Participatory singing

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.

12 thoughts on “Participatory singing

  1. VB

    We haven’t focused on learning harmony parts, since teaching music interrupts the flow of worship, which is already well underway by the time we start singing together. But a “Thursday evening harmony club” is something I need to ponder.

    We have culled the following from SLT and STJ, and have added in a large number of pop songs that are well-known, easy to sing and, in many cases, have as much or more spiritual content as some of the songs in the hymnals.

    16. Simple Gifts (‘Tis a Gift to be Simple)
    21. For the Beauty of the Earth
    95. There is More Love Somewhere

    100. Peace Like a River

    118. This Little Light of Mine
    131. Love Will Guide Us
    156. Oh, Freedom
    162. Down By the Riverside
    163. For the Earth Forever Turning
    168. One More Step (rearranged in reggae 2/2)
    169. We Shall Overcome
    347. Gather the Spirit
    368. Now Let Us Sing
    1007. There’s a River Flowin’ In My Soul
    1009. Meditation on Breathing
    1015. I Know I Can
    1018. Come and Go With Me
    1020. Woyaya
    1021. Lean on Me
    1024. When the Spirit Says Do
    1031. May I Be Filled with Loving Kindness
    1040. Hush

    Swimming to the Other Side (Pat Humphries)
    Thank You For Your Loving Hands (Judy Fjell)
    Where Is the Light? (Peter Mayer)
    Put A Little Love In Your Heart (Jackie DeShanon)
    I Can See Clearly (Johnny Nash)
    All I Really Need (Raffi)
    One Love (Bob Marley)
    Can’t Buy Me Love (Beatles)
    Jesus is Just Alright (Byrds)
    Let the Mystery Be (Iris Dement)
    Get Together (Youngbloods)
    Shower the People (J Taylor)
    With a Little Help From My Friends (Beatles)
    Stand! (Amy Carol Webb)
    Will the Circle Be Unbroken (lyrics rewritten by our band to be earth-centered)
    Weave Us Together (Girl Scout anthem)
    Draw the Circle Wide (Gordon Light)

    There’s a LOT of popular music out there that really enhances worship because it’s easy and fun to sing, allowing UUs to read ahead to make sure they agree with the lyrics. Which they usually do.

  2. Scott Wells

    For tunes I’d add Duke Street, for which a good number of texts can be impressed without violence. The Friendly Beasts — a personal favorite — is matched to Orientis Partibus, which is easy to sing, delightful and has been matched successfully with other texts in

  3. Dan

    VB @ 1 — Thanks for the great list of good songs. Question: How do you go about getting copyright clearance for a song like “Swimming to the Other Side,” which has too many lyrics for people to easily memorize?

    You also write: “We haven’t focused on learning harmony parts, since teaching music interrupts the flow of worship…” Have you ever been at a worship service led by choral leader Nick Page? He teaches harmony during the worship service, and it’s very worshipful. But of course, what I’m really suggesting is that a lot of the learning take place outside the worship service, in as many settings as possible (Sunday school, youth group, small group ministries, open sings after worship, etc. etc.).

    Scot @ 2 — I just sang through all the parts for Duke street, and they’re pretty fun to sing — even the alto part isn’t as boring as most alto parts. And you can fit lots of different words to Duke Street. So I think you’ve got a winner.

    I’ve already got Friendly Beasts on the list above, but I will note here that the arrangement in Singing the Living Tradition is not intended for singers — the arrangement of the tune in the old Hymns of the Spirit (the “red hymnal”) at hymn #25 is singable, but doesn’t really fit the mood of the words to Friendly Beasts.

    You know, one of the reasons all those old hymn tunes sound so boring to us today is that they are all meant to be sung in four-part harmony. We sing them in unison, and they’re just blah. But when you sing them with harmony, they sound awesome.

  4. Scott Wells

    I mentioned Orientus Partibus because I didn’t want it walled off to Christmas, but I don’t recall the impediment you mention. Of course, it’s been years since I’ve sung out of it regularly.

