyn McDade. And its immediate predecessor, Hymns for the Celebration of Life, included some rocking shape-note tunes from the white gospel music tradition. In both hymnals, there’s good singable stuff in amongst the not-so-good stuff — much of which includes singable arrangements.

    However, I would say that Singing the Journey, the new hymnal supplement, has done us a real disservice. It includes too many songs which rely on a professional accompanist to make them sound good. We just sang “Blue Boat Home” in this morning’s worship service — without the piano arrangement, the tune is just a crappy remake of Hyrfrodol. I love the words, but I get bored singing the tune as printed — I prefer to sing the words to the old Hyfrodol, with the harmony parts. And when you learn that the arrangement is supposed to mimic a solo singer accompanied by guitar (that’s why you’ve got that crazy repetitive piano going on, it’s supposed to be a finger-picked guitar), you realize that the arrangement is really designed to be passively consumed — you’re supposed to be sitting in some coffeehouse listening to a singer-songwriter singing and playing guitar.

  5. Amy

    We don’t even have church karaoke, for Pete’s sake.

    Ah, you have many treasures still to discover about your new church! I think we’ve had two or three in the past couple of years. I keep missing them, darn it.

    Folk guitar should invite singing along, as a participant rather than a recipient. It depends whether you do it coffeehouse style or campfire style–in other words, on how the leader approaches it.

  6. Jason

    I take issue with your comment about Singing the Journey doing us a disservice, Dan. I do agree that many of the songs require a strong accompanist, though I don’t think that’s a bad thing. Many others require simple or no accompaniment at all – my sense is there’s a pretty good balance in the book overall. I also think it’s great that our hymnals can help us stretch and grow musically. I can’t tell you how many messages I gotten from people who have just sung The Fire of Commitment at their church, and how proud they are for having done it. A sense of pride and accomplishment has a place in our singing, no?

    I’m sorry you’ve come away with such a negative impression of Blue Boat. It’s certainly isn’t a passive experience when we sing it in my church (in 4 part harmony – which I’m happy to send you if you like), and was never intended to be that way. I can’t control what people do with the music, however, once it’s been published, and I wonder if your experience of the song doesn’t say more about the singing culture in your church than about the arrangement itself. But then again I don’t really know what most of our songs sound like in UU churches other than the ones of which I have direct experience, so I prefer to speak about what works for us (and doesn’t) rather than imagining our experience to be somehow universal. I must say it’s always interesting, though sometimes disheartening, to hear other points of view on the subject.

  7. Dan

    Amy @ 6 — Church karaoke — cool! But I still want hymnal karaoke.

    Jason @ 7 — Yes, some of the individual songs in Singing the Journey are fine songs — I even suggested one or two (that song transcribed from the singing of Ysaye Maria Barnwell sure looks like my transcription from her Singing in the African American Tradition). What I dislike is that Singing the Journey emphasizes unison singing with professional accompanist, with no arrangements for harmony singing. When we’re forcing our congregations to flip through 6 pages just to accommodate the piano accompaniment, this is placing the accompanist before the needs of the singers. If we’re going to get rid of harmony singing, it would have made more sense to print up simple lead sheets, and then make other arrangements available to the professional accompanists — that would be placing the singers’ needs first.

    As for “Blue Boat Home,” I’m not fond of the arrangement in Singing the Journey. Maggi Kerr Peirce, a UU folksinger and storyteller from New Bedford, has done a nice adaptation of Peter Mayer’s poem to the tune Hyfrodol, and I find it’s much more fun to sing. You write that you’re willing to send out your four part harmony to “Blue Boat Home” — thanks, and I hope others take advantage of your offer (Jason can be reached via the Nashville Unitarian Universalist congregation). But this makes me ask, why wasn’t that arrangement published in Singing the Journey — an arrangement that could involve a congregation’s choir and any experienced singers in the congregation — instead of the arrangement that was included which allows for the accompanist to have a blast while everyone else just sings in unison? Seems to me you just proved my point — Singing the Journey is not aimed at supporting singers, it’s aimed at supporting professional accompanists.

  8. Jason

    That’s a fair point, Dan. Unfortunately, to help our congregations move into a more “contemporary” sound (certainly one of the goals of STJ), we have to spell things out for our more literal, non-improvising accompanists. And that takes up space. Adding harmony parts would have taken even more space, and some of the songs would have gone from merely untenable to completely unusable. We learned a lot from the process, though.

    My hope is that when we get around to producing a new, full-fledged hymnal, it will have a separate accompaniment book. That way the “pew” edition will be able to focus on congregational parts only (harmonies and descants and ossias, oh my!), while the accompanist(s) will have their own book with piano parts, guitar chords, and even parts for other instruments. I’ve seen this done with really good effect in the GIA catholic hymnals (Gather, Worship, and their subsequent revisions), and I pushed for it with STJ, but the idea didn’t take. The problem is that each “edition” is a separate publication which requires a full editorial effort. The STJ team had a one-year concept-to-publication life, and we know that the book we put out isn’t exactly what we wanted it to be, but the hope it that feedback from folks like you about what works and what doesn’t will give us the hard data that pushes the UUA to think differently about how they go about publishing the next hymnbook(s).

  9. Dan

    Jason @ 9 — You write: “My hope is that when we get around to producing a new, full-fledged hymnal, it will have a separate accompaniment book. ”

    My feeling exactly. I suggested to the STJ team (and why should they listen to me?) that the hymnal would be just lead sheets aimed at people in the pew. But yeah, the work flow of that particular project didn’t allow for it. So we’ll have to wait for the future. (P.S. I’m going to get to your other comments Real Soon Now, but I have to go do shape note singing this afternoon, as I try to learn how to sing harmony parts and sight read music.)

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