Lift Every Voice and Sing

by Sanford Dole

Everyone, even people who consider themselves “nonsingers,” loves to sing.

Congregational singing is central to the liturgy at St. Gregory’s. All of our services include copious amounts of communal singing, joyfully rendered without accompaniment. The vested party at each of our four weekly services includes a cantor, who establishes pitch and tempo by singing the first phrase and who, if necessary, explains the manner in which the following musical selection will be sung. This may include singing the entire short piece at the Tuesday Taizé service, previewing the call-and-response at the 5 P.M. Saturday liturgy, or lining out the Psalm tone on Sunday morning at 8 A.M.

As cantor at the 10 A.M. service I have the delightful responsibility of starting the liturgy off with a ten-minute “rehearsal.” This crucial invitation to our newcomers —and injection of energy, which will be felt throughout the morning—happens after the clergy and deacons have entered, and the Presider has commenced the service with a hearty “Christ is risen!” to which we respond, “He is risen indeed.” This rehearsal is therefore not something that happens before the service begins but is part of the liturgy itself.

After the congregation has responded to the Presider, I take center stage and with much enthusiasm shout, “Let’s sing,” launching the assembly into a trisagion. Then, as I survey the room, looking directly into the eyes of as many newcomers as I can find, I say something like this:

“Good morning, and welcome to St. Gregory’s. I would like to make a special welcome to those of you who are here for the first time. We are especially pleased that you are here because YOU will be helping us to create the liturgy. We sing throughout the service, and I encourage you, at every step of the way, to be brave and jump right in, joining everyone around you who will be singing. In order to facilitate this, we’ll look at the some of the music right now, so that it is more familiar when we get there later in the service. Let’s begin with today’s hymns…”

This speech has been honed over many years. We’ve made revisions to remove unnecessary or misleading wording as well as to heighten the invitation and welcome. The simple act of establishing a direct connection between the church’s musical leader and the newcomers is radical, yet makes great practical sense. If we want our congregations to participate, in particular to sing, then we must give them the means to do this. This includes providing the complete musical scores, the explicit invitation, and the chance to discover that unaccompanied congregational singing works well.

We have found that the absence of a keyboard or other instrumental “help” actually increases the ease and likelihood of participation. It is easier to get a starting pitch from another voice, as opposed to the organ, because the overtones are the same. And, if there are strong singers surrounding everyone, it makes it easier for the less experienced singers to follow along. Our little trick is to scatter members of the well-rehearsed choir among the congregation. What a difference this makes! Why segregate your best singers when they can be enlisted to help lead the congregational participation?

Everyone, even people who consider themselves “nonsingers,” loves to sing. Creating an environment that promotes every parishioner’s participation can transform congregational life. I hope that our experiences and practices at St. Gregory’s might help you accomplish this in your church.

Sanford Dole first sang in a church choir at age three and has done so ever since. He sang and played bells in youth choirs throughout his Presbyterian upbringing. After embarking on a career of professional service in churches, he has sung praises to God in a variety of denominations and faiths. Combined with his vast experience in more secular musical institutions, his varied background has proved invaluable to his leadership role in the rich, eclectic liturgy at St. Gregory's.


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