Monday, May 3, 2010

Getting gatherings to sing - a checklist for success

Having trouble getting your faith community to sing well?
Low confidence can lurk about for years on end unless the reasons are dealt with effectively. Try this list on for size. Hopefully over time you will see increasing engagement in the singing.

Seating - if people are spread across the space they feel exposed. Get with the strength and have people sit together to encourage greater confidence. Experiment with seating arrangements by making fewer chairs available. Circular seating can be more successful than a 747 set-up.

Teach songs well - simply playing a new song through and claiming to have taught it, is like telling some how to drive and handing the keys over. In order to learn, we have to have a go ourselves. Too often songs are introduced without space for the gathering to sing.

Is this a community song - not all songs are designed for community singing. Many are performance numbers for choirs, or bands, or soloists.

Simplify the accompaniment - if there is too much musical embellishment while a song is being learnt, people will be baffled and unsure of which notes to sing. An old lecturer of mine said the key was "KISS" (aka. keep it simple stupid).

Acoustics - this can make or break community singing. If a space is too reverberant, clarity is lost to mush, and rhythmic integrity is lost. If acoutics are too flat (often due to carpet, soft furnishings, low ceilings) the effort being by singers will be unrewarding.

Teach without instruments - the most effectve way to teach is to have a single voice sing without any instrumental accompaniment, no not even doubling the melody. Ask the gathering to sing back to you, also without instruments. Don't forget to listen. Only when you listen to what comes from the gathering will you know they have learnt the song.

Verbal and non-verbal cues - "I know you hate learning new songs but we have to do this one. You're not very good at new ones, but I want you to try your best...." (bleh!) There is nothing like negative introductions to dampen enthusiasm. "We have this great new song ...." or "here's a new song by the same person who wrote...." or "this song was written when....." Personalising the song can heighten its significance for people.

You may also be interested in
How to Teach a Song in 4 Steps.
Songmakers: short course for songleaders

Do you have a tip for others, or a story to share?
Please include your contributions here.


Judy Redman said...


First, I'm glad you've started this blog. I'm looking forward to reading it regularly.

Re teaching new songs: I think that teaching by singing unaccompanied is not so effective if the person teaching is not confident/competent to sing unaccompanied. People need to be able to hear the right melody, so if the leader wobbles off key without accompaniment (and there is no-one available who doesn't) or is very, very soft, then I think a doubling of the melody line is probably better?

My experience also makes me very wary of recorded instrumental backing tracks. If you get the community singing well unaccompanied or with just the melody line and then say "now we're going to sing it with the backing track" and the backing track doesn't have the melody line playing strongly, it's highly likely that the group will lose all it's new-found confidence as it gets lost in the multiplicity of instruments and harmonies and can't hear itself.

Lucy Graham said...

Hi Judy,

How lovely to hear from you again.

I think you make some very important points about teaching, and one I plan to pursue over time. It's a big topic.

I think you go with whatever works for you. In my world there is no such thing as a single solution to any challenge.

Having said that though, songleaders must know the song they are teaching so well that they can sing it walking around the house, or in the shower. The 'wobbling' may be nerves or perceived ability. Do you think it sometimes reflects minimal preparation too?

I'm also interested about your comment re recorded backing tracks. While these are fun to use, I hear you saying they are not a substitute for strong vocal leadership. Perhaps these can be utilised once people know the song really well. I think people need to sing a song on at least 3 occasions to have the beginnings of real confidence with it. It sound like you reckon a songleader is still needed to lead alongside the backing track?

Looking forward to hearing from you again Judy.

Stan said...

Hi folks.

This is an interesting subject, and one that we regularly face - providing of course that we ARE endeavouring to introduce new songs into our repertoire and not just recycling the golden oldies for ever and a day.

Lucy makes a very pertinent comment about needing to repeat the song a few times in relatively short succession to ensure it sticks in people's memories. With planning that can generally be achieved.

However, it does become a problem in learning new songs that relate to limited seasons, like Christmas or Easter. It means we need to intrude Christmas songs into Lent, etc. That's not always an issue, but some songs really are very particular in their application.


Lucy Graham said...

Hi Stan,

Good to hear you cutting-to-the-chase.

I am a great believer in subliminal learning. Using newish songs as an instrumental as people as gathering for worship, or as they are leaving, for communion distribution or offering are some places for this. I always think as I sit in the congregation when people start humming along, you know you are making progress.


Judy Redman said...

Hi Lucy,

I think that "wobbling" may be nerves and may be lack of practice, but sometimes it is that someone with an otherwise quite good voice has pitching problems, but is the best option for leading available. Not every congregation is blessed with singers who are either well trained or naturally pitch well.

And re backing tracks - it depends on the track. I have some that have the melody line being played and they're fine. I have some where there is no melody line. It sounds as though the vocal version had the melody being held by the vocalists with just accompaniment and the backing track was produced by removing the vocals from the recording. One of the NCYC CDs springs to mind in this category. The congregation typically has no idea when to start and if there isn't someone to give at least a good lead in, chaos results. :-(

I agree that three times close together helps to re-inforce something and that this is difficult for particularly seasonal music. Playing it in the offering *before* you actually use it would be another option, so that the melody is familiar before the congregation tries to get the words to it.