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The Power and Purpose of A Cappella Singing in Congregational Song, Part 2

by Eric Wyse


The Why and How of A Cappella Singing in Worship

All though the preponderance of music in the Church over the last two millennia has been sung unaccompanied, the Church has never taught that instruments are not allowed. Although many congregations today use accompaniment exclusively, the singing of hymns by voices alone is important and should be a part of every congregation’s offering of praise.

Musicologist Cynthia Bourgeault in “Chanting the Psalms” writes, “When we work with our voice, we work with the core elements out of which the world came into being and through which it is sustained…” She goes on to explain, “There is an even more important factor at work here, however. As I’ve worked with people’s voices within a spiritual context, I have come to see more and more that the true voice is closely intertwined with true self–in other words, the essential manifestation of who we are.” (2006, pp.75-76). How better to experience that connection than in the unaccompanied singing in the assembly of believers, expressing praise to the creator of all?

Quite an extraordinary thing takes place for the singers when the instrumentation to congregational song is removed. Rather than hearing only their own voice above the din of the accompaniment, the singers can hear the voices of the parishioners around them, and gain a profound sense of community by the joining of individual voices together in consort (Church of Scotland, n.d.). During the singing, what is heard is a splendid musical tapestry woven together by the melodious voice of the congregation; the quaver of an elderly voice, the bright and brash exuberance of a young child; the cry of grief in the grief-stricken adult; the boundless energy of the optimistic youth. When voices mingle together in song, singers cannot help but know and feel that they are not alone on this journey of life. Unfortunately, all of these textures and nuance of the human voice that can lead to a deep sense of assurance and hope can be drowned out by the cacophony of instrumentation in many of today’s contemporary services.

When voices alone resound with song, the words of the hymn take center stage (Haines, 2008). No longer is the mind and heart distracted by the power of the organ, the beat of the drum, the elegance of the piano glissando, or the fanfare of the trumpet. Rather, the singer can focus on the words transported on the line of the melody. Words sung dozens of times before to busy instrumentation suddenly come alive in the simplicity of the human call. Furthermore, the timid voice that may feel overwhelmed by pervasive accompaniment has a far greater chance of finding its true and confident expression upon hearing the contribution made to the sound of the whole congregation. Over time, all of the singing in the Church, including that which is accompanied, becomes more purposeful and intentional by these more confident and attuned singers.

In conclusion, for an increase in a cappella congregational singing to transpire in the Western Church, it will have to be re-introduced and become a part of common worship, not an musical anomaly–“Why is the organ not playing? Did the organist faint?” How might this be accomplished? The first step is to communicate clearly to the congregation that more unaccompanied singing will be taking place on a consistent basis, and why it is important in the life of the Church. A written explanation in the service bulletin, or a verbal explanation the first few times it is tried should suffice.

In addition, change is not easy for many people, especially in the life of a parish. A gradual introduction of unaccompanied singing, starting with very familiar songs will be beneficial. Everyone can sing “Happy Birthday” a cappella. Why? Because, they know it so well. Beginning with shorter stretches of unaccompanied singing will also be helpful. A single stanza of a hymn, or a simple call to worship, rather than a five-minute, six-stanza hymn, may prove easier for people to become familiar and comfortable with singing a cappella. Thirdly, the director should choose carefully those selections of music that can be sung well without instrumentation, and make certain they are familiar, easy to sing, and conducive in form to a cappella singing.

Once unaccompanied singing is successfully introduced into the service of worship, it should be incorporated in the life of the assembly on a regular basis. There undoubtedly is at least one ideal time every service for the singing voices to be heard unadorned by instruments. Some weeks, a well-known hymn might be chosen–another time a familiar setting of the “Our Father” utilized–all as an ongoing regular part of worship. And lastly, the music leader must work for, and pray that, the exercise of a cappella singing is more than device, technique, or musical form; rather, may it, by simplicity, beauty, and the ensuing sense of community, open to the singing congregation greater glimpses of the Kingdom of God.

Eric Wyse is the Director of Music & Organist/Choirmaster St. Bartholomew’s Episcopal Church, Nashville, TN. He served as the editor of The Christian Life Hymnal (Hendrickson, 2006), and is the co-writer of the modern hymn “Wonderful, Merciful Savior.” Eric has recorded a series of four 3-CD sets of piano-based music for Christian Book Distributors (Reflections, Reflections 2, Christmas Reflections, Praise & Worship Reflections). For more information: www.ericwyse.com.