How to Sing a New Song

Worship Matters
by M. Anne Burnette Hook

The pastor of a United Methodist congregation in a suburb of Nashville was very unhappy. He had just been confronted by a group of women who were frustrated by the frequency of unfamiliar hymns in worship as well as the absence of hymns they know and love. He said rather forcefully, “These people do not understand how much effort I put into choosing hymns for worship. They have no idea how hard it is to find a hymn that really fits my sermon. All they do is complain that they don’t know the hymns.”

This is a rather common struggle between worship leaders and members of the congregation. Ask active worshipers in a given congregation what hymns they enjoy singing and you will undoubtedly get this answer at least once: “I know what I like.” In reality, that phrase often means, “I like what I know." Learning new music for worship can be uncomfortable for the average worshiper; so much so that some will stand stubbornly refusing to open their mouths when an unfamiliar hymn or song is included in the order of worship.

Worship leaders who are frustrated by such occurrences have three options:

  • Use only hymns the congregation knows well and loves unreservedly. This is a poor option, unless you are prepared to sing “Amazing Grace,” “How Great Thou Art,” and a handful of Christmas carols every Sunday for the rest of your life.
  • Quote (with great piety, if possible) a line from the familiar hymn “Come, We That Love the Lord" (“Marching to Zion”): “Let those refuse to sing who never knew our God”(UMH, 732). This tactic may shame some people into singing, but it will also drive some to the nearest church that sings the hymns they like.
  • Teach the congregation new hymns and songs, thus increasing the repertoire of hymns they know, and at the same time, adding new hymns to the list of songs they like. This is the best option, to be sure; but it is a difficult task to undertake. How does a worship leader carefully teach new hymns to a congregation in such a way that these songs are incorporated into the faith memory of the congregation?

It would be nice if all that worship leaders had to do was to present a clear argument for the learning of new hymns. Unfortunately, merely sharing this information is not enough to convince many people that learning new songs is a good thing. It is up to worship leaders to teach these songs with great care and intent if the songs are to become part of a congregation’s singing repertoire.

Preparing to Teach a New Song

The first step in teaching the congregation a new song is for the worship leaders to select and learn the new song. The new song may reflect a variety of styles—a new praise chorus, a global song, a Taizé song prayer, or a new hymn.

After finding a new song, the worship team must decide if the song is appropriate for the congregation to sing. The church musician may be the best one to discern this, but certainly not the only one. If the song selected was first heard as a congregational song, then chances are good that most congregations could learn it. If it was a contemporary Christian song in a pop style or a song presented by trained singers, such as a choir, it may be more difficult to learn. In either case, careful analysis should take place:

1. Check the vocal range of the melody line. Most of the melody should fall between middle C and high C (an octave above). Most congregations can sing comfortably down to an A below middle C and up to an E-flat above high C on occasion, but songs that dwell in those extreme ranges will not be sung easily by most people in your congregation. The hymn “Amazing Grace” in the key of F stays between the two C notes.

2. Check the contour of the melody. Are there lots of skips and large intervals between notes? Or does the melody move step by step? As a rule, step-wise singing is easier for untrained singers, and some intervals are fairly easy as well. Intervals larger than a 6th (the opening interval in “It Came Upon the Midnight Clear") will be difficult for a congregation to learn easily.

3. Check the different phrases of the melody. Are some phrases the same? Are they all different? If some of the phrases are the same, the song will be easier to teach. Even if the notes are different, but the shape of the melody is the same (as in a musical sequence), it will be easy for the congregation to pick up. For example, the hymn “Mantos y Palmas (Filled With Excitement)" (UMH, 279) opens with a two-measure phrase. The very next phrase echos the first phrase, using the very same rhythm on a pitch one step lower than the first phrase. The third and fourth phrases imitate exactly the first and second phrases. A congregation learning this hymn would become familiar with the melodic contour of the song very quickly because of the similarity of the phrases.

4. Check the rhythms of the words. Are the rhythms simple or complicated? Is there a lot of syncopation characteristic of popular music, or is it more of a classic hymn? Songs that are very syncopated are not impossible to teach, but it may be necessary to tone down the syncopation in order for the congregation as a whole to sing it. For example, the Scripture song “Thy Word Is a Lamp,” which was made popular by Amy Grant, is very syncopated in its original recording. In the version that appears in the United Methodist Hymnal (601), the rhythms are toned down to accommodate congregational singing. It may not be as exciting to those who are accustomed to the more syncopated version, but it does allow more people to enjoy singing the hymn. If you choose to keep the syncopation intact, be sure to teach the rhythm of the words first, and give the assembly plenty of time to become comfortable with the hymn.

