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I want propose that in addition to worship leaders responsibly pursuing the most widely comfortable key which is still within a comfortable singing range for themselves, we should also be instructing our congregations in how to harmonize…I believe there is a new way forward…equipping the congregation to get beyond the unison drone, and to worship with musicality and excellence themselves as a part of the band. Otherwise, the worship band functions as a Kareoke machine which can be shifted up or down in key as it suits the congregation, without regard to aesthetics, musicality, emotive participation and artistic excellence. In the “Kareoke chapel” worship music becomes a neutered, hygienic, homogenous participation in a less-compelling form of music and art than the world has to offer. I suggest in its place that the church ditch the “backing track” mentality and become a real, indigenous, vehicle of creation, spontaneity, and harmony itself. What we need is not people responding in unison through a “sing along Christian song” with the band, but a people who themselves, wherever they are seated in the building, are contributing to the band, as a part of it, not by rote in unison, but in the Spirit with unction. —John Frederick


Recently Keith Getty, the author of the popular modern hymn “In Christ Alone” published a very balanced and helpful post on Five Ways to Improve Congregational Singing.

Getty writes:

“From the individual who leads music, to the worship teams standing up front, to those of us who follow as members of the congregation, it’s vital to build a culture where everyone realizes our corporate responsibility before God and to each other is to sing together. Throughout Scripture, the command to sing is given to God’s people more than 400 times. Ephesians 5:19 instructs believers to address one another in “psalms and hymns and spiritual songs.” Week after week, we are spiritually renewed, realigned, and sanctified by singing to the Lord and singing to each other as the body of Christ.

Sadly, some of the churches with the newest facilities and most forward-thinking pastors are weakened substantially by lackluster congregational singing. It is an awful witness for outsiders to watch believers so disinterested in singing to their Creator and Redeemer.”

I recommend that you read the entire article. It’s quite brief and strikingly different in tone from most discussions of contemporary worship music on the web. It doesn’t draw large sweeping conclusions or state fantastic, purposefully annoying, cantankerous opinions about music. It’s a breathe of fresh air.

The reason I mention here it here (basically, in passing, because I’m so busy that if I didn’t jot something down I’d never get to it) is that in this season of ministry and academy for me, teaching as an adjunct professor at Gordon Conwell Boston and working at Park Street Church as the contemporary worship leader, as well as leading music and preaching at Anglican Church of the Resurrection, I’ve been thinking a good deal about the particular issues we come across in contemporary services which utilize a band and/or modern instrumentation.

A few thoughts, which I can perhaps return to at another time in more detail, concerning some of the comments to that post which dealt with keys and arrangements being too complex or out of the range of the congregation:

  1. There is an issue of congregational singing in contemporary services in which the primary leader and vocalist is a male tenor. The common suggestion by congregants and pastors is to “lower the key” so that it is comfortable for a soprano to sing melody too. I see this as a problem stemming from the switch from primarily SATB (Soprano, Alto, Tenor, Bass) hymn singing in the Church to modern compositions which are basically songs arranged for a “lead vocal” with various harmonies, not hymns arranged for four-part vocal singing. In many cases, as a tenor vocalist I will lower the key of a song by 1-1/2 steps if possible so that it falls within a comfortable range for the largest amount of people in the congregation. So, for example, Chris Tomlin’s tune Holy is the Lord, is, I believe, in the key of A major on the recording, with a capo on the 2nd fret playing “G” shapes. It is easy to retain the force of the song, and to make the bridge less out of range, by taking off the capo and playing it in the key of G. Sometimes, however, it is not possible to move a key down and to still have a comfortable vocal range for the person leading the singing. For example, in the song Gloria 34 by Taylor Sorensen, the range gets quite high in the chorus, but is exceedingly low (for a tenor) in the verses. Therefore, I cannot lower the key without placing the song out of a comfortable range for myself when leading. This may make a unison participation in the singing of the chorus impossible. What is the solution?
  2. I want propose that in addition to worship leaders responsibly pursuing the most widely comfortable key which is still within a comfortable singing range for themselves, we should also be instructing our congregations in how to harmonize. What is this obsession with everyone needing to sing the melody? Even back in the day of complete hymn singing, it would be preposterous to hear a complaint that the tenor couldn’t reach the highest notes of the melody sung by a soprano. They would be pointed to the tenor part, written in the hymnal, and an integral part of the harmonic structure of the hymn itself. I get the feeling that since much of contemporary worship is in the modern idiom of “song” rather than four-part hymn, we have lost the ability as congregations to harmonize. Indeed, we may never have had it in the first place, since the first impulse of someone listening to a modern song is to sing the melody in unison. I want to suggest that we should be training our congregations to participate in harmonizing from the pews, in addition to working hard to accommodate ranges from behind the microphone.
  3. It is strange to me, and I think symptomatic of the problem with opinionated people within the worship discussions in the church, many of whom are pragmatists and utilitarians, and not musicians, viewing the music as a teaching mechanism and a means of disseminating theological “facts” instead of an artistic, theological, aesthetic, multifaceted response to the Gospel, and participation in the Gospel through harmony and melody. The music is not a slave to the preaching. They are dual means of grace, co-equal, and able to activate the affections of the congregant in different ways, for the same purpose, namely, the building up of the body of Christ. There seems to be this response, again, usually from non-musicians, that the key needs to be lower, to the point sometimes that you lose any beauty in the sound, and get a sort of homogenous backing track feel, with no unction or oomph. This is good, says the complainer, because, “everyone can hit all of the melody notes” which is the point of “having the congregation involved in singing” and this not being a “performance.” Yet, in the many songs that I use at Park Street, that are out of the range of soprano singers for the melody, I always have a backing female vocalist who harmonizes the melody and creates a great sound. Far better than everyone going super low and booming out a ridiculous bass version of the melody, and a slew of screeching cat sounding sopranos straining for a note well out of their range. So, it can be done, and sounds great! My suggestion is that we ought to train our congregations in this form of participation. Sure, some will be uninterested. And, some will still prefer to sing the melody. But I suspect that if we as leaders make the intentional move toward music education, singing, vocal skill, in our congregation, a skill which has been largely lost since the advent of contemporary worship music, we just might be able to solve some of these range issues and congregational singing participation issues by equipping the saints to make a new kind of sound, in the proper idiom of contemporary songs. Instead of neutering the unction of every worship tune to adhere to a “one size fits all” range of vocal monotony for the sake of “congregational participation”which sucks the life, art, expression and emotion out of a tune by stripping it of key consideration for the purpose of pragmatic laziness and “participation” we ought to view the congregation as part of the band, and just as the hymnals of old constructed harmonies for pieces with largely female led melodies with harmonies from alto, tenor, and bass, we too should take strides to provide our congregation with both singing lessons and relevant harmonies. Perhaps in the form of Kodaly and Solfege training on the one hand, through courses with various levels, even open to the larger community as a form of evangelism, combined with recording the various vocal harmonies on mp3 and making these available to the church community for practice.

These are just some random thoughts, but they have been percolating in my mind as I consider this idea of congregational singing. I believe there is a new way forward of maturity which involves, not only consideration by the worship leader of the best possible key for him/herself and the congregation, but also the training and equipping of the congregation to get beyond the unison drone, and to worship  with musicality and excellence themselves as a part of the band. Otherwise, the worship band functions as a Kareoke machine which can be shifted up or down in key as it suits the congregation, without regard to aesthetics, musicality, emotive participation and artistic excellence. In the “Kareoke chapel” worship music becomes a neutered, hygienic, homogenous participation in a less-compelling form of music and art than the world has to offer. I suggest in its place that the church ditch the “backing track” mentality and become a real, indigenous, vehicle of creation, spontaneity, and harmony itself. What we need is not people responding in unison through a “sing along Christian song” with the band, but a people who themselves, wherever they are seated in the building, are contributing to the band, as a part of it, not by rote in unison, but in the Spirit with unction.

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