Monthly Archives: November 2011

Pointers about what to sing

Each week the Praise Team faces the question: What songs should we select for the following Sunday. A number of factors come into play in answering this question: What will fit with the theme of the sermon? Are there directives from the pastoral staff to consider? Do we want to learn a new song, or do we want to stay with the music we know? What music is suitable for the musicians? Does the music match their skill level?

The question that I would like to consider here does not focus on the Praise Team or on the pastors but rather on the congregation and it is this: What songs are suitable for the congregation? Or, to put it another way: How well is the congregation able to sing these songs?

Sometimes it is helpful for the Praise Team to sing a song acapella (without musical accompaniment) in order to listen in to see how well the congregation is managing to sing a particular song. Ordinarily the voices and the instruments of the Team may obscure the sound coming from the congregation and as a result the fact that participation in the singing is limited may go unnoticed. The reason for limited participation may well be that the congregation is finding the music too difficult to sing.

Here is where the focus of the Praise Team is different from that of a Christian band performing in front of an audience. A band is not primarily concerned about whether those present are able to sing along. They have come to minister to the congregation in song. The congregation/audience is there primarily to listen rather than to participate. In such a situation the difficulty level of the music is limited only by the skill of the musicians.

But the situation is very different  in the arena of congregational singing. In congregational singing, everything focuses on the congregation. Is the congregation able to sing along? Does the majority of those present find the music singable? The focus of the Praise Team is: How do we enable more people to participate in the singing?

Congregational singing is the congregation’s opportunity to offer their praise and worship to God in song. The music is a vehicle for the words of the song. If the congregation finds the music too difficult to sing, their effort at expressing their worship will prove unsatisfying and discouraging. So one of the ways the Praise Team seeks to enable the congregation to offer their praise to God in a satisfying manner is by ensuring that the songs they have chosen are singable.

What factors should the Praise Team consider when seeking to determine whether a song is singable? Here are some suggestions.

1. The range of the music – There will be those people in the church who can easily reach high notes, and those who can easily reach low notes. Everyone else will be somewhere in between. Except perhaps for the occasional note, the range should be within easy reach of most of the worshipers. It is an unpleasant and unsatisfying experience for those with untrained voices to have to consistently strain to reach high notes.  

2. The rhythm of the music – It is my view, that a song chosen for congregational singing should have a rhythm that is reasonably easy for most people to learn. This is not to say that the rhythm needs to be boring. But the more predictable the rhythm of the song is, the more quickly the congregation will be able to learn to sing it.

3. The steadiness of the melody line – Melody lines can either flow steadily in one direction, staying on the same note and rising or descending at a steady pace, or they can fluctuate wildly, with wide gaps between successive notes. Many wide gaps, and significant fluctuations in a melody line will leave the worshipers wondering what the next note might be. Such melody lines are more difficult to memorize and may present a source of frustration.

The Praise Team will greatly promote joy in congregational singing if they build up a repertoire of songs that can be readily sung by the majority of the worshipers. The proof will be in the pudding. If the congregation is singing the songs, then they are singable. If after many attempts at singing a particular song, the singing is still tentative and the sound barely audible, the song may be too difficult for the congregation. An effective Praise Team will seek to ensure that most of the congregation will be able to participate in the singing of most of the songs most of the time.






Pointers about the Beat

I have come to the conclusion, that keeping the beat is a matter of great importance in congregational singing. In other words, it is of great importance, that the Praise Team keep the beat during their playing and singing of the songs. I cannot overstate how important this is.

What do we mean by “keeping the beat”? Each bar of each song has a number of beats. Sometimes 3, sometimes 4, or more. Each beat has the same length. Usually it has the same length throughout the song. One can speed up the beat or slow it down, but if we slow the beat down, we need to slow every beat down, and if we speed the beat up, we need to speed every beat up.

Keeping the beat is important in all forms of music. Regardless of how complicated the rhythm of a musical piece is, the beat is always steady.

Musicians are familiar with the metronome. The metronome is a handy tool. It is a tool that helps musicians keep the beat. The metronome is set in motion either by winding it up, or, if it is an electronic version, by turning it on. See for an example of an electronic metronome.) Metronomes can be set to keep a slow beat, or a fast beat. But one thing is certain, unless the metronome is broken, it keeps a steady beat.

Why is all of this relevant? I believe that human beings have an internal beat-keeping sensor (I think I  just made up a term). We can often see people tapping their feet, or their fingers, to a certain beat. Or they will be rocking their body or their head back and forth to a certain beat. Even those who cannot carry a tune, or sing, have the ability to keep a beat. Somehow this beat-keeping sensor is something that is in us from birth. I believe our creator put it there.

Here is how this impacts congregational singing. When for one reason or another, the beat of a song is not kept, in other words, when beats vary in length within the same song, the worshiper experiences a conflict within himself. The lack of a steady beat is in conflict with the sense of rhythm that his creator has put inside of him. And this conflict becomes a distraction during the singing. It takes the joy out of singing, because trying to sing against the beat becomes a frustration to the worshiper.

We might say, why should the worshiper be distracted? If he is spiritual enough, he will remain focussed through it all and still worship. True, God will still see his heart of worship, and God will be pleased. Nevertheless, the worshiper will be frustrated, and the experience of worship in song will be an unpleasant one to him.

What is my advice (pointer) to the Praise Team? Please make every effort to keep the beat. How can this be done? Here are some suggestions.