If the song you want to teach the congregation is not really appropriate for the whole congregation, find a new tune for the text, preferably one that the people already know. Check the metrical index in the back of the Hymnal (pp. 926-31) for possibilities. Or write a new tune of your own. Keep the above characteristics in mind and test it with some church members before you try it in worship. The last resort is to have the choir or a soloist sing the song; however, if you really want the song to become part of the congregation’s hymn memory, they need to sing it themselves, not hear it sung by someone else.

Once the worship team has determined that a song is appropriate for the congregation to learn, then whoever bears the primary responsibility for teaching the song needs to learn the song, backward and forward. If possible, this person should memorize the song; he or she should also know who sings what, and when they sing it. It is important to understand the flow and meaning of the song. Is it a prayer? Is it a praise song? What are the parts the congregation may have trouble singing, such as a difficult rhythm or an unusual and difficult skip in the melody? Only after knowing the song well will the leader be able to teach the song with assurance and enthusiasm.

After learning the song, the leader should teach it to the worship music leadership. It is important to remember that the role of the choir or any ensemble who leads the congregation in worship is to help facilitate the congregation’s song. If the congregation has a choir, praise band, or other ensemble, the leader should teach the new song to them so that they can help the leader with teaching and the congregation with learning. The song should be thoroughly practiced until all know it well. The congregation will learn faster and sing more comfortably if the leadership is confident in its knowledge of the song.

If the choir or ensemble who assists in teaching the new song is made up of children or youth, even the most resistant congregation is often more receptive to learning the song due to their delight at the presence of young people leading in worship. For example, in the last congregation I served, we initiated a year-long program to learn twelve new hymns. One of the hymns I wanted to include is "Cantemos al Señor" ("Let’s Sing unto the Lord," UMH, 149). Although committee members protested that our congregation was not ready to learn a Spanish song, they eventually agreed to include it. The leaders of the children's choirs taught the song to all of the children, who in turn taught the song to the congregation. That song became part of the congregation’s hymn repertoire because the children introduced it.

Finally, the congregation needs to be prepared for learning a new song. Here are some ways to prepare the people:

  • Introduce through a newsletter the story behind the song.
  • If the song is tied to a specific theme or season, make clear the connection between the song and the theme or season; do not assume that the congregation will make the connection. (Too many times in the local church, people have expressed wonder at the “coincidence” that the closing hymn and the sermon actually went together!)
  • Have the worship accompanist play the song, or have the choir or ensemble sing it as part of the service music. While the song is played or sung, provide the text and invite the congregation to meditate on the words as the music is presented. Doing so will get the song in the congregation’s ears and the text in their minds so that the song will not be as new when they are invited to sing it.

 

Teaching a New Song

Once the worship leaders have selected and learned the song, and have prepared the congregation, it is time to teach the new song. There are several ways to teach a new song to a congregation. Consider these two: lining out and echo method.

 Lining Out
The lining-out method has strong roots in the Methodist camp meeting tradition. In a context where the congregation had no printed text, the song leader would simply sing a phrase, and the congregation would sing the phrase back. The assembly sang the entire song that way. This method is especially effective if the congregation does not have the music or text. It also works well in cases where the worship leader does not intend for the congregation to sing the whole song without the leader lining out the song.

Some examples of newer songs written to be sung in this manner include “Musical Setting B" of the Great Thanksgiving (UMH, pp. 18-20), by James A. Kriewald, and the second musical response to the Baptismal Covenant (UMH, p. 54), by Carlton R. Young.

 Echo Method
The echo method is very similar to lining out, except that the intent is to have the congregation learn the song and sing it on their own. The song leader sings a phrase and asks the congregation to echo it. After singing the whole song in that manner, the leader returns to the beginning of the song and invites the congregation to echo longer phrases until the congregation can sing a verse without echoing the leader. This method is more effective when the song leader sings the line unaccompanied, and the accompanist plays the melody only with the congregation. A simple harmony may be added as the congregation feels more comfortable with the song; the full accompaniment should be saved for the time when the congregation knows the song better.

It may also help for the song leader to use her or his hand to indicate the direction of the melody. If the notes go up, the hand moves higher; the hand moves lower if the melody moves down. A word of caution: for these hand movements to be effective, they must happen before the note sounds. If the hand moves at the same time as the note, the congregation will sing behind the leader. Also, it does not help for the leader to conduct congregational singing using a choral-beat pattern. Most congregations do not understand the relevance of the patterns. The tempo should be established by the voice of the song leader and the playing of the accompanist. This is especially true when the congregation is learning a new song. The leader should use a hand to indicate when the congregation is to sing and perhaps to outline the contour of the melody. Beat patterns are best left for the choir.

