Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly; teach and admonish one another in all wisdom; and with gratitude in your hearts sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to God.
People are searching for worship that is authentic, alive, creative and comprehensible, where they experience the life-changing presence of God in the presence of others.
from Five Practices of Fruitful Congregations by Robert Schnase
Music is intertwined with my earliest memories of church. My small Ohio Methodist congregation sang revival songs lustily in four-part harmony. In addition to standard instruction books, my piano teacher insisted I learn to play one new hymn every week. I started playing organ and piano for worship at the age of fourteen. What a blessing to be constantly affirmed by that congregation in spite of wrong notes, missed cues, and erratic tempos. It was an opportune lesson in building self-confidence and living in God’s grace. Organ became my primary instrument through my teen years, including study at Oberlin College. While recognizing that I lacked the drive to be a performance major, I formed a deep love for music in diverse forms and how it animated my life and the human spirit.
I served as organist and choir director in Cleveland area congregations before deciding to pursue a Christian vocation and enroll at Boston University School of Theology (1978). Seminary study deepened my appreciation for liturgy, Bible, theology and spiritual formation. In addition I got glimpses of the Global Church--a guest preacher in chapel one day predicted that: “by the year 2000 the majority of the world’s Christians will live in what we now consider Third World countries.” The spirit and energy of sacred singing from Africa and Latin America was enthralling.
With an M.Div. degree I worked for most of the next two decades in Christian organizing for social justice–with Bread for the World and the Reconciling Ministries Network, among other groups. Cognizant of the important role of music and singing in movements for social change, I brought my passion for music and singing to these ventures. I was invited to direct a small community chorus in formation and over seven years helped it grow into the 60+-voice Lesbian and Gay Chorus of Washington, D.C. Through these years in D.C. (1981-92) and later in Chicago (1992 to present) I was blessed to be part of congregations that understood creative and engaging worship to be the foundation of their community life.
Through my leadership in the ecumenical “welcoming church” movement in the late 1990s I worked with a number of amazingly gifted worship leaders and musicians, including Marcia McFee, Mark Miller, Patrick Evans, Phil Porter, Curran Reichert, and Jorge Lockward. This new generation of music/worship leaders exhibited several shared values: a) worship of God engages persons in active participation through all of their senses; b) the singing of the people is the heartbeat of worship; c) music and liturgy draw upon diverse forms from around the world. Welcoming Church gatherings embodied God’s radical hospitality and grace to persons who had been estranged from God and the Church and drew these diverse communities together in spirited and inspiring worship.
As the new millennium dawned I discerned God calling me into a new ministry, as an “enlivener of worship” (a term from one of my mentors, Michael Hawn). Almost ten years ago I became minister of music at the United Church of Rogers Park on the north side of Chicago. This multi-cultural, theologically progressive and justice-seeking congregation–that truly loves to sing–has provided a forum to learn to creatively use diverse expressions of music and liturgy in worship.
This new role of “worship enlivener” is not learned in traditional schools of study. Over the past decade I have learned from conferences and workshops with many of outstanding practitioners of worship and music renewal from around the globe: James Abbington, John Bell & the Wild Goose Resource Group, Ruth Duck, Heather Murray Elkins, Elise Eslinger, David Haas, Marty Haugen, Michael Hawn, Swee Hong Lim, Jorge Lockward, Patrick Matsikenyiri, Marcia McFee, Mark Miller, Pablo Sosa, Brian Wren, and others. My life and ministry have been greatly enriched by studying with the Wild Goose Resource Group at the Iona Community in Scotland and participating in the music team at the World Council of Churches General Assembly in Brazil.
Combining my organizing skills with my passion for worship renewal, I developed the ecumenical Worship Alive! workshop series which since 2003 has brought renowned worship leaders to Chicago to train clergy, musicians and lay worship leaders and planners. Clergy and lay colleagues began asking me to share what I have learned about being an effective song leader. So I began collecting and shaping my insights, learnings, and reflections into a five-session seminar, “Enlivening Congregational Singing.” Dozens of Chicago area church musicians, clergy and song leaders have been trained through this interactive and practical skills-building seminar over the past several years. In addition, I have consulted with congregations, musicians and clergy on ways to empower congregational song.
