Tuesday, January 6, 2009

On congregational singing

Over at Soho the Dog, a jeremiad on the lamentable state of congregational singing. A look at the performance practice of hymns over the past hundred years or so will reveal two opposing trends: on the one hand, a steady lowering of pitch (hymns that once went up to high E or F are now transposed to top out at a D), and on the other, a steady increase in tempo. As editor of the English Hymnal, Ralph Vaughan Williams added glacial metronome markings throughout the book - 40 beats per minute for Ein feste' Burg, for example, where I would probably take it at about 66. If you went to an Anglican church around 1910, therefore, you would be expected not only to sing higher notes, but to hold them for longer. It's worth pointing out, too, that RVW was a staunch advocate of unison singing, and a number of his own tunes (Salve, festa dies, King's Weston, and Sine nomine, for example) can only be sung in unison. No refuge in a harmony part for the altos and basses - they have to shoot for the high Fs along with everyone else.

Matthew Guerrieri is almost certainly correct in attributing this to the decline of the choral tradition in churches and schools - if you never use your high register as a child, it's very difficult to develop it as an adult. The broader problem, though, is a widespread reluctance to sing at all, a lack of confidence in producing any vocal sound whatsoever. If the loudest you're willing to sing is a mezzo piano (any louder, and the person next to you might hear you!), it will be difficult to sing a range of more than an octave. Even at the best of times, congregational singing has a slightly embarrassed, reticent quality to it - no-one wants to sing until they're quite sure that their individual voice will be lost in a wave of sound, and so it usually takes a few verses for the singers to really get going. These days, I always set a piston with a solo reed in the right hand and accompaniment in the left, as an emergency measure - when the congregation is sounding particularly querulous, this is the only way to shake them from their stupor.

An anecdote. At a diocesan festival service I attended last year, the printed bulletin gave the texts for a number of hymns to be sung during the adminstration of the Eucharist, with an instruction to the congregation to join in. Having become separated from my church's contingent, I found myself the only person singing the hymns amid a crowd of stony-faced strangers. Finally a woman in front of me turned around and glared at me: "I don't think you're supposed to be singing," she said.

I'm confident that we can turn the tide on this stupefying trend - but we have a lot of work to do first.


Christine said...

The lady in red had finally had enough. She turned around and fixed me with a steely-eyed glare.

"I don't think you're supposed to be singing," she said.

"I don't think you're supposed to be judging the way I worship," I replied, giving her a look of my own. I've worked on that look: one raised eyebrow, the left side of my mouth almost -- but not quite -- sneering. It's usually effective.

But the dame was having none of it. She elbowed the muscle on her right, the sort of mustachioed lunkhead more often seen in a shady bar than at Divine Eucharist.

"Look," he told me, "the lady told you she doesn't like your singing."

I shrugged. I didn't think he'd start a fight in the middle of the service, but past experience told me not to risk it. I wouldn't give him any lip right now. We'd have words afterwards, if need be. And by "words" I meant "fists".

I focused my gaze in the middle distance, right between their heads, and began singing again. I admit that I was perhaps singing a shade louder than before. And since it was a particularly tricky bass line -- none of this one, five, one, five, one, four, five business -- my attention soon returned to the hymnal. Which is probably why I didn't notice the drawn gun until it was actually poking me in the side. Looked like church was getting out early today.

Christine said...

Your life: fictionalized here on demand! Or even by surprise! Cheap as free!

Osbert Parsley said...


That's awesome. I can't even begin to think of how I could top that.

shogart said...


That's all I have to say.

Oh, it should be pointed out that congregational reluctance to sing out is not universal: one finds people of all ages and sorts singing the Psalter with gusto (and in harmony!) at Dutch reformed churches of various stripes.

William said...


MPR said...

You will most likely see more confident participation when the congregation doesn't feel like an audience, the alter isn't treated like a stage, and we do away with the general implication is that the service is a show.

I've found that a true sign of a displaced crowd simply has the feeling of displacement. In other words, how people behave tells a lot of how they feel.

Osbert Parsley said...

"MPR" raises what I think is a crucial point - a disengaged and bored congregation will reflect this feeling in their singing. Certainly the lackluster singing in many Christian communities seems to be part of a general malaise which can be observed in other contexts. (Although it should be noted that there are a number of counterexamples - I've known a number of churchgoers who were otherwise highly engaged in the liturgy, but for whatever reason felt unwilling to participate musically. C. S. Lewis, who hated church music and never attended sung services, is a prominent example.)

As organists, we do the best we can to navigate between two extremes: on the one hand, a stultifying routine, on the other, church as a constantly changing carnival sideshow. For me, the way to avoid the "performance" affect is to integrate the music (and every other element) as closely as possible into the fabric of the service - so that, as much as possible, the worship becomes a single unity. When it works, you begin to engage through the liturgy rather than with the liturgy. It takes constant tweaking to make this happen, and most of the time the services fall short of this ideal. But we do the best we can.