How to introduce new music in churches

I wrote this as a comment elsewhere, and thought it perhaps worth reproducing:

You can get congregations to sing new music, but it takes a bit of work and cooperation from your organist/music director/whoever.

1) If you have one, see if you can get the choir (or music group or what have you) to sing the new tune (possibly to old words!) as a Communion hymn or an anthem a few times.

2) In the weeks running up to the use of the new tune, ask the organist/musicians to play it as part of the processional or recessional voluntary (whichever people are more likely to listen to), or even a short verse after the reading of the Gospel if appropriate.

If people have heard it a few times, they’ll find it much easier to sing.

3) Having sung the new tune, don’t abandon it; use it again in a few weeks time, if possible. (Again, you might want the choir to do this with different words.)

If copyright allows, I also find it helps to include music notation for the melody in whatever the congregation are reading from. At our church we have a fair number who read music “a bit” but don’t sing in the choir, and between them and the ones who pick up tunes quickly by ear, it isn’t so terrible.

4) Try to get people to sit close together. If you are Anglican this is probably the hardest step, but it really does help.

I might add a few more points:

5) Try to make sure the first and last hymn or song of a service are tunes that people do know. I was taught that the first and last notes a musician plays will be what most people remember; this is also true of liturgy, and familiar, well-loved hymns at the beginning and end of a service will be less disorienting.

6) If the music is something people are going to be singing a lot (say, a hymn for Lent with different verses for each Sunday, or a congregational Mass setting), or if it’s a bit difficult (syncopation, changes between triplets and duple quavers, awkward leaps in the melody, changes in harmonic rhythm and so on), it’s worth offering a brief rehearsal at some point so people can go over the tricky bits. Try to make this short (ten minutes is plenty) and don’t expect to get things perfect. Make sure it’s at a time people can attend — after a service is usually best.

7) Try not to introduce new music alongside changes to the general format of services, and don’t introduce too many new things in quick succession, especially if it’s a long time since the congregation has had to sing anything new at all.

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Dances, not dirges

On Saturday I had the pleasure of conducting the <a href=”http://www.lgq.org.uk”>London Gallery Quire</a>, not once but twice. We started with a service of Mattins at St John’s, Fulham, and then in the evening made our way to St Peter’s in the Forest for a concert as part of their Flower Festival.

Elsewhere there are conversations going on about music and liturgy, and as usual there is a certain amount of lamenting over organists who refuse to play anything “modern”, the boring drudgery of most hymns, and the problems this causes in making the church seem outdated or old-fashioned among young people.

As an aside I would like to note that, within the Church of England, canon law is quite explicit on the matter. I don’t have the specific reference to hand, but the final responsibility for choice of music lies with the incumbent, not with the organist. Any organist who point-blank refuses to comply with the wishes of the incumbent in this might do well to consider whether the position is right for them. In practice, this can get difficult: the liturgy, the “work of the people”, is collaborative and no one person can easily be held responsible if it just doesn’t work… but that is another discussion. My point is that simply blaming the organist for the overall feel of the liturgy is a cop-out.

That said, organists (and other church musicians) do have a huge impact and  responsibility in worship. Problems with the perception of liturgy as drab or outdated are, in my opinion, usually systemic, but an organist may have more
influence within that system than others.

What does all this have to do with the lovely West Gallery music I was conducting at the weekend? More than you might think. Some of the metrical psalms and non-conformist hymns we were singing are direct precursors to what most people would recognise as “traditional” hymnody. Regular metrical texts with fairly simple (even if lively) rhythms are easy for people to sing together, and that is crucially important for congregational music. The more florid and complex styles which arose out of the West Gallery tradition, while glorious and great fun, weren’t so easily learned or understood by congregations and I think this is a large part of why the Victorians slammed on the brakes. The tension in liturgy between rich complexity and accessibility is not limited to this period, or even to music. But metrical hymns are a very good and versatile compromise.

I believe many of the complaints launched against “traditional” hymns are groundless when those hymns are played and sung appropriately. Understanding their roots in folk melodies and dances (yes, I said dances) is important. The organ is perhaps not the instrument best suited to conveying the rhythmic vitality of this music, but it is not an impossible tool for the job. It is possible to be creative with articulation to imitate a strong pulse without distorting the timing; even doing this for one or two hymns per service would help to counter the impression of a wall of noise with no real beat.

