A couple of years ago, while researching how to encourage congregational singing, I came across an article with the title, "Let the People Sing!" and that phrase has stuck with me. It seems many varied denominations and congregations struggle with congregational singing. My congregation struggled with singing as well when I was asked to be our regular organist two years ago. Now, they will even sing unfamiliar hymns with volume and expression.
How did we get to this point?
First, as soon as I was asked to play the organ I did my research. I read everything I could find about encouraging congregational singing. I studied every resource at my disposal, and drew upon all of the training I could ever remember receiving. Then I came up with my personal philosophy, for my individual situation, most of which I believe can be applied to all congregations with an organ-led worship service.
1. Music needs to be more present.
What does this mean? This phrase was always at the forefront of my mind, and I worked to understand what it means for music to "be more present."
First, I decided that it meant that I needed to be more deliberate with all of the music I provided, from prelude and postlude to the length and quality of the introductions, the volume of the organ, and the registrations and registration changes. It also meant having the congregation sing the "extra" verses at the ends of the hymns, and not routinely cutting hymns or verses, citing lack of time. In my congregation, music needed to be present and treated as important.
This first step in this process was to embrace the attitude that music is vital to the congregation's worship, and we should make no apologies for it; whether music is found in introductions that may be longer than normal, or for an organ prelude that continues to a resolution, even if the bishopric or clergy member has already risen to begin the meeting. (Please note that is very important to time your prelude to end at the agreed upon meeting start time, and to resolve the piece in a timely manner, even if you haven't reached the actual conclusion of the piece.)
The second step is to prepare, prepare, and prepare! Do everything in your power to make the musical aspect of your worship service effective and powerful.
The final step is to evaluate, make any needed changes through prayer and reflection, and try again. Work towards a slow yet steady improvement over time.
2. Music needs to be worthy of attention.
Prelude and postlude needs to be planned in advance and practiced until it is worthy of the congregation's attention. Even if this music simply consists of hymns played directly from the hymnal, there are ways to enhance their musicality, making them beautiful and appropriate to set the tone for worship. First, experiment with different registrations. Prelude, with very few exceptions, should not be played with the same registration or volume utilized to accompany congregational hymns. Registration during prelude should vary from piece to piece, if not verse to verse. Make prelude something special, something worthy of attention that will invite the congregation to ponder, reflect, and prepare for worship.
Likewise, the introductions to the hymns themselves should inspire the congregation to desire to sing. While many hymnals have bracketed suggestions to indicate possible introductions, these brackets are just that: suggestions. I've found, personally, that many of these introductions are too short to allow the congregation time to shift gears from listening to participating, then pick up and open their hymnals to the proper hymn number and prepare to sing. Keep an eye on those who sit on the stand near you. If their hymnals are not open and ready to go at the end of your introduction, or if the congregation's volume quickly increases through the first few measures of the hymn, your introduction was probably too short.
Dale Wood, who was a renowned composer, organist and choral director, created a collection of "Festive Hymn Introductions," and in his forward he gave sound advice that I have taken to heart:
Hymn playing should never become a routine and commonplace thing. A conscientious organist must continually inspire the congregation and not allow the singing to become monotonous and prosaic.Make sure that hymn singing in your congregation is a new experience every time (I highly recommend clicking that link and reading my article, "Hymn Singing Should Not Be Boring"). Follow the hymn text as you play. Study the hymn text in advance. Be familiar with the poetry of the hymn. What is the message of the hymn? What is the message of each individual verse? How can you, as organist, highlight these? What is your registration plan? Where in the verses should the organ "breathe" and where should the organ sustain? How can you use the resources at your disposal to paint the message of the hymns with your registrations, registration changes, and creative or free hymn accompaniments?
Will your plan be effective? Will it support and encourage the congregation in singing with the Spirit? Will it solidify the message of the hymn and touch hearts? Will it draw undue attention to itself, thus detracting from the message of the hymn? Will what you did last time be the right plan for this time? If not, what changes do you need to make when you accompany the hymn this time?
Most importantly, hymns need to played at their proper tempo! Invest in a metronome, or download a free app that includes a metronome component. Play through the entire hymn with the metronome to ensure that you are playing consistently and properly. Is the tempo so slow that the congregation runs out of breath in the middle of a phrase? Is the tempo moving so quickly that the words are difficult to pronounce in the allotted time? Will the congregation check their watches, wondering when the hymn will finally end? Or will the congregation so comfortable in focusing on the words that they will give no thought at all to the tempo of the hymn?
3. Realize That You Are Developing a Relationship with Your Congregation
Whether you realize it or not, and whether your congregation realizes it or not, you are developing a relationship with each other.
Can your congregation trust you implicitly?
Are you consistent with your breaks after your introduction and between verses? Is there a chance a member of your congregation will begin to sing full voice, all alone as you're taking extra time to change registration? Will you cut off and stop playing while members of your congregation are still singing the final notes in full voice? Can your altos or tenors count on you to consistently play their notes correctly? Can your congregation count on your volume to adequately support their singing, even if you make registration changes during the hymns? Will your registration change leave them singing full voice with little organ support? Will they be afraid to sing out because they don't have the trust that you will be there to catch them?
When your congregation is to sing an unfamiliar hymn, can they trust you to play the entire hymn through before they begin to sing so that they will not encounter any surprises? Is your registration strong enough on the first verse so that they feel comfortable singing out on an unfamiliar hymn? Will they be able to hear themselves sing, or will the organ overpower the congregation? Is your registration effective on well-known hymns? Do you enhance the message of hymns they know well and seek to inspire the congregation through your playing so that familiar hymns don't become boring? Is your congregation excited to worship together through the singing of hymns?
What is your relationship with your congregation?
4. When In Our Music, God Is Glorified
Remember why you play the organ. Remember why music exists in worship. Remember that the purpose of your calling is not to call attention to yourself. You are playing the organ to help invite the Spirit and enhance worship for your congregation.
Create Zion. The only time your congregation will be of one heart and of one mind is while they sing. Foster this experience for them. Show them a little bit of heaven every time they sing the hymns. Allow them to worship uninhibited. And remember: People will actually sing if you let them.
Do you hear the people sing?