    As for singing parts, my husband has a nice strong voice — he often sings the melody in the first and last verses and the bass in-between; I try to follow him — but when I’m not with him I will sometimes sit near a middle-aged gay couple (if that’s an option) to make a tenor section.

    I’m surprised how often that works.

  5. VB

    Good question about lyrics for “Swimming”. Since we project the order of worship, lyrics, etc., we’re covered. UUA’s copyright gurus tell us that, as long as we own a legitimate copy of the sheet music, projecting the lyrics is permitted. So that’s what we do.

    I have had the privilege of working with Nick a couple of times, and it is indeed wonderful and worshipful. But I wouldn’t want to do it every week of the year. So, we compromise with (mostly) unison singing and an uninterrupted flow.

  6. Dan

    Scott Wells @ 4 — I’m working on my sight reading skills, so maybe in another 20 years I can be like your husband.

    As for Orientis Partibus, upon further inquiry I see that it also appears in Singing the Living Tradition in a nice arrangement for four voices by Richard Redhead (1820-1901), with words by Hosea Ballou. I figured that you, as a Universalist, should appreciate that!

    VB @ 5 — Thanks for the tip on projecting lyrics.

  7. Amy

    VB: Can you say more? I have heard this rule (buy a copy of the music, then you have the right to project it) and then on the other hand I hear that to have the right to project it, you need to have bought enough copies to make projection a mere convenience rather than a necessity–one for every two singers has been quoted as the rule of thumb.

    If projecting is okay, why exactly do we buy hymnals? Why not just buy one of each and save a boodle? I must be misunderstanding some aspect of this.

    Dan: I agree with most of your and VB’s choices, and would add to the list:

    12 O Life That Maketh All Things New (I can’t really sight-sing, but it looks to me as if Truro is another of those tunes that takes off once you put in the harmony) (I suspect the same of Slane–Be Thou My Vision/Wake, Now, My Senses)

    34 Though I May Speak with Bravest Fire (“The Water is Wide”)

    153 Oh, I Woke Up This Morning

    155 Circle ‘Round for Freedom, and why does SLT put the melody in the second staff? In theory it’s very nice to put the melody in the alto for a change, but for rudimentary music readers it’s just confusing.

    348 Guide My Feet

    386 Alleluia Chaconne (Pachelbel’s Canon, familiar and fun to riff on)

    Any round as long as it’s sufficiently simple. I am a big fan of rounds for the way they yield the same pleasures as harmony: a small group can make marvelous music from simple melodies.

    Rock tends to need a band, but has great potential. “You Can’t Always Get What You Want”?
    “Way Over Yonder” (C. King)
    “You’ve Got a Friend” ditto
    “How Could Anyone Ever Tell You” (L. Roderick)
    “There is a Balm in Gilead” (one of these days I’ll write a non-substitutionary-atonement version)

    I’ve always wanted to use “It Ain’t Necessarily So.” How about an all-Gershwin service?

  8. Jason

    Dan – I think there’s a big piece missing from your post, and that is the role of expectations. Churches that don’t think they can sing generally don’t sing very well. Music leaders who coddle their congregations and give off a sense of, “I know this is hard but bear with me” get the same kinds of results. Nick Page works his magic through empowering people to make mistakes – regarding harmony, he says something along the lines of “sing whatever note you want. If it doesn’t seem right, go up or down one note and see if it’s better.” He calls this “no-fault” harmony. That goes a long way to creating a sense of musical freedom in a singing body, and freedom + confidence = good congregational singing in my book.

    We also need to recognize that, depending on church demographics, our congregants have radically different expectations and experiences regarding congregational singing. My church culture is largely composed of former fundamentalist Christians with very strong singing traditions (especially the Church of Christ folks (not UCC!), who grew up singing 4-part a cappella hymns from day one of their church experience). That comfort level, coupled with my very high expectations regarding congregational singing, means that our “core” is nearly everything in the hymnals. That frees us, as worship planners, to focus on finding the “right” song (a theological as well as a musical question) for a given moment rather than being limited to a pool of songs that we think we know well enough.

