I recently found a site that has a lot of great information for pastors and music leaders in churches regarding congregational singing. I’ve decided to post some of the thoughts I’ve found on that site, with my thoughts interspersed.
It has long been my contention that we run into problems in worship when we let things go on “automatic pilot,” not thinking about why we do what we do, or caring how it’s done.
Worship is an audience with the King of kings. ‘An audience with the king” means that we have been summoned to appear before him: it does not mean that we are “the audience” in the sense that the term is used today. It means that he is the audience.
That means that “phoning in” our worship is never OK. This goes for every person in the pews. It goes for the minister. And in certainly goes for the accompanist. Those who accompany congregational song must take that job very seriously and prepare themselves, and their music, accordingly.
Here are James Sydnor’s guidelines for those who would accompany congregational song, from Hymns and Their Uses. (My additions are in parentheses.)
1. Use firm leadership. The congregation needs and appreciates this. (Play with authority. Accompanying congregational singing is not for the namby-pamby.)
2. Do not “barge” through the hymn with no regard for where the people are. (The words matter! Sing along, in your head, along with the congregation. Do not play the thing faster than people can sing and understand the words.)
3. Accompanying a congregation is not like accompanying a soloist. The organist/pianist must LEAD but be sensitive to how the congregation is following. LISTEN. If there is a song leader, the accompanist should WATCH and follow the tempo set by the leader.
4. Play accurately: sustain long notes. (If you are not counting, many people in the congregation are, and it is annoying as heck to try to sing when the rhythm is unreliable.)
5. Keep a steady tempo. Don’t hurry eighth notes.
6. Frequently practice with a metronome. (Make that, “Frequently practice, and always with a metronome.”)
7. Don’t play too fast or too slow. A general rule of thumb:
— quarter note gets the beat, qn = 112 – 120
— compound time (6/8; 9/8), dotted qn = 60 – 80
— half note gets the beat, hn = 60 – 80
— no meter indicated, determine the underlying subdivision and keep it steady throughout
— the character or mood of the hymn determines the tempo. (This should go without saying, but so many church accompanists have not a clue as to how this works.)
8. Extend the last chord of a stanza somewhat to give the congregation time to breathe. Then have a rhythmical break in the accompaniment to cue the congregation for the next stanza. (To quote K. Lee Scott, “One beat to release, one beat to breathe.”)
9. Appropriate instrumental introductions include:
— play the whole hymn.
— play just the last phrase or two.
— play the first phrase and then creatively “modulate” to the final phrase.
(An entire stanza is preferable if it is not a well-known tune or if it is a particularly short tune.)
10. Use free accompaniments occasionally. Generally, these should only be used on the final stanza and probably work best on FESTIVE occasions or on the final hymn of the service. (In other words, not on the last stanza of every hymn, please, except maybe on Easter.)
Keyboard people (and others), any additional thoughts?