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Teaching a new hymn

I am choir director at a Methodist church.  We use the "red" hymnal, don'tcha know.  Our's is, thankfully, a "singing" congregation...they sing standard hymn fare very well.  But there are quite a few hymns in the Methodist Hymnal that have never been touched...e.g. Come Sunday, or I Want to Be Ready, and a few others, not to mention the wealth of material available from other sources.  I am truly interested in knowing just how you teach new musical material to your respective congregatiions.  Do you rehearse them before the service, during the service, playing the hymn for serveral weeks prior, or just charge right in there and hope for the best?  I have not done very much of this over the years...I suppose because I am uncomfortable with congregational rehearsals.  Any feedback from church musicians is greatly appreciated.  
Replies (11): Threaded | Chronological
on October 6, 2013 6:19pm
  Make a plan to add x number of new hymns for each season or one new one for each season over say, five years. You can choose the new hymns in commity, by your self as the music professional, your clergy or whatever is appropriate. BUT FIRST!!!!!! your clergy MUST sing with vigor and quality and commitment. Without that your enterprise is doomed.
  I worked for years in a Catholic parish which heartily supported a Men's Choir but were otherwise fairly silent except for the time for the congregational, Malotte's Our Father which sounded more akin to the Hawaiian War Chant. However, I would introduce new hymns prior to the beginning of the Mass and repeat that hymn for several weeks. Many were encouraged over time.
  If your clergy and congregation can sing 50 to 100 hymns YOU have made a singing congreation.  S
on October 7, 2013 3:01am
If it's a meditative/quiet hymn or chorus we tend to have the choir sing it during the administration of communion a fewe times and include the tune in the pre-service organ music. (Church of England). More robust tunes we'd probably introduce by having the choir sing them unison for the first couple of outings.
Applauded by an audience of 1
on October 7, 2013 4:40am
Tom - It seems you have an enviable situation, if you have a truly singing congregation!  As a director in Catholic parishes, the challenges which Steve points out are things we deal with every day.  The approach to take is very dependent on a number of factors.  While I agree with Steve on the value of singing clergy, that CAN be a two-edged sword - surely, if they sing with gusto, it's great, but if it's with "gutso" (courageous, but not controlled) that can be disastrous, especially if they're miked!  One factor which you may or may not have to consider is the phenomenon we endure (and that IS the appropriate term for it) in Masses about the crowd - at least it seems that way - that flow in AFTER the beginning of Mass, and flow outward straightaways after Communion, although that isn't a real problem here, recently.  Reason I say this:  if the majority of your congregation(s) are reasonably much in place 5 minutes before the service, you may very well be able to use that time before the service teaching them - and it will be very effective.  However, if your service(s) suffer from the "late flow in - early flow out" syndrome, it kinda seems counterproductive to try teaching something at the beginning of the service when only 60% or fewer of them are there!  The approach I've taken in general, is to have the choir sing the song several weeks running as a special hymn, where the congregation is not expected to sing - but we don't tell them that.  So we post the hymn number, but I don't make a point of "bringing the congregation in."  Because they're reasonably well-trained to turn to the worship aid (Breaking Bread) for the four principal points of the Mass at which we do hymnody, we use that to our advantage.  In addition, I'll introduce a new piece at one of only two points in the Mass - at the Offertory procession, or the Communion procession.  Can't have a new hymn (with this approach) done at the Entrance or the Sending Forth, otherwise the whole point of the exercise at those two points of the service is lost.  Then, I'll keep using the new hymn for at least 6 of the next 8 weeks, so it becomes something increasingly familiar.  I may take a breather after that (the choir would kill me otherwsie), but then I will periodically re-introduce the piece into the general flow of choices of music for the Mass over the next several months.  The basic problem is how good a musical memory they have.  
A lot of this is dependent on your particular group(s) in the congregation.  The biggest factor, as Steve points out, is repetition.  And if someone comes up to you and complains about the same hymn being sung for several weeks in a row, just congratulate them on how (obviously) they're already on board, and ask them to sing with gusto (NOT "gutso") to help their fellow congregants along.
Chantez bien!
Applauded by an audience of 2
on October 7, 2013 5:59am
Hi, Thomas:
I have had success with a Hymn-of-the-Month program (sometimes Hymn-of-the-Season). This hymn is sung 4 or 5 times during the month, at different locations in the service. I have not pre-rehearsed these hymns with the congregation, but have rehearsed them with the choir. I often introduce these hymns by just playing the melody line for a couple of stanzas, then adding some or all of the parts. If your congregation buys into the program, they will have the hymn learned by the end of the month (if not sooner). Then, I try to use the hymn again sometime in the next months. This program has worked.
on October 7, 2013 6:56am
I've done it all.  That is, I've used all of the techniques you've listed.  We seem to have the most success introducing a new hymn by using it in a choral arrangement, then using it as the first in our 'communon set' of songs.  But we have also taught short choruses before the service, which worked, but disrupted those who enjoy a quiet time on arrival.  This past week, by request of staff, we used a chorus from a video shown before the service.  It might have worked, but pulled out of the video effects, the song didn't stand on its own.
I do agree that you should develop a repertoire of hymns and choruses for your congregation, and rotate new material through regularly.  And I strongly defend the right to select hymns and choruses from sources other than the outdated denominational hymnal.  (No, the bishop doesn't care.)