Since the fall of 2010 I have served as musician and chior director at McCormick Theological Seminary where I also coordinate and support students, staff and faculty in planning and leading weekly community worship.
I have been invited to serve as song leader and/or worship designer at a number of local, regional and national conferences, gatherings and retreats, including Regional Schools of Christian Mission, Northern Illinois Conference Clergy Retreats, Russia Initiative Consultation, and regional Religion and Race Conference. These settings have been gratifying opportunities to push the boundaries of experiential community worship and to encourage engaging with new forms of sacred song and liturgy. It is a joy and challenge to listen and discern how God is inviting churches into renewed and profound experiences of worship and discipleship.
O come, let us sing to the Lord;
let us make a joyful noise to the rock of our salvation!
Let us come into God’s presence with thanksgiving;
let us make a joyful noise to God with songs of praise!
Psalm 95: 1-2
Mark Bowman leads singing at worship gatherings, assemblies, conferences, and retreats at the local, regional and national level. He models an inviting, irresistible style of song leading that draws many voices together into one, whether singing a unison melody or four-part harmony. His vast sacred repertoire ranges from classical hymnody to global song. He is also an accomplished keyboardist/accompanist and arranges music for and leads bands, choirs and musical ensembles.
Mark is a gifted and talented music and song leader. For six years he has provided musical leadership for United Methodist Women School of Christian Mission across the U.S., engaging participants in a variety of global music and incorporating their own musical talents into the leadership. Mark’s quiet energy and creativity bring spirit to the music!
Women’s Division, General Board of Global Ministries, UMC
Mark Bowman’s special gift is to empower a congregation’s voice to go beyond what they thought would be possible. In particular, his ability to make global song both accessible and relevant in cross-cultural settings is an asset to the congregations he serves and to the church at large.
Global Praise Coordinator, UMC
When the people of God recount the history of God’s mighty acts, they invariably sing.
from The Church Musician by Paul Westermeyer
I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.
Mark Bowman plans and leads worship gatherings that model excellence as well as authenticity to the context of the particular community of faith. His leadership reflects his commitment to engaging diverse communities of faith in fresh and thoughtful encounters with the Word of God that deepens individual and congregational faith journeys. He has worked with worship design teams and led worship for local, regional and national events.
Working with Mark Bowman was a gift … after I nailed down basic themes and scriptures for a season he was able to use his knowledge of cutting-edge music and drama, and provide authentic and creative worship ideas that truly spoke to the needs of the folks in the pews. He also has an incredible gift for drawing other folks into worship planning and leadership. Mark's leadership reflects his deep commitment to liturgy and worship that is truly “the work of the people.”
Rev. Wendy Hardin
Mark Bowman is a theologically grounded musician. His seminary background and gift for encouraging developing musicians enabled our worship team to plan and lead spirit-filled, scriptural based, inclusive worship. Mark would draw upon music from various cultures, his sensitivity to current social ills, projected visuals and short dramas to lead the congregation each week in worship that was participatory, liturgical, life-changing and filled with heart-felt praise.
Rev. John Alan Boryk
What a pleasure and joy to watch Mark at work! I have been at several retreats where he has been the worship leader–he exudes the Spirit and the Sacred as he brings everyone into the worship experience.
Rev. Lora Zink
The Christian assembly for worship is a gathering for hearing, speaking, singing, seeing, washing, drinking, feeding and being fed, greeting and dancing. … In all such gatherings, large or small, God is encountered through the senses.
from Worship Come by Dr. Donald Saliers
When you come together, each one has a hymn, a lesson, a revelation, a tongue, or an interpretation. Let all things be done for building up.
1 Corinthians 14: 26
Mark Bowman provides innovative, practical training in leading congregational singing for church musicians, pastors and worship leaders.
