Quality is better than quantity!
I’m often surprised at people’s reaction to the notion of adhering to a restricted repertoire. Restricted doesn’t have to mean small, it doesn’t have to mean boring and it certainly doesn’t mean that you never introduce new music. Perhaps a better term might be ‘managed repertoire’.
As a congregation of God’s people, we’re called on to offer up a sacrifice of praise. The word sacrifice implies a certain cost, a certain value, and, by extension, a certain quality and I truly believe that we should never exchange quality for quantity. Accessing an almost limitless music library inevitably does just that.
Having sung in a number of choirs over the years, the idea of a limitless repertoire seems like a complete anathema. How would the choir members ever truly learn their material? Who would want to listen to an untrained and under-rehearsed choir? Indeed, who would even want to be part of it?
It’s no bad thing to consider your congregation as a choir. It may be that your members are of mixed-ability, they be small in number and perhaps musically inexperienced, but if you consider them as a choir – and, more importantly, if they consider themselves as such – this will greatly influence your song selection and their approach and commitment to singing.
Managing our repertoire falls into two broad categories; what we sing and how we sing it.
What we sing…
Developing a core repertoire
Most hymnbooks offer anywhere between 200 and 300 hymns, and many offer far more. Would you consider a repertoire of over 200 hymns to be restricted? Probably not, but few assemblies use all the hymns available to them. Perhaps then, our first resource is the hymnbook we already use.
The primary criteria for hymn selection is the content.
• Does the hymn honour God?
• Is the text theologically sound?
• Does it edify and instruct the assembly?
From a musical perspective, it’s a very interesting exercise to go through the entire book and examine each hymn in the light of the following criteria:
• Melody : how easy is it to sing?
• Metre : a regular metre is generally easier for inexperienced singers.
• Pitch : most congregations have a fairly limited range.
Engage the congregation
Ask them what hymns they like and why they like them. Indeed, it may even be worth asking what hymns they don’t like and why.
Change the melody
If one particular melody is difficult to sing, you may consider using an alternative tune. The metrical Psalms are particularly good for this and a change of tune can enhance well-known, familiar lyrics to great effect.
Commit to a long-term learning process
Take a note of which hymns are suited to your particular assembly and the hymns they like to sing. These hymns can form the basis of your core repertoire.
Train up a number of keen singers
Train up your choir or singing group so that they can, in turn, teach and support the rest of the assembly. I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised how quickly the quality of your singing improves.
How we sing…
Before you think about adding new material, you may wish to consider using one of a whole variety of ways available to vary the hymns we sing and to add value to well-known, familiar material.
Singing in unison
This needn’t be as ‘ordinary’ as it sounds!
• Responsorial singing : a response to a chanted or read verse of scripture (usually a psalm). This is where a soloist / group alternates with a choir or congregation.
• Antiphonal singing : alternate singing by two groups of singers.
• Singing in rounds : Some melodies are ideally suited for singing in rounds. The advantage is that there’s no harmony to learn but it does have the effect of sounding harmonious.
• Your vocalists can be a great asset in adding harmony. Something as simple as adding harmony to the chorus can be be quite lovely.
• Descant : adding either a vocal or instrumental descant is very effective.
• A cappella is singing without instrumental accompaniment. The human voice is a beautiful God-created instrument in its own right and this type of song can be truly lovely especially with added harmony.
It’s really worthwhile to take a note of the songs your assembly sings well and seek out other similar music. Of course, you’ll want your repertoire to be varied and interesting but quality is always better than quantity!
Regularly reviewing our long-standing repertoire enables us to fully engage in what we’re singing and it gives us the freedom to praise God with passion and enthusiasm.