So how can we get congregations to sing better? I’m not a very good musician, but I’m a pretty good teacher, and if you think like a teacher the obvious thing to do is to teach your congregation how to sing. Once you have that big, broad goal, you can break it down into manageable chunks. Now I admit that I have never taught a congregation how to sing well enough that they spontaneously sing in harmony, but I have taught smaller groups how to do so, and there’s an obvious progression of steps to take:
(1) Learn a core group of songs/hymns so that everyone knows them well. You choose the core songs for their theological relevance, singability, and beauty. It helps if they are easy to memorize.
(2) Sing those songs repeatedly until most of the people in the group know them well.
(3) Teach simple harmony parts for the core songs. Singing the songs with minimal or no accompaniment helps everyone to really learn the songs and harmony without relying on the crutch of a piano or guitar.
(4) Sing the core songs with their harmony parts until most of the people in the group know them well — well enough that as soon as you start singing one of the core songs, the people who know the harmony parts spontaneously start singing in harmony.
I’ve outlined this as a neat and tidy progression of teaching tasks, but in real life it’s not that neat and tidy. You might start by teaching one song and immediately adding harmony parts; then gradually adding other songs, some with harmony and some without. The exact path you follow will always depend on the teacher’s abilities and the chemistry of the group being taught. But in every case, the goal is the same: to have the group learn a core group of songs with harmony parts.
Such a plan would not do away with choirs, soloists, and/or professional musicians — choirs and soloists can help support us ordinary singers, and sometimes we like to just sit and listen to really good musicians. I also think such a plan would help us damp down the fights over church music style — when you’re sitting and listening as a passive consumer of music you have every right to be picky about the style of music you are being forced to listen to, whereas when everyone’s singing together we are more likely to understand that all musics are created equal (as Peter Schiekele used to say).
What would this plan look like in the actual worship life of a congregation?
Well, the worship leaders, the musician(s), and the religious educator would come together and develop a list of core songs/hymns that everyone in the congregation will be learning. Since so few of our songs/hymns in either of our Unitarian Universalist hymnals have easily-learned and singable harmony parts, the musician(s) will have to write some simple harmony parts for at least some of the core songs/hymns. The musicians and the religious educator would then train a core group of singers, people who will know all the core song/hymns, and who will be able to help lead and help teach these songs — this core group of singers should include both choir members (to help lead songs in worship) and religious education teachers (to help teach songs to kids, and to adult RE classes). Then the congregational leadership plans to integrate singing these songs into many aspects of the congregation’s life — worship services, children’s classes, youth group meetings, small group ministries, etc.
If a congregation would follow this plan for a year, that congregation could build up a repertoire of 20-30 songs that they could all sing without song sheets or hymnals, which not only helps everyone sing better but is also important for including kids who are not yet fluent readers and adults who don’t know how to read music. Then in succeeding years, the congregation could add more songs/hymns, until they had a repertoire of about 50 songs/hymns. I would expect that that body of core songs/hymns would evolve over the years.
Of course, then as newcomers join the congregation, you’d have to figure out ways to teach them the core songs/hymns. And the core songs/hymns would have to be taught every year in the children’s programs.
This is a follow-up post to this earlier post.
Below are some singable, musically interesting, generally kid-friendly songs that might be included on a list of core songs/hymns (number in parentheses is number in one of the two Unitarian Universalist hymnals) [comments in square brackets]. This list includes a mix of traditional hymn tunes, songs by contemporary singer-songwriters, chants, rounds, traditional black and white church music.
Amazing Grace (205) [the 4-part harmony in the hymnal is challenging but singable]
Blue Boat Home (1064) [the 4-part harmony for Hyfrodol could be adapted for this song]
Bright Morning Stars (357) [the 2-part harmony in the hymnal is challenging]
Come Come Whoever You Are (188) [round, with possible ostinato part]
Bring a Torch, Jeannette, Isabella (233) [Christmas]
Dayenu (not in hymnal) [Passover]
Dona Nobis Pacem (388) [round]
Evening Breeze (1072) [chant, good partner song to refrain from Wade in the Water (210)]
For the Beauty of the Earth (21) [the 4-part harmony in the hymnal is challenging but singable]
The Friendly Beasts (243) [Christmas]
I’m on My Way (116) [call and response in hymnal]
Listen, Listen, Listen (not in hymnal) [chant]
May I Be an Instrument of Peace (not in hymnal) [round]
Peace Like a River (100) [hymnal has a 4-part harmony that’s good but needs some revision]
Sing and Rejoice (395) [round]
This Little Light of Mine (118) [hymnal has a good but challenging 4-part harmony]
Singing for Our Lives (170) [needs a good vocal arrangement]
Hymn tunes worth learning:
Hyfrodol (140, 166, 207)
Tallis Canon (88, 330, various doxologies)
Please add your own candidates for this list in the comments. If you’re an arranger who has arranged a hymn for harmony singing and you’re willing to make it available, email me a PDF of the sheet music and I will post it here on this blog.