Some songs, especially the meditative Taizé choruses such as “Jesus, Remember Me” (UMH, 488) and praise choruses such as “Seek Ye First" (UMH, 405), are intended to be sung more than once. Many are also simple and require little teaching. The song leader sings the song through for the congregation and invites the congregation to join in singing the second time through. This method is most effective if the song is intended to be sung through more than twice, so that the congregation can become familiar with the song through singing it.

The echo method is also the most appropriate for use in the midst of worship, when spoken instructions may disrupt rather than enhance worship. This way of teaching works with fast and slow songs, and is best with short, repetitive songs. The method will also work with songs or hymns with several stanzas. The song leader sings a stanza or two and then invites the congregation to sing the remaining stanzas. The choir also might sing a stanza before the congregation sings, in order to give the congregation another hearing of the music before they are asked to sing.

Finding the Right Time to Teach a New Song

When is it appropriate to teach a new song? Within most congregations several opportunities exist for the learning of new hymns. If the song is intended to be used in worship, then the time of gathering before worship is a great time to teach a hymn. The song leader can lead the people in a time of informal singing five to ten minutes before worship. As a way of warming up the heart, mind, and voice of the congregation for worship, this time of singing should include songs and hymns well loved by the congregation. Then the leader can introduce a new hymn using one of the methods suggested above. When the song comes up in the service, the same person leads the congregation in the singing, helping them remember what they have already learned.

Other times in the church calendar can provide prime opportunities for learning new hymns. If the congregation has a midweek evening program, a fun option is to introduce new material at a congregational hymn-sing. In some regions, the traditional hymn-sing or festival on fifth Sundays is a treasured event. Gathering before Sunday school, United Methodist Women’s or United Methodist Men’s meetings, family fellowship events, or any time the congregation gathers as a community presents wonderful opportunities to teach a new song for the Lord.

Are there times when teaching a new song is inappropriate? The middle of worship, when the congregation is focused on hearing and responding to God's Word is not a good time to teach a new song that requires a good bit of instruction or practice. If a song requires such teaching and there is no time before worship to learn it, it serves the intent of worship better to use a song that is familiar to the congregation rather than to disrupt worship by teaching the hymn. Also, a funeral service is probably not the best place to introduce a new hymn, unless you use a song leader or choir to sing most of it and invite the congregation to join in as they feel led.

 From Occasional to Intentional

It is possible and vital to expand the hymn and song repertoire of even the most reluctant congregation. Sally Morgenthaler suggests that the work of the worship leader in developing a hymn repertoire is one of the most important and challenging tasks:

Few things you do as a contemporary worship leader will have as much impact on your congregation’s worship life [as] developing a solid worship repertoire. That base of about 50 songs and hymns [should be] carefully scrutinized for both musical and textual quality. No easy assignment, especially when you consider that musical options now run into the thousands.1

Worship leaders should prepare an intentional plan for learning hymns and songs that reflects the whole range of Christian experience, not just selecting from a list that covers a variety of musical styles and tempos or focusing on what the congregation members or worship leaders like.

Worship leaders should prepare an intentional plan for learning hymns and songs that reflects the whole range of Christian experience, not just selecting from a list that covers a variety of musical styles and tempos or focusing on what the congregation members or worship leaders like.

 It is a daunting but exciting task to formulate a long-term congregational strategy for learning new hymns and songs. This task requires identifying the current hymn repertoire, seeing what gaps are apparent, and outlining a plan for adding new hymns and songs to that list of favorites.

