Start off as you mean to go on

Beginnings, middles and endings

I believe a Church musician’s primary role is to support congregational singing. It’s for the musicians to make appropriate decisions about key, tempo and rhythm etc. and to present their music is such a way that these decisions are transparent to the assembly. In other words, we should make singing easy for the congregation so that they feel confident whenever they sing and can, therefore, offer up the best quality of praise possible. After all, congregation singing is for God – not for the congregation and certainly not for the musicians.

For this reason, I think it’s important to establish good practice from beginning to end, just as you would with a choir. It’s also important to maintain support and guidance through the entire hymn.

On holiday a couple of summers ago, I attended church in another town. It was quite well attended and everyone was friendly and welcoming. As the service began, the Song Leader announced, ‘Let’s rise and sing together The Lord’s my Shepherd.’ Two talented and enthusiastic guitarists played a very nice chord progression and we started to sing. A significant number of the congregation began with The Lord’s my Shepherd to the tune of Crimond while the others launched into Chris Tomlin’s version.

Things quickly came to a halt and, amid much good-natured laughter, the Song Leader clarified that we were to sing the Chris Tomlin version. So we started again and this time delivered a very creditable rendition. I had to allow myself a small, rueful smile of empathy for the musicians because, as far as the introduction was concerned, I’ve been there and done that!

The problem with using guitar chord progressions for an introduction is that it doesn’t give any information about the melody or the starting note. This incident got me thinking about the importance of a good musical introduction.

Beginnings

I had the great privilege and pleasure of leading a small choir. What they lacked in experience, they more than made up with enthusiasm and hard work. It quickly became clear that, whenever they sang, they benefitted from a fairly lengthy introduction. This gave them time to compose themselves, take a few deep breaths and connect with the melody. A good start settled any nerves and almost always guaranteed a confident start. This, in turn, contributed to a good performance.

I believe that this strategy transfers very well to congregational singing. Quite often, the first few notes of hymns tend to be a bit ragged and a good, well-constructed introduction can really militate against this.

A good introduction serves a number of purposes.
It gives the congregation time to compose themselves, to get to their feet, to find the hymn, if they’re using hymnbook, or perhaps to read the first verse on the screen.
It sets the mood or tone and the energy level. Is it a reflective hymn? Is it up-beat and joyful?
It demonstrates the tempo and the rhythm.
It establishes the melody, the key and, ideally, the starting note. This assists the assembly to come in on time and in tune. This, of course, presupposes that the introduction includes the melodic line. I have no problem with guitars; I play one myself. However, for the average congregant, a chord progression, no matter how good, provides little or no information about the upcoming melody.
If the verses are short I’ll generally play the entire verse. If there’s a refrain, I’ll often play that. This especially tends to lead fairly seamlessly to the opening notes of the melody.
If the verses are longer and there’s no refrain, I’ll generally play some sort of combination of the first and last lines. First lines help because they establish the melody and last lines serve to lead to the opening notes.

Intro

In summary: play something that clearly signals the hymn and its melody.
Play the whole verse.
Play the refrain
Play the first line.
Play the last line
.
Or a combination.

Middles

As a hymn progresses, it’s important to keep the tempo moving along. Generally speaking, an inexperienced or untaught congregation will slow down of the song is slow and speed up if it’s fast – especially if there’s a marked beat.

It’s quite useful to have a short melodic line or so between verses to remedy both of these two tendencies and, in the case of an up-tempo hymn, it gives the congregation time to catch their breath. A much-loved, up-tempo hymn risks running away with the congregation and perhaps the musicians as well!

For the verses themselves, I favour a fairly low-key accompaniment because the whole point of congregational singing is, after all, the congregation singing!

Endings

Most people want to slow down at the end of each verse and almost always at the end of the hymn especially if the melody is already quite slow. I understand this because it can bring a certain feeling of conclusion to the hymn. There’s absolutely nothing inherently wrong with that; the challenge is that it’s actually quite difficult to pull off cleanly because each person (ideally!) and each musician has to slow down to the same degree and at the same time and that takes a certain amount of skill and practice.

A helpful technique is to maintain the rhythm to the last note and then have the assembly hold that note for longer than usual. It takes very simple direction from the Music Director to guide the congregation to stop at exactly the same time and it provides a beautiful clean finish.

If you have a singing group who support the assembly with harmony, it can be a lovely thing to hear a cadence going on under that last note.

You may also have the congregation hold the note and let the music accompaniment die away. This lets them hear their voices unaccompanied and can be the first, almost unnoticed, step to introducing a cappella at a later date.

These strategies really only apply to music that the congregation knows because introducing new music is quite another matter.