It’s hard to teach the world to sing

09 September 2009

Perfect harmony it wasn’t. Jane Bentley reflects on the deceptive difficulty of leading congregational music

IT IS a classic Greenbelt experience. On Sunday morning, the festival draws together into a single event, as thousands of festival-goers, repres­ent­­­ing a range of ages, traditions, and stages of faith, gather for worship.

A glance at the crowd offers a living illustration of the inclusivity and diversity of the body of Christ. Many present, particularly those from small congregations, eagerly await the opportunity to worship together.

There has been much debate after this year’s service about the presentation of the congregational hymns (see blog/2009/08/take-an-olive-seed). In short, hymns that were chosen specifically to be singable by a massed congre­gation were rendered entirely un­sing­able by the worship musicians.

Their interpretation of three well-known hymn tunes consisted of a variety of strategic pauses and em­bellishments which left thousands of people unsure when to sing and how to participate.

For example, a hymn to the tune Hyfrydol was transformed into something approximating to:

Come, Thou long expected Jeeeeeeeeeeeeeeesus . . .

Born to set thy people free . . . [substantial pause for instrumental flourishes]

From our fears . . . and sins

releeeeeeeeeeeease us,

Let us find . . . our reeeeeeeeest

in . . . thee. . .

(or it would have been, had the words not been quite different: “God who sets us on a journey to discover, dream and grow . . .”, but you get the idea).

Eventually, some of the congre­gation took matters into their own hands, and, in a moment of musical direct action, sang the verses at their own speed. They concluded with a cheer, and waited for the band to catch up. Derision and belligerence were, for many, the chief emotions conjured up on this occasion — perhaps not one’s ideal conception of what congre­gational music should inspire.

This response seemed to mark a turning point, in that it demonstrated that our collective desire for engagement was stronger than our desire for, or deference to, spectacle.


ONE of the strongest opinions to emerge in the ensuing debate has been the strength of feeling re­garding congregational song: many of those who responded felt that they had somehow been denied their chance to participate fully in wor­ship. Perhaps, at last, an awareness of the difference between music for performance and music for par­ticipation is emerging more fully.

Congregational song has the potential to offer an experience of unity, and physical, emotional, and spiritual engagement in a way that is entirely different from witnessing per­formed music.

It is not only large, massed ser­vices at which this phenomenon occurs. At a recent ecumenical celeb­ration, a congregation that had robustly sung the first hymn was rendered confused and disem­powered by a contemporary worship song, which had a structure that made it difficult to join in upon first hearing.

There is certainly a place for performance in Christian gatherings, but if we value the participation of the congregation as members of the body of Christ, congregational music ought to enable people to do more than simply watch and wonder.

For a regular congregation, repeated exposure means that it can sing along to relatively complex music, be it a Bach chorale or a Matt Redman classic. When we are seeking to worship alongside those who do not share our particular repertoire, however, there needs to be more “musical hospitality”. This does not necessarily mean restricting con­gregations to the same hymn tunes, but congregations, particularly in diverse contexts, could be more fully engaged by:

1. Offering music with an ap­propriate structure. Music that maintains a consistent beat and phrase-length enables participation, since the regularity means that people can begin to foresee when to join in.

Every time there is a surprise within participative music, it effectively pulls the rug out from under people’s feet, pulling the initiative back from the participants to the performers — and perhaps unwittingly revealing the perceived value given to the leadership rather than the congregation.

2. Teaching the tune beforehand. If we want to do something new with a familiar tune (or even try a new one), this is perfectly possible, provided we let people in on the act. Teaching is a way of ironing out the exclusivity brought on by the musically unexpected. It puts people on the inside of the music.

That could consist of a simple sing-together through the tune, or be done implicitly by having the first verse sung by a soloist or small group.


3. Being very explicit with musicians about the place and purpose of the music. Many of the best enablers of congregational music make it appear effortless (leading us to think the music does not actually require enabling). In fact, they are engaging specific strategies to ensure that people are encouraged to participate in worship with confidence. The best musicians may not automatically make the best enablers.

MUSIC has as much potential to exclude as it has to unify and transcend. Giving intentional thought to these things demon­strates that congregation members are valued and taken seriously as participants in, rather than witnesses of, worship. Congre­ga­tional music is a great gift, and more attention is needed to make the fullest possible use of it in praise to God — who dwells in community.

Jane Bentley is a community musician working part-time in mental health and education, and part-time on a Ph.D. in musical participation.

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