  • Identify the current hymn repertoire. Unless a worship leader has been in a congregation since birth and the congregation is not prone to frequent membership shifts, he or she may not know fully which hymns and songs the congregation knows and enjoys singing. One way of determining this is for the leader to place in a prominent place the hymnal used in worship in that congregation. Invite congregation members to thumb through the hymnal, marking which hymns are favorites. Another way of learning which hymns the congregation knows is to conduct a favorite hymn survey. Invite members to list their favorite hymns on a ballot. Tally the results and have a countdown of the congregation’s top hymns and songs.
  • Look for gaps in the hymn repertoire. What types of songs or hymns are missing from the congregation's list? Does the congregation know the traditional, classic hymn literature, such as “Holy, Holy, Holy! Lord God Almighty”"(UMH, 64), but not any of the praise choruses that are currently popular? Do they feel comfortable with hymns that speak of a personal relationship with Jesus, such as “Just as I Am, Without One Plea" (UMH, 357), but are not as familiar with hymns that speak of a corporate worship experience, such as “God Is Here" (UMH, 660)? Do they sing loudly when “Amazing Grace" (UMH, 378) is used, but stare mutely when any global music is used, especially when it is in a different language? These are the places where a congregation’s hymn repertoire can be expanded.
  • Outline a plan for teaching new hymns and songs to the congregation. With the worship team or music committee, the leader develops a long-term plan for teaching new hymns to the congregation. They should select a reasonable number of new hymns to learn for the year. This number should depend on how and when the hymns will be taught and used, as well as the difficulty of the songs. For example, to teach the congregation the chorus of “Jesus, Remember Me” (UMH, 488), the leader may decide to sing that prayer song each time the congregation celebrates Communion. This song is easily assimilated into the hymn repertoire of the congregation. Or, the leader may wish to use part of a hymn as service music for a specific season. In the last congregation I served, we used the first stanza (without refrain) of “Spirit Song" (UMH, 347) as a congregational benediction response. Other hymns work better when used in their entirety. So, it may be helpful to choose a new hymn as a theme for a certain season, such as “Prepare the Way of the Lord” (UMH, 207) for Advent. Other hymns can work in medleys with more familiar hymns, such as “There’s Something About That Name” (UMH, 171) with “All Hail the Power of Jesus' Name" (UMH, 154).

In choosing new hymns, the leader needs to be sensitive to the congregation’s saturation level of learning. A new hymn a month taught in the same way each month could become rather tedious; it also does not give the congregation adequate time to actually live with a song. Introducing and using new songs in a creative way will greatly reduce congregational resistance. Here are a few ways that are creative and can help prevent saturation and tedium:

  • Vary the ways in which new songs in worship are taught and used.
  • Teach a new hymn as a theme song for Lent.
  • From Pentecost until Thanksgiving, use a prayer chorus in place of the spoken Prayer for Illumination.
  • Use a Taizé song as one of the Communion hymns for a year.

It is important to develop a schedule for teaching new hymns. A hymn festival at the beginning of the year to introduce the hymns is an exciting way to get started. A second hymn festival, at the end of the year, allows the congregation to celebrate what they have learned throughout the year.

The leader should identify which hymns are more appropriate for specific seasons of the church year and keep those lists handy as he or she plans worship. Children and youth in the congregation should also learn these hymns. Sunday school teachers and choir leaders of these children could be asked to incorporate these hymns and songs into their curriculum, with the worship leader providing assistance as needed. These hymns should be taught in adult Sunday school classes as well. The worship leader should work with all who plan music for worship and other events to keep these new hymns before the congregation.

After implementation, progress should be evaluated frequently to make sure the intent of the worship leader’s efforts is achieved. The leader may on occasion ask various members how they like learning new hymns. If they express some resistance, the leader should explore the issue further, with a view to discerning what changes can be made to increase the members’ openness to learning new songs. This takes persistent effort, since it takes a while for a song to move from being new to being familiar to being well loved by a congregation.

Finally, as the worship team selects hymns for worship each week, it is important to remember that balance is the key. Many congregations are willing to give new songs a try when they know that the songs they know and love will also be sung with some frequency. Therefore, the leader should keep track of the hymns and songs that he or she uses by marking the dates in an office copy of the hymnal.

Conclusion

There are few things more rewarding than teaching a new song to a congregation and seeing it become part of the faith story of those who sing it. Hymns and songs shape our understanding about God and offer us means by which to beautifully and musically express our faith experience. As we learn new hymns and songs, we join with all creation in singing praise to God—the source of all that is, including our songs and our voices. Thanks be to God!

 

For Further Reading

Creative Hymn Singing by Alice Parker (Chapel Hill, NC: Hinshaw Music, 1976).

 You Can Lead Singing; A Song Leader’s Manual by Glenn Lehman
(Harrisonburg, PA: Good Books, 1994).

 

Endnotes

1 From “Exponential Repertoire: There Is More to Building a Repertoire Than Tempo or Theme, Mood or Mix,” by Sally Morgenthaler, in Worship Leader Volume 7, Number 2, March-April 1998, p. 14. Copyright © 1998 CCM Communications, Nashville, Tennessee.


Originally published in Worship Matters, vol. 2 Copyright © 1999 Discipleship Resources.  

M. Anne Burnette Hook is Minister of Music at Christ United Methodist Church in Franklin, Tennessee.

Categories: Worship Matters

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