The Enlivening Congregational Song seminar he has developed and leads is a series of five hands-on training sessions that builds skills in leading and strengthening congregational singing for song leaders and worship enliveners. Details and a syllabus are available.
The Worship Alive! workshop series he founded and coordinates brings outstanding worship practitioners and trainers from around the world to Chicagoland congregations four times a year. More details are available.
He leads workshops from two hours to a full day on how to enliven congregational singing and worship. He has led these workshops for United Methodist and Presbyterian lay training events, a regional American Guild of Organists conference, regional worship conferences as well as numerous congregations.
Mark Bowman exudes enthusiasm and clearly has a passion for enabling congregational song. His workshops enable people to develop self-confidence in their own leadership skills, introduce them to appropriate music, and prioritise the singing of the congregation–a facet of church music too often sidelined.
Rev. Dr. John L. Bell
Mark Bowman excels at teaching new songs of many styles and sources to congregations, particularly those in multicultural settings. He also is intentional about integrating new songs into a parish’s repertoire, leading to a congregation that sings well and enthusiastically, making a joyful sound to God. He knows how to teach others to do this same thing–so consider learning from him if you are seeking to enhance your congregation’s song and worship.
Dr. Ruth Duck
Garrett Evangelical Theological Seminary
The congregational voice is the heart of all church music. It can and should be beautiful, musical, full of the Spirit, responsive to both text and tune, and magnetic in drawing together all who hear.
from Melodious Accord by Alice Parker
Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly; teach and admonish one another in all wisdom; and with gratitude in your hearts sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to God.
This series of five hands-on training sessions for church musicians, worship leaders and clergy builds skills in leading and strengthening congregational singing.
Each three-hour session includes presentation and discussion of topics such as:
A detailed syllabus is available.
This seminar will not only help enliven congregational singing, but will encourage your pastors and musicians to engage in dialogue about worship planning and collaborating with each other. It’s a practical tool that can be easily shared within the church.
Rev. Pam Keckler
United Church of Christ
The church today is ripe for creativity and new energy in worship. This seminar helped me appreciate how the creative use of song can enhance worship in new ways. It helped me see how singing can be a community-building activity, and how rewarding it can be to see a congregation begin to rediscover its own voice. I gained skills and confidence in my ability to use them in song leader.
music director, ELCA
The experience of singing together is a great one. I learned good techniques, but the best part was being with Mark, who is a patient and encouraging teacher. It was good to learn from his example.
Rev. Jim Cotter
United Methodist Church
This seminar is an invitation to view a congregation not as an audience, nor as potential choir members, but as a group of individuals who each have the ability and the right to lift their voices in communal song. We, as song leaders, can open the door to new musical possibilities and re-awaken the deep desire for community in worship.
minister of music, UCC
As a solo pastor without a choir, I found this seminar to be life-giving. Worship has changed forever. The songs Mark teaches are melodic and appeal to people who are classically trained as well as those who can’t read music. Mark teaches how to teach congregations to sing and enjoy praising God through song.
Rev. Susan Herman
This seminar offers valuable building blocks for enlivening congregational song. The format was especially good at providing support and encouragement to song leaders. Everyone of us walked away with greater confidence in leading songs in front of a group.
God is spirit, and those who worship God must worship in spirit and truth.
Mark Bowman provides consultation to clergy, church musicians, and worship teams seeking fresh approaches, perspectives and resources for congregational worship. Sometimes this consultation and training takes the form of a workshop for a group of persons, while other times this may be personal coaching for a clergy, minister of music or song leader. Coaching engages persons in taking stock of their gifts and skills in light of perceived needs for the congregation’s worship and taking steps toward increasing both excellence and authenticity in worship. Coaching arrangements typically involve a one or two hour conversation each month for a number of months.
Questions addressed may include:
In worship God expects every voice to play its part.
from The Singing Thing by John Bell
Here are some of my occasional musings and reflections about contemporary worship, sacred song and enabling congregations to fuller and deeper experiences of God in worship.
