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Femme_accordant_son_luth; Gerard van Honthorst (Gerrit van Honthorst) (1592–1656); Source:  Wikimedia

Femme accordant son luth; Gerard van Honthorst (Gerrit van Honthorst) (1592–1656); Source: Wikimedia

How can we introduce new hymns and worship songs to our congregations?

People attend church for many reasons.  Among them are:

  • to seek comfort and stability
    • through ritual (liturgy, order of worship)
    • through familiarity
  • to hear compelling sermons
  • to listen to the music
  • to participate in making music
    • by singing hymns
    • by singing in the choir
    • by playing in the bell choir

We need to respect the desire for comfort and stability when introducing new hymns. Important factors include:

  • Accessibility of the music
  • Clear, inviting introductions
  • Familiar hymns must be used in any service that includes a new hymn
  • Remember that congregations in most churches are comprised primarily of non-musicians

Congregational Seating

If congregants are seated with large spaces between them, such as empty rows, encourage them to move forward and sit closer together.  This builds community and encourages people to sing.  They will hear each other much better and feel supported.

Hymn of the Month

This is an excellent way to give the congregation time to become more familiar with something new.

Including a different new hymn in every service is a good way to discourage participation. People feel overwhelmed and stop participating.  One new hymn or less per month is plenty, in my experience.

Rehearse with the Choir

  • Yes, rehearse new hymns with the choir (and familiar ones, too.)  It makes a huge difference when the choir understands the words, sings with an emotional connection, and shows enthusiasm.
  • During the service when a new hymn is being introduced, disperse the choir within the congregation.  Ask them to sing the melody until the congregation becomes more familiar with the music.  Part-singing can be added after a week or two.
  • Avoid singing at the congregation or singing instead.  There can be a perceived gap between congregation and choir regarding ability which results in a reluctance on the part of congregants to try singing.
  • In my organist/choir director positions, I have enjoyed using something familiar as an anthem from time to time.  One way to do this is to use an alternative harmonization for one verse.  A descant could be added, or the parts could be sung in different combinations (S and B, S and A, asking the tenors to sing the melody in T B, or making the alto or tenor part into a descant).  We invited the congregation to join us on the refrain of each verse.  The idea was to encourage participation, sparking interest and confidence and fostering inclusion.
  • When a hymn is printed with two tunes to the same text, they can both be sung, alternating verses.

Teach New Hymns to the Children

  • This can be done with your children’s choirs or religious education classes
  • Children are quick to pick up new tunes
  • Children will encourage their families to sing
  • As the children become older, you will find the hymn repertoire expanding in the congregation.  So keep on keeping on.

Introduce New Hymns With Children Present

  • Children often leave the sanctuary partway through the service to attend classes. Why not include them in introducing new hymns?  They love to sing!
  • Children sing in other places as well.  When they go home, they will be singing the same music.  Their families, then, will learn it faster.

Hymn Leader

  • Be prepared.  This cannot be overemphasized.  When the leader is unprepared, people stop participating.  Know what pitch to start on, know the tune and the words.  If you are unsure, enlist the help of the church musician(s) or someone in the choir.  If you are playing an instrument, learn the part ahead of time!  When you stop to correct missed notes, people can’t tell where you are, and they stop singing. Enthusiasm is not enough.  You need a plan and the preparation to carry it out.
  • Welcoming.  Leave the guilt trip at home.
  • Inviting.  Enjoy this with me!  Not, I’m going to show you how this goes.
  • Non-operatic.  People hear an operatic sound, feel that they can’t do that, and drop out.
  • Be non-judgmental.  Don’t criticize people for not singing!  Look at the situation instead. Why are they not singing?  It may be due to a lack of clarity, not shyness.
    • Since I am a trained musician, it helps me to think of myself in other situations, for example going into a hardware store.  I know nothing, and always ask for the manager.  Congregants who are not musically trained are also at sea.  It doesn’t mean that they’re stupid.
  • Consider using banjo, guitar, autoharp, or piano, not always organ
  • When organ is used, register the melody louder than the other parts and avoid mixtures.
  • People need to hear an entire verse before singing something new.  If the leader is the only person in the room who knows the song, patience, clarity, and repetition are crucial.  Expecting a group to learn something after hearing it once is not realistic. You might think the song is easy, but in reality you have probably been singing it for years.

I recently participated in a sing-along that used material from Pete Seeger’s wonderful book.  A banjo player who attended would have been an excellent song leader.  The banjo has a timbre that can be easily heard.  His voice had a distinctive quality that would be heard over a group.  He had good rhythm and a great sense of style.  

What he lacked was a method of introducing songs.  He would begin playing, and people had to jump in somewhere if they wanted to sing.  Inexperienced singers have no idea how to do that.

My thought was that, given an appropriate situation with music he was comfortable playing, I would practice with him to find an introduction that worked.  After a few minutes of collaboration, he would have rocked the house!

Hymn-playing on the Piano

Leading hymns from the piano requires a specific way of playing.

  • More percussive than a solo piece (i.e. Schumann), in order to be heard during the singing.
  • Voiced so the melody stands out.
  • Prominent bass line for support.
  • Every note must be heard.  This may seem unmusical to the player, but when a focused sound cannot be heard, the result is a lack of clarity and easily-perceived rhythm.
  • Using less pedal is very effective in maintaining the tempo.  Congregants may not know how to count rhythm, or be unsure about when to sing next. Sometimes people will wait for someone else to sing first.  When that happens with enough people in a group, the entire group slows down. Acoustics influence the way people hear the tempo as well.

Using Percussion Effectively

Drums and other rhythm instruments, when used to enhance the singing, can be wonderful. But a word to the wise:  don’t drown out the singers!  Your job is to impel the rhythm, not obliterate the sound.  It’s not a percussion solo, you are part of a group.

If you hand out hand instruments to untrained congregants, you could suggest a rhythm for each person to play.  It only takes two seconds, and the results tend to be more successful than random efforts.

Special Events

  • Church dinners, presentations, and gatherings other than services can include singing a new hymn along with several familiar ones.
  • Perhaps one service per month could begin 1/2 hour early for the purpose of singing a new hymn.  Introduce the hymn at the stated time and allow time for coffee.
  • Some churches have a Music Sunday once or twice per year.  A new hymn could be introduced at that time and repeated on subsequent Sundays.

Are you hearing progress?  Are you able to tell?  Ask for feedback!

  • Ask people how they feel
  • Distribute a questionnaire
  • Record the event.  You will always hear so much more on a recording than you can when participating.

What do you think?  Comments welcome!

Please see previous posts in this series.

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