Roadblocks (2 – technology)

Although I do believe there is a place for some solo work in church music, it should be a self-evident truism that most congregational music should be (wait for it . . .) congregational!  Most leaders would agree with this principle, although few high-church traditions appear to support it.

On the whole, church worship is for the entire, gathered group to participate in, and anything that gets in the way of a manifestly congregational dynamic should be soberly reevaluated.  In the last post, I decried the roadblock of carelessness with the basic elements of a song — rhythm, pitch, and the words.  This post will deal primarily with roadblocks that may be created by two aspects of audio/visual technology.

To its great credit, the church in Arkansas referenced in the last post used hymnals and projected music.  In effect, they did not allow a non-notation roadblock (which would have amounted to an anti-literacy bias) to be placed in the avenue of corporate worship that day.

I’m becoming convinced that people who haven’t experienced sustained, whole-group vocal energy in a congregational gathering simply can’t grasp some things.  It’s almost certainly not their fault, but they may not get

  • the simple fact that there is a difference between projection of words alone and projected music notation (some leadership groups can’t even answer the question of whether they project music notation or not — they haven’t stopped to think about it!)
  • the effect on the singing of not changing PPT slides on time
  • the effect of pitching songs too low or too high
  • the dampening effect of having leaders’ volume levels amped up too high

Aside:  each of the above points is applicable, in perhaps a 30% lesser degree, to music with an instrumental component.  In another way of saying it, each point above is applicable to non-a cappella churches, but not quite as much, since instrumental music creates more of the sound and “covers” the voices.

In order to worship fully congregationally, consider these guidelines:

  1. Notated music should be available, as a rule.
  2. If projection is used, the person changing the slides should be singing or at least thinking the words in real time.¹  That way, s/he will naturally change the slide in time for himself to sing the next words.  The most common error is to change slides too late.  People naturally read ahead; the change should occur prior to the moment the next words/notes are sung.
  3. The pitch level of the song ought to be consistent with the notated music – aim to pitch it within a half-step of what’s written, in the case of hymnals.  In the case of many contemporary songs, the congregationally arranged pitch should end up substantially higher than that of most female “artist” singers, and substantially lower than that of many male “artist” singers.  Why?  Because the tenor and alto ranges tend to be the ranges of choice in popular music styles.²   If the song is pitched too low for church use, the result, all other things being equal, will be a rather lifeless sonic offering.  If the song is pitched too high, the result may be giggles or fewer people actually having the courage to sing.
  4. The mic levels of the leader(s) should not be too high, or the church learns not to bother with singing much.  The sound s/he makes in the pew simply isn’t that important in the grand scheme, if all s/he can here is the leader(s), anyway.

A related fallacy is that the “stealth praise team” (heard but not seen) singing into mics will have a bolstering effect on the congregation’s worship output.  While the aggregate congregational volume level may actually be higher, the mic-the-praise-team-in-pews method, in my not-so-humble opinion, creates an ultimately unhelpful sonic scenario.  At best, it is a smokescreen or a band-aid. Once again, the people in the pews learn, due to the effect but not to any ill intent, that their voices don’t matter much.

The final post in this mini-series will address worship roadblocks related to tempo/speed.

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¹ If you’ve ever considered the raison d’etre for A/V volunteers and “worship ministry team” folks who always want to push buttons but never want to worship, you’ve probably realized that there’s something wrong with this picture.  A person who truly “has a heart for” congregational worship will be begging not to have to spend his time clicking a mouse and will yearn to be away from the computer or the mixing board.  If on the other hand someone is in the rotation of mouse-clickers and is filling the role one Sunday a month because of a genuine servant attitude, he will surely be worshipping vocally while he is clicking to change the slides.

² For songs originally sung by male pop-style singers:  the average congregational male voice is not a true tenor, so the original melody will likely be too high.  For songs originally sung by female pop-style singers:  if the melody is as low as they sing it, although smoker-sopranos might appreciate low Fs and Gs in the melody, there’s no place for the alto and bass parts to go in a four-part arrangement.  Things get too low overall.

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