The Singer, the Singing, and the Song

by Marilyn Haskel

As we became convinced that we were safe, harmony began to emerge, and then countermelodies.

Editor’s note: Marilyn Haskel is vice president of Church Publishing, Inc., the publishing arm of the Episcopal Church in the United States, and a former parish organist. In the 1990s, she headed the team charged with creating a new Episcopal songbook to stand beside the familiar Hymnal 1982—a collection that would reflect the musical and cultural diversity of today’s church. More than 90,000 copies of Wonder, Love, and Praise are currently in print and in use in some 1,500 parishes nationwide. (St. Gregory’s own Music for Liturgy contains a few favorites borrowed from WLP.) In this article she describes some of her experience of helping to create Wonder, Love, and Praise.

Based in New York, Haskel conducts music workshops in parishes around the country. She continues to find that singing in Episcopal congregations today ranges from almost nonexistent to richly participatory, and covers an astonishing range of musical styles. God’s Friends asked her to write about what makes music work for congregational singing.

Five years ago, I was about to lead worship for a small gathering of liturgists, an august body I’d heard about all my adult life—and I was very nervous. I’d been inducted into this legendary group a year before, and I guess this was my initiation. As we began the familiar words, I relaxed. I intoned the psalm, a simple tune. The group seemed to falter but kept going. When we got to the hymn, the group again struggled—with no piano for support—to stay with the melody. I was stunned. It seemed even this group of church professionals could not sing together—at least not without accompaniment.

Several years later, the same gathering stood around a blazing fire pit, singing a psalm in rich harmony alternating with a cantor’s single voice. What had changed?

Several factors contributed to the evolution of this group’s ability to sing together, I believe. After that first difficult event, we kept singing. We didn’t give up, and by the end of the weeklong meeting we were much better. We focused on music that was reasonably simple and tuneful—music that could succeed on melody alone and did not depend on harmony for its appeal, since we hadn’t the confidence for harmony. Over time, we began to laugh at ourselves making mistakes (we really didn’t know it all!) and began learning in a new atmosphere of acceptance. We experimented. We focused on praying, not on reading words and notes. We went through a difficult time of transition, but we kept singing, often without accompaniment.

Successful congregational singing is the sum of many parts. One is choosing the right music—but determining what music works for liturgy, and why, is not easy, for the same reasons that one can rarely predict what book will be a bestseller, which movie will have wide appeal, or what song will sell millions of copies. One can analyze the components of music that has worked, trying to establish criteria for all church music, yet still not be able to predict with certainty that a given piece of music will succeed. There is music that breaks all the rules and still works. I’m thankful for that. Just when I think I have “the answer,” I find I don’t. As I grow older there seems to be less and less that I know for sure, and I am greatly freed by that knowledge. Living with this kind of uncertainty is a challenge for those who would be faithful.

Music for the church is more than a product to be refined and finally perfected. Many texts that serve people for a time ultimately cease to do so. Musical styles and tastes change. Creativity takes new forms. Some ancient texts we sing have proved to be timeless, but many hymns that once marked us as Anglicans are no longer significant spiritually, culturally, or theologically

So why compile collections of music for people to sing? The short answer might be because the body of texts and music that make up “the Song” of the church must be constantly reshaped for us as we seek to pray.

A Musical Trinity

My advisor in seminary, Miriam Therese Winter, has articulated a view of church music in the late twentieth century that steps away from the mechanics of style, taste, and even perfection to focus on its holistic nature.

According to Dr. Winter, the evolution of church music parallels the renewal of the ecumenical liturgical world as embodied by the Second Vatican Council (1962–65). Prior to the Council, she writes, the Song was considered the “perfect offering…It is for God, not for people. Sacred chant perfectly rendered, the Divine Office, sung precisely as prescribed by those duly appointed, is the Church’s perfect prayer of praise.” In the Anglican tradition, the Song was primarily the choral service, wherein the congregation listened to a trained group of musicians but was not vocally involved. This is still a cherished experience in the Episcopal Church, though less common now than in the past.

