NUTURING THE SEEDLING
After a recent weekend of church music, I received a letter that pointed up the vast discrepancy between beautiful congregational singing and the weekly reality. The weekend had included a day of singing and rehearsing with the large church choir; the Sunday service, and an afternoon SING. The level of singing and improvising in all these sessions was high, and enthusiasm great. What the letter lamented was the difference between the unaccompanied congregational singing that I led during the service, and the familiar, final hymn with the skilled organist and fine instrument dominating.
In pondering this problem, I suddenly had a vision. Let me paint you a picture . .
Picture an interstate highway, with large trucks and many cars speeding along it. Now add a tiny plant growing up in a space in the concrete, buffeted in the crosswinds of the cars until a truck tire happens to flatten it - and it's gone.
Now change the metaphor. We're in church, and I'm introducing a new hymn. The first sound that hits the ear is my small, rather soft voice, singing a phrase in the most expressive way possible. The hearers are invited to echo it - usually coming in too loud, too late, under pitch and without subtlety. I sing again, even softer, and with more attention to text and style. This time the response is better: they're beginning to listen.
The third time is fairly close, and I continue on through the song, knowing that their responses will keep improving as they find their congregational voice. They have begun to enter into the song, and as we continue, with some optional improvisation, they become more and more involved with the mood that has been set up, the way their own voices transmit that mood, and the way that the text - the message of the hymn - shines forth with this gentle treatment.
Imagine singing three or four songs this way, with the singers becoming more and more enamoured of the possibilities of their own voices, the stylistic variety of the hymns, and the spirit of group involvement in the creation of something both beautiful and meaningful.
Now it's time for the final hymn of the service, and we hear the organ, in full-throated majesty, thundering out the introductory verse. Our voices are all warmed-up, we're ready to participate, but when we come in we literally cannot hear ourselves. Any subtlety of articulation of words or music is lost in the vast sound. The congregational voice is changed from listening and cherishing, to competition and volume. There's none of the joy in creating, or satisfaction in being part of, a group bonding itself through song.
So – that tiny plant we began with? It's first of all, the song. There are times when a mighty organ stirs the blood and allows the hymn to flower: think of Vaughan-Williams' For All the Saints. This is English cathedral style at its best, worthy of coronations and state funerals. But when this style of playing is applied to a classic hymn, like Come, Thou Almighty King, it's completely inappropriate. This is a minuet, and should be performed in the style of the dance, with an 18th c. tonal palette. The best way to introduce it to a congregation would be to begin with the melody alone, playing lightly and cleanly, with exaggerated articulation, to remind the singers that they don't need to be loud and heavy - they simply need to be musical. [When did our model descend to this level - that 'good singing in church' meant a football cheer? Should volume be king?] And being musical means listening to lovingly produced sound, and joining into the flowering that this kind of beginning can engender
And one further thought - the tiny seed is also us, as a congregation. Are we to be flattened down every time we start to sing together? Or can we figure out another way to pray and praise through song? Can we re-route the big trucks and fast cars to another road, and nurture the beginnings of great congregational singing through allowing the group to hear itself, and to build its own sound through constant practice (in the sense of a doctor's or lawyer's 'practice'.)
The miracle can happen with particularly song-sensitive organists, who use their resources frugally, and concentrate on staying out of the congregation's way. But the original model, in human history, is the song-leader – the lone voice that provides the entering phrase and invites everyone, through manner and knowledge and gesture, to participate in the recreation of a song. It seems to me that this is why song was given us as a language - to help us learn to listen to each other, and to build a community based on shared song. That is a worthy way to honor the Giver of the Gift.