It is truly tragic that this scenario is much more pervasive than we often realize. John Bell calls this phenomenon “vocal disenfranchisement” (The Singing Thing, GIA Publications, 2000) and projects that one-quarter of persons in Western societies have internalized a proscription not to sing. Think for a moment about all of the joy, energy, and power that you’ve realized in singing in community through your life. Then imagine all that being taken away, never having had that experience. That is the reality for one of every four persons in our community.
Strike up conversations with persons about this and you will be amazed at what you learn. When I’m leading singing at a conference, typically someone will compliment my song leadership and I reply: “You all are doing the great singing, I’m just getting you started.” Then the person will look down and say, “Well, I can’t sing, but we do have lots of great singers here.” To which I reply “God has given everyone a voice–yours may not be diva-quality, but you can sing.” This often leads into a longer discussion, joined by other persons nearby, and I again hear the stories of being told by a Sunday School teacher, or by an aunt, or by a significant friend that they should not try to sing. This may have happened 20 years ago, 40 years ago, but is still firmly imprinted in their brain. For all these years, they have denied themselves the joy and power of singing praise to God with their community.
If you are a musician and teacher who have asked folks to refrain from singing, your halo has lost its luster. Over my years of choral directing and song leading I have heard a number of so-called “drones” whose sung pitch didn’t change much or changed contrary to the rest of the body. In every case I have found that if these persons were willing to work at it–with encouragement, affirmation and tips, they could eventually sing close to what persons around them sing. Sometimes it is that they are not really listening. Or some persons do not have a feel for the physical mechanics of raising and lowering pitch. But nothing is more gratifying as a song leader than hearing someone in the congregation whose singing used to be unrecognizable, now adding her timid voice to the song of the congregation. We have given someone else the glorious affirmation of being received into God’s heavenly chorus.
So in music ministry and song leadership it is essential that we believe that everyone has been gifted by God with a voice. Furthermore, we can exhibit the conviction that everyone can reflect that gift back to God, i.e., use their voice to join the community in melodious worship of God. When I’m leading singing and notice the persons in the assembly who are not trying, I remember that they’re only following their internalized expectations. To scold or criticize them will only entrench their inhibition. Instead it is my responsibility to affirm...cajole...entice...make singing so irresistible that they have no choice but to burst through the barrier and join in song with the persons around them. This is truly a gracious gift from God! Collapse article.
These perspectives presume that the conflict is caused by the particular musical style chosen or desired. Worshipers have an affinity for the musical style that stirs their soul and carries them to closer relationship with God. Through this scenario a sense of exclusive relationship between a musical form and the Holy creeps into the worship experience. “God speaks to me through this music.” “God doesn’t speak to me through that music.” The resolution of this conflict has typically been to segregate music in worship–one service uses this style of music while another service uses another. Efforts to compromise in “blended” worship have proven difficult and often unsatisfactory.
The limitation of viewing worship through this lens is that music becomes a performance which one listens to in worship. As one might choose a musical ensemble to hear in concert because their music is appealing, so one goes to worship to listen to one’s favorite music. The worship musicians are performers and the congregation becomes the audience. The role of the worshiper is now passive; worship is done “at” you rather than “with” you.
When one delves below the surface of the “worship wars” as they have been presented, one can glimpse a deeper issue at play. The crisis may not be so much about the style of music performed as about the reduction of the role of the worshiper. Maybe the issue is not so much whether we sing hymns or praise choruses, but whether we encourage the congregation to truly sing. Is the worshiper to be a passive listener to musical performance or an active participant in creating music? Stated succinctly this crisis can be seen as a de-emphasis on congregational singing.
In “traditional” worship the congregation is usually expected to sing standing up and looking down into a heavy book in their hands, lined up in rows facing an organ and choir that is loudly “leading” them. In “contemporary” worship the congregation is typically asked to sing in the face of a wall of booming sound that comes from a worship band elevated up and divided off by tech equipment and with a singer doing vocal acrobatics. In each of these scenarios the result is the same–the suppression of congregational singing. In fact, if one were asked to create a scenario that was most antithetical to participatory singing, it would probably look like one of the above.
