I’m thinking about music a lot as we continue our process to find our new music director. As I wrote before, we had a music stakeholders’ brainstorming session and recorded people’s wishes and peak musical experiences. A lot of my own peak experiences occur during congregational singing, so my bias is toward strengthening that aspect of our music. It’s a bias that was reinforced this week by the singing at our ministers’ chapter retreat. We love to sing together, and we sound great. We were a little tamer than at some previous gatherings–there wasn’t a lot of drumming or dancing–but we leapt into rounds and harmonies as always, and some folks gathered around a guitar and sang late at night. (There was also karaoke, but I got tired and forgot to join it, to my disappointment.)
There are many routes to a vibrantly singing congregation. Here are three:
(1) At St. Gregory of Nyssa, “with no organ, the choir serves as the backbone to support the people in a capella singing.”
The congregation sings, in four-part harmony, during most of the service– opening prayers, hymns and canticles between Scripture readings, the Lord’s Prayer, music when we walk up to the altar, music during communion, and music with the dance. Visitors tell us that they’re struck by how easy it is for first-timers to participate, and how wonderful it is to be part of making such high-quality, beautiful music.
Even for congregations blessed with organs or pianos and excellent musicians to play them, like the one I serve, having a group of singers lead the congregation in singing opens up new possibilities.
(2) A Nick Page workshop will get a congregation singing powerfully, as I know from compelling personal experience: he led a service at the restrained, not to say uptight, Vermont congregation I used to attend, and got us harmonizing, gently drumming on the pews, and singing with big smiles. In covering the workshop he gave on the Saturday, the local paper picked up on something he said, along the lines of “You can be ordinary or amazing, so you might as well be amazing”: their headline was “You might as well be amazing,” and wouldn’t you love that as the lead-in to Sunday’s service?
(3) Worship leaders who know how to teach parts and lead music well make a huge difference. I’m not bad at this, but I’m far from expert, and it takes a lot of preparation. Finding and learning appropriate music can take as much time in a week as preparing my sermon. In other words, it’s ideally the role of a music director, or people and groups trained by the director.
I go back to a few basic assumptions: We’re going to have music in our Sunday services. Some of it will be the congregation singing together. It might as well be amazing.