Better Singing in Smaller Churches
Alan R. Pontier
One of the blessings of the Reformation was the restoration of congregational singing. No longer would worship be the domain of the priest and the professional musician. In accordance with Scripture, worship was restored as the duty and privilege of all the people of God. In Christ, the people are a royal priesthood.
Christ fulfilled the priestly work of substitutionary sacrifice. But another kind of sacrifice belongs in Christian worship. The writer of Hebrews instructs us to “continually offer up a sacrifice of praise to God” (Heb. 13:15). This sacrifice of praise reaches its highest expression, not in the polished music of the soloist or in the contemporary beat of a praise band, but in the singing of the congregation. Therefore, in our worship we should pursue excellence in congregational singing, just as we should pursue excellence in all aspects of worship.
However, today it is often something of a struggle to pursue excellence in congregational singing. Music that originates with a commercially successful solo artist or ensemble often becomes awkward when translated for use by a congregation. Instead of a well-delivered shout of praise, we sometimes hear the muted mumbles of people peering at an overhead screen and straining to hear someone who might have a better grasp of the song.
In addition, congregational singing, especially in smaller congregations, can be made more of a challenge by song leaders who are unsure of their own musical ability, as well as by a lack of musical accompaniment to support good congregational singing. In this article, we will avoid the question of what kind of music best suits congregational singing and focus on what the smaller church with limited musical resources can do in the pursuit of better congregational singing.
Leading the Songs in Worship
The task of actually leading the singing of the congregation often falls to the minister, who, while spending years preparing for his teaching ministry, has not spent much time preparing to lead the musical part of the liturgy. Sometimes the task falls to an elder who may be a good singer or have a voice that carries well. Still, especially in smaller churches, the leaders of congregational singing often take their place as much by default as by qualification.
There are some things that can be done to improve the ability of our song leaders. First, there is an important technique for improving the quality of the song leader’s own singing. As he masters this technique, he can pass it on to the congregation. The technique is called diaphragmatic breathing. The diaphragm is a muscle located between the lungs and stomach. Most people rely on upper chest muscles to inflate the lungs. However, breathing from the diaphragm increases the volume of air in the lungs and also, with practice, increases the quality and control of the sounds we make. How can you know when you are breathing with your diaphragm? Yawn. That’s right. When we yawn, we naturally use the diaphragm. Get used to the feeling. Try drawing breath in with a good, full yawn. Hold the air in your lungs for a moment, and then exhale while singing a note. You will have to practice this technique for a while, but with a little work you will see an improvement in the quality of your singing.
If the congregation has difficulty maintaining the tempo of a hymn, the music leader can learn some basic conducting patterns for the various time signatures in the musical score. The time signature is written as, say, 3/4 or 4/4 at the top of the score. In 3/4 time, the “3” means that there are three beats per measure. The “4” means that a quarter note receives one beat. There are different conducting patterns for each time signature. Take a little time to learn them, and it will help keep the congregation on the beat.
The song leader also has an opportunity to expand the number of hymns that the congregation sings. Many churches have only about fifty to seventy-five hymns that they can sing comfortably. They tend to get repeated frequently. The song leader can introduce and teach new hymns on occasion. Our Trinity Hymnal is a wonderful resource with over 700 hymns. There is plenty of material there to expand a congregation’s repertoire.
Accompanying the Songs in Worship
Over the past generation, fewer children have learned to play the piano, and therefore the number of well-trained accompanists for congregational singing has declined. While larger congregations still have members who can play the piano, smaller congregations and mission works may struggle to find someone who can augment the singing with a steady, competent accompaniment. However, fear not! There is a way to accompany the congregation’s singing even if you do not have a pianist in the church.
While help is available, the pastor and/or song leader will have to devote some time and effort to supply musical accompaniment to the congregation in its “sacrifice of praise.” The following points in this section will guide you through this process. You don’t need a piano or a trained musician, but you do need a computer that can play through your church’s sound system.
First step: Go to the OPC website (www.opc.org). On the right-hand side of the homepage, you will see “Resources.” Click on the resource entitled “Trinity Hymnal.” On the Trinity Hymnal Resources page, scroll down to “Other Hymnal Resources” and go to the line “MIDI files, complete (.exe, .sit, .tarball, .zip about 3 MB).” If you are using a PC running Windows, click on either “.exe” or “.zip” to download the folder “Th1.” Save this folder on your computer. You have downloaded MIDI (Musical Instrument Digital Interface) files that contain all the hymns in the 1961 edition of Trinity Hymnal.
Second step: The MIDI files you have downloaded still need editing in order to make them more suitable for congregational accompaniment. Therefore, the second step is to find a music creator or editing program. We use Cakewalk Music Creator 3 in our congregation, and we will refer to that application in the following editing instructions. Other applications will have equivalent functions or controls.
Third step: Select the hymns that you will be singing. If you use the revised Trinity Hymnal, you will have to find the same hymn in the original Trinity Hymnal. Open the MIDI file for that hymn in your editing program. In Cakewalk Music Creator 3, the files usually open to show three lines (sometimes two lines).
Fourth step: You now can edit the tempo, pitch, and length of the hymn. The unedited MIDI files contain an extra full verse of each hymn as an introduction. Thus, if the hymn has three verses, there will be four verses in the MIDI file. Each file also contains the musical “amen” at the end of the hymn. You may cut out much of the first verse in order to make a more traditional introduction (usually the last line of the hymn).
The tempo can be made faster or slower by clicking on the tempo control pane labeled “BPM” (beats per minute) and using the up and down arrows.
The key can be transposed by clicking on the “Process” button on the toolbar after highlighting one or more lines of the hymn. Then click “MIDI Effects” and choose “Transpose” from the menu. Click on “Key/Scale” on the Transposition Method menu. The “From” menu allows you to click on the key of the original MIDI file, while the “To” menu allows you to choose the key in which you would like to sing the hymn. For instance, “Arise, My Soul, Arise” is number 305 in the revised Trinity Hymnal, but it is number 223 in the original hymnal. Open MIDI file Th1_223 in the editing program. Then, after navigating to the “Key/Scale” transposition method, click on “From.” A drop-down menu will display all your choices. The hymn is in 3 sharps (key of A) in the original Trinity, but needs to be transposed to 4 flats (key of A-flat) to match the key in the new Trinity. Click on “3 sharps” in the “From” menu, and then click on “4 flats” in the “To” menu.
Fifth step: Save your edited MIDI file in a folder containing all your music for the worship service. You can also begin building a master folder of all the hymns that you have prepared in this manner.
By following these instructions, you have made the original MIDI file much more like a traditional piano accompaniment. The editing program also allows you to change the sound of the music from piano (the default setting) to any one of several dozen other instruments. Yet, since a piano produces sound by striking strings with hammers, it has a percussive quality that makes it better suited for congregational accompaniment than other instruments. However, you might want to change the sound to another instrument for prelude, postlude, and offertory selections.
Connect your computer to a sound system and play the edited MIDI files through the system.
You have here the basic tools and procedures needed for enhancing congregational singing when your church does not have its own accompanist. It’s not a perfect system, but it will help your congregation advance toward the goal of excellence in its joyful sacrifice of praise.
The author is pastor of Big Bear Valley OPC in Big Bear Lake, Calif. New Horizons, June 2012.