Common denominators for super congregational singing #5 — Hugh Wetmore

Hugh Wetmore is a songwriter and student of worship trends. He invites you to join the worship conversation by commenting on his monthly column.

Yesterday I was caught up in some super-fantastifabulous congregational singing, such as I’ve not experienced for 20 years or more. You’ll find it hard to believe, and I’m still pinching myself to know it was real.

It was not on a Sunday — it was a Friday morning.

It was not in my first, second or third language — it was in Afrikaans.

It was not a homogenous congregation — it was multi-racial and multi-generational.

It was not shared with people I know — I knew perhaps 10 of the 200 people present.

It was not in a venue I was familiar with — it was in a different church premises.

It was not led by a worship leader — the MC simply announced the songs.

It was not sung from a screen — it was sung from printed hand-outs.

It was not even in a Worship Service — it was at … a funeral!

Of course, I was singing as enthusiastically as everyone else — I couldn’t help it. Even though I had never sung four of the five songs before, the tunes and rhythms were so easily singable, with such natural cadences, that I could sing them easily. Such singing was contagious, it swept everyone up into a symphony of praise to God. The deceased, a dominee founder of Afrika Jeug Evangelisasie, had asked that this be a “Thanksgiving Service”. If funerals can be glorious — this one was full of glory.

Two more common denominators
As I participated, I was actively trying to identify the factors that made this congregational singing so unique, so special. Some of the eight “common denominators for super congregational singing” listed previously were present here. I now can add:

  • Tunes with natural cadences and
  • Instrumental music which leads the singing.

Before the programme began, I looked through the songs on the hymn-sheet in my hand. I was not familiar with them … when last did I sing in Afrikaans? But once the instrumental music struck up, I instinctively felt I knew the tune-progression, and by the second verse I was quite at home.

Focus on predictable melodies
While performance singing is often written to show the virtuosity of the artist singing the song, congregational singing should focus on smooth, simple, and predictable melodies. The tune should not spring unexpected surprises on the singing crowd.

Some really simple tunes with predictable cadences are Hallelujah, Hallelujah (x8); Amen, Amen, …; The Farmer’s in his den; Kum ba yah; John Brown’s body; Angimbonanga; Uthando luka Baba; Sarie Marais; Ten green bottles; and Silent Night. Anyone who puts Christian lyrics to these tunes will have the congregation singing along in no time.

The tunes should easily slip into natural cadences. Then the congregation will easily slip into these tunes. And the people did, as they sang at that funeral. So, make sure that, for congregational singing, you choose songs that have …

  • Tunes with natural cadences.

Then, tenthly, make sure your instruments or band give a clear lead to the singing:

  • Instrumental music must lead the singing.

Incidental music before the service
The music up front was led by four musicians, one pianist and three violinists. The pianist, one of the deceased’s five children, was brilliant on the keys. She was augmented by three violinists ‘imported’ from a church in another city. They made a fantastic team.

As we entered the sanctuary, they were already playing. This created the musical atmosphere for what followed. Later, I realised they had been playing the tunes of the songs we sang together. (Maybe they had been practising?) This suggests a valuable tip: The incidental music preliminary to the service could well be used to plant in the congregation’s minds the tunes of the songs that will be sung later.

The musicians confidently led each song with the tune of the song. There were no awkward interludes. There was no background musical haze with vocals singing the tune over the blur-noise, as often characterises songs these days. (Leave that to the broadcast and ear-plug songs, where we don’t have to sing-along.)

If you want to hear effective crowd-singing led by instruments that follow the tune, listen to the National Anthem on SAfm at 05h58 each weekday morning. That’s a sample of what super-congregational singing should be!

The 10 common denominators
Summarising the 10 common denominators for super congregational singing:

  1. Enthusiasm for the message of the song.
  2. Songs can be sung spontaneously — even without instruments.
  3. A steady rhythm
  4. The words fit the notes. Don’t crush too many words into too few notes.
  5. Simplicity and
  6. Songs written for congregational singing (not for performance)
  7. Hummability
  8. Strummability
  9. Tunes with natural cadences and
  10. Instrumental music which leads the singing

Let the congregation SING!

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