Pastors and congregations are well-served to step back and look at their worship and music through this different lens–not what musical style is most appealing to us, but how can we more effectively join voices in singing prayer and praise to God? This change in focus begins to move the worshiper from being a passive listener to an active participant in worship. Engaging worshipers more fully opens them to new and deeper experiences of God. Singing together strengthens the linkages within the community of faith.
A question I am often by pastors or worship leaders is: “how can we start enabling stronger congregational singing?” My answer is two-fold: 1) recover the role of the song leader; and 2) sing one song unaccompanied in every worship gathering. That may sound radical, but let’s look more closely.
Historically the synagogue and the church used cantors to lead the congregation in song. The good cantor was not a solo singer, but an enabler who used voice and body to invite and encourage the congregation into the song. Over the last century or so, song leaders played prominent roles in camp and revival meetings. However this role has been lost in most churches today. A song leader is not necessarily the choir director; the function is different. The song leader uses voice and gesture to invite the congregation into the song, to affirm the glory of the singing, to shape the rise and flow of the song, and to painlessly teach new songs. Being a song leader is a gift to develop and skill to encourage in our congregations.
Secondly, the congregation can only begin to appreciate its singing and the individual voices that comprise the singing when everyone can hear the song. That means occasionally turning off the organ or the praise band to let the congregation hear and savor its voice. It is a fallacy to think–as many church musicians and congregations do–that a capella singing is difficult, out of the reach of many congregations. In actuality, the unaccompanied voice is the most natural form of music. Communities, synagogues and congregations sang without instrumental accompaniment for centuries. I tell congregations that God smiles most brightly when hearing their voices lifted together in song.
May our congregations become places where we live out the words of the Psalmist: “Make a joyful noise to God, all the earth; sing the glory of God’s name; give to God glorious praise. Say to God, ‘How awesome are your deeds! Because of your great power, your enemies cringe before you. All the earth worships you; they sing praises to you, sing praises to your name.’” (Psalm 66) Collapse article.
1. Everyone participates in making music. This is the prime directive that underlies everything else in music ministry. God has given everyone a voice and we offer that back to God in song. Yes, you will find a number of people in your congregation who believe they cannot sing. It is my challenge as their minister of music to help them overcome that block and find their voice. As the leader of singing I invite, affirm, cajole and encourage everyone to sing as patiently and creatively as I can in every worship gathering.
Of course, choirs and solo performers enhance the worship experience. But these are never the dominant musical form in worship. Whenever possible the choir and soloists are used to enhance congregational singing–adding descants and harmonies; singing verses with the congregation joining on the refrain.
The music is planned for each worship service through the lens of this value. How can the songs be planned so as to maximize congregational participation? Is there a favorite song or two in the worship that the congregation enjoys singing? Are all tunes easily singable? Or should I substitute another tune for a particular text? Is there unaccompanied singing in the worship so the congregation can hear themselves sing? How will I introduce and/or teach a new song so the congregational has a successful experience in singing it?
2. Music draws upon diverse musical styles & traditions. The music that most of us hear in our day-to-day lives is quite diverse. Many congregations are growing more diverse in heritage and age. There is no one style of music that speaks to everybody. Therefore, the more diverse styles of music we use in our worship, the more we connect with the tastes and desires of different persons in the congregation.
However, choosing music for worship is not just about matching individual musical tastes in the congregation. Our encounter with God is not always an encounter with “the familiar.” In fact, we often experience God as “the other.” Therefore, drawing upon musical styles that feel different can be quite conducive to meaningful worship. In an increasingly “global” church, God appears to the world through many different faces. Our faith is deepened and enlivened when we draw upon musical styles that spans history and cultures.
