Leading song without written lyrics

Both the pastor, Emily Scott, and community coordinator, Rachel Pollack, of my church, St. Lydia’s, are part of Music That Makes Community, a workshop series that teaches congregational song leaders how to work without hymnals, printed music or projected lyrics. (The next workshop is this weekend in New York.) So I know firsthand from weekly experience what it’s like to be in a congregation that uses this approach. There are no props at all; the leader runs through the song once or twice first, then leads everyone. You listen and mimic. If the song’s a bit complicated, the listen and repeat process is broken into chunks.

When you’re not staring down at paper, or over a band’s heads at a screen, you’re more able to be fully present, to look around you at the other congregants; singing becomes even more communal. It also has the benefit of being cheaper and easier, since you need no printed materials or projectors or bands — just a song leader and optionally a drone or drum or something to keep the rhythm.

And of course, it’s rooted in ancient practice. Until the Middle Ages and beyond, most people didn’t know how to read, musical notation was rare and printing didn’t exist. So all communal singing was done with some form of call and response or simple memorization.

I’ve been a part of many forms of communal singing over the years: from a congregation staring down at hymnals halfheartedly mouthing the words to plodding 19th century hymns; to an exuberant nondenominational church singing praise songs, arms in the air, with a projector and full rock band; to chanting in the dark on my knees in front of the monstrance; to kirtan; to, well, not singing at all as a Quaker.

I can say without reservation that the further from printed music, the better. Those forms with fewer words, where you can look away from the lyrics a lot of the time — like praise music or singing the psalm at a Catholic Mass or chanting the hours at a monastery — are more alive than singing hymns from a book. And those forms with no printed music — like Catholic Underground’s adoration service, kirtan, and the congregational singing at St. Lydia’s — are the most vibrant.

Music That Makes Community happens around the country about once a quarter. The 20th workshop is this coming weekend in New York City, at Trinity Wall Street. You can get all the details and register here. The one after that will be in Sonoma Valley in January.

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