Democracy in action, through singing

This paragraph, from an essay about 18th century American church song, reminded me why I have a visceral dislike of certain kinds of music prevalent in liberal religious congregations today:

“When it was composed, this music [American 18th century four-part church song] was experienced rather than heard because it was not written for an audience’s appreciation or to tickle an ear — it was written to be experienced in performance by performers. How it ‘sounded’ to a non-participant was of very little importance. This is no novel concept; it is one of the essential pre-conditions of genuine church song. Clearly, a basic function of congregational music within the service should be to participate actively in worship through music. This active participation in worship is, of course, one of the foundation-stones of Protestantism, a democratization of religion that was one of the great achievements of the Reformation. If congregational song is to fulfill this function, it is obvious that no performer-audience relationship is possible; all members of the congregation must participate actively in the process of making music. Thus, congregation music must make its impact felt not through the hearing experience, as with choir music, but through the performing experience. …” [“The American Tradition of Church Song,” in Music and Musicians in Early America: Aspects of the History of Music in Early America and the History of Early American Music, Irving Lowens (New York: Norton, 1964), p. 283.]

The paradigmatic composer of this American music was William Billings (link to some sound files of Billing’s music performed both by professional choirs and amateurs). Billings wrote songs that can be sung by average people with average voices, yet they are musically interesting enough to hold the attention of sophisticated musicians. The songs are written in four-part harmony where each part has enough melodic interest to keep all singers interested and involved. The songs are unaccompanied, and are in that sense truly democratic — there is no paid accompanist, no soloist who is more important than the other singers; just as in political democracy, everyone has to participate in this music to make it work. And as is true of a robust democracy, education is an integral part of the process; Billings was one many New England singing-school masters who taught young people how to sing in four-part harmony. We’re talking about truly democratic music.

This is why I have a visceral dislike of praise bands: the sole reason for the existence of praise bands is to drown us out so that we don’t really have to participate, or so other can ignore us if we sound bad; that is profoundly anti-democratic. This is why I don’t care for song leaders who use a microphone in church to make sure their solo harmony part is heard above the unwashed masses who sing in unison; their purpose is not to get everyone singing together, their purpose is to have the masses singing so they can perform a solo over it; again, this is not democratic in the sense Lowens uses the word in the paragraph above.

I wish I had an easy solution to the problem, but I don’t. The solution to the problem simple, but not easy — the solution is to take the time to teach people how to sing, just like the solution to the problem of not enough volunteers in our congregations is to teach people how to do lay leadership. In a culture that values consumption over self-cultivation, education is a tough sell, unless it is education that directly improves your earning potential so that you can increase your consumption. As long as we have people coming into our congregations expecting to consume religion (rather than co-create it), I guess we’re going to have problems with congregational singing.

6 thoughts on “Democracy in action, through singing

  1. VB

    As a product of a religious tradition that included singing unaccompanied four-part harmony as an aspect of corporate worship, I agree completely with you that singing instruction is a wonderful thing for a congregation.

    As leader of a “UU praise band”, I have to respectfully disagree with your overly broad characterization of contemporary religious music’s role in worship. We’re talking about a matter of volume here, and that’s easily changed to suit the intention of the worship leader. I can clearly hear the congregation singing along when we’re playing. Our purpose is not to drown out the voices of the people with our solos. It’s to help them get excited and joyful about worshiping together.

    As much as I loved singing hymns from the Sacred Harp or the Old School Hymnal, I never saw the kind of energy or the smiling faces in one of those services that I see in my UU congregation every Sunday.

    Could be the music, but it could also be the lack of Calvinism….

  2. Dan

    VB @ 1 — Yes, I unfairly stereotyped praise bands. There are some pretty terrible ones out there, but there are also a few good ones. Sounds like yours is one of the good ones.

    Still, the deeper philosophical point remains. Irving Lowens is trying to point out that the Protestant tradition, out of which Unitarian Universalism comes, tried to make worship services very democratic. Thus Lowens writes, “If congregational song is to fulfill this function, it is obvious that no performer-audience relationship is possible; all members of the congregation must participate actively in the process of making music.” And in my experience as a worship leader, it’s a very fine line between someone being a performer, and someone leading others in worship. Can the congregation sit back and be passive? — then it’s a performance, and to a greater or lesser degree it’s anti-democratic. Too often, praise bands, organists, choirs, and paid musicians do not support and enhance the musical participation of the congregation — it is all too easy for such musicians to allow the congregation to become passive consumers rather than active participants.

    The key component, to my mind, is whether there’s someone teaching the congregation how to sing and participate musically. This was the genius of the 18th C. New England singing school, according to Lowens (and the Sacred Harp music you mention is a direct descendant of the New England singing school). In the 19th C., Lowell Mason was a brilliant church music educator who managed to get congregations singing — he’s most famous today for his musical setting of the Isaac Watts hymn “Joy to the World,” still one of the best songs to teach people how to sing in four parts.

