10 Tips for Teaching Hymns to Singers – Dr Ralph Morton

  1. Don’t rehearse in the church before a service. Of course, there are times when you can’t avoid this, but the best hymn rehearsals happen when you are in a more “secular space and time”, with room to set chairs up in different configurations, room to move, perhaps some refreshments at the end, and a less formal atmosphere which will allow humour, laughter, mistakes, and the time to do a decent job.
  1. We learn best from those we like. Congregations will learn most when they like the presenter and (to extend the idea) when they like the experience.  This doesn’t mean you have to become Ms Personality with dazzling smile and a super slick charismatic presentation.  It does mean you simply have to be “you”, but you have to be your “best you”, your “you” who knows the music, knows how you will present the material, is warm, relaxed, friendly, accepting, and at times perhaps humorous and funny.  They will learn best when you make it fun and easy, when you “change gears” often, when you make it a game, when your enjoyment of the occasion is evident.
  1. Rehearse the whole and the parts. To learn well we need to work on the “bits” – small chunks of music where we can get the details right, but we also need to put the bits into context, so we need to rehearse the whole as well.  Some of your rehearsal may be spent rehearsing “line by line” (or even smaller phrases) with singing (or listening to someone sing or a recording) the whole at the beginning and at the end.
  1. Teach the emotion first and the notes last. We often think our task is to teach the notes.  It’s not.  The notes are one very small part of what we do.  We should start by deciding for ourselves which emotion the music conveys.  Is the hymn mysterious, does it suggest awe, is it ecstatic, is it a hymn of praise, is happy lively and vivacious?  Does it suggest the strength and power of God, or is it penitent?  These are all legitimate emotions that a composer might wish to express.  How would I and my congregation express that in the way we sing this – in our tempo, tone, volume, use of consonants, etc etc?  I often begin simply by having them sing the first note to “dah” until I get the emotion I want.  Then you can teach the rest of the notes, and if you keep them to it, they will continue with the right emotion.
  1. Use words as much as necessary and as little as possible. Words are great for giving explanations and sometimes for “firing up” and motivating a congregation.  You can make vivid descriptions of the emotion you are looking for, and sometimes fanciful descriptions make all the difference “I want you to sound as if you have the power of a jet plane taking off”.

But they can be a great hindrance.  We can be verbose where we need to be             concise and compact.  We use them often when we don’t need to speak at all!  If you sing a melody and the congregation is to sing it back, all you need to do is sing, and then indicate with your hand when they should sing – you don’t have to say “let’s all sing that”.  If they need to do it again, then use the hand signal again, or simply say “again”.

  1. Let’s get physical!   In my boy’s choir as we sing we may march in time, walk around the room, stand on chairs rather than on the floor, or lie on the floor.  We may “punch the air”, conduct the music, clap in time or stamp on the floor.  We may sing and wave hands and arms in shapes to describe the music we are singing.  We may have some choristers clap or stamp while others sing.  We may sing nonsense syllables or make up words to our sacred songs (start singing “Jesu Joy of Man’s Desiring to “I like pizza yes I do”).  We may hiss and whistle or shake and shout as we sing.  Of course adults won’t do all of this, but you get the idea!  Singing is a physical act.  It requires energy just like playing sport does.  A congregation which spends all of its rehearsal time slumped back in chairs or uncomfortable pews will sound as tired as its demeanour suggests.
  1. Don’t be afraid of “technique”. When we rehearse with ordinary folks we often don’t introduce issues which might be deemed “musical or vocal technique”.  We are either afraid to do so, or we believe we shouldn’t.  Let me state clearly: our goal is not to be “arty” or produce some aesthetically pleasing performance for an audience.  Our goal is “expressive” – we want to express the meaning and emotion of the words and the music.  “Technique” simply means “having the ability to do what you need to do”.  If a little bit of basic work on breathing technique, posture, producing vowels, mouth shape etc gives the congregation the ability to be more expressive, then do it.
  1. Don’t let them get away with anything! Have you ever conducted a congregational practice where no matter how many good ideas you had, how hard you worked, how energetic you were, the assembly sounded lifeless and listless, weak and limp, and expressing none of the emotion of the text.  Why is this?  The might be many reasons, but one might be that you allowed them to sing like that.  They sang that way, and perhaps you tried a few things but in the end you simply accepted it.  The best song leaders and choir conductors are not necessarily the best musicians, but they are the ones who have a very clear and detailed mental picture of what they believe their group can sound like, and then they don’t rest until they get that sound.  Their mental picture of the sound is realistic; they are not asking the group to do more than the group can do, but they want the group “to be the best that it can be”.  Often “the best that it can be” is far better than we think.

I don’t mean that your rehearsal demeanour should end up cajoling, whining, negative, critical, confrontational, or nasty.  Your manner remains warm, caring, friendly, energetic, and exuberant and so on.  You are accepting of them and where they are, but you have a place that you want to take them, and you will not rest until you and they get there together.  “Don’t let them get away with anything” is probably a crude way of saying this.  Another might be “show leadership”.

  1. Practise the music yourself. Ultimately this is the most important advice, and perhaps even the only advice you need.  Practice is the musician’s prayer.  I use the term “practice” in a wide sense here – it is sitting at the piano banging out the melody or playing the accompaniment, or singing phrases over and over again and experimenting with them.  But it is also sitting at a table with music and note paper and brainstorming and meditating, or quietly reading the texts over and over again and making them your prayer.  It is “worrying” the music like a dog with a bone, or wrestling with the music like Jacob and the angel.  Practice is talking to the music and allowing it to talk to you, and letting it wash over you.  It is learning its secrets and learning how to communicate them to your congregation, and then learning how to help them to communicate them in their singing.
  1. Plan the rehearsal. The foregoing tips imply you need to be prepared!  Good teaching doesn’t just happen – it is planned and prepared.  So what do you need to prepare?  That’s hard to say, because rehearsals, presenters, hymns, congregations, and occasions are all different.  But here are some things you might think about:
  • The order you’ll teach the hymns in
  • Stories about the words, music, text writer, composer
  • Words or phrases which might be handy to use
  • Words or phrases which you shouldn’t use!
  • How long you will spend on each hymn
  • How to regenerate spirits if interest or energy are flagging
  • Warm up exercises
  • Jokes, humourous anecdotes etc
  • How you might use movement
  • How you might “place” your singers (if you know some strong singers, you might put them in strategic positions which will help the congregation)
  • What to do if things are going badly

In the end you won’t use all that you have prepared, and in any case, you don’t want to be rigid in sticking exactly to your plan.  A hymn rehearsal is something of an improvisation – it is done spontaneously and “on the spot”.  But the most spontaneous people are also often the ones who have done the most preparation.  They are not afraid to depart from the plan – but they do have a plan to depart from!

Finally, if you have never tackled a hymn rehearsal – have a go!  It can do wonders for your congregation’s hymn singing, but also wonders for its sense of unity, friendship, sociability and sense of mission.  Go for it!