Also important is remembering that congregations do not have an unlimited lung capacity. One December I was somewhat taken aback by the extremely slow speed at which I heard “Lo, he comes with clouds descending” sung, and then even more discouraged when I looked around on YouTube to find a version at a more lively tempo and found dozens which, like the live version I had encountered, were painfully slow. I am not certain whether the habit of playing most things too slowly in parish churches is from trying to imitate cathedral hymnody, where the acoustics often demand a slow tempo, whether it is because so many organists are like me — pianists who have taken up the organ later in life and simply cannot play the pedals that fast — or whether it is simply musical laziness, following the congregation (who are following the organ) so that things get slower and slower. All of these are, in my opinion, bad reasons to play everything slowly. Cathedrals are wonderful but they are not the same as parish churches, and imitating cathedral-style hymnody while disregarding local circumstances is foolish. Pedals are wonderful too but if you can’t play them nimbly, I suggest that discretion may be the better part of valour. Congregations are wonderful but left to their own devices will tend to sing too slowly.

None of this is meant to suggest that no hymns should ever be played slowly; there is some music which works better at a slower pace. My point is merely that if someone thinks all traditional hymns are boring drudgery, the problem might be more to do with how they have heard hymns played and sung than with the century in which the hymns were written.

Big Hymn Sing 2011

This Saturday there will be a Big Hymn Sing at 1pm at St Andrew’s Leytonstone. The congregation have sponsored about 30 hymns and I will add some more that I think are worth singing, for a total of about 48.

The more people turn up the more fun we’ll have! We’ll sing for about twenty minutes at a time and then have a ten minute break; Café Refresh will be open, and I hope people will feel free to pop in and out. Donations raised will go toward organ repairs.

This week, I will be mostly practising…

Adventures in hymn selection

In the Common Worship lectionary there are two options for Eastertide. One uses an Old Testament reading, a reading from Acts, and a Gospel reading each week. The other uses an epistle instead of the Old Testament. The point is that Acts is required.

Somehow, I thought we were using the Old Testament readings, and chose hymns accordingly. So this morning we had a lovely reading from Acts, then a letter to Peter or someone, then a gradual hymn which was very much related to the Old Testament reading we hadn’t just heard.

Mix-ups do happen. I planned that we would sing “Allelyua, sing to Jesus” as the Communion hymn on Easter Sunday — what can I say? I like to get as much of that A-word in as I can now we’re allowed to say it again. When I had a closer look at it the night before, I realised that the words to verse two are very much more appropriate for Ascension, particularly “Though the cloud from sight received him when the forty days were o’er”. Oops! Thankfully I caught that one in time to change it.

I usually choose hymns in advance, about a month at a time, sending the list to the vicar for approval (canon law means the incumbent does have the final say). Occasionally we end up caught in the guessing game of trying to figure out which hymns the choir and congregation will already know, and then find out that no, it’s just us who think of some hymn tune as very well-known. I would have expected them to know NUN DANKET ALL for “Jesus, these eyes have never seen”, for example, but at rehearsal on Thursday that turned out not to be the case. We used another Common Meter tune instead, there are enough of them about that it wasn’t a problem!

The other thing that has happened sometimes is that I’ve chosen carefully, the vicar has given a thumbs-up to the choices, and then on Sunday morning we both wonder what on earth we were thinking! Sometimes I can follow the thread of my thoughts backward, sometimes not.

Ever onwards…

Miss Music Nerd

This badge from Miss Music Nerd pretty much sums up my feelings on the subject. Alleluia, I survived! Like her, I’m also left with a rather large “to do after Holy Week” list that needs tackling. I think mine starts with tidying up the music room, I’m sure it had a floor once. I did take Easter Monday as a day to be lazy at home, and it felt decidedly odd not to be thinking of everything in terms of the next church service.

I couldn’t have managed it without the choir, though. They were stellar in putting up with rehearsals before every service and with my relative unfamiliarity with the pattern of Holy Week at St Andrew’s, and with keeping the practical choir stuff under control so I didn’t have to play herd-the-choristers alongside playing the organ. Really they deserve this badge as much as I do.

Instead, they got glittery cupcakes. Hopefully that will do!

Organ diagnostic chart

We had our organ tuned earlier this week, preparing for Lent. Hooray! I have all the notes back on the Tromba stop! I can use the Great Stopped Diapason when playing in flat keys! I approve of this. Some problems are going to wait until there’s time for a longer visit, and then there are the bellows which need repairs — a huge and expensive job which we don’t yet have sufficient funding to undertake.

Most organs I’ve visited seem to have a sort of organ log book where the organist can write down faults and the tuner can write little notes of the temperature and humidity (which always seem to me to be chiding somehow, though I’m sure they aren’t meant to sound that way). Invariably there will be scribbles along the lines of “F# below middle C not right” or similar, or as in my case the organist will try and remember to make a note of problems but then completely forget to write them down in the little book!

