Singing in Harmony

One Friday night in November found me and my family (along with several dozen other folks) sitting in Miss Kay’s proper parlor singing at the top of our lungs.

We almost missed it. Like the classic “big picture” person that I am, I had mixed up my dates, double-booked house guests, and created the very distinct possibility that we would be absent from a mainstay of the church’s yearly calendar. File this one under “How Not to Be a Good Pastor’s Wife.”

Fortunately we didn’t miss it. A little rearranging and a couple blushing conversations later, we ended up at Miss Kay’s front door promptly at 7:00. (Okay, not promptly… but we did get there.) The evening began like any other social gathering—food and small talk—but then about forty minutes in, something happened. A whisper spread through the house and with the enthusiasm of children, this eclectic group aged 17 months to 77 years assembled themselves in the front parlor (yes, I do mean parlor). Out came the guitars; next a mandolin; and before you knew it, someone was seated at the piano, running gospel scales up and down.

Then it began.

And with the initial chord, with the first blend, I knew that I was witnessing something special. I was witnessing what is fast becoming one of the rarest (and soon to be extinct) forms of social interaction in our culture—communal singing. Now this wasn’t the embarrassed-national-anthem-mumbling type of singing that happens at ballgames and graduations. No, this was classic “daddy sang bass, mama sang tenor” and everyone instinctively did seem to know how to “join right in there.” Song after song, voices called out favorites and all of us—from the boy soprano to the bass who in a another life had traveled with a gospel group—sang with abandon. At times, a soloist would take over and the rest of us would simply drop back without a word. We repeated choruses and elongated final lines all via a silent understanding that only exists between people who have lived a lifetime together.

For my part, I joined in when I could although I was raised more Watts than Gaither. Mostly though, I just sat in awe—in awe of the secret entrusted to me; a secret best kept in mountain hollers, family reunions, and small country churches—the secret of singing as community.

We are people who are quickly losing the capacity to live together in peace. We are consumed by our private issues and personal angst; so much so that we can’t even elect a president in civility. At the same time, we are losing the ability to sing together; and as this piece notes, even when we want to, we don’t know what to sing. And as we lose the music, I’m afraid we’re losing something more. We’re losing a metaphor for life, for how to live and engage in community, how to be silent when the soloist is singing, how to support the melody with our harmonies, how to not need the spotlight. Because as we lose the ability to sing together, we also are losing an opportunity to learn how to work together to reach larger goals.

What’s saddest to me is that we’re losing this in our churches as well. After decades of projecting lyrics onto overhead screens, the gradual disappearance of hymnals, and the repetition of simple melodies, we may have just raised an entire generation that never once encountered the beauty and wonder of singing in parts. (To quote Church Curmudgeon: “Worship team practice is canceled. Use the four chords from last week.”) This is not a rant against contemporary music—our family has been part of communities that have been exclusively contemporary and those that have been strictly traditional. And in every case, there’s been good…and otherwise. This is simply a call to not forget that corporate singing must be corporate. It must be more than simply singing in unison because our congregations are not uniform. They represent people of different backgrounds, giftings, personalities, and ages; and what better way to embody that than through music that lets you find your place and sing at the top of your lungs.

Because honestly, corporate worship was never intended to be—nor can it ever truly be—simply a collection of individuals expressing their private worship to the Lord. No, we must sing in parts. We must embrace the unique callings that we each represent and then combine our voices in harmony to praise a God who can orchestrate the motliest crew into a beautiful chorus. And we must teach our children this—it is as necessary as any other educational experience or process of socialization. We must teach them the magic of harmonizing and the joy of not having to be the soloist; we must teach them the wonder of singing as a group.

And along the way, we might just learn a little something about life in community as well.

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Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

This piece filled me with wonderful memories. 

We used to call these events "singspirations," and I grew up doing them. We did them as a family as well as at church, in homes, with the youth group, etc.