    I also disagree strongly with your contention that there are relatively few songs in our hymnals with easily learned and singable harmony parts, but I suppose that goes back to what I wrote above – when the congregation does it with relative ease, there’s less of a sense of limitation.

  9. Jason

    One other thing, regarding projecting lyrics and copyright. I’m not sure who VB spoke with at the UUA, but owning a copy of the music in no way authorizes you to copy it. And technically/legally, printing the words in your order of service or on a projection screen is considered “publishing” those words. Lots of folks do it anyway, but doing so is a violation of applicable copyright law and can result in a serious fine.

    See the following for more details:

    Unfortunatley, the CCLI license does not cover songs in our UU hymnals. There was an attempt to get a license program going for UU hymnal songs, but I don’t think it worked and as yet has not been replaced. Until then, you must get permission from the copyright holder directly before reproducing lyrics in any form.

  10. Kathy Parmentier

    Let’s not forget that there are non-church influences at work here, too. California has had extremely poor funding for music in the public schools for 40 years. This means that the parents of children attending our church school may not have had General Music, school chorus or band that is considered standard in other places. We have an entire generation who has gone through school without good experiences with music. That often leads to a sense that making music requires esoteric skills or special training.

    Our congregation likes to sing, and joins in rounds enthusiastically. This is a good first step to part singing, since you must be able to hold your own part when others are singing something different.

    There are lots of good hymns, but I also think that the editors of the hymnbook have often assumed that small congregations or fellowships won’t have enough people able to sing hymns strongly or in parts, so we have a lot of unison songs with accompaniment. This also keeps congregations from trying harmony.

    Part singing IS fun, and sometimes we need to be reminded that somehow people managed to sing harmony without written music for thousands of years. It is a skill, but an easy one to learn. You can make good guesses about where your part should go and fit in. The best way to learn to sing is to do it.

    I think it would be great to teach our children a core of “adult” hymns to sing in church. Kids can tell whether music is “kids music”, and therefore not “real” music. They have fun with the former, but are proud to sing the latter.

    This has many scattered thoughts. I hope it also triggers some responses.

  11. Dan

    Jason @ 8 and Kathy @ 10 — You both raise an important point, which is the impact of the surrounding culture on the congregation’s singing. Jason, you’re so lucky to live in an area where people sing as well as they do (hey, it is Nashville, after all). Kathy, what you point out is true in many parts of the country:– schools don’t do music, and with general civic disengagement, there’s no other social setting where kids and adults can learn how to sing in parts.

    Jason @ 8 — You write: “I also disagree strongly with your contention that there are relatively few songs in our hymnals with easily learned and singable harmony parts”

    If you count the number of songs with vocal harmony parts in Singing the Journey, you’ll find only a few (and I saw noen with full four-part harmony). Compare that with the old Hymns of the Spirit, the Unitarian Universalist hymnal I had as a child, where nearly every song is presented in four-part harmony — some fairly difficult to sing, and some quite easy.

    Kathy @ 10 — You write: “I also think that the editors of the hymnbook have often assumed that small congregations or fellowships won’t have enough people able to sing hymns strongly or in parts, so we have a lot of unison songs with accompaniment.”

    Ironically, those unison songs are still pitched for sopranos and tenors, whereas the majority of the population (according to Wikipedia) sing in the alto and tenor ranges. Sigh.

    By the way, the absolute best congregational singing I have ever heard in a Unitarian Universalist congregation was when I was guest preacher in a small fellowship in Storrs, Connecticut. There wasn’t much harmony, but the singing was lusty and strong, and they rocked the house. And let me tell you, when the congregation sings that well, the preacher preaches better.

  12. Dan

    Jason @ 9 — Thanks for the information about lyrics and copyright. What you say tallies with what I’ve been practicing.

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