During the summer I couldn’t find the book at all so I made this chart. It’s a very simple affair: date, place and manual, then a table with a column for each key (up to 61) and a row for each stop (up to 11). I’ve shaded the black notes so it’s a bit easier to keep your place when filling it in, and left plenty of space underneath the chart for writing down further observations. I found myself using different symbols for different problems and extrapolating below the chart.

This was just a quick sort-the-easy-stuff tuning, and so I didn’t actually fill out these sheets, but for the Really Big Tuning that happens each summer they’re really valuable. It does take a while to sit down and play every note of every stop but it’s well worth it in terms of letting the organ tuner know exactly which notes are problematic.

Here we go…

There’s this Sunday, and then another “normal” week, and then it’s Palm Sunday and Holy Week. Maundy Thursday to Easter Sunday will see four services in four days — not excessive, by any means, but bear in mind I am used to just four or five services per month, with the occasional funeral thrown in.

Suddenly there doesn’t seem to be nearly enough time, both in terms of learning to play the music myself and in rehearsal time for the choir. Suddenly, using a new Mass setting for Eastertide doesn’t seem like such a great idea. The parish has been using Shephard’s “Addington” setting since <strike>Moses parted the Red Sea</strike> long before I got there, which is really too long to use the same piece of music. I’m wondering whether I really can learn the voluntaries in time or whether there’s something else, something easier, I can pull out instead. I’m abandoning thoughts of harmonic changes for last verses and thinking that I may need to keep the Easter bonnet simple this year. And I’m trying to keep hold of a Lenten quietness, the still solemnity of doing less and being more, rather than allowing Lent to become just another busy period at work.

So of course, in the midst of all this, it’s also time to choose hymns for May!

Psalm 121: Anglican Chant with a congregational response

Continuing with the inclusion of psalms to our liturgy during Lent, on 20th March at St Andrew’s we sang Psalm 121. This is a favourite of mine and of many others, and I wanted to use Anglican Chant this time. There are various chants that can be used; the one by H. Walford Davies, with solos in the first and third quarters, is certainly well-known. But it wasn’t really appropriate for our very small choir, which doesn’t have enough voices to cover four parts. Instead I used a chant by Phocion Henley, who I know better as the composer of many West Gallery tunes.

We still needed a congregational response. I made this one by using the last half of the chant, keeping the rhythm simple:


It worked a treat.

This past Sunday we had a said psalm, which I must say I didn’t find nearly as rewarding. Next week is Mothering Sunday and we are having an All Age Chaos Service. Happily the psalm appointed for that day is Psalm 34, which has actually made it into our hymnal thinly disguised as a hymn: “Through all the changing scenes of life” is from Tate and Brady’s “New Version” of the psalms, published in 1696. We will sing it to the Common Meter tune “Wiltshire”, attributed to George Smart (1776-1867) and originally set to Psalm 48. This is relatively familiar to the congregation and choir alike so everyone will sing, rather than my fussing about with responses.

That leaves me with Psalm 130 (Passion Sunday), Psalm 31 vv 9-16 (Palm Sunday), and Psalm 22 (Maundy Thursday, during the stripping of the altar) to sort out; we won’t have sung psalmody on Good Friday or during our Easter Vigil. I’m planning on metrical psalms with congregational responses for the first two, but that won’t work for Maundy Thursday; for that, I think it will be a unison chanted psalm with alternate lines by a soloist and the rest of the choir.

I’ve enjoyed working with the psalms so far and trying different ways of fitting in the congregational responses, and I will miss them.

With cheerfulness rejoice

Psalm 51 on Wednesday night went well, I thought: the congregation sang their response and the choir led well. There were even some positive comments after the service!

For this morning’s service I wanted to keep things simple — fitting in the extra music for Ash Wednesday had already squished our rehearsal time a bit. So I decided we’d do the same thing, using a metrical version of Psalm 32 and an appropriate congregational response.
I had originally thought to go with the Isaac Watts paraphrase of the psalm but in the end settled on Sternhold and Hopkins; I don’t entirely remember why. That runs to eleven stanzas in Common Metre (CM) and a response after every verse would have added 50% to the length, so I looked at the version in the Common Worship: Daily Prayer Psalter to see when to add the responses. I settled on Caithness as a tune because I know the choir know reasonably well, but not so well that singing different words than they’re used to will be disconcerting.
Here’s the response we used:
As with Psalm 51 on Wednesday, the notes in the response are the same as the last line that the choir sings, which makes it easier for the congregation to pick things up. Again, I thought it went well. It’s very hard to hear from the organ but I’m told the congregation did sing the response. I was glad to have chosen something simple, as in the end the usual weeknight rehearsal was cancelled due to illness and we only had the pre-service rehearsal this morning to work on this psalm. It was certainly very different from the setting of Psalm 32 that London Gallery Quire sang this evening at Manor Road United Reformed Church, but still appropriately cheerful, I think. More on the Manor Road service in another post!
Next week is Psalm 121, one of my favourites. The plan is to use the non-metrical Common Worship text this time, set to a lovely little chant by Phocion Henley, with, (guess what?) a congregational response based on the last line. We started learning it this morning, and the tune seems fairly solid but fitting the words to it will be more difficult. I’ll be sure to update with further details!