I do miss them... but there are a few things you have to have in order to make them work: (a) enough voices, (b) enough people who just really love to sing, (c) to do it right, you need a good number of folks who sing harmony, and (d) always the right sort of space. Doesn't work to put a relatively small number of people in a too-large room full of sound-absorbing surfaces.  (e) A large shared repertoire... not necessarily of memorized songs, but that really helps.

It can be done, but in some venues, you'd need a five year plan to get the necessary ingredients together. And in some places, the necessary ingredients never do quite come together... there just aren't enough folks who have that tradition.

GregH's picture

There is a fascinating special on PBS that airs from time to time about community singings in Appalachia and parts of the south. It is a longish tradition that still continues to this day. These all-day singings are oriented in the Sacred Harp hymnal and shape note singing. Shape note singing was an ingenious way to allow non-musicians to learn to sing and sing in parts. It is quite something to hear them though the harmony can be a little strange to our ears.

The demise of shape note singing is another reason why harmony has disappeared. Not that singing harmony is more spiritual of course--harmony as we know it is only a few hundred years old.

M. Osborne's picture

When John Skinner led music at the church I grew up in, he would occasionally take a Sunday night to have a congregation-as-choir event, where he'd pull us into sections to learn parts. If you're a music pastor and also a good teacher, you have the opportunity to up the skill level of your congregation with a little work, if you're willing to invest.

That's what I love about a lot of the Gettys' new music, their emphasis on congregational sing-ability. There's room for choir numbers and special numbers, but the meat and potatoes of the song service is the congregational singing.

Michael Osborne
Philadelphia, PA

Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

We have used a few of these at our church and they are pretty singable...  almost as singable as Amazing Grace and O For Thousand Tongues.

... but I have to admit that the high hymnody tradition of old tends to be more difficult for adlib harmonization. It's a more disciplined art. But surely there's room as well in believer's lives for more spontaneous singing?

(On the other hand, my wife and I attended a church in Austin TX for several months where all the singing was high hymnody, yet all of it felt like a singspiration. It was a combination of instrumentation, the space we were in, and maybe most of all the zeal of the congregation)

dcbii's picture

EditorModerator

GregH wrote:

There is a fascinating special on PBS that airs from time to time about community singings in Appalachia and parts of the south. It is a longish tradition that still continues to this day. These all-day singings are oriented in the Sacred Harp hymnal and shape note singing. Shape note singing was an ingenious way to allow non-musicians to learn to sing and sing in parts. It is quite something to hear them though the harmony can be a little strange to our ears.

The demise of shape note singing is another reason why harmony has disappeared. Not that singing harmony is more spiritual of course--harmony as we know it is only a few hundred years old.

I love this sound, and many of the songs from this tradition.  I own 3 different shape-note hymnals, and a number of recordings of this music.  And yes, it can sound a little strange, especially with all the "violations" of modern harmony rules, and lot of use of 4ths and 5ths.  (I'm sure there are a lot of other different things one could note about this music, but I'm not particularly educated in music.)

I wish we would do something similar to allow people to learn parts easier, and even the arrangement where everyone sings toward the center, but that's just a dream!

Dave Barnhart

Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

I've got some old shapenote songbooks but I've never understood what that's all about. Don't know what "that sound" is. Maybe someone can link me to an mp3 or youtube demo? 

Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

Interesting. Sounds a bit bluesy a good bit of the time.... or at least blue grassy.

dcbii's picture

EditorModerator

Aaron,

Go to Amazon and search for "An American Christmas" in MP3 music. The first two albums that come up are really good examples of this type of music. The one by the Boston Camerata is a highbrow take on this music, and the one by the Tudor Choir is more like it would have been performed in a church. I own both of these albums, and they are among my favorite Christmas music. Since Amazon lets you listen to samples of each track, it should give you a pretty good idea of "the sound," although you've obviously already done some listening to Sacred Harp music.

Dave Barnhart

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