Preparing Our Hearts, Minds, Voices, and Fingers for Worship

A large portion of the congregational participation in the worship service is the sung praise offered by God’s people.

Each of us (pastor, musician, congregational singer) has a specific role to play in this, both in preparation for the service and during the service.

A Note to Pastors

Pastors would do well to choose hymns and psalms for the service early in the worship preparation process. You can then announce the song choices to the musicians and the congregation well in advance (either in the bulletin a week or two prior to use or by posting the coming week’s bulletin on the church’s website), thus benefitting all who participate.

Music takes time and effort to learn and prepare properly.

Early notice is of great value to service musicians, who should always be preparing in advance to lead these hymns and psalms. For amateur volunteer musicians, rudiments such as pitch accuracy, rhythmic fluency, and appropriate tempos for singing are greatly improved by a week or two of advance practice. These things should be expected as part of the service of those who lead the music in worship, since skilled playing is biblically commanded of them (Ps. 33:3).

Advance planning also helps trained musicians to help the congregation. These musicians can often follow the words of the different stanzas as they play, and can assist congregations with proper breathing (at punctuation points, for example), as well as performing the hymns in musical styles that support the general tone of the stanza. But even advanced musicians need preparation to do this well.

Finally, early notice of hymns can also be helpful to individual congregation members or families who seek to meditate on the texts to be sung, or, in the case of a new hymn or psalm, learn the tune or voice parts in advance of the worship service. This should always be encouraged, but especially for a new hymn or psalm tune.

A Note to Service Musicians

All worship service musicians must remember at all times that their purpose is to support the congregation in singing praise to the Lord. This can take a variety of forms, but should include an accurate and fluent performance of the pitches on the page, performance of the hymns and psalms at a tempo at which the average untrained singer can sing through one phrase of music in a single breath, a knowledgeable awareness of the text of the hymn or psalm, performance of the hymns and psalms at a tempo that reflects the character of the text, and a sensitivity to the singers’ need to breathe.

Accompanists should practice until the notes of the hymn can be played accurately and without stopping. For some hymns, this may mean only a few repetitions, while for others it may mean many repetitions—and for pianists and organists, perhaps some hands-separate work. The tempo at which the hymns should be sung may vary slightly according to the text and character of the hymn, as well as the size of the room and the instruments involved. But in every case, care should be taken to ensure that the singers in the congregation have a tempo at which they can comfortably sing a clause of text in one breath. When performed too slowly, the hymn becomes maudlin and the congregation struggles to stand, hold their hymnals, breathe appropriately, and comprehend the text they are singing. In addition, it can cause people to dislike singing hymns and psalms in praise of the Lord. Alternatively, hymns performed too quickly, and notes and rests not given their due (e.g., not holding a whole note in common time for four beats), may seem rushed and irreverent, discounting the value of the words. Choose the tempo for the hymn carefully.

An awareness of the text must include the subject matter of a hymn, its emotional tenor, any narrative that takes place within the scope of the text, and punctuation.

The subject matter may be of one general tone, as in “Silent Night,” or it may change from stanza to stanza, as in “Praise, My Soul, the King of Heaven,” or it may progress gradually from one affect to another, as in “Man of Sorrows! What a Name.” In order to assist the congregation in letting the word of Christ dwell in them richly (Col. 3:16), a sensitive and well-prepared accompanist will alter the dynamics, articulation, and perhaps other musical elements to reflect the character of the text. “Silent Night,” for example, might be led in a soft, calm, and smooth manner throughout. “Praise My Soul, the King of Heaven,” might alternate dynamics and articulation according to the stanzas (note particularly the feebleness and gentleness of stanza 3, compared to the progression from frailty to endurance to high praise in stanza 4). By a gradual increase of dynamics throughout the hymn, and a slight broadening of tempo at the end, “Man of Sorrows!” might reflect the progression of emotions from the sorrow, shame, and scoffing of the early stanzas to the exaltation and glorious enthronement found in the final stanzas.

Accompanists must also be sensitive to the punctuation of a hymn in their performance of it. To be able to sing with comprehension (1 Cor. 14:15), singers must be led to follow the natural flow of the words as they would be spoken. Breathing often takes place at different points in different stanzas, if we observe the poet’s punctuation. In the final line of “Holy, Holy, Holy!” for example, the different punctuation of the stanzas might call for different choices of articulation in order to indicate to the congregation where to breathe as they sing the text. This also promotes comprehension in singing.

Finally, when a new song is introduced, one might begin by playing the new tune in the preludes and offertories in the weeks prior to its use in congregational singing. All musicians know that to learn new music, we need repetition, with time between the repetitions. Members of the congregation, many of whom don’t read music, deserve this aural preparation to help them in worship. Encourage your pastor to provide the hymns and psalms to you well in advance of their use in a service. Work together with your pastor to help your brothers and sisters in Christ in their singing.

A Note to the Congregation

The Lord commands us to sing to him in worship, so whether or not we enjoy singing, we must all do it to the glory of God. Here are some suggestions to improve your singing (and make it more enjoyable):

1. If you know, prior to the service, which hymns will be sung, study the words, think about their meaning, speak them out loud (if possible), and look up any unfamiliar words, so that you will be able to sing with understanding (1 Cor. 14:15). This will enable you to focus your mind on God during the singing.

2. Carefully follow the punctuation of the poetry when singing. Breathe with commas, periods, and semicolons; don’t breathe at the end of a musical line, if there is no punctuation mark. This will add greatly to your comprehension of the text.

3. Be aware of your posture. Stand or sit tall, so that you will be able to take in a full breath of air.

4. Take in a big breath before singing, with shoulders relaxed (diaphragmatic breath).

5. Open your mouth tall for vowels. Singing is elongating the vowels of speech, so open vowels are very important, and will greatly improve your sound! Exaggerate your enunciation of consonants to help others understand what you are singing.

6. Hold your hymnbook at a height at which you can see the words without looking down. This will keep your instrument (your voice) pointing forward, instead of down to the floor, greatly improving your sound.

7. If you are able, sing the alto, tenor, or bass part. This adds richness to the congregational singing.

8. Finally, don’t worry about what others may think of your singing. Whether you are classically trained or consider yourself monotone, God wants you to sing. Your voice will blend with all the voices now and through eternity to bring praise to our God. Singing is one of our few corporate activities during worship. And remember that our singing here on earth is a rehearsal of what we will be doing in heaven forever!

Timothy and Lou Ann Shafer
Musicologist and Music Editor