As liturgical renewal prompted by Vatican II encouraged full participation of the assembly, however, the act of Singing grew in importance. The communal celebration of singing helped create community. “Singing is a pastoral experience because it reaches out to people, connects them with each other,” Winter writes. The effect on Roman Catholic church music was to create singing congregations from those that had been silent for years—particularly in the American church. This development paralleled the folk-singing movement of the 1960s.

As liturgical practice continued to mature, the emphasis of music in the church kept changing as well. Winter discerns a third phrase, of which she observes: “Song is important, not for itself, but for what it can accomplish. It is a tool of transformation, capable of effecting a conversion of the heart. Song is for the singer. The singer praises God.”

The Song. The Singing. The Singer. These changing perspectives on vocal music in the church are not mutually exclusive. All three help determine how music in liturgy works and why it works. The perfection of the song, the creation of community in singing, and the conversion of the singer all contribute to the great prayer that is congregational singing.

Broadening Music Practice in the Church

The Episcopal Church, I believe, has tended to embrace the perfection of the song to the neglect of the other two perspectives. There is nothing wrong with exalting the Song, except that it can intimidate the average singer in the pew. Supposedly, the song of the trained has more value before God than that of the untrained. It’s said that if you sit in one of the first ten pews in a certain well-known parish, you don’t sing, because you have sat there to hear the choir. If a stranger violates this code, an unsubtle glare from surrounding parishioners communicates the faux pas. I truly hope this is a myth.

Individual priests and musicians throughout the church have attempted to bring the Singer and the Singing more into the central focus of Episcopal church music. In the triennium 1994–97, the effort was broadened when the General Convention requested that the Standing Commission on Church Music compile a new collection of music to support the church’s diversity. The membership of the commission charged with doing the work was itself ethnically, geographically, and demographically diverse. The fruit of that work was Wonder, Love, and Praise, a supplement to The Hymnal 1982.

Episcopalians have taken responsibility to achieve the best of the Song for ages. What we have not embraced with as much enthusiasm is responsibility for the pastoral and evangelistic nature of the Singing, and the sign of love demonstrated by the Singer crying out the Good News.

Initially we struggled with what the collection should be. Although not all of us were convinced of the need for major change, all were more than a little daunted by the challenge. We had discovered that the Episcopal Church in the United States, if it was singing at all, was singing everything from popular religious songs (Christian radio) to white gospel music from the early part of the century. The range included standard denominational hymns, prayer and praise choruses, and cross-denominational standards from the African-American, Hispanic, Asian, Native American, and other communities. In many places, singing was lackluster and uninspired. A particular challenge was the many small parishes (under 50 members) that had no musical leadership and reportedly none to develop.

In any case, we plunged ahead, and a working method began to emerge. We decided that the music must be strong melodically and musically accessible, especially to small congregations. A major question was “How do we get the church singing again where it isn’t?” We sang through several thousand pieces of music before finally selecting nearly 200 hymns, songs, and refrains, as well as service music, for the collection. We chose a number of brief choruses and rounds that could be used unaccompanied at potluck suppers or as the opening prayer at vestry meetings.

We looked for tunefulness, simple forms with classic (AABA) phrase structure, and rich harmonies that are predictable enough to encourage singing in parts. And we looked for a variety of texts that express what we believe in different voices. We wanted the singing to become confident and selfless.

We had little need to find more choir and organ music, but when something came to us that was too extraordinary or useful to pass up we included it. Disagreements flared over certain pieces that some deemed the “work of the devil” or substandard at the very least. The work of several well-known composers was rejected—they were good pieces of music, but they didn’t fit our goals. Some selections were made to appeal to particular lobbies because we were, after all, preparing material for the whole church. At one time or another, each of us had to put aside our personal preferences in service of the larger goal.

Testing the Waters

Several of us on the commission hit the road to introduce the work in progress to parishes and dioceses. We found that people were often more concerned about doing what was “right” as Episcopalians than about what would work in their congregations. Many apologized for being small and having few resources, while some musicians would boast that their small congregation of 22 sang a new hymn every week! The range of responses was truly amazing.

