Tag Archives: hymns

Why do we sing in worship services?

So why do we sing in worship services? My Unitarian Universalist tradition comes out of Calvinism, and we started singing because John Calvin said we should sing the Psalms — you know, sing because it’s in the Bible. Well, now we’re post-Christian, and some of us are very critical of the Bible, so why do we sing in worship services?

I think many Unitarian Universalists sing in worship services because it’s a chance to promote their favorite theological doctrine. Shades of John Calvin! The humanists in our midst like to sing songs that extol the virtues of humanism, and they pout when there are songs that mention God. The theists and Christians in our midst want to hold on to the tradition of Unitarian Christianity and Universalist Christianity, and they pout when they have to sing songs that don’t mention God.

Maybe this is why I like to sing with the Pagans and the New Age types. They just sing, and it’s powerful, and changes the way you think and feel. They know that “sustained singing is an ancient technique for creating altered states of consciousness through hyperventilation, elevated blood oxygen, and cranial and somatic vibration” (Marini, Sacred Song in America, 93). They know you don’t have to be a trained singer to get all these benefits. And the Pagans know that you when you sing about topics like birth and death and the ultimate meaning of life, you will be transformed. I also like to sing with Sacred Harp groups for exactly the same reasons. Not because I am in complete doctrinal or theological agreement with Pagans, New Agers, or Sacred Harp singers, but because I want to sing with people who don’t care what you sound like and who know that singing is supposed to transform you.

A recent article in the Portland Oregonian makes this point eloquently. Read it and — well, yes, read it and weep. I did. I wish typical Unitarian Universalist hymn singing affected me like that….

Number 163 at the bottom

So on Sunday, a personal problem came up that made me cranky and upset — enough so that I had lots of crazy dreams and didn’t sleep well that night. To make it worse, Carol is back east right now, so I couldn’t talk with her about it. I woke up with a bit of a sore throat, feeling as if I was starting to come down with a cold. I called Carol and she calmed me down. But I still felt as if I were coming down with a cold — headache, aches and pains, sore throat, tired. The problem still loomed large in my thoughts.

I almost didn’t go to my Monday evening Sacred Harp singing group, but finally I decided I would go anyway. Sacred Harp singing carries on a long tradition of unaccompanied hymn singing that has been practiced in North America continuously since the 1720s. This is not whitebread church hymn singing, this is full-throated white spiritual singing, maybe not quite the thing you want to sing when you’ve got a bit of a sore throat. But I thought I would go, and leave when I started to feel tired.

You never know who’s going to show up at a Sacred Harp singing. We usually get 15 or so people on Monday evenings, but this week maybe 25 people showed up. A woman with the reputation of being a strong alto singer was visiting from Portland, and all the better regular singers seemed to show up this week. There were only four basses, two of whom were good strong experienced Sacred Harp singers, and two of us who most definitely were not. There I was, sitting on the front bench, where I didn’t belong, sitting there only because there weren’t enough experienced basses; there I was, feeling ill and tired, thinking that I would sing two or three songs and then go home.

That alto from from Portland was a powerful singer, and some of the regular singers were in fine voice, and the emotional temperature of the room kept rising. I got carried along. One of the experienced basses stood up and said he’d like to lead number 236; this is a long complicated anthem composed by William Billings in 1787, with several solos by the bass section; I had never sung it before; yet somehow I managed to sight-read the whole thing and never get lost and only hit one or two wrong notes; not due to any great musical skill on my part, but just getting carried along by the other singers. The emotional temperature kept rising. Someone stood up to lead number 365, a complicated lengthy song dating from 1765, with repeated chords based on open fifths, what rock guitarists call power chords, and with fuguing sections and polyphony, and somehow I managed to keep my place all the way through. I had to keep my place and keep singing; there was no choice not to; I had forgotten about going home early.

The other experienced bass stood up to lead number 163b, a slow, short, simple song. It was simple, but the trebles would hit some high notes in the sixth bar, and then the altos, especially that alto from Portland, would bend some long notes on a little descending run, and those altos would drive the tenors and us basses to blow out some high notes in the tenth and twelth bars — the only thing I can compare it to is when good jazz or blues musicians get going, and the different musicians keep pushing each other to get more intense with every repeating chorus — except this wasn’t jazz, and this wasn’t professional musicians, this was just us sitting around and hitting these emotional climaxes. And there was no one to hear us singing but us, and maybe God if you believe in a God who bothers to listen to us humans singing.

By this time, I was sweating with the effort of singing with such intensity, and my shirt was sticking to the back of the bench. We got done singing number 163b, and the leader paused for a moment in the sudden silence, looking a little stunned. He said quietly, “Wow. Thank you.” I thought maybe his legs were shaking just a little.

That was the high point. The rest was pretty good, too. By the time we got done, I was no longer cranky and upset, and I no longer felt the least bit ill. My problem was still there, it was still serious, but it no longer loomed large. It would be a good idea always to remember that singing, even amateur singing done not for performance but for the sheer joy of it, can heal you.

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? Continue reading

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.

A peace hymn that’s not so bad

OK, here’s a peace hymn that’s not too horrible.

Words: I found the words on Mudcat, made about three changes to make them gender-neutral, and smoothed out one or two rough transitions. I have been unable to track down who wrote these words, so I’m attributing them to “Unknown”; this is not great poetry, but it’s no worse than many of the hymns we sing on a regular basis.

