I wrote about inclusive lyrics and their limits a few days ago. Some further thoughts on music, based on the vibrant music at General Assembly (GA) last week:
A song leader should use the mike when teaching an unfamiliar song or giving a soloist’s riffs over the congregation. Otherwise, they should back off the mike. When they sing right into the mike, we in the congregation hear them instead of ourselves and each other.
Rock makes people move. Not everyone, of course, but we have a few generations in services now for whom rock is the beat of our bodies. In any case, if you want people to move their bodies, play the music they dance to.
Let the congregation do the interesting stuff. A disappointing aspect of music at last year’s CENTER Institute (continuing education for UU ministers) was that the role of the congregation was that of backup singers to a soloist, and backup singers with a pretty monotonous part, at that. We, the congregation, would chant an uninteresting part over and over while the band would go nuts. I started to feel like wallpaper.
On the other hand, letting the congregation sing the same thing over and over can be really powerful. Too often, we sing something two or three times and just as we’re getting brave about harmonies and really feeling the music, it stops. Repeating a chorus many times lets us in the congregation begin to get creative, and get into that meditative place where a chant can take us. Jason Shelton did this really well with “Wallflower,” a Peter Gabriel song he sang immediately after Karen Tse’s sermon in the Service of the Living Tradition. She had ended with a story about prison and an exhortation to “do the one thing you can do,” and the song (how did Jason think of that song? Stroke of genius!) began with images of prison and ended with the refrain, “I will do what I can do.” He kept us singing it for a long time, allowing it to rise as a prayer and a promise from each of us. For me, in the midst of the campaign to raise UU awareness about slavery, every word of that service was about slavery and my commitment to do something to end it, and I am sure I was not the only person for whom singing those words evoked tears of hope and resolve.
Projecting words on a screen really helps people sing out. Proofread the words very carefully.
Don’t surprise the congregation. If you teach them a song, lead it the way you taught it to them. Small variations are okay–key changes, harmonies, etc.–but if you suddenly throw in a bridge, you have to warn us or we get confused and discouraged, and we don’t sing with the same abandon because we’re watching for further curveballs.
It’s worthwhile to teach songs before the service starts. Not everyone will be there, but those who were will anchor the singing.
The choir can introduce harmonies and rounds that embolden the congregation to join in, if the choir has a “y’all join in” attitude instead of a “be quiet and listen to us perform” attitude. Smiles and other signs of exuberance help. The conductor can transform the choir from performers into song leaders with one simple move: turn and conduct the congregation while the choir continues to sing. Conduct us as if we have never been in a choir, because most of us probably haven’t; keep it simple.
The choir members at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Palo Alto have heard this from me before: the choir adds so much to the feel of the service when their attire is simple and undistracting. The GA choirs mostly wore all black, or black with bright stoles of various colors. One small ensemble wore shades of blue with various scarves, a mishmash of patterns that was pleasant because coordinated. Some of these groups had been singing together for only a few days, or even only a few hours, but they looked, as well as sounded, polished.
If you have a hundred-member choir, you need risers. Any choir, of whatever size, should have risers steep enough that you can see every singer’s face. It’s distracting to see just the top half of the back rows’ faces, and it has to interfere with their sound.
Having a band adds so much flexibility to congregational music. A trio of guitar, drums, and bass are all you need to make a huge difference. They won’t be called for on every song (not even the piano is used on every song), but they’re great to have.
Put more participatory music in the service. More. Now add some more.