I miss my Baptist days, where we had services on Sunday and Wednesday nights.  Those relaxed services were great times to teach new songs, using techniques you might use with your choir.  In those settings, I would share a bit of background about the hymn or composer, which always enhanced the experience.
on October 7, 2013 7:18am
In the absence of having actual teaching time with your congregation, another approach that can work is to have a "hymn of the month."  If you sing one of the hymns they don't know each week for a month, by then they should be familiar with it, in theory anyway.
on October 7, 2013 8:29am
The most successful things we've ever done is based on a suggestion by Alice Walker our minister picked up at a preaching conference a few years ago. People respond to other people singing (as opposed to an instrument playing).
Whenever we have a new hymn - which could be anytime - a "Song Leader" (our church's (United Church of Canada) term for a cantor) from the choir steps forward to the pulpit mic (Methodist/Calvinist style sanctuary with choir loft and organ in front, behind the central pulpit) while I play the hymn through softly. Him stepping forward is the cue for the congregation to just listen to the first verse being sung (i.e., no announcement) solo. At the end of the verse everyone stands (as they do for singing a hymn) and repeats the first verse and continues on. He continues to sing in the mic for this. They really do sing, and, if we repeat the hymn in the following weeks (sometimes we do and sometimes we don't), we do not go through that process again; everyone just sings it. 
The first time we ever did it, it was amazing. It worked the best of any way we'd tried introducing anything (and it felt like, "Well, duh."). It is seamless, it does not make a big deal of doing "new" things, it takes hardly any extra time, and it works like a charm. 
I thank Alice Walker every time we do it. 
Applauded by an audience of 2
on October 7, 2013 7:07pm
I love this. It's a less obtrusive variation of what I sometimes do, which is announce before the hymn, "please turn to number xxx, Title of Song. This may be new to you, so we'll sing the chorus twice before the song."
What both methods do is signal the congregation to listen with the intention of learning something new.  It also makes explicit the expectation that they will sing it, and it's a learning experience for all, rather than "We don't know this song : ("
I also am fond of teaching songs very quickly immediately before the service.  I do sometimes use it as the Entrance then while it's fresh in their minds.  I also have a singing congregation, they WANT to sing, so if they aren't singing I know I need to do something different.  I frequently teach two part songs and then I have the choir stand in the side aisles and sing with their respective sides.  Works like a charm and can be really beautiful and uplifting.
P.S. I'm in a Catholic church, too, with a community which is about half Haitian and half West Indies English speakers.  The first Mass I attended when I was considering the position was a Haitian Mass sung with no accompaniment. The congregation was singing Haitian songs in two and three parts throughout.  Heaven.
on October 7, 2013 4:34pm
Tom, I sing in a UMC choir, and our church, too, uses the "red" hymnal, as well as the "black" hymnal ("The Faith We Sing").  And like your church, ours is also a "singing" congregation (this seems to be the case in most UMCs I've visited that haven't gone to a 100% contemporary/praise band style of worship).
Anyway, when we introduce a new hymn, we usually have the choir sing one verse as the introit one week, the organist play it during the offering, and then the following week, it's programmed as a congregational hymn during the service.  That way, the congregation has heard it, and the choir is familiar with it and can do what they're supposed to do anyway: lead the congregation.  
This seems to work with our members.
Lana Mountford
Bellingham, WA
on October 14, 2013 8:59am
I play for a Lutheran congregation with a huge repetoire of hymns and like Lana I introduce any tricky new material with the choir singing all or parts of a new song as call to worship, offertory, etc.  I also weave the melody into the prelude and postlude several weeks ahead of time when possible so it soulnds "familiar" and therefore not difficult when sung during worship for the first time.
Joyce Larson
Phoenix, AZ
on October 15, 2013 9:33am
I am and have been a United Methodist director of music for about forty years at medium size churches. I also am and have been a university music professor and director of choral activities for 34 years. I have joked for many years that when it comes to the United Methodist Hymnal, all congregations know about 1/3 of it, 1/3 of it is localized, and there is 1/3 of the hymnal that almost no one knows.
I agree that pastoral support is essential, but the pastors don't know all the hymns either, Many pastors prefer hymns that they are comfortable with. Further, there are several tunes in the UMH that are akward and never should have been included in the hymnal for congregational singing. "New" songs in The Faith We Sing and Worship & Song are also often akward, especially for many older members.
I strongly believe in learning more hymns and quasi hymns. What I do most often is have a "Hymn of the Month," except we usually don't tell the congregation. We just do it four weeks in a row. Another bit of a help is to have your organist/pianist play the entire tune as the introduction for so-called new hymns and also for those less frequently sung. I don't find that practicing before worship helps that much, and some members won't hardly try if it is a approached as, "Let's all get excited about singing a new hymn!" If the new hymn is just presented as an integral part of worship, I find the reception to it improved.
One problem is that most people want the music to be like at the church where they grew up. In my diverse current congregation we have quite a few people who are quite well educated-PhDs, MDs, nurses, business leaders, and many teachers. We also have quite a few members  who are not as well educated, but are a very important segment of our congregation. We have people who grew up in churches that were mostly classically oriented in their music, and we  have some older folks who grew up in rural areas that would love to sing from the Cokesbury Hymnal weekly. We have young people who really enjoy so-called contemporary Christian music. My point is that my congregation seems to appreciate all musical styles, but they expect them to be well done.
What ever you do, make sure that the new hymn is good theology. It usually follows that the music will then be good as well.
Ken Klaus
First United Methodist Church- Houma, Louisiana
Nicholls State University- Thibodaux, Louisiana
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