Singing Unaccompanied - Advice for Congregations

by Frances Novillo
Posted at 12:21pm on 13th June 2013

Frances Novillo, Regional Music Adviser, London and the South, says:

  • In general, work out whether a piece starts low, high or in the middle of the range of notes explored but don’t worry too much about exact pitch. Recognize for example, that ‘Now thank we all our God’ (Nun danket) starts high, ‘Praise, my soul, the King of heaven’ in the middle of the range, and ‘When I survey the wondrous cross’ (Rockingham) at the bottom.
  • Learn to use a metrical index, so you can continue to sing a wide range of texts to melodies which are familiar.
  • Explore rounds to enjoy the texture of harmony singing, starting with something simple such as ‘Seek ye first’ or ‘Amazing grace’, but also venturing into newer pieces, such as the Taizé chant ‘The Lord is my light’ or RESOUNDworship’s ‘Jesus, lead us to the Father’, available free online and also in publications such as the new Ancient & Modern.
  • Drones are another means of enriching the texture, even with a not very musical congregation! Some people can hold the first note while others sing the tune of Picardy, used for many songs including ‘Let all mortal flesh keep silence’. Bob Hurd has written a Gloria in his Missa Ubi Caritas (available from GIA Music in both the common ecumenical text and for Roman Catholics in the new translation) featuring an easy drone. Another liturgical piece frequently sung in harmony, even in places with few singers, is the Kyrie eleison attributed to a Russian or Ukrainian source and found in Music for Common Worship I and Sing Praise. The St Bride Sanctus and Agnus Dei is composed by John Bell and found in the same publications: it takes a canonical form which may be accompanied by a vocal drone or even by a complete novice on the organ simply holding down a C pedal.
  • Songs which demand rhythmic accompaniment, feature long sustained notes at the end of phrases, or have gaps between phrases are difficult for a congregation to hold together singing unaccompanied.
  • Equally, avoid anything which changes key as this may be tricky to navigate unaccompanied.
  • However, where rhythmic momentum is a feature of the melody, it can be very enjoyable to sing unaccompanied, so do have a go at songs such as Marty Haugen’s ‘Bring forth the kingdom’, Graham Kendrick’s ‘Rejoice, rejoice Christ is in you’, old favourites such as ‘All creatures of our God and King’ and ‘Thine be the glory’, and of course, for Christmas, the plainchant Gaudete which can go with a real swing.
  • Plainchant is ideal for unaccompanied singing by small groups, as witnessed by our many monastic communities who maintain this tradition. There are plenty of good examples in RSCM publications such as Season by Season, which includes Latin and English translations. The Ubi caritas melody and text are particularly beautiful, and you may already know ‘Creator of the stars of night’.

Reproduced from the June 2013 issue of Church Music Quarterly / Sunday by Sunday. Copyright © 2013 The Royal School of Church Music. All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced without permission.

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