Starts with P and that rhymes with T

Lent approaches fast and, at St Andrew’s at least, this will be a time of penitence, prayer, purple vestments and psalmody.

The latter is my concern. During Advent we tried adapting the Common Worship psalter to a simple plainchant melody from Palmer’s “Manual of Plainsong”. It worked well for the choir, who could rehearse, but the congregation struggled to join in. Even when using the same plainsong melody for the whole season, fitting unfamiliar lines of varying length to the same tune was either too difficult or too unclear.
I feel strongly about congregational participation in church music in general, and psalms in particular. While there is an argument for reverent, contemplative musical worship where a choir sings the psalms on behalf of the rest of the congregation who participate silently, I think that kind of vicarious liturgy is more suited to Choral Evensong. The psalms are a dialogue, a means by which human feelings can be honestly explored and offered to God, and I feel there is something to be gained from very direct participation in sung psalmody.
So this Lent I’m trying another approach: responsorial psalms. The term “responsorial” is a bit of a mis-nomer, I feel, but refers to psalmody in which the main body of the psalm is sung or said by cantor, choir or reader, with a refrain repeated by all present.
A lot of the chanted responsorial psalmody available today is in a particular style of simplified, interpreted Gregorian chant. Murray’s settings of the Grail psalter are by far the best known of this type of recitative chant; and for the Grail translation I understand they work very well. Copyright issues abound, however, and I can’t quite be having with a paperwork fight. New Psalms for Common Worship, compiled by Colin Mawby, also uses this style of responsorial psalmody — and also has copyright issues, as the publisher, Kevin Mayhew, do not take part in the Christian Copyright Licensing Initiative, so I cannot photocopy the chants for the choir to learn or the response for the congregation to read. In addition, the text of the Common Worship psalter, like the beloved Coverdale psalms used in the Book of Common Prayer, was not really designed to make chanting easier, and hard-to-sing accents on the last syllable of the line are common. That might eventually be okay if we had sung or chanted psalmody every weekday or even once a week on Sundays but as things stand, it only has a place during the penitential seasons, unless I get particularly insistent. This is unfamiliar stuff to the majority of the congregation and so it needs to be very easy to pick up. Besides that, I don’t want to limit myself to just one translation or one musical style. There is a rich heritage of English psalmody upon which to draw, and I don’t mean just Anglican Chant, lovely though it can be.
I’m taking a slightly different approach. Several months ago, I attended a RSCM-led psalmody workshop in Salisbury where the director suggested combining Anglican Chant with the refrains of the responsorial psalmody. Writing a refrain certainly isn’t beyond my abilities and having the congregation sing the same refrain, after hearing the choir sing it once, makes it more likely that they’ll be able to join in.
If we can do this with Anglican Chant, why not do it with other styles of psalmody?
For Ash Wednesday, Dr Francis Roads (who also conducts the London Gallery Quire) kindly furnished me with copy in Sibelius of a metrical setting of the first half of Psalm 51. The music is by Playford, set for SAB, and the text is from Sternhold and Hopkins; you can download the manuscript from the International Music Score Library Project. But while the metrical text and regular tune make this easier to learn than chanted psalmody, it’s still a bit much to ask of a congregation with no warning and no rehearsal — or so they would have me believe every time I introduce a hymn someone hasn’t heard for a while! Since I already had a shiny Sibelius file I transposed the entire lot down a tone, and modified the alto part to be less awkward. I also made this response:
to be sung in unison. That line of music, plus all the words, with the refrain in bold type, will be printed in the pew slips for the congregation to follow. As the notes are the same as the last line of the verses, I’m hoping it will be reasonably easy to follow, and that Playford is not turning in his grave.
Of course, the trouble now is that the vicar would quite like the words to all the rest of the psalms for Lent as soon as possible, so I need to find suitable settings and write responses for all of them in a bit of a hurry! I’d like to include a mix of plainchant and metrical psalmody, sticking for the most part to better-known tunes for the latter, but I might go for a chanting tune or two.
So of course this afternoon I’ve been blogging about it, instead of getting on with the actual setting. Next up is Psalm 32.