Sing a new song – just not too often!
A restricted repertoire doesn’t mean that you never introduce new music. Indeed, as your congregation becomes more able and, therefore, more confident, it can be a very good thing to enlarge and expand your repertoire.
While song selection is a matter for each individual assembly, it’s worth remembering that this is an extremely important issue and it’s subject to a variety of factors.
Know your congregation
Like any good choirmaster, we need to be aware of the skill, abilities and musical preferences of our congregation. If most of our members are a little older or if they’re inexperienced singers, they probably won’t thank you for very modern pieces that may be quite irregular in form and, therefore, difficult to sing.
That’s not to say that you shouldn’t try new things but rather that you try them with care and sensitivity. Music that sounds amazing on a CD may not translate to your congregation particularly if they’re small in number or not very used to singing together as a group.
It’s also worth remembering that it’s not about your own personal tastes; it’s about selecting appropriate music for praising God and also that works well for your particular assembly.
Having selected new music, you’ll want your congregation to engage with it and the key to that is thorough preparation.
Preparation, preparation, preparation!
• Prepare yourself and your fellow musicians.
Before you introduce a new song to your congregation, make sure that you, your fellow musicians and vocalists already know it very well. Your vocalists are particularly important because they can provide quality feedback on how difficult or not it is to learn this new music. Also, if you have a Song Leader, he or she should know the new song as well as the musicians and vocalists. You can’t lead what you don’t know.
• Prepare the media.
Do you use hymnbooks with the music score? Even those who don’t read music can follow the idea of notes that rise and fall. It’s surprisingly difficult to learn a new song if you don’t know where the music’s going.
Are you going to display the words (and perhaps the music) on screen? Is the text visible and readable? Does your technician know the music? Are there any issues about displaying the correct pages? This can be a challenge when there’s a chorus or refrain.
• Prepare the congregation.
Think about introducing the music a week or so before you’re going to learn it. This could be done as an offertory, prelude or postlude according to what you normally play in your Church. This way, the melody won’t seem completely unfamiliar when the congregation sings it for the first time.
Here are some practical tips you might employ to help people to enjoy learning a new song. While they may not all apply to your situation, I’ve certainly found most of these suggestions to be very useful.
• Before you begin : You may wish to introduce your new hymn sometime during the service rather than it being either the first or last hymn that you sing. The first hymn frequently sets the tone for worship while the last hymn tends to stay with us so you’d want both these hymns to be sung particularly well.
Explain why you want to learn this particular song. You could perhaps read and reference the Scripture it’s based on. Discussing the content and appropriateness of the song can also be both helpful and motivating. (For example, it may be in preparation for special services such as Easter or Christmas.)
This is perhaps even more important when we sing Psalms, particularly those that are less familiar. Most of us are better motivated to buy into the process of learning new material if we understand the reasons for it.
• Play the melody : Make sure you have a very strong melodic line. If you have solo instrument, such as a flute for example, have your musician play it through from beginning to end with the words displayed either in your hymnbook or on overhead projection.
• Teach the refrain first : If there’s a chorus or refrain, it’s sometimes worthwhile teaching this first. Your vocalists can take the strain for the verses while the entire assembly joins in the chorus. By the end of the song the congregation will know the refrain quite well and the melody of the verses will be so much easier the next time you sing it.
• Have just your vocalists sing first : Have your vocalists sing the first verse (and chorus). This is best sung in unison so as to reinforce the melody. This serves to indicate the tempo and musical range and it’s particularly useful if the metre is in any way irregular.
• Have the congregation sing the first verse again : Start with the first verse again. People have heard how the words fit the music so they’re more likely to get it right. Keep the accompaniment fairly simple and low-key while still maintaining a strong melodic line. If you employ ‘undercover choristers’ this may be a good time for them to break cover and lead from the front!
• Repeat regularly : No-one learns from doing something just once. Sing your new music reasonably frequently until it’s absorbed into your normal repertoire.
• Review : It’s quite clear to see when your congregation likes or dislikes a particular hymn. If they don’t seem to be engaging with the new music it might be worth asking for feedback. If they really don’t engage, then let it go. There’s plenty of other good music out there!
• Improve : Once your congregation sings the song well, you can begin to add texture, colour and dimension with the use of harmony, descants and the like.
Introducing new music takes time and a lot of preparation so it’s probably not something you want to do too often. It’s better to sing familiar hymns well than to struggle with new, unfamiliar material on a regular basis.