A Lesson from New Zealand

Over the past week I’ve heard a lot of comments from a variety of people regarding the importance of the accompaniment in worship.  How do pianists and organists plan for worship?  How do they support congregational singing?  What should be played for preludes, offertories, and postludes in order to complement the theme of the service?  Many questions could be raised in relation to such a broad topic.

This leads me to an interesting connection between the URCNA, the Reformed Churches of New Zealand, and the focus of URC Psalmody.  As you may recall from last week, the Reformed Churches of New Zealand (RCNZ) are currently using a provisional psalter-hymnal entitled Sing to the Lord.  From even a cursory glance at the hymnal website, it’s clear that the RCNZ takes the worship of the church very seriously.  This denomination is committed to finding the most musically solid and Biblically accurate psalm settings and hymns available.  One of its most important productions, however, is a 19-page manual on church music (available as a PDF here).  The RCNZ’s songbook committee offers the following comments (which I have edited and Americanized) in their preface:

This handbook grew out of our work as a committee in preparing a new selection of psalms and hymns for our Churches.  We realized that one needs to be wise in introducing people to new things. We all tend to resist change!  Furthermore, as we worked together over the years, we realized that a guide to the art of accompanying congregational singing could be very helpful to the musicians in our Churches.  ‘If it is worth doing, it is worth doing well’ applies to the worship of God more than anything else in the world.  He is worthy only of our best.  Hence we have tried to do two things in this Handbook: (1) to provide a guide to introducing this new psalm selection to our people…[and] (2) to provide a general guide to the accompaniment of congregational singing.…We trust the handbook serves this purpose that we may indeed worship the Lord with beauty and holiness.

This booklet emphasizes the importance of good accompaniment and musical intuition in worship.  In general I would highly recommend the entirety of this document, but for the sake of brevity I’ll quote some of the most notable excerpts.  Near the beginning of the booklet, the committee states:

Singing is a vital part of the worship of the congregation.  The role of the musician is to assist God’s people in singing and meditation as they worship Him. This should enable the congregation to honor, adore, praise and thank Him for all His goodness, shown to them in Christ Jesus.

Musicians are servants, both of the Lord and of the congregation.  In their service their role is not to draw attention to themselves. Rather the musician desires to have the congregation focus on the Lord—this is worship.

As their service is both to the Lord and to the congregation, the musicians ought to strive for a standard of excellence, seeking to give their very best to God and thereby leading the congregation to the best of their ability.  Accompanying is a balance between leading and following.  For an accompanist who assists the congregation with presenting praise and worship to God, there are few more exciting experiences than to lead an enthusiastic group of singers in rousing song.  You can unite and inspire a congregation when you lead them effectively, just as you can unsettle the congregation by being ineffective as you play. It is important, therefore, that as a musician you spend the time to prepare your music with prayer, thought and care.

In a later section on rhythm, the booklet contains the following suggestions:

In our Reformed Churches there are no conductors for the singing, and it helps if you show firm leadership as the accompanist.  The rhythm is the most important tool you have for this.  It means that you set an appropriate and steady tempo with a consistent meter and that you also give clear indications to the congregation when to breathe.

This document has some particularly helpful advice on perfecting accompaniment, whatever the instrument.

Choose the tone color for the music which will lead the song with sensitivity for the message it brings, e.g. a prayer can be played more quietly whereas a song of victory can be played with exuberance.  The tones of the introduction should indicate the mood of the hymn.  It is best to use the same tone color for the introduction as you will be using for the first stanza.

When you select the tone color for songs, ensure that the melody is clear with good articulation.  If you have an instrument which can play the bass notes, ensure that it is balanced at an appropriate volume for the other musical instruments.  A variety of different types of introduction may encourage your congregation to be more reflective of the text of the song they are about to sing.

It is also good to add variation to the tone colors of the various stanzas that are sung.  This will mean that you need to read the text of each stanza and plan your tone colors accordingly when you practice.

The booklet closes by echoing one of its initial statements.

Accompanying is a balance between leading and following.  Accompanists should be aware of what is happening in the service, and they should be familiar with the liturgy.  This calls for a high degree of cooperation between the minister and the musician.  It is advantageous for the musician(s) to have an order of service so as to avoid surprises.

In conclusion we come back to the quote from J. S. Bach at the beginning, ‘All music should be for the glory of God and refreshment of the spirit.’  The role of the musician is to assist God’s people in singing and meditation as they worship Him.  This should enable the congregation to honor, adore, praise and thank Him for all His goodness, shown to them in Christ Jesus.  Our prayer is that you will be able to do so with joy.

Amen!  Perhaps all church musicians would do well to study the suggestions in this booklet and apply them to their own musical technique.  I pray earnestly that God will grant this same level of musical zeal to the congregations of the United Reformed Churches in North America.

–MRK

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