Singing in Church

Cathy Lynn Grossman reviews the plight of the church choir in the contemporary social scene and, as you can expect, the situation is not good. The church choir seems, in many cases, to be going the way of all things mainline. The choir will stored in the church attic along with the organ, the pews and the ministerial robe.

The First Unitarian Universalist
Congregation of Ann Arbor
My experience in the First Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Ann Arbor is that it doesn't have to be.

The fate of the choir should not be separated from the practice of congregational singing. If the choir is only a performing choir, which sings music as performances in the midst of the service, people will find it pleasant some of the time, boring some of the time, and in the case of more adventurous music, kind of irritating some of the time. And in our older model buildings, where the choir is in a loft in the back of the sanctuary, it's even worse. Choirs need to be where the congregation can see them.

When the choir can be seen not only helps the congregation relate to the performed pieces, it also helps when the congregation sings together, during the hymns and songs.

The congregation in Ann Arbor is a singing congregation. Yesterday, during the church services, I counted less than 10 people who were not participating during the congregational singing, out of probably 500+ total people in the two services. (Maybe some were just lip-synching, so that number could be off.) What this does to quality of the worship experience is beyond description.

Glen Thomas Rideout
The key is a song-leader. Glen Thomas Rideout is the music director of the congregation and he is the song leader of the congregational singing. Meaning, he is in front of the congregation, and leads us in song. For the songs that are appropriate he "calls" and we "respond".  He gives us the line. He sings the line ahead. He leads us in clapping. He leads us in improvising the music and clapping. He invites, leads, cajoles, encourages and even seduces us into singing. And the congregation sings.

And the choir leads the singing as well, modeling enthusiastic participation.

You should realize that this is all pretty low-tech. Until the new sound system was installed two weeks ago, Glen Thomas stood at the pulpit and used the fixed pulpit mike. No lyrics projected on the wall. One piano and two drums. A mix of songs from the Teal and from the Gray hymnals.

Does your congregation have a song leader who leads the congregation in song? Most congregations don't have one. Usually, it is just the minister up there, many of whom lack the confidence and skill to do more than sing along. Many are even told to be sure to step away from the microphone while singing. In many cases, the minister models tentativeness and embarrassment as singers.

What the congregation sees is as important as what the congregation hears while singing.

If I were to be starting a church today, or looking for a music director or musician now, I would look first for a congregational song leader: someone who would get up in front and activate a lively musical spirit in the worship of the church. If you can get the congregation singing, I think building up a choir will follow.


  1. Steve Cook10:34 AM

    While I am a dedicated second tenor in my chorus (Boston Saengerfest Men's Chorus--check us out on Facebook) I am no musician and have come to this late in life. Still, I am the strongest (loudest?) singer in the tiny church I serve. I have taken to coming into the aisle to sing with them, not at them from the pulpit. It helps them keep time and melody and demonstrates that if I can sing, if even somewhat uncertainly, so can they. I recommend it to small church/choirless ministers if they can carry it off.

  2. Anonymous10:56 AM

    I'm a veteran choir member who occasionally sings from the pulpit - and I always step away from (or cut) the mike when I'm singing.

    In the absence of a sophisticated sound system with a technician running the mix board, the mike is usually set up to isolate and capture a single voice at a time. This is exactly what you want for spoken liturgy and sermons.

    It is exactly what you do not want for choral or congregational singing, particularly if the inadvertent "soloist" is a hesitant or less skilled singer - or even a highly talented musician who doesn't know that particular song.

    As an amateur musician and seminarian, things I love to see:

    Congregational song leaders (can be the minister, choir director, or someone else entirely) as you describe.

    Asking choir members to pre-learn unfamiliar hymns then seeding them through the congregation to help the rest of people learn new music.

    Call / response and other participatory styles of music, in addition to (or instead of) more conventional "choir anthem" performance pieces.

    Discussion - from the pulpit or in written material such as newsletters - of music as participatory, a form of worship in itself (music as a thing we create, rather than a thing we consume.) This is a big one for me.

    What would become a 21st-century UU iteration of the old Sacred Harp / shapenote hymnals of yore?

  3. Elisabeth11:05 AM

    "Make a joyful noise unto the Lord." My bricks and mortar church is a very small UCC with a 12-15 member choir that fills the sanctuary with song and enthusiasm and defies even the tune in the bucket carriers like me to be silent. They sit down in the front pews, turning to face the congregation when singing. The former pastor sang well and was our 'call and response' person for new hymns. She is missed, but the choir keeps us singing and together. I'd love to find a UU congregation with such good music. Moving to Ann Arbor is a far stretch though. Music is a important part of my worshipping in community and alone.

  4. I agree with Steve Cook and others. It's great if ministers can be song leaders. If a church can't hire a a song leader/musician, or find one to do so on a volunteer basis (that amateur theatre ham in the congregation), then it falls to the minister. Maybe those who think they are non-musical should think about taking a series of voice lessons over a summer. I took about 5 lessons once with a good teacher and it built my confidence a lot. Coming down out of the chancel is a great idea.

  5. Gloria P1:15 PM

    As a choir member having sung in several UU churches, I am coming to the same conclusions as Tom. I have been in a service experiencing Glen Thomas Rideout's song leading. It was a fantastic worship experience. I do not have the same experience in choirs where the emphasis seems to be on the performance of music. The choirs I have participated in seem to think of the congregation as the audience. My heart and spirit are not stirred by the music. I wonder what the visitors and prospective new members feel about this approach to worship.

  6. I have just recently started singing in my church choir (I'm a pretty serious amateur orchestra player but it's also nice to have an opportunity to exercise my very modest singing ability), and while our congregation is not at all shy about singing (and clapping in hymns that lend themselves it) we do occasionally go down into the sanctuary (we're not terribly high up to begin with) to help lead rounds. And we can hear folks singing along with us when we do something that's familiar to everyone, which is great. This is a very participatory congregation in general. Our RE director frequently does things during children's time and intergenerational services that calls for various kinds of participation from the folks in the pews. I think that all of the above is really important to the quality of worship. If people are just an audience that's not healthy or satisfying.

  7. Here in Burlington, Vermont, music is probably a more unifying tradition than is any theology (our congregation has a strong pragmatic strain). Both our adult and children's choirs attract good numbers, and we just had one young woman join the adult choir after aging out of the youth choir. The secret lies in mixing up music types constantly and emphasizing messages that affirm the views from the pulpit and pews. Our main problem is that the balcony is not accessible to singers with mobility issues.


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