Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Singing Mit Feeling

A wistful Rod Dreher post about men singing together, and our experience of Christmas Eve Mass where the otherwise engaged congregation fell silent during the hymns, got me thinking this morning about singing in general, and how all of us do so little of it.

I love my congregation -- I really do -- but apart from the nursery-school-aged chitlins they're the most terrible, unenthusiastic singers in all of Lutherland. I just don't get it. Even on Reformation Sunday, a day when most Lutherans are belting out "A Mighty Fortress" with the vigor of Cubbie fans singing "Take Me Out to the Ballgame" at the seventh-inning stretch, our congo sounds like they're in painful recovery from major oral surgery. Sung liturgy? Fuggetaboutit, except for a few brave souls during Holden Evening Prayer at Advent and Lent.

My dad, who thanks to his arts-averse family could not read one note of music, was nonetheless a robust church singer with a good ear, constantly at the receiving end of entreaties to join the church choir. He always refused. "Someone's got to lead from the pews too," he'd argue.

Some who've noticed this non-singing phenomenon in the culture in general blame the entertainment industry and its professionalization of music; back before the days of easy access to musical recordings, families and friends used to sing together for amusement, and coworkers would sing to relieve the tedium of repetitive work; now we rely on our sound systems and radio to supply our music. Likewise, church musicianship -- and just so I don't get pounded for firing a shot in the worship wars, I think this is true in traditional worship modalities as well as contemporary ones -- has developed a kind of self-conscious, aspirational quality that makes people uncomfortable with the idea of providing their own untutored sung praises to God, instead of delegating that responsibility to a trained choir or "praise team."

I don't know what the solution, if any, is to this. But if you happen upon a traveling band of itinerent singers willing to seed the pews of a non-singing church, please send them my way.


Naomi said...

Sounds like our Episcopal church. They did not even sing out las Sunday with the Christmas songs.

Beth said...

I don't know the solution either, but I do have a few hints.

1)Skip the flowery inroductions. Start psalms and liturgy portions by playing the first note for a full measure, then evey one starts singing. For hymns, play the tune of the verse through once with no decoration, then let people start.

2) Go easy on us, especially where rttange is concerned. The narrower the range of a song, the more likely everyon is to find a place where they can sing it comfortably and not off-key

Sorrel Jakins said...

Same here for our LDS (Mormon) congregation. I grew up where enthusiasm was apparent, pew participants sang parts, and the men's chorus would come in likee an artillery barrage.

Now all we get is a mime-show with one or two valiant voice-choristers. I feel that a part of my worship service is lost.

LoieJ said...

I hear you. I know that when I was a teen, I always sang along in church, but the teens don't now. Even the ones that are in the school choir and fairly good. Our church has really dead accoustics, so really, your voice doesn't carry very far anyway, and if many people aren't singing, it sounds like nobody is singing. I'm in the choir, which is somewhat picked up by the microphone, and that helps the marginal singers in the pews sing along if they are so inclined. When we don't have choir, our piano player likes it if we are spread around the church to help with the singing.

Our community has always had an all-church Christmas Carol concert. For the last several years, there are fewer and fewer singers and fewer in attendance. Partly this is the fault of the pastors in the other churches which don't promote it and the togetherness it takes. But the Baptist church, which has some fabulous singers no longer have a choir because "everyone is too busy." I don't get it. One hour/week to practice to sing to the Lord??? They have duos and trios and soloists there. But when there is no choir, there is no place for those like me who love music and singing but can't sing on my own to participate.

OTOH, we have many lay readers and some lay liturgists in our church, including some who DON'T have solo voices :-( So it goes.

Sheryl said...

I do my best to sing, but my problem is that our music director tends to choose a key that is too high for me, and hymns that tend to favor the high notes. There are a lot of folks who just can't handle those.

Also, we have lately been having a lot of music that isn't really congregational singing music. As an example, we had "O Holy Night" as our communion hymn on Christmas Eve. While it is lovely son, it isn't really the kind of song the congregation can sing together well, and the range is really wide on it.

We do the best we can, though, which I guess is acceptable in God's eyes.

angela said...

joy ful noise--sing b/c it is the word of god. that was my start and now my toddler insists I sing from books, so my voice has gotten a little better.
one of the reasons I chose the church we're at is that the choir was small, good, and on occasion they and even the church sang accopella once in a while--rang chills up my back.
now, i notice the holes in the pews and the lackluster choir, esp after i started attending practice now and then. sad.

Auntie Knickers said...

I have the same complaint about Big Taupe Church. We have 350 in worship most Sundays, and the senior choir is 80 voices more or less, but my feeling is there are a lot of non-singers. There are a lot of older people (older than we are at early 60s)and oddly,or maybe not, 90% of our new members consistently say they were attracted by the music program. It seems too much like performance and too little like worship to me sometimes. And I don't think it's the Minister of Music's fault.

toujoursdan said...

There's that. And the fact that the public schools no longer have music education. When I was in school nearly everyone would read some music by high school graduation. It had about the same value as learning a foreign language. Nowadays, (classical) music education/music appreciation is gone - as are mass participation in glee clubs, concert bands and orchestras.

backrowbass said...

I think the death of music education has a lot to do with it. As does the growth of recorded music.

I played Lutheran at K's church last Reformation Sunday, and was surprised at the anemic singing.

The current Episcopal hymnal has quite a few hymns that go to Eb. I think that's probably a stretch for many singers these days, especially if they're not in the habit of singing more than once a week.

toujoursdan, I had the chance to visit a middle school band/orchestra concert a couple of weeks ago. I was delighted to see that the school apparently considers it a part of their mission to get as many students as possible into some sort of ensemble. There were some 150 participants. This is in funding-starved California; they're clearly doing something right!

hamletta said...

My old parish didn't get the memo. Our choir is small (12-15), and we're lucky enough to be able to afford paid section leaders who can really sing, but the congregation usually drowns us out.

Our nave also has really good acoustics. When I'm serving as acolyte and can't sing the call to worship, the song that sounds kinda pitiful in the choir room sounds awesome in the nave.