    But it seems to me that we haven’t had any advances in church music education since Lowell Mason’s time. I know of no UU congregations that systematically try to teach people how to read music, to sing in parts, etc. Instead of training our untrained singers, we UUs have put our efforts into finding ways for professional musicians to make our untrained singers sound better — which mostly means: have the professional musicians (organists, praise bands, etc.) be louder than the untrained singers, rather than teaching them how to sound better.

    So you see it’s more than energy or smiling faces — people smile when they are passive consumers of music, too — instead, it’s a matter of empowering our people to participate more fully.

  3. VB

    I subscribe to Nick Page’s “no-fault singing” rule. The only way to sing “badly” is not to sing, because then you’re not participating in the corporate worship that’s going on all around you.

    I tell the musicians – especially the singers – that the offering is where we get three minutes to perform. The rest of the time, we’re there to foster worship through music.

    I can point you to a couple of good summer singing schools, if you’re interested. Unfortunately, most UUs would not last the week, theologically, at one of them without having a stroke.

  4. Dan

    VB @ 3 — I’m a big fan of Nick as well. He is a brilliant music educator, probably the best we UUs have. But in addition to his “no-fault singing” rule, he also pushes people to keep improving their singing. His two books, Music As a Way of Knowing and Sing and Shine On, though aimed at those of us who educate children, are well wroth reading by every UU minister and music director!

    You write: “I can point you to a couple of good summer singing schools, if you’re interested. Unfortunately, most UUs would not last the week, theologically, at one of them without having a stroke.”

    Yes, there are good singing schools out there, both summer singing schools and other singing schools. Yes, the ones I know about use hymns (as opposed to tunes) that are theologically in the traditional Christian camp. Part of what we need to educate UUs about is that for standard metrical arrangements, you can substitute other hymn words of your choosing. Many UUs are completely unaware that our gray hymnal has a metrical index (and this is one of my complaints about the teal hymnal — too many P.M. tunes). So many UUs don’t realize you can learn how to sing, then substitute your own hymn to the tune you like.

    As for having a stroke, some UUs need to get over themselves. I’m a seventh-or-so generation Unitarian (now UU), I sing Sacred Harp music every week, and I don’t have any strokes.

  5. David M. Glasgow

    I’m sorry (genuinely!) that your experience of amplified worship music has led you to believe that “the sole reason for the existence of praise bands is to drown us out so that we don’t really have to participate, or so other can ignore us if we sound bad.”

    You’ve experienced people doing it wrong.

    The “praise band” phenomenon, at its best, is an effort to offer to laypeople (meaning, folks who aren’t professional musicians) a chance to participate in the kind of music they listen to the other 167 hours a week–those, that is, who don’t have iPods full of four-square homophonic hymns…..

    Some of my most powerful, and most cherished, memories of “true” worship involve a “congregation as choir” singing whole-hearted homophony while a soloist or soloists soars above on a pop/gospel descant. (You know that moment in the “Hallelujah Chorus” when the 1st trumpet crescendoes up over the “King of Kings” passage? Yeah, it’s THAT cool.)

    I hope you’re able to experience it someday soon.

  6. Dan

    David Glasgow @ 5 — You write: “You’ve experienced people doing it wrong.”


    But my point still remains: from my theological perspective, worship is the work of all the people. Musicologist Irving Lowens makes a distinction between equalitarian and libertarian impulses in American music, where the equalitarian impulse emphasizes that all persons are equal, and the libertarian impulse emphasizes the liberty of the individual to shine.

    Praise bands, and most popular music over the past fifty years, emphasize the libertarian impulse. Part of my discomfort with praise bands is that I’m basically a leftist punk rocker, which means I come out of a very strongly equalitarian position. Thus, I admit, as a former punk rocker, part of my basic attitude towards praise bands is: Who the f&*# is that libertarian asshole up there? Rev. Hank Peirce used to do punk rock worship services at the Middle East in Cambridge, Mass., and I’d be totally cool with that — it’s that whole D-I-Y attitude, knowing that punk rockers would teach me a couple of chords and let me up on stage to play with them. Not surprisingly, a lot of the people I sing Sacred Harp music with love punk rock, too.

    I think there’s room for both equalitarian and libertarian musics in contemporary American worship. But as it stands now, people like me who have equalitarian music like the Ramones, Green Day, screamin’ Sacred Harp, and Palestrina, on our iPods are pretty much $#!t out of luck when it comes to worship. This is why I’m pretty forceful stating my case — guys like you are in charge, and it’s your iPod playlists, not mine, that rule the day.

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