Turn down the volume

Craig Schwarze

A couple of years ago I had an argument with a friend about the loudness of music in church. He had just come back from a large convention with a great contemporary band. He had enjoyed the music, but complained that he could not hear himself sing. I intelligently responded that he was being a bit of a fuss-pot. But I’m starting to think differently.

I became morning music director at my church about 7 months ago. I was faced with two immediate challenges - a stressed music team who were burning out, and an aging catalogue of songs which we had struggled to refresh. Most of my initial energy went into addressing these two issues, and some of my previous posts talk about my strategies.

But things are a little different now. My team seem content and well motivated, and we’ve given our play-list a substantial makeover. This has given me time to look at other issues, and the one that concerns me most is congregational singing. I’ve realised that if I’m not encouraging people to sing, I’m not really accomplishing very much at all. I want our people to sing, and to sing loudly, enthusiastically and whole-heartedly.

How do we accomplish this? I’ve used a couple of strategies. As I’ve mentioned before, I repeat songs several weeks running to help the congregation learn them better. This certainly works - as they become more familiar with a song, the confidence level rises and so does the vocal volume.

But I’ve made another change, one that comes back to the argument I had with my friend. As the year has gone on, I’ve tried to turn down the volume. At first I just turned down the music, but later on I turned down the song leaders as well. We then went another step and tried playing “unplugged” on several occasions. My theory was this - the quieter the music, the louder people will want to sing.
I wish I could say that the strategy has worked brilliantly, but the truth is that results have been mixed. Some weeks the congregational voice has risen up to fill the void, and it has been terrific. Other weeks the music has felt a bit lifeless, and the congregation have responded with just a murmur.

There are other challenges, too. The next few weeks we are playing “Indescribable” - a big song that really needs a big sound. There are a few songs around like this. I’ve also recently had people request we add rockier, faster, rawer songs onto the play-list. One friend even told me the louder the music, the louder he would sing. It is clearly not possible to please everyone, but I take this feedback seriously, and I’ll continue to play around with the volume knob.
There are no simple answers to this problem - music directors need to get to know their congregation, and figure out what works for them. It’s worth the effort though. When the whole congregation are singing with full voices and full hearts, there is nothing like it - it is simply glorious.