A few days ago, while I was browsing through some recordings of church services, I came across a very peculiar incident. The song leader had spontaneously chosen a rather contemporary hymn for the congregation to sing. To the congregation, the song was completely new; the pianist, struggling to find the right notes and rhythms, had obviously never heard it before either; and, most unfortunate of all, the leader himself was unable to hold the tune. The result was a comic disaster.
When I had given up on trying to decide whether to laugh or cry, I began to wonder if there might be a few things we could learn from this incident. Perhaps an obvious reaction would be to complain that song leaders shouldn’t pick psalms or hymns the congregation doesn’t know. For my part, I believe this response is both oversimplified and misguided—after all, if only familiar songs are to be sung, how can someone learn anything new? No, I concluded; dumbing down our churches’ repertoire will only be detrimental.
As a church musician, I found myself instead focusing more intently on the role of the accompanist in such a situation. Let’s be honest: if you’ve played an instrument in worship services for any period of time, you know that if the unexpected can happen, it will happen. Bulletins will come out late. Pastors will make last-minute changes. You’ll have to adapt to instruments that need repair. And at some point, you’ll probably be put in a position similar to this poor pianist’s, faced with the responsibility of spontaneously sight-reading a completely new piece of music.
However, I believe there is a remedy (if not a complete cure) for this kind of dilemma. It’s a simple solution that any church musician can follow, and in my own all-too-short experience, it has proven itself immensely helpful. This program comes in two parts:
Listen often and again to good recordings of church music, specifically the kind you’ll be playing most often in our Reformed churches (congregational psalms and hymns). This has a huge variety of benefits: it’ll familiarize you with the styles and nuances of church music; it’ll expose you to a wide range of interpretations, tempos, embellishments, and the like; and it’ll help you develop your own well-rounded approach for your own congregation. These aspects go far beyond mere technical difficulty; that’s why we try to collect links to real recordings from the Psalter Hymnal (not computerized renditions) here on URC Psalmody, especially on our Psalter Hymnal Albums page.
Play—a lot. As you listen to other church musicians, try to evaluate their styles and decisions; then try to emulate the best of these in your own playing. As a personal example, listening to recordings from other URC churches has prompted me to turn my tempo down a notch and support the congregational singing rather than dominate it. Also, it might be beneficial to aim to familiarize yourself with every number in your church’s primary songbook, whether that be the Psalter Hymnal or another collection. (This may seem like an overambitious goal, but just think: if you play just two songs from the Psalter Hymnal every day, you’ll be finished with the book in well under a year. And you’ll never again be caught by surprise when playing from this songbook!)
Certainly it is the pastor’s or song leader’s responsibility to pick good, solid psalms and hymns that are suitable for congregational singing. And certainly some of the responsibility rests with the congregation, to sing actively and enthusiastically rather than absently mumbling. But we, the church musicians, must bear in mind that it is our responsibility to be familiar with all the songs in our church’s collection, even before they’re picked for a service. This is necessary not so that we can give solo performances during worship, but so that we can properly support worship’s primary instrument: the congregation.
(Side note for a cappella worship traditions: In this case, the leader and the congregation both bear a much heavier responsibility. Not only is the congregation the primary instrument, it is the only instrument, and as such, it needs to have a much greater awareness of and connection to its music. With greater challenges, however, come greater benefits.)
So if you ever find yourself in the midst of a musical “train wreck” during a worship service, don’t despair. Surely it’s happened to all of us at one time or another. Rather, press onward to further improve your own technique and better support the congregation. And take comfort in remembering that, regardless of what songs are selected, your role as a good church musician should never change.