Teaching the Congregational Choir: The Role of Musicians in Multicultural Worship
Church musicians have always had particular titles—cantor, Kapellmeister, organist-choirmaster, director of music, precentor, song leader, minister of music, or worship leader. But this office is so important to the experience of culturally conscious worship that a new title, free of traditional Western connotations, may be needed. I propose a broader range of responsibilities and possibilities and suggest that the primary musical presider in culturally conscious worship be called the"enlivener."
What is the difference between an enlivener and a Western, classically trained church musician? In many cases, there may be little difference. Many church musicians have assumed the role of enlivener either intentionally or through intuitive insight. Others, however, view their ministry of music primarily from the perspective of specialized musical ensemblesthat sing for the congregation rather than asa ministry that involves the entire congregation in more than pro forma music making. Musical ensembles (instrumental and vocal) play important roles in worship, but the first task of the enlivener is to bridge the gap between the established choir (choral ensemble) and the "choir of the whole"—those in the pew—so that all may join together in praise to God.
Establishing a strong congregational choir may enlarge the vocational understanding of the choral ensemble. First, in numerous cultures around the world, the choral ensemble and the congregational choir are less separated in function than they are in many churches in the United States. While choral ensembles in Africa, for example, may sing individual selections separate from the congregation as a part of choral offerings to God, the people often claim the choral ensemble’s anthems for themselves when the anthem is repeated during the weeks that follow. Furthermore, it is not unusual for the choral ensemble’s music to take a musical shape or structure that allows the people to participate in some way, even during the first presentation by the choir. They may be able to sing the refrain with the choral ensemble or move to the rhythm of the music. Ensemble singers should incorporate into their vocational perspective the role of teachers of the congregation’s song as well as singers of anthems to God on behalf of the congregation. The first task of the enlivener, then, is to establish the congregation as the primary choir of worship.
Second, the enlivener assumes this position on the merits not only of musical ability but also of an ability to relate to the congregation as a teacher. As a part of their vocation, enliveners will use their singing voices to teach the congregation to sing its song, rather than to sing solos on behalf of the congregation. The voice should be clear, confident, and true to pitch, but does not need to have a "trained" quality. Trained singers may be very good enliveners, but their voice and manner need to be invitational in tone. The enlivener’s voice says, "Please sing with me," rather than "Listen to me." An operatic singer who has been trained to sustain a full sound over an orchestra may not understand the role of the enlivener. A clear and inviting folklike vocal quality is often best.
The enlivener’s relationship with the congregation depends on trust. The congregants must trust the enlivener to lead them into unfamiliar musical waters with the hope that the songs they learn will teach them to pray in new ways and enable them to feel a greater oneness as the body of Christ. To this end, teaching new songs should be done efficiently, accurately, and engagingly. Knowing how to break down a song into component parts—text first, tune only, one phrase at a time, using responsorial or echoing techniques—is essential.
Enliveners not only teach the music and words of the song but also offer insight into the song’s meaning and original context. Many songs sung in worship come from Christians of a different place and time. It may be helpful to think of the song as a prayer that other Christians have shared with us. Possible questions for the enlivener include: Under what circumstances was this sung prayer first uttered? Who sang it? How was it used in worship? How might a prayer from another cultural context enrich or broaden our way of praying?
The enlivener may ask these questions both for sung prayers from centuries past and for current songs that come to us from another partof the globe. Petitions for God’s mercy by Christians in any place or time are the petitions of all Christians. Musical praises offered by Christians in any age, from any culture, enhance our praises today. Just as the enlivener merges the choral ensemble with the congregation into a unified choral voice, the enlivener brings the voices of saints past and present into harmony with local congregations.
A third task of the enlivener is to relate the people’s song to the broader experience of worship. It is not sufficient just to sing a good song in worship. A good song, well taught and appropriately integrated into worship, in itself unites those gathered as the body of Christ. To paraphrase 1 Corinthians 14:15, people will sing with spirit if they understand what they are to sing and why they are singing it. Integrating the congregation’s song into worship is part of the work of the enlivener. Music—sung, played, or danced—has a capacity to weave itself into the fabric of an experience and to transform individuals into a vital singing, praying community.
Adapted from One Bread, One Body: Exploring Cultural Diversity in Worship, copyright © 2003 by the Alban Institute. All rights reserved. For permission to reproduce, go to www.alban.org/permissions.asp.