One of the best short essays on singing in worship just went up at the Alban Institute Web site. In the essay, titled “Singing an Eclectic Repertoire,” authors Bruce G. Epperly and Daryl Hollinger point out that singing in church “is not about aesthetics — about what we like or dislike. It is about singing our faith in our local community while opening ourselves to new possibilities for singing and worship.” With that principle in mind, they offer some really great ideas for singing a wide-ranging repertoire that includes the following types of sacred song: early American, Irish folk, Hebrew traditional, African American spiritual, gospel, African, Latino, Asian, and contemporary musics.
For example, check out this suggestion for singing Irish folk melodies: “Most people don’t know that the origin of the song ‘Be Thou My Vision’ was an Irish folk tune. If you play it directly from most hymnals, it will sound more like a traditional Germanic hymn. When we simplify the harmonies and change chords primarily only once a measure, the mood changes drastically. The tempo can be lively. Adding a triangle, tambourine, and hand drum will enhance the Irish flavor.” Obviously, you could use similar ideas with English folk melodies as well.
Epperly and Hollinger don’t cover every type of music we sing as sacred song. They don’t cover Welsh tunes, medieval music, or contemporary North American chant, for example. But the authors don’t need to give us precise instructions on singing (and leading) every different type of sacred song. Once we realize that most congregations tend to make every song sound either like (a) old Germanic hymns, or (b) contemporary praise music — we can deal with that tendency, transcend our present narrow approaches, and become truly eclectic singers.
How about Tuvan throat singing in church? Would that be going too far? Umm, OK, I guess something like this might drive some people out of a worship service.