1) Practise your songs with a metronome. Make sure that the beat is steady, whether it is slow or fast. Practise until the beat is steady. If the metronome is not loud enough, find a way to amplify the sound. Make sure all the musicians in the band/team are keeping the beat. 

2) Listen to the drummer (if there is one on the team). One of the drummer’s roles is to keep the beat. A drummer can be a big help to a Praise Team. He can alert the Team when they are not keeping the beat. The drummer will know when the beat is not being kept, because there is nothing more frustrating for a drummer than to have to adjust to musicians who are not keeping the beat. He should not be shy in alerting the Team. In the end, the frustration that he feels will also be felt by the congregation. The rule here is: When it comes to the beat, the musicians need to adjust to the drummer, instead of the drummer needing to adjust to the musicians.

3) Here is a suggestion to guitarists: If you are strumming, try having your strong strums land on the beat, not on the offbeat (in other words, on the tick of the metronome, not between ticks). This will also help the congregation to keep the beat.

Keeping the beat will make singing more enjoyable for the congregation, and the Praise Team will be encouraged when they sense this increase in enthusiasm.




Pointers about Songs and Singing


We have seen that the heart attitude of the participants in congregational singing is the most important matter. If the heart attitude of the participants is not right before God, it really does not matter what else is right with the singing and playing of the Praise Team and the singing of the congregation. If the primary audience of our singing is not pleased, what is the point of our singing?

Having said this, we should not understand this to mean that heart attitude is the only matter of importance in congregational singing.

The act of worship originates in the heart of the worshiper, but it is the music, the songs and the singing, that are the vehicle by means of which the worshiping congregation offers their praise to God. This process of transmission of our worship to God can be impacted positively and negatively in a number of ways.

What are some of these tangible ways that may impact the transmission of our heart worship to God in song?

Well, there is the song itself – for example, is it singable? Not all songs are equally singable.

There is the content of the song – do the words make sense to the worshiper? Are the words expressing thoughts and ideas that are consistent with the truths of our great salvation, and with who God is and what he has done? Do they express what is in a worshiper’s heart?

There is the speed of the music – is the song being sung so fast that it is hard to even realize what the words are saying? In other words, is the worshiper unable to formulate thoughts in his/her mind because of the speed in which the words whiz by the worshiper? Or are the songs being sung so slowly, that the worshiper is distracted from the words?

Is the rhythm too difficult for most of the worshipers? Is the beat being kept?

What is the role of the instruments of the Praise Team? Is the way the instruments are being used serving to underline and lend support to the message of the song or is it serving as a distraction from the content of the song?

All of these issues are matters of importance. They are important because they affect the process of the transmission of the worship of the congregation to God. With time, I hope to look at some, or all of the factors mentioned, in order to examine more closely what bearing each of them has on the singing congregation.

No doubt there will be differences of opinion about what constitutes an aid or a hindrance to worship. My hope is that at least some of the things I am saying will resonate with the reader, and that he/she will find in them something worth considering or even adopting.






Measuring Success

How do we know when our worship in song has been successful?

I believe that the simple answer is, when God is pleased.

We have already indicated that God is the primary audience of our singing. So the question is, what does God think about our singing, our worship? What is it that pleases him about our worship in song?

This is a very weighty question! Of course it is hard to get direct feedback from God. But that does not mean that we do not have a whole handful of indications from his word about what might be pleasing to him in our worship and what might not be.

If my answer is true, and God’s pleasure in our singing is the ultimate key to success, then we can infer from this, that everything else is secondary.

We have already seen that true worship is a matter of the heart (see “A Serious Word about Worship“). The quality of music, and of the performance of the music and the singing, the style of the music, the outward enthusiasm of the worshipers, all these things are secondary to this great question: Is (was) God pleased?

Let me give an example, a “for instance”. What if a congregation is seriously divided? Let’s say there are factions in the congregation. Certain members in the congregation no longer talk to each other. There is bitterness and hostility. Yet on Sundays, everybody stands up and sings. The Praise Team puts a lot of effort into their practice and prayerfully selects the music for the worship service. And the congregation sings. And after the singing, the factions, and harsh words and anger continues. Would such singing please God, even if every note was played flawlessly, and everything went off without a hitch?

We know that God loves unity (not uniformity) among his people.  We know this from passages such as Ephesians 4:3, Philippians 2:2, Romans 15:5,6. Of course not everyone will be drawn into the disunity and discord. And God may well be pleased with their singing, since he sees the heart. But where there is this kind of disunity in a congregation, the Spirit of God, the Holy Spirit, is grieved (Ephesians 4:30-32). The congregation may be singing well enough, but God is not pleased.

What is the effect on a congregation, when God is not pleased? There will be a lack of joy. There may still be enthusiasm but it would be of an artificial kind. The music may still be beautiful, and the sound may still be harmonious and glorious, but where the Spirit of God is grieved, the enthusiasm that he generates will be quenched.  The problem will not be the Praise Team or the music, but the disunity.  While there may still be a certain kind of success, it will be in secondary matters.

I believe that where a congregation pleases God (in matters of the heart) the congregational singing will experience an infusion of joy given by the Holy Spirit to the worshipers, and there will be a sense among the congregation that they have met with God in their singing, and that they have truly worshiped him. This joy cannot be manufactured artificially. It is the gift of the Holy Spirit to a congregation that pleases God.