In places where the Song ruled, people were uneasy with what they viewed as “dumbed-down” music. Some would rather not sing at all than sing something they didn’t consider the “right” kind of music. In other places, fortunately, people were thankful that the collection contained non-Episcopal songs and hymns that they were already singing, and they readily embraced similar musical selections.

Toward the end of our time working on the book, the Music Commission met with the Standing Liturgical Commission at a diocesan conference center in Louisiana. Those of us on the Music Commission were very familiar with the new music; the rest had never heard most of it. Events during those few days helped shape the final pass of materials for the book.

Even then, we were still collecting music. At the Louisiana meeting we tracked down several table graces to include, and one commission member even wrote one on the spot. Its tune is titled “Bayou” in recognition of our location.

One evening we gathered in comfortable chairs and sofas around a towering natural stone fireplace that rose through the ceiling of the rustic lodge. The leader sat on the hearth, his tattered prayer book-cum-Bible in hand, and announced that we would celebrate evening prayer. When someone offered to get prayer books and hymnals, he promised we wouldn’t need them. The look of doubt on the volunteer’s face expressed the questions in our minds: Would we be able to remember the Apostles Creed? Would we know the hymn he picked? Earlier in the day, we had tried to sing a familiar hymn without the words in front of us, and became hopelessly derailed. But that night, after a time of silence, the leader skillfully set an atmosphere of acceptance that made us know we were to pray—not to remember words. He chose simple music from the collection in progress, and repeated it throughout the worship. As we became convinced that we were safe, harmony began to emerge, and then countermelodies.

This experience was a test of what we had been working toward in theory. Did material exist to support a simple worship so that everyone, skilled or unskilled, could sing? Later that week, we celebrated the eucharist in the chapel using music from the collection, and again it successfully supported the variety of singers, including those unfamiliar with the music.

Why did it work? I could tell you that it was because we were intelligent musicians and had picked only the best music we could find. That might be true, but more informative is our consensus about goals.

What Sings?

In preparing a Leader’s Guide to Wonder, Love, and Praise, we included stories from people who had sent us their music. We wanted others to hear what we had heard from those who create music. These stories show that church music is often practical stuff—perhaps written for a specific event or as a spiritual discipline—that sometimes achieves extraordinary things. We wanted to reach the heart of the singers.

My favorite story came from a mother who wrote the music for one of a group of texts we had sent out. She had chosen that text because it expressed her prayer of hope as she faced the pain of losing her daughter through estrangement. Her daughter had gone so far as to change her name, and the composer/mother gave that new name to the tune. It is a stunning combination of melody and text. The composer embraced the poet’s work as a means of her own salvation, and the result is an authentic vehicle for the Church’s song.

I have heard this hymn sung many times at conferences, workshops, and in worship services. The reactions vary from lukewarm to respectful acceptance to overwhelmed enthusiasm. Why the difference? I don’t know. Most church musicians will tell you this phenomenon is real but not readily explained.

There are some standard criteria for a good piece of church music: a text that reads well as poetry and that expresses belief; a stepwise melody the shape of which fits the shape of the text; an engaging harmonic structure that also supports the shape of the text; and a straightforward rhythm. However, I know hymns and songs that defy all these rules and still speak to people. Besides, these rules address only the Song. Episcopalians have taken responsibility to achieve the best of the Song for ages. What we have not embraced with as much enthusiasm is responsibility for the pastoral and evangelistic nature of the Singing, and the sign of love demonstrated by the Singer crying out the Good News.

In workshops I sometimes ask participants to recall times when they have been in worship and found the Singing overwhelming. Most have had that experience at least once. When I ask what moved them so deeply, they almost invariably reply that it was the sense of at-oneness, of expansive love, the strength of the witness of those around them. We know that this force of evangelical and pastoral strength exists, but we have not articulated it as a goal in choosing music.

I believe that there is no substitute for knowing the craft of making music. I believe that the quality of music composed for the church must be high. I believe that liturgy must be planned by people who understand the structure and intent of ritual. I also believe that the Holy Spirit blows where it will, using whatever means are at hand. We are mere practitioners who prepare the way as best we can.

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