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Beyond the Anthem:  Re-thinking the Role of the Choir in Worship

Benjamin Brody, Northwest Division R&S Chair for Music in Worship

Ibrody have frequently heard church choir directors say that the choir’s most important role in worship is leading congregational singing.  In many of our position descriptions as church choral directors, leading congregational singing is noted as a significant part of what we do.  Yet few of our college/university music programs devote much time to leading congregational singing, and many of us directing church choirs have had little or no instruction in how to lead congregational singing well. 

If we or our church leaders consider leading and teaching congregational singing as an important part of our jobs, how might our choirs help us in this task?

Perhaps the first question to be raised is, does our use of rehearsal time reflect our priorities regarding the role of the choir in worship?  I would venture to guess that many of us who view congregational singing as an important role for choral leadership, spend very little of our time rehearsing congregational song.  Perhaps we sing through a hymn as a part of a warm-up, or maybe run once through some unfamiliar liturgical music, but the vast majority of the rehearsal is spent preparing the anthem for upcoming services. 

What might it mean if we devoted just twenty minutes of each choir rehearsal to the leadership of congregational singing?  In my experience, even twenty minutes spent rehearsing the choir to lead the congregation raises the level of singing both in the choir and the congregation, and leads to a noticeable difference in the overall worship experience. 

In addition, as our parishioners pay more attention to how they sing the notes, they are also drawn to thinking more carefully about the text and the meaning of the words.  The following are six suggestions for choir directors interested in encouraging a renewal of congregational singing through their work with the choir.

Spend careful time preparing and phrasing the melody on hymns and congregational songs.  Planning well about where to breathe, how to phrase, and paying attention to the choir’s diction will pay rich dividends as the congregation begins to notice and imitate the choir’s intentionality in singing hymns.

Frequently choose congregational songs that encourage the congregation to move beyond unison singing.  Look for songs with simple harmonizations to encourage part-singing, and consider programming a hymn tune that can be sung in canon (TALLIS CANON is a good first choice).   Even simply alternating verses congregation/choir, or Men/Women, or left/right can be a good first step towards musical independence for worshipers. 


Be intentional and careful using descants and reharmonizations when appropriate to accompany congregational singing.  Descants and reharmonizations can serve to provide variety to a hymn, and challenge the congregation to hang on to the melody as they leave a familiar harmonization behind, yet they can also cause congregations to stop singing as they listen to new and unfamiliar sounds.  Indicating in the bulletin which stanzas of a hymn will include a reharmonization or descant can often help to prepare the congregation to sing strongly in unison.

A cappella
Consider setting a goal of singing one piece of music unaccompanied as a congregation each week.  A good starting place for a cappella singing is the Doxology or Gloria Patri.  Some hymns can be particularly stirring when led unaccompanied on a final verse (Amazing Grace is a good example).

Choir Placement
Experiment with choir placement in leading congregational singing.  Sometimes having the choir sing from the opposite end of the church (perhaps on an opening hymn) or surrounding the congregation rather than up front in the chancel encourages greater congregational participation.

Invite the choir to help you assess how well the previous week’s hymns went, and what could improve hymn singing.   Encouraging the choir’s involvement in assessing congregational singing makes the cause theirs, not just yours!

Beyond being important for the sake of the worship service, paying greater attention to congregational singing can be a great recruiting tool.  As congregation members discover the joys of singing (especially part-singing and a cappella singing), they will want to join the choir.  And, as choir members take seriously their task as leaders, they will be more aware of the gifts evident in their fellow pew-sitters, and look for opportunities to encourage them to join the choir. 

Resources for Leading Congregational Song:
John L. Bell, The Singing Thing Too: Enabling Congregations to Sing (Glasgow, Scotland: WGRG, 2007)
David Cherwien, Let the People Sing (St. Louis: Concordia, 1997)
Robert Buckley Farlee, ed., Leading the Church’s Song (Augsburg, 1998)
Alice Parker, Creative Hymn Singing (Chapel Hill: Hinshaw, 1976)
Greg Scheer, The Art of Worship (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2006)


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