A friend recently emailed me and expressed a dilemma he was facing when teaching new songs performed by an artist who varies the way he or she sings the melody. My friend asked:
When do we go with the lead sheet, and when do we go with the CD melody? And when do we go with what is simple and consistent and when do we go with what is sung on the CD?
I’ve faced the same dilemma. While I’m grateful for many of the new congregational songs that have emerged in recent years, they’re not always sung in a way that makes it easy for a congregation to pick them up. Phrases are elongated in one verse and not the other, melodies are changed, and sometimes the melody becomes hard to identify or unsingable by a normal congregation. Here are a few of the thoughts I consider when figuring out what to do:
1. How important is it for the church to sing this song?
Not every song written by a “worship artist” should be sung by a congregation. Maybe it’s just for listening.
2. Is there a lead sheet I can use as a reference?
Sometimes music publishers help us out by publishing a lead sheet. If the recorded version differs at points with the lead sheet, I feel the liberty to use the recorded version in places if it fits the lyrics better and allows for more natural expression. But at least I know what they were intending.
3. Which version of the melody is more natural?
If one of the verses is more “artistic” in its inflection, I’ll probably go with the simpler version, unless I think the interpretation accents the lyric in some way.
4. How well is the song known?
If your church uses CDs to learn songs, rather than hymnals or written music, and the song is well known, you might be able to teach it with the variations as it’s sung on the CD.
6. Should I come up with a new version?
Sometimes an alternate version of the recording will serve the congregation best. An example for us is the song “Before There Was Time,” by Caedmon’s Call. The form of the song isn’t ideal for congregational use. The verses are slightly different, the choruses run right into the second verse and bridge, and the bridge is pitched high. But the song celebrates God’s knowledge of his before time, a theme we don’t often address. For the verses, we went with the most natural melody, ended the chorus clean each time, and made one of the harmony parts on the bridge the main melody.
6. Do I have a plan for teaching this song?
There’s a difference between singing a song for the first time and singing it for the tenth time. In most caes, when we’re introducing a song, a few principles are helpful . The sound engineer should have the volume of the vocalists louder, the instrumentation should be sparser, I might mention that we’re learning a new song, and even take time to have the congregation repeat a verse before moving on.
7. Do my vocalists know the same version of the song?
If you have multiple teams, this is worth checking out. I can’t expect the church to learn the one melody if our vocalists are singing different ones.
This discussion does highlight one of the differences between a song that is congregational and one that isn’t. Even though people can learn difficult songs through repeated listenings (most rock concert prove that), writers can serve more people by writing melodies and singing them in such a way that it makes it easier for people to learn them, not harder.
Additional thoughts welcome.