Want Your Church to Sing? Then Train Them As Children!
We learn most of our disciplines and skills when we’re very young. This also applies to singing. Children sing with abandon and minimal self-consciousness—but often with little knowledge or skills of how to sing well.
THE CHURCH CAN TEACH SINGING MECHANICS
There appears to be a growing awareness across evangelicalism that congregational singing is too often very poor. Numerous posts on blogs and articles in denominational and interdenominational periodicals are drawing attention to adjustments needed to be made as it is observed too many worshippers are passive during singing. The music has become heavily performance oriented by those on the platform rather than participation by those in the pews. Thoughtful pastors are realizing it is not just important that their congregations sing, but that they sing with mind, soul, and strength.
To remedy this trend of poor singing the suggestions in said postings are to examine the choice of songs, the choices of styles, the choices of accompaniments, the teaching that encourages people to participate, and the spiritual instructions on our internal motivations to sing. But one thing is almost universally missing from what are otherwise excellent lists of suggestions and remedies: the role of the church in actually teaching people how to sing, in actually teaching some of the mechanics and skills of singing.
WHY DON’T WE LIKE TO SING?
It’s true that the quality of ones singing is not the measure of successful worship that pleases God. I have always believed and taught that God loves the singing of the crow as much as that of the robin! However, the ability to sing well has everything to do with the enjoyment of singing. People generally do not know how to sing so that they can participate effortlessly, beautifully, and even loud enough to hear themselves above others.
If you did not grow up in a singing home (of which there are less and less) or if you did not take music or choir in school (and those also have disappeared from our educational systems, or absent from home-schooling) the chances are that you simply have never learned to fully use the singing apparatus that God places in every baby. How common is it to hear people express the words, “I can’t sing.” Or, I can’t “carry a tune in a bucket.” Why would they enjoy singing in church if they believe this about themselves? I grieve to observe people not even trying to sing.
TEACH THEM YOUNG
Here’s where most churches fail: They do not teach people to sing as children. They fail to offer children a graded choir program or singing classes. When they do, it is heavily oriented to performance rather than education and in most situations are attended by only a minority of the children of the church. Churches that do provide children’s choirs have to do so at times so parents have to make a special trip and effort to get them to the choir.
It would be so helpful if a schedule might be offered so that every child could participate. Because time on Sunday morning is precious, perhaps devote just 10 minutes per week, or only two weeks per month to teach all children how to sing. Then, additionally, offer a more traditional choir program midweek so more time is available to those who want to excel in greater development of their voices or of learning choral literature.
Admittedly, teaching children to sing is a specialized skill. You can harm young voices as well as teach bad habits. What if the church does not have educated or trained musicians who will volunteer to teach children to sing? Well, what does the church do if they don’t have trained volunteers to service or repair the air conditioning? They must and will hire someone to get it done. You may have to find a school-master music teacher who will consult for the church in interviewing and choosing appropriate music teachers, even if they have to be brought in from outside the church.
The children’s choir is not just for those who love to sing and already know how. Helen Kemp, of Westminster Choir College and a famous children’s choir clinician, understood the process of teaching children to sing. She said,
Some children come in having heard singing from the day of birth. Some come in having never heard anyone sing to them. They have no idea how to open their mouth to sing, no idea of pitch. Any of us who work with children’s choirs want them to sound good. But it’s most important to establish trust. I try very hard to help children learn to rejoice with each other in success-not to think everyone has to be perfect. Start where children are and lead them up-vocally, presentationally, and spiritually.
The child who is taught in that kind of environment will continue singing through their youth and young adulthood, simply because they can. And it is enjoyable to them. As adults, when they understand the theological mandate for singing in worship, they’ll be able to do so happily!
Lowell Mason, composer of the music to 1200 hymns including “Joy to the World,” “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross,” and “My Faith Looks Up to Thee,” understood the importance of congregational singing. As music director in 1853 for Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church of New York City he did two things: He fired the professional singers and instrumentalists who led [performed] the music of his church—except the organist. Then he created a singing school. During his tenure, he developed congregational singing to the point where the church was known as having the finest congregational singing in the city. Mason personally changed his view from imagining that church congregations were reluctant to sing to vigorously promoting congregational singing.
Let us not give lip-service to the importance of congregational singing if we are not willing to back that up with some of the same devotion to education that we give to missions, to evangelism, to prayer, and other important disciplines of the Christian life. This is, after all, the only discipline we will still be doing throughout eternity.