A few thoughts on song leading in a cappella churches:
I know how to “lead singing” in what is now seen by some churches as an old style. And I am not generally an advocate of mere maintenance when we are speaking of style and form, but I do believe that in a cappella churches, apt use of the song director’s hand can help to lead the worshippers in the pews.
It does take some training and experience, and there are some who are better at “beating time” than others. Now that I have used the term “beating time,” I would suggest that effective use of the hand(s) in worship leadership involves more than beat patterns. However, the beat patterns themselves are standardized in Western culture, and should be learned by all song/worship leaders—if for no other reason, for the segment of the congregation that will have been trained musically through our public and private education systems.
One common error is the reversal of the standard pattern for 3/4 time. We wouldn’t say “black” when we mean “white” or “go” when we mean “stop”; neither should we change the common language of time signatures and their associated patterns. Beat patterns are a part of the language of music, and the “term” for the next-to-last beat of a measure goes out, not in. (I say “out” instead of “right” to account for left-handed leaders.) So, in 3/4, song leaders should gesture down for the downbeat, out for the 2nd beat, and up for the upbeat. In 4/4, the pattern is down, in, out, up.
Another common error is beating each of the eighth notes in what should be relatively fast 3/8 or 6/8 time (or the quarter notes in fast 3/4 time). Very rarely should this be done; and when it is done, the result can be an exceptionally funereal offering in song. “Prince of Peace, Control My Will” may effectively be beat in three, but “Into My Heart” and “Take Time To Be Holy” are probably better felt without so many beats shown by the leader. In the former case, every 3/4 measure could receive one slow beat, and in the latter, every 6/8 measure could include two beats (each comprising three eighth notes).
Beyond these types of “brass tacks”—and these fundamentals should not be passed over apathetically but should be learned and practiced by every leader—gesture may help to communicate a range of emotions and expressions. For instance, the four-beat pattern used with “Christ, We Do All Adore Thee” should be stylistically different from the one used with “Christ the Lord Is Ris’n Today.” With the former song, the basic gestures should be smooth and connected, while with the latter, the rebound from each beat should be more pronounced. Each song has its own type of energy, and the two should feel and look different from each other. Similarly, “Jesus is Coming Soon” should look different from “Jesus, Let Us Come To Know You,” which should in turn look different from “Jesus, You’re My Firm Foundation.”
At times, dynamics (louds and softs, and everything between) may be indicated by the song leader’s right hand. The left hand may also be pressed into service periodically to indicate such musical effects that enhance the overall expression. Even if you do not feel comfortable using the standard beat patterns, I encourage you to use your hand at least at the beginnings of phrases and stanzas, particularly when leading slower and/or more rhythmically complex contemporary songs. It might feel awkward at first, but you will grow more comfortable with it, and in a very short time, the whole church will be able to express things more dynamically and more “together.”
Aside: Physical gestures may include the signaling of stanza numbers, when stanzas are omitted. Because so many seem to miss these signals, in most settings, I recommend both announcing the numbers (e.g., “We’ll omit the 2nd stanza” or “We’ll be singing stanzas three and four only”) as well as holding up the appropriate number of fingers at the right time—which is before attentive singers take a breath to begin singing the wrong stanza.
A final word on the topic of leading with the hand and arm—perhaps especially for those who lead primarily contemporary songs: please consider not discarding every aspect of the older ways and means of leading. We still need rhythmic togetherness, and hand gestures help to achieve it. As a person in the pew, I want to sing with you as you lead, but I have little chance of doing so a) if you are not using gestures to indicate the beat of the music, and b) if you are constantly skipping beats. (rev. 4/15/17)