Singing in Parts?
This month’s column addresses a question submitted to Music Matters from a reader: We don't sing in parts anymore. How can I encourage my congregation to do more than sing the melody line?
We have just completed two major events at Community of Christ Headquarters: World Conference and U.S. Conference. (For those not familiar with Community of Christ: World Conference, a multi-day gathering which occurs once every three years, is attended by delegates, church members, and friends from all of the countries in which Community of Christ has a presence. For some worship services and legislative sessions during this event, nearly every one of the 5,800 seats in Community of Christ’s Auditorium is filled. The U.S. Conference, held this year for the very first time, was a separate three-day event in which about 2,000 delegates worshiped and considered legislation affecting only the U.S. part of the church.)
These were wonderful events in which much important business of the church was conducted. The worship services were each moving and memorable. But here’s the best thing from a musician’s perspective: the congregational singing was FABULOUS! I’ve lost count of the number of times people told me that they were moved to tears by the experience of singing in parts, a cappella, with thousands of others, in legislative sessions or worship services.
This doesn’t happen by accident.
Therefore, I’m so glad that you are concerned about your congregation’s part-singing. It’s in congregations where these skills must be nurtured, ensuring that musical moments of awe and wonder and Divine encounter, as described above, can occur in any setting, large or small.
Here are some concrete ideas for encouraging and training part-singing skills in your congregation. Seven of the 10 ideas don’t require that your congregation be able to read music to sing in parts, and can be done with or without accompaniment. All of them are designed to remind your congregation that part-singing is fun!
- Sing campfire songs in worship. Many people learn to sing in parts at campfires, and the memories of how to sing that way is still somewhere deep inside them. Use songs like “Spirit of the Living God,” “Give Me Oil in my Lamp,” “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” “In My Life, Lord, Be Glorified,” “Michael, Row the Boat Ashore,” “I Love You, Lord,” and others in appropriate worship moments.
- Sing rounds. “Dona nobis pacem,” “I Love the Mountains,” and “Father, I Adore You” are rounds appropriate for worship that are easily teachable for those who don’t already know them. Any hymn based on the pentatonic (five-note) scale will work as a round. “Jesus Loves Me” is a pentatonic hymn; so is “Amazing Grace.” Beach Spring and Holy Manna are pentatonic hymntunes found in many hymnals with various texts. (An easy test to see if a hymn is based on the pentatonic scale is to try playing it using only the black keys on a piano.) Any hymn that stays mostly within the same key will also work as a round – try the hymntune St. Columba, for example. The hymntune Tallis’ Canon was written to be sung as a round (canon).
- Sing partner songs. These are songs that work separately or together. Have your congregation sing the songs “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” and “When the Saints Go Marching In”; then split the congregation in half and sing both songs simultaneously. Others that work this way are “Go Down, Moses” and “Joshua Fit the Battle of Jericho.” “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” also works with “All Night, All Day.”
- Sing global songs. In many communities outside the U.S., song is a primary vehicle for invitation into worship, teaching, witness, and commitment – and the singing is joyous and in parts. “Kumbaya” is a global song (though its origins are disputed) that most U.S. congregations already know in parts. Some have learned more, like “Siyahamb’,” which comes from South Africa. Community of Christ Sings, the new Community of Christ hymnal which will be released this October, will include many global songs that are easily learned and are in parts. You could start learning some of them by visiting www.cofchrist.org/hymnal/listen.asp to hear church members in Kenya sing the songs “Mayenziwe ‘Ntando Yakho” (“Your Will Be Done on Earth”), “Uyai Mose” (“Come All You People”), and “Siyahamb’ Ekukhanyen’ Kwenkhos’ (“We Are Marching in the Light of God”).
- Sing music from Taizé. Worship services at this ecumenical faith community in France are filled with songs that are simple to learn, repetitive, multi-lingual, and usually sung in parts. Many in the U.S. already know some Taizé songs: “Eat This Bread” and “Jesus, Remember Me” are two that have been published in many hymnals. Many more will appear in Community of Christ Sings. You could start learning more now by visiting www.youtube.com/watch?v=tOfxxk4x5aY to hear “Ubi caritas et amor,” or www.youtube.com/watch?v=xZ9ycGq1pW4 to hear “O Lord, Hear My Prayer.”
- Teach simple parts to go with familiar hymns. For example, for the hymntune Veni Emmanuel (“O Come, O Come, Emmanuel”) in the key of E minor, have the congregation hum the pitches E and B as a drone while a soloist sings stanza 1. For stanza 2, have the men hum the drone while the women sing the melody. Switch parts for stanza 3. For the hymntune Lasst uns erfreuen (“All Creatures of Our God and King”), have the women sing the melody and word of the first “Alleluia” as an ostinato pattern, while the men sing stanza 1. Switch parts for stanza 2, etc.
- Teach your congregation the song “Peace, Salaam, Shalom,” a song in parts that will be published in Community of Christ Sings and is easily teachable by rote. It was used often during World Conference 2013. Visit www.cofchrist.org/wc2013/ and look for “Songs from the Hymn Festival” (Wednesday, April 17). The first video listed there includes Lauren Hall, the hymnal project’s manager, telling the story behind this song, and Pat Humphries and Sandy Opatow, the song’s creators, teaching it to the congregation. Use it as a model for teaching your congregation.
- Join The Hymn Society. I can personally attest to the value of this organization dedicated to enriching congregational song across all faith and musical traditions. By attending Hymn Society conferences each year, I have observed and interacted with master congregational song leaders such as Alice Parker, Mary Oyer, Michael Hawn, and many others. Through the Hymnn Society’s various publications, I gain models and techniques and confidence for leading congregational singing, and I’ve learned many new hymns and songs. Visit www.thehymnsociety.org/ for more information.
- Attend the launch of Community of Christ Sings,October 18-20, at Community of Christ Headquarters. Combined with the church’s annual Peace Colloquy, this three-day event, “Peace, Justice, and Song” will be an unforgettable experience in which you’ll learn many new techniques for enlivening congregational song. John Bell, a master at this, is the Peace Award recipient. You can get a taste of what he’s all about here: www.cofchrist.org/peaceaward/2013interview.asp.
- This may go without saying, but just in case: make sure the music readers in your congregation have parts to sing from! Make printed hymnals available for all, even when you’re projecting words on a screen for congregational singing, because at this point there isn’t readily available technology for projecting easily readable music with the words. Not everyone is proficient at making up parts, and no one wants to be embarrassed if they sing the “wrong” thing. Give them the music readers the music they need to be successful.
And always: by your actions and your words, compliment and encourage your congregation when they sing well, and gently encourage them to try new things to help them grow musically, as well as theologically, through the songs they sing!
If you have a question you’d like a Music Matters author to address, send it to Jan Kraybill at jkraybill@CofChrist.org. First, see www.cofchrist.org/musicmatters/faq.asp to see if your question is already waiting to be answered. If you have additional ideas for solutions for this month’s question, or any of the questions you find there, please do contribute your voice by e-mailing Jan those as well.
Community of Christ Headquarters
Independence, MO, USA
Worship and Music Support Specialist
Community of Christ Headquarters
Independence, MO, USA