3. Music weaves entire worship experience together. The worship format in which I was originally trained as a church musician included three hymns (opening, middle and closing the service), a Doxology after the offering and maybe a Gloria somewhere. To include more songs that than was too demanding for the congregation. Considering that many hymns had four or five verses and tended be sung at a dirge-like pace, there was some veracity in that observation.
Now I invite the congregation to sing a dozen times in a worship gathering. But likely only one or two of those will be a “hymn,” a linear form with a number of verses. The rest are what I call “circular” songs, short refrains that can be sung several times. These songs introduce and reinforce key messages. They provide transitions between different acts and moods. They create a context and/or a background for a particular liturgical activity. My friend Marcia McFee talks about songs being the “punctuation” of worship–providing the commas, periods, question marks and exclamation points that enliven the worship experience. When planned and used wisely, songs become the threads woven through the worship service that give it color, depth, perspective and wholeness.
4. Songs teaches theology. The texts that a congregation sing in worship do more to teach and shape theology than anything else in its common life. My apologies to clergy, but what most congregants remember from worship and repeat over the course of the week is not a line from the sermon, but a phrase from one of the songs they sang. Martin Luther, John and Charles Wesley and other church reformers knew this well. They wrote new songs prolifically to teach theology to their followers and encouraged lively singing of those songs.
So when I am choosing songs for worship, I carefully consider the texts since that is what many worshipers will carry with them through the week and into their lives. What texts might stretch or deepen our experience of God? What words might sustain someone’s faith in crisis? What images define and impel our ministry? The core repertoire of songs that a congregation sings regularly in worship reflects the congregation’s basic understanding of what it means to live as faithful Christians in our day.
5. Singing builds community. In many ways group singing is the epitome of being community. My being, my voice, is added to the whole and is a valuable contributor to the whole. Yet in being given to community, my voice because something much larger and richer. The community needs my voice, yet it is so much more than my voice. And when my voice falters, there are others beside me to support me and carry us forward.
Congregations that are strong singing bodies value that and integrate that reality into their community identity. Members will tell their friends that “our congregation really likes to sing, you should hear us on Sunday morning.” A visitor will note right away when visiting a congregation in which most persons can be seen and heard singing and the voice of the assembly is strong.
The Rogers Park congregation was a strong singing gathering when I arrived there ten years ago. I have built upon that by teaching the congregation a diverse repertoire that includes singing songs in two, three and four part harmonies. At a church retreat years ago the pastor wrote: “Being a member of the United Church of Rogers Park means______” on a newsprint pad in the corner of the room and asked persons to post answers to that question whenever they wished. When we reviewed the responses later I could only smile to see that someone had written: “we sing in 3-part harmony.”
Church music work at the beginning of the 21st century has been become quite challenging. Musicians are stretched to respond to a growing diversity of demands and desires in music. Our congregations are discovering that following past traditions and practices is not enough these days. We must learn, grow and adapt to the spiritual needs of our communities in order to be an effective witness to God’s work in Jesus Christ. Having some clarity on why we do what we do in our church music programs is helpful to guide us through the morass of questions upon which we make decisions. What are the values that undergird and guide your music ministry? Collapse article.
Good accompanying of congregational singing is a particular skill that is not necessarily related to the accompanist’s instrumental ability. Many congregations utilize musical accompanists who are accomplished organists or pianists, but have not been trained or developed expertise in accompanying congregational singing. This is a primary cause of lackluster, tepid congregational singing—the accompanist has not learned how to use the keyboard to best enable the voice of the assembly.
The most common shortcoming of worship accompanists is the tendency to play all songs slowly, almost dirge-like. You have most likely heard this in worship before. Inexperienced church musicians often assume—incorrectly—that church music is to be holy, reverent, and respectful; therefore, played slowly. This is deadly for everyday singers who lack the breath support needed to sustain a musical phrase of even a short duration. In such a situation the singers are gasping for air every other note and any sense of the song’s musicality is lost as singers long impatiently for the end.
