[notice]Hugh Wetmore is a songwriter and student of worship trends. He invites you to join the worship conversation by commenting on his monthly column.[/notice]
This month of May gives us more Holidays. How do these affect your Worship Services? Our church has a pool of three excellent drummers, but they were all away this Freedom Day. So was our keyboard musician. Two guitars strummed as best they could. Two violins gave us a melody line. But the singing was flat and ragged. Pathetic and embarrassing. The contemporary worship songs depend on a band … only one or two of them were easily singable. The closing song was a hymn: “Thine be the glory, risen, conquering Son” ~ and the congregation sang that well.
One stream of the ‘Church of Christ’ denomination in South Africa refuses to use instruments in their singing. The worship leader pitches the note, and everyone joins in a capello …. and they sing! Yes they sing! Without instruments they sing! Imagine what their singing would be if they sang to a band, an orchestra?
Yet we wonder: maybe it is the instrumental accompaniment that sabotages the music of the human voices. Yet it ought to support them! I love singing to a good band, but then I love singing anyway — even without a band. On one proviso: that the song is easily singable! 100 human voices singing to God and to one another singable songs that are strong in biblical lyrics ~ there’s nothing to beat that!
That is the role of the band: It is there to SUPPORT the singing. It is not there to dominate the singing; it is not there to replace the singing. Test it: Choose a familiar, singable song. Let the band keep silent. If the congregation sings well without it, you’re on a winning wicket. If the singing fades away, it’s time to overhaul your sung worship.
An overhaul would involve:
a) Retrenching all songs that are not easily Singable. Sort them out, put them away — or re-assign them to a Performance role. Some songs just don’t sing well congregationally. My test is this: If the congregation can sing a new song after three tries, it passes and can be used congregationally.
b) Reducing the volume of the amplified instruments and vocals up front. My test is this: If each person in the congregation can hear the people around them singing, then it passes. That sets the level of the volume. This requires partnership between the platform and the sound desk.
Factors that make for a Singable Song are:
1) Predictability. No unexpected curves in the melodic road that require sudden swerves in the voice. Most of us have ain inbuilt instinct for a next note. Avoid long musical introductions and mid-song riffs. People like to join in the song at a predictable moment.
2) Regular Rhythm. The first line of a verse has the same number of strong and weak beats, and so with the second, third, fourth line etc. If the rhythm is weak ^ beat followed by a strong beat = (Iambic) then keep it that way consistently through the song. If starting on a strong beat, then keep it consistently. Mark the rhythms: ^ = ^ = ^ = ^ = (as in “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound”). The pattern should be the same in each verse. Of course, this is less critical in a one-verse ‘chorus’ = ^ ^ ^ = ^ = (as in “Our God is an awesome God”)
3) Rhyming sounds at the end of lines. For some reason, rhyme helps the smooth flow of the song. There’s an innate satisfaction that prompts enthusiastic singing.
4) Syllables that match the notes in the music. Too many words sung to too few notes cause a singing traffic jam. The congregation gets gridlocked and the singing stalls. If they are keen, they will pick up again after missing out some words. Get the match right, and the singing traffic will flow smoothly.
5) Musical Rhythm that matches the Spoken Rhythm of the language. People feel awkward when singing words with their accents on the wrong syllable.
Don’t be surprised if you discover that the tunes that sing easily are folk-tunes or hymns. These have been popular in churches –some for centuries — simply because congregations find them easily singable.
With a repertoire of Singable Songs, and a good partnership with the sound desk, you can survive the next run of public holidays that deprive you of your musicians! And you can handle the power outages that can deprive the band of its usefulness. Then the Worship Leader will never be embarrassed, and the Lord will continue to receive the sung worship to which He is entitled.