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So here is the big question - do backing tracks work?
There are any number of websites out there which will provide you with midi files, mp3s or even whole multitrack computer programs to accompany your singing. Garage Hymnal provides backing tracks for most of our songs - basically just the album recording but with the vocals turned off so you can sing along (for example - on the webpage for Hallelujah you can download an mp3 to sing to).
But I wonder how useful these things really are. Partly I guess the problem is that most backing tracks are just the cd arrangement without vocals, not tailored to the purpose (so, for example, timing could be an issue in sections without a rhythm instrument). Worse, many backing tracks (particularly the MIDI ones) just sound plain cheesy, reminding everyone how awesome it would be if there were a real band to accompany them, but giving them something which falls far short of the ideal.
Personally, I'd prefer to sing a cappella, or at least in a style which suits the actual meeting we are engaged in. There is something a little bit too 'karaoke' about singing to an invisible band in a room which plainly is not appropriate for the style of music being made - a mismatch between what we're hearing (stadium rock band) and what we're seeing (intimate gathering of precious believers). It just reinforces that small churches are somehow second best - an imitation, not the real thing.
Whereas I believe that small church music should be it's own beautifully simple genre: playing to our strengths, enabling me to hear my neighbour clearly, reminding me that singing together is a profoundly unifying experience whether we have instruments or not.
Maybe I'm just being too purist - maybe there are resources out there to genuinely help churches sing who don't have musicians. What do you think?Say something about this post
At my church sometimes we only have piano to lead the crowd. Here's how to lead the congregation in singing Fairest Lord without a whole band - including chord voicings, melodic elements, rhythm, cues for when to come in, and pacing yourself over the whole song to create momentum.
I've made a quick piano arrangement for this song as if I were playing without any other instruments:
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While we're on the topic of songs for smaller churches, our friends at Emu Music put at a CD & DVD a while ago featuring a whole lot of songs recorded live in a small gathering. It features a couple of new songs, including one written by our very own Greg Cooper, as well as acoustic versions of some tunes by various writers. This is not a Garage Hymnal album, but Hallelujah and Father's World make an appearance, as do some familiar faces! Worth checking out if you're from a smaller church and are looking for ways of doing songs which suit your room.Say something about this post
We've just booked a couple of days at the Grove Studios on the central coast to begin work recording some new songs. These won't be as obviously congregational as the last album, with the goal being to get some new things for the radio.
We knew by doing a live album last time we were effectively ruling out any radio play (live recordings capture an energy and vibe from the event, but do not sit as well within a radio playlist, and also are always less polished in terms of recording quality because of the uncontrolled environment). So this is a nice opportunity for us to do something quite different. Stay tuned!Say something about this post
We’ve been thinking this month particularly about small churches, and how to adapt songs from worship albums and make them work in smaller spaces with fewer instruments.
The process is something like the reverse of what producing an album is often like – when we make an album, we often start with acoustic demos (perhaps with a guitar or piano and vocals) and then turn them into the fully arranged piece that you hear on the CD. Here’s an example (Unity, from our last album)
See how in the full band version all the parts are shared between the instruments? The bass does the bass, the drums gives the rhythm, the guitars and piano give the chords. Well, arranging something for a single instrument just means going the other way – playing the chords with their bass notes, and with a solid rhythm.
But while simplicity is the key in acoustic arrangements, that doesn’t mean we have to abandon creativity. Acoustic versions don’t have to be the lesser cousins of the full band version. Check out these amazing acoustic versions from the secular music industry, then compare them with the full band versions next to them:
Of course, we couldn't do a feature on acoustic versions of pop songs without mentioning our good friends Shed Muzak!
Really interesting article this month from Eternity magazine on Hillsong's lyric vetting process. I remember being quite surprised talking to Hillsong songwriters about how hands on their pastors are in the songwriting process.
Senior associate pastor Robert Fergusson writes:
“It’s a huge act of trust and submission, for someone who writes international award winning songs to submit their songs to us … it’s a great act of humility. I’m constantly honouring people like Darlene Zschech and Reuben Morgan who are happy to do this.”
It's a reminder to us here at Garage Hymnal (who are by no means international award winning songwriters!) to make sure we're humbly seeking feedback from godly people on our lyrics (thanks to Mark Peterson, Rob Smith, Philip Percival, Bart VandenHengel, Cedric Tang, Dave Parker and others who have offered suggestions on our last few albums). [update: I very carelessly left Peter Rodgers of this list, many apologies!]Say something about this post
All you Southern Australians we have an exciting conference for you to come to! Our good friend Mark Peterson has invited us to come play at Revelation Music Conference, 5-7th July 2012. Peter Adam is speaking and there will be some fantastic workshops and talks and performances.Say something about this post
Continuing our focus this month on small church music, I've been thinking of ways of leading which don't require massive musical resources.
The most obvious one is - a cappella! This means literally 'in the chapel style', because for many many years Christians sang without any form of accompaniment at all and so this became a distinctively 'chapel' style. Partly a reflection of Jewish synagogue practices (musical instruments were for the Jerusalem temple, not for your local synagogue), partly an attempt to define ourselves against our pagan neighbours, many early Christian leaders advised against using instruments at all:
Clement of Alexandria (115–c216) said to ‘no longer employ the ancient psaltery, trumpet, timbrel, or flute’, which ‘inflame desire, stir up lust, or arouse anger’ (he did make concession for the use of cithara and lyre at agape meals though because of the instruments mentioned in the Psalms). John Chrysostom (347-407) knew that the Psalms mentioned musical instruments, but thought they were only given as an accommodation to Israel's ‘dull temperament’.
The church now has had a bit longer to think this through, and has mostly come to the conclusion that we can have instruments without backsliding into Paganism (although electric guitars are still a bit suspect, I think). But that doesn't mean that we always have to use instruments!
Some of my fondest memories of Moore College chapel were when nobody organised an organist and so we stood in the beautiful old chapel building being led through the hymn book by Michael Jensen a cappella.
A Cappella music brings the voices out in a beautiful simplicity, making the the focus the people around you. It works well in small rooms, or in big reverberant rooms (not so much in an acoustically dry warehouse). Here's a nice example of a church which doesn't use instruments, but does use harmony and dynamics well:
- - start with songs that have a strong, well known melody. Hymns are great, but so are many contemporary tunes.
- - have somebody with a loudish voice and a good sense of pitch and time lead the crowd without a microphone. They need to give a starting note for each entry, and navigate any nasty pauses (crowds of untrained singers tend to collapse bars of rest down - so a one bar pause becomes anywhere between a millisecond and half a bar ... and everyone comes in whenever they like!)
- - as the leader, have a sense of the dynamics of each verse - particularly if you're doing a hymn! You don't want to belt out verse after verse at full blast. You can even direct half the crowd to sing one verse and the other half another. Or ladies/gents, solo/chorus... there are many possibilities.
- - start with a tuning fork to make sure