The tempo of the song, like the accompanying instrument above, is most often determined by the song style. Classic Western hymns typically require a more majestic accompaniment played at a stately walking tempo. Folk melodies are often associated with dance and thus move at a livelier tempo. A song of joy is typically sung with energy and spirit. A lament is slower and cries out from the depths of the soul. The same song may be played at a different tempo depending upon its particular placement and use in a service of worship. If the accompanist is not familiar with the breadth of church music repertoire it will be helpful to have occasional sessions with the pastor or a seasoned congregational singer to help identify appropriate tempos for songs used in worship.
When it is time for a song to be sung in the worship service the accompanist internally identifies the desired tempo for that song and plays an introduction at the same tempo at which the song is to be sung. Note that the purpose of a keyboard introduction to a song is to bring the melody to the singers’ consciousness and to set tempo. The introduction need only be long enough to do this, i.e., usually the first four or last four measures suffice. The tradition of playing the whole song as an introduction does not uplift and empower the assembly’s singing. More often it is a lengthy pause which distracts the singers from the expected task of singing. However, if the song is unfamiliar to most of the congregation, it may be helpful to play the whole song as an introduction. In this case, tell the congregation that the tune may be unfamiliar and invite them to listen attentively as they prepare to sing.
The accompanist may have determined the appropriate tempo for a song and played the introduction at that tempo, but several measures into the singing the tempo has noticeably slowed down. Here are several tips to keep the singing at the desired tempo.
First be aware of the acoustics of your worship space. The length of time for the sound of the assembly’s singing to reach the ear of the accompanist will vary from space to space. The reverberation time (length of time the sound persists after the original sound ends; or “echo”) varies significantly. This sound “delay” is the most common culprit in the slowing of tempo. The accompanist listens to the singing and hears each note a fraction of a second later than it was sung and so plays the next note/chord with this delay. The rapid accumulation of these microsecond delays draws down the tempo of the song.
The worship space where I frequently play is under a large dome that produces great resonance of sound at a rather long reverberation time. So it is necessary for me to set and play a song without regard to the sound of singing that I am hearing. In my head it sounds like I’m playing every note ahead of the beat, but that is because of the delay in the sound of the singing registering in my brain. It is necessary to maintain a consistent tempo despite what is heard.
Furthermore, the accompanist has to help the singers find spaces to breathe—to build the reservoir of air to support singing. This entails not playing the song in strict metronomic time, but allowing brief breathing spaces at the end of phrases. These are truly “brief,” a fraction of the basic pulse. It can be helpful to sing along—even sotto voce—in order to identify and allow these spaces for breathing in a song.
Note that singers will typically stop singing when the sound of the keyboard ceases. So by cutting off the longer note at the end of a phrase a bit prematurely and delaying ever so briefly the opening note of the next phrase, the accompanist creates and encourages breathing spaces for the singers.
Allow a longer period of time at the end of a verse for the singers to draw in a larger reservoir of air and to prepare to repeat the melody with the next set of words. This is particularly important when the song is moving at a faster tempo. This may mean extending the song by adding an additional measure to the accompaniment—or inserting a “turnaround,” i.e., an instrumental repetition of the last two or four measures (whichever is most harmonically appropriate) to create a comfortable breathing space and lead into next verse.
The principle that “inserting tiny windows of no sound makes the congregation stop and resume singing” also comes into play in situations where a congregation is persistently dragging behind the accompanist’s tempo. In this case, simply play the song in a staccato manner, i.e., create slight separations between each note, and the congregation will instinctively adapt to your tempo. An early organ teacher of mine insisted that I could always get the congregation to sing at my desired tempo simply by playing detached notes when needed.
Here are a few other tips for leading singing from a keyboard.
Invite feedback on your accompaniment of singing from the pastor and other trusted colleagues in the assembly. Is the volume of the keyboard playing usually appropriate—clearly audible but not overpowering? Are tempos clear and consistent? Does congregation appear to be singing easily, with appropriate opportunities for breathing? Does the assembly appear to enjoy singing the songs? With practice, feedback and experimentation the skills for good accompanying of congregational singing can be developed. Collapse article.