People relate to music and music education much as they do to automobiles. The basic purpose of having a car is to get from one place to another. There has to be a certain amount of knowledge involved on the part of people who want to travel and to take advantage of this mode of transportation. I place these people into five categories.
(1) Some people want to know everything about cars and even build or rebuild them.
(2) Some people want to know how to maintain them and maybe do a little work on them.
(3) Some people only want to drive them.
(4) Some people just want to ride in them. All of these folks to this point are able to use a car for its intended purpose.
(5) Then a few people just want to admire cars from outside of them. They stay at home a lot and just watch the procession on the street in front of their homes as others pass by, going from place to place quickly.
People and music are much the same.
(1) There are people who want to know everything about music and create your own. They prepare themselves with a thorough education and develop their talent for music.
(2) There are people who want to know enough about music to do a bit of arranging and understand enough to participate in producing music in some form.
(3) There are people who just want to know music enough to read it - to sight read a new song, to read their voice part, etc.
(4) There are those, who for one reason or another, either feel they cannot learn music and may actually not have the talent to read music – but they still love to sing and follow others.
(5) Then there are those who only want to listen and not participate in singing.
Providing an education to those who fall into the first category is assigned to music departments of colleges and universities.
Helping those in the second category is not outside the realm for a congregation but is probably outside the practical logistics and/or assets found in a given congregation.
There isn’t a lot you can do for those in the fifth category except to encourage them.
So, that leaves the third and fourth categories. For years I couldn’t see the difference in educating the two groups – but there turns out to be a big difference. I used to think that I had to teach both groups the basics of music but have found that trying to teach the fourth category music is like force-feeding babies something that they will spit out anyway. But if I only teach songs to both groups, the third category folks are left hungry for more and are not satisfied. So there isn’t any one method that will fill both needs.
I have been involved with singing schools for over 40 years. It is just within my nature to educate others about music and would like to see everyone in the church be able to sight read music. I have given up at my congregation trying to interest others in reading music beyond those whom I have taught in the past. Yet – many of in category four still like to sing and want to learn some new songs. I have learned that to teach them new songs you must teach them the melody first and then the other voice parts if any want to learn them. Basically they memorize music the same way children learn songs.
Therefore, a comprehensive congregational music program needs to be four fold, as I see it.
(1) Teach new songs by teaching people to sing their parts. This is basically what Keith Lancaster is doing in his “Praise and Harmony” workshops. He produces a book with two CDs, one with a large group singing the songs (for people to listen to and enjoy) and the other with a quartet singing (so people can hear their part well and learn). When he conducts the workshop, hopefully the congregation has already bought the CDs and books and have learned their parts. He then is only left with the task of improving the singing when he get there. But he knows that people don’t always learn ahead of time, so he has the audience set in parts so they can learn from the people setting around them.
Now, to the question about what can your congregation do? I would push for a dedicated time to teach new songs. Prepare handouts of songs that are to be learned and distribute them ahead of time. If possible, prepare a CD with either individuals singing the parts and/or a piano playing the songs. If possible, have one version of the song with all parts, one with just the soprano, one with the alto, one with the tenor and one with the bass. During the new song session, you should have parts set together and make sure that those who can lead their part are dispersed among those who need to follow. Spend some time on each individual part so that everyone is comfortable singing their part. Toward the end of the session – spend a little time in taking request so it doesn’t become a time of just singing their favorites. This isn't something new, for there are many congregations already doing things like this.
(2) Teach a music class on the basics of music. This class should cover everything a person needs to know to pick up a song and sing their part. I have a good book that you can look at, use and copy for free at:
Fundamentals of Church Music Theory
This book is in the middle of a revision, so check on it again in a few months.
Formal music education usually does seem not prepare folks to teach in an a cappella environment. Most higher education is based on instrumental music. Congregational a cappella music should be taught differently to be effective. Though a knowledge of the lines and spaces (absolute pitches) is good and is necessary to understand keys, etc. - humans do not sing absolute pitches unless you have perfect pitch. We sing relative pitches. That is what shaped notes are all about. I know they are hard for instrumentalist to stomach and are hee-hawed in most institutions, but that is because they serve no purpose in playing an instrument. Instruments pay absolute pitches. I am not talking about Sacred Harp, but the shapes that are already displayed in many of our song books like “Songs of Faith and Praise” and “Praise for the Lord”, and on the screen with The Paperless Hymnal files. Almost everyone can sing the major diatonic scale and what shaped notes do is put shapes to those pitches. It has been proven that people can be taught to sight read quicker and better by using shaped notes than by spending the time necessary to teach them otherwise.
(3) Encourage individuals to expand their knowledge about church music by attending one of the singing schools in the brotherhood and there are several good ones. Here is a list of some of them: Singing Schools. All of the schools have summer sessions. I teach in the Singing School at ACU and teach the second year harmony and chorus classes.
I do not consider myself to be an “authority” on church music but I have experience and am involved in it full time, so I do have plenty of observations. Also, I am open to comments and suggestions as you contemplate a course of action for your congregation.
(4) Start a singing organization at your church or in your community. If you start a congregational group, open it up for everyone who likes to sing and who are willing to improve the talent. This can give your congregation a core of people on whom you can count to sing out and encourage others. Challenge them with the new songs first and they can help the others in the assemblies. If you start a community group, invite singers from other congregations. Challenge them with new material and a desire for better singing. This way the music education program at your church can have a profound effect on other congregations in the area.