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choosing hymns & songs

I’m sure most of us have been present in a community where the singing was pretty appalling, the tune poorly known or fairly unsingable. One (smallish) community came up with this idea for choosing hymns and songs they would sing:

They chose a committee of five people.
These five, independently, went through the “repertoire”, hymn, and song books.
If a person could sing a hymn or song well unaccompanied s/he put this onto a list.
The committee met. If three or more people had a hymn/song on his/her list it was passed as going onto the community list for its repertoire.

I have seen suggested that a community have about a hundred well-known hymns and songs. New material can be introduced and taught – but good solid singing is an essential foundation to common worship.

As well as commenting on these points – what ideas do you have, have you seen tried, do you know of?

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13 thoughts on “choosing hymns & songs”

  1. Were the five chosen at random? Were they singers? Self-conscious about singing?

    I like this idea; but I think that the hymnals we have are so HUGE and extensive that the poor chosen ones would die of frustration before finishing the half of the book.

    1. Matt & Christianne, I think the 5-people idea needs adapting to the local context. I imagine that it’s important that the five be a cross-section of the community – in most communities I imagine that would mean some could not read musical notation with agility.

  2. Christianne McKee

    Bosco, what a splendid idea! I are currently serving a small congregation, with an average Sunday attendance of about 35 (many of whom are elderly), in a nave that will seat at least 100, with a piano badly played by the only person willing to do it. Needless to say, the singing is less than stellar. The pianist selects the hymns, but frequently chooses hymns that he can’t play or the congregation can’t sing – or frequently both. I review the hymns and change the ones I think are just beyond us, but I think this frustrates the pianist. A committee would give the congregation some input into what hymns they sing.

    My question is: did the 5 people know how to read music? I would think that this would be necessary, otherwise they would choose only hymns that they know.

    Thank you for keeping you blog going in the midst of great difficulties as as result of the earthquake.

    1. No disagreement about the committee, but it helps to have a music director who knows the difference between hymns designed for congregational singing (generally 4-square) and those better suited to “music groups” (the ones with fill-in-the-blanks harmonization).

  3. If I accidentally drop something of value somewhere in the garden, then looking for it inside the house probably isn’t going to help. The solution needs to address the problem. If the problem is in the garden; then the solution isn’t in the house.

    Bosco: your premise states three quite separate problems.

    (1) “…where the singing was pretty appalling…”: That is a problem of how the act of congregational singing is reviewed, managed and refreshed (sorry for the quack-management-speak!) in the context of the particular local congregation. (That is, the problem is not of choice of material.) Simply substituting one set of tunes with another isn’t, in itself, going to address this. Rather this needs an analysis of why, even with well-known tunes, the singing is falling far short of what, in that local congregation, it has the potential to be. Choosing tunes that the congregation knows will help in assessing where the problem lies, but won’t, in itself, provide the full answer for extrapolating outwards from there. If the singing is bad even with well-known tunes, then the problem lies somewhere in the mechanics and dynamics of how the music is led during the course of the service. Tune-tinkering won’t address that in any substantial way.

    (2) “…the tune … fairly unsingable”: This is, in principle, quite easy (although the surrounding politics and emotional attachments may make it “sensitive”). Simply don’t choose that tune at all. Reject it. The recommendation about trying it unaccompanied at the planning stage is very good for addressing this. (But if I, a bad singer, choose a fundamentally good tune, then my bad singing shouldn’t cause it to be rejected.)

    (3) “…the tune poorly known”: If the singing is, in general, reasonably OK, then it is good sometimes to push the boundaries with new tunes. Two steps (a) make sure they pass the previous “reject if unsingable” filter (b) then proceed teaching it before using it.

    In summary: you say “new material can be introduced and taught – but good solid singing is an essential foundation to common worship.” Yes. Building that foundation is essential, but that task is about analysis of what is currently wrong, both in the background choosing and also in the mechanics of the service itself. Only then can you work out a plan to address it.

    Hope that helps.

  4. Such a committee needs at least one member who doesn’t read music. You’re finding the congregational baseline; then you can expand gradually.

    Repetition is key. Those who plan get tired of a tune far sooner than those in the pews. This is a long-term project.

    If there’s a glut of material, you could work with a season or a particular point in the liturgy (i. e. processional hymns).

