A Modest Proposal

Serving the Congregation's Voice

This article is reprinted from The Stanza, Fall 2006, © 2006 The Hymn Society in the United States and Canada (www.thehymnsociety.org). All rights reserved. Used by permission.

Three times, recently, I was aurally assaulted in a church building: once at a concert, twice at services. The weapons were large pipe organs, and the penetrating device was most specifically 32-foot pedal pipes. Each time I had been invited to “sing along” as part of a group that then became engulfed, no, drowned in ear-splitting sonorities.

How does this come to be? Is not hymn accompaniment a recognized form of musical endeavor? Where did this idea of pure volume come from? Is it that old “I can play louder than you can sing”? Or “You’ll sing louder if I play louder”? Or, perhaps most realistically, “I really don’t want you to sing: the show is all right here.”

Don’t get me wrong—I love organ music, well-played. But we need to rescue congregational singing from overwhelming accompaniments. The most radical way (and my favorite) is to rely on the congregation alone to supply its song. The next best is to train our organists to listen to and support the singing with varied, non-legato tones and textures.

Perhaps it’s time to adopt a Congregation’s Bill of Rights. Here are some basic tenets:

  1. The organ shall encourage and support but never overpower the singing.
  2. The registration shall reflect the nature of the song, the size of the group, and the acoustics of the building.
  3. The tempo shall be suited to singing (rather than playing), and shall allow for both breathing and the articulation of text.
  4. The organist shall not re-harmonize the hymn except with advance notice.
  5. The organist shall vary articulation for each verse (i.e., sing along).
  6. The organist shall agree to at least one unaccompanied hymn at each service.

And this curmudgeon must add that there were other occasions for complaint, not only about organists but also pianists, other instrumentalists, and even song leaders. What’s happened to the idea of steady tempo? Musicians know that finding the right tempo for any piece is key to its successful performance—so think what you want before you start, and then hold to it. We’d never listen to an orchestral performance that slowed down at the end of each phrase or section. In fact, it’s at junction times that it’s most important to keep steady. Have you planned how you are getting from the end of one verse to the next? Have you practiced with a metronome to check your own work? Have you decided whether a ritardando is appropriate, and, if so, where it comes and how much does it slow? Would it be possible to dance to your tempo? Is it possible to sing expressively to it? If not, why not?

Our goal must be joining in worship that is worthy of the Creator. The first commandment is that we listen to one another, and the second is like unto it, that we contribute as best we can so that the music may unite our voices, hearts, minds, and spirits. The ancients believed that music-making was a spiritual discipline. Let us work together to rediscover this truth, and bring it alive in our services.