Music: Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy.” I’m providing sheet music for the hymn in two forms: (1) melody and words only, on a 5-1/2 by 8-1/2 inch sheet suitable for inserting into a typical order of service; and (2) full score for choir, SATB on a full 8-1/2 by 11 inch sheet.

Earlier entry on a peace song.

Singable hymns

An Anonymous Person was explaining to me why she is not attracted to the worship services at our church. Among other reasons, Anonymous Person said that the hymns that are hard to sing. I asked: Hard to sing how? Anonymous Person replied that they were too high. And the more I think about it, the more I think she’s right.

In the current Unitarian Universalist hymnals, the hymn tunes typically fall between middle C and high E-flat (i.e., C4 to Eb5, with male voices transposed down an octave to C3 to Eb4). This is a comfortable range for sopranos, and if transposed down an octave, for tenors as well. But what about those of us who have alto voices, like Anonymous Person, or bass voices, like me?

Let me speak for the bass voices among us. If my voice is fully warmed up, and if I concentrate on technique, I can reach E-flat above middle-C (i.e., Eb4). A trained bass voice should be able to reach that note regularly; but mine is not a well-trained voice, and if my allergies are acting up, or if my voice isn’t warmed up, or if I’ve just finished preaching a draining sermon, I’m lucky to hit middle C (i.e., C4). Even when I can sing that high, the most comfortable and powerful part of my singing voice is well below that, from the B-flat below middle C down to the G below low C (i.e., from Bb3 down to G2).

Thus today at church, even though I wasn’t preaching, my allergies were acting up, — so when we sang hymn #114 to the tune of St. Gertrude in the key of E-flat, I had to drop out on those high D and high E-flat notes. It would be great if I could sing the bass part to #114, which is comfortably pitched for my voice and is lots of fun to sing, — but I’m not a strong enough singer to sing it on my own, and hardly anyone sings in four-part harmony any more; sometimes I can follow the bass line on the piano or organ, but today our music director was improvising the accompaniment to #114 which meant I could not follow the bass voice line on the piano. So I sang the soprano’s melody line down an octave, dropped out on the high notes, and didn’t have much fun singing.

While I was struggling my way through hymn #114, it occurred to me that the way we sing hymns is the result of institutional inertia rather than good musicianship. A hundred years ago, our hymns were all written and pitched to be sung with four voices:– sopranos took the melody, and altos, tenors, and basses sang harmony parts. Today, not many congregations can sing in four-part harmony confidently. What usually happens is that all of us try to sing the melody part, which is pitched for soprano voices — yet only about one fourth of us have soprano voices. Most tenors can adjust pretty well by singing the melody part down an octave, but that still leaves half of us, the altos and the basses, unable to sing any of the hymns comfortably.

Even if you’re an alto or bass who can sing four-part harmony confidently, you’re still out of luck much of the time. The new Unitarian Universalist hymnal supplement, Singing the Journey, doesn’t have four-part vocal arrangements;– and perhaps a third of the hymns in the older Singing the Living Tradition lack four-part vocal arrangements.

I can understand why we’d drop four-part vocal arrangements (so few people can sing them), but if we’re dropping four-part singing, then why is every hymn written as if only sopranos are going to sing the melody? The two interlocking answers to this question are: (1) institutional inertia, i.e., “we do it this way because we’ve always done it this way”; and (2) poor musicianship, i.e., the arrangers and editors of hymns haven’t replaced four-part singing with a musically sound alternative.

Now some churches get past this problem by using over-amplified music. If the amplified praise band drowns out your voice, it doesn’t matter if you sing the notes or not, because no one’s going to hear you (you won’t even hear yourself). This is a sociologically astute solution, because most of the population is accustomed to a relatively passive consumption of over-amplified music. However, if you believe that congregations are not passive consumers but active participants in worship, over-amplified praise bands are a poor solution indeed.

I don’t have the ultimate solution to this problem. But here’s one short-term solution: ask the accompanist to transpose the key of all hymns down somewhat. I served in one church where there was an astute music director who did just this — he had a good sense of the average voice, and pitched the hymns downward accordingly. It would also make sense to occasionally choose hymns with a narrower range * — the narrower the range, the more likely it will be that average voices can sing them successfully.

What are your solutions to this problem? How can we help people with average voices, and no musical training, have fun singing in church?

* Examples of hymns with narrower ranges (less than an octave), and good keys to pitch them in:
#30 “Over My Head” — range of a major third — transpose down to key of F
#140 “Hail the Glorious Golden City” (tune: Hyfrodol; hymns 166 & 207 also use this tune) — range of a major sixth — transpose down to key of E
#131 “Love Will Guide Us” — range of a major sixth — does not need to be transposed for average voices

Folkish songs for Christmas

A bunch of us from the Folk Choir of First Unitarian in New Bedford will be singing Christmas carols and other seasonal songs (along with some other people) in downtown New Bedford tomorrow evening as part of the city’s annual Holiday Stroll. I put together some Christmas/solstice songs which meet the following criteria: (1) playable by folk instruments like guitar, soprano recorder, mandolin; (2) words which won’t stick in the throats of Unitarian Universalists (in several cases, words are taken from the 1937 Unitarian Universalist hymnal, Hymns of the Spirit); (3) guitar chords that actually work (we have actually played through all these songs); (4) songs pitched for medium-to-low voices (too many Christmas songs are pitched for sopranos and high tenors). We’re not going to be singing all of these, but I thought others might be interested in this collection.

Now up on my main Web site here: Folkish songs for Christmas.

Songs/carols include the following: Continue reading