  5. I think there is much to recommend choir practice, and also the introduction of new tunes at times other than full congregational singing. Very few liturgies I have seen actually require congregational singing of hymns (most more traditional liturgies don’t have ‘pick a hymn’ slots at all), so leaving an unfamiliar hymn to the choir is a choice usually in the hands of the minister.

    I understand the thought behind the ‘five singers’ system, but worry that there is a lack of theological discernment in such a process. Personally, I am much more frequently disappointed by failings in the theology expressed by hymn than by it being sung badly… and given a choice I’d go for badly sung orthodoxy over beautifully sung heterodoxy.

  6. There was a time in Scotland when there were 6 tunes known to congregations, and they sang their psalms to one of those. Unaccompanied. Sometimes line by line…
    More seriously, I think your suggestion has merit. I’d like to make the following comments.
    As a rule of thumb, a new song needs to be sung three or four weeks in a row before you know whether it is going to ‘take’ with your congregation. In other words, is it something “we” like singing, and find helpful in our worship? New songs need to be introduced well; I like to have them played before the service or during at some point so people can become familiar with them before I ask them to sing. One a month is a good average to aim for, except for January.
    Secondly, we need to watch the vocal range of songs. Most of our range is between middle C and an octave above. Too often we love music which is actually beyond our capacity as a congregation. For example, “How great thou art” in my opinion is not a congregational song. Yes, I know, it can be done, but for small struggling congregations, a good quality recording would be far more inspiring. Some of our older hymns just need to be set in a different key!
    Thirdly, it seems to me that there are often around ten “songs of the heart” for congregations, which are loved, sung well, and express something of the ethos of that congregation. Can you identify them for your congregation? As a rule of thumb, I’d include one of those each week, a new (or newish) song, and two that relate to the church season or lectionary text.

  7. I agree with Vincent. It is the theology with so many hymns that is a significant part of the problem of choosing hymns. I will gladly ‘make a joyful noise’ to almost any tune as long as what I am singing stands up to some theological rigour.

  8. Christianne McKee

    I once was the assistant at a large church with a good choir so the situation was vastly different than a small church with little or no choir. But the choirmaster had a great scheme for introducing a new hymn. The first week he played it as “background music” during communion. The next week, the choir sang it as an anthem. The following week it became the “hymn of the season (or month, during the Sundays after Pentecost) and we sang it every week. (Yes, there was some grumbling about that, but it generally decreased as the weeks went by.) And the next year, when the hymn appeared on an appropriate Sunday, it was familiar to most of the congregation. Some people even thought that it was one of their long-time favorites.

  9. Your idea is splendid, and it could work fine in English-speaking congregations, where there is a very long tradition of hymns.

    Nevertheless, in French-speaking congregations, this doesn’t work properly. Most of the nowadays francophone congregations have the choice only between bad and worse. The only thing that could be done is to get hymns translated from Latin, German, and English; learn them, and teach them to the congregation.

    In German-speaking countries and territories, they have the Gotteslob, and everybody knows it almost by heart, the Roman psalm-modes included.

  10. I love worshiping the Lord i have been a worship leader in a small anglican church i dont read music i am not even a proper musician i play the guitar but i dont feel i am that good i can play a tune and am happy with that.At the time we did have an organist i let she would choose a good hymn each week and i would add extra songs to the mix.To me it is about bringing people into a deeper relationship with God.To foster unity amongst one another it doesnt have to be perfect i am not an entertainer.How can one reach the people you can do that with a minimum of instruments or recorded music.Identify who are you reaching out to in your group we didnt have many youth so no point in singing the latest hillsong as they dont relate to it.Often the music is set way to high it needs to be singable for the average person.We had people wanting to take part in the choir.We picked songs the people new and added some newer songs.What i found is that the older people started enjoying the music alot more and didnt mind having newer songs as well.We did play them fopr a few weeks so they could get used to them.My problem is i am not the most organised and so the arrangements were left to the last couple of days which didnt suit the minister so they appointed a new worship leader who happened to be a very talented musician who could read music but she only wanted to reach young people by playing modern songs this isolated the older people which was most of the congregation and they retrenched back to the old style format sadly shutting down the worship.So the answer lies in reading the people where there at and involving them so the experience brings them into a deeper relationship with God.What we did back then worked we saw fruit the word says test the spirit is there evidence of fruit.I hope that maybe of help to others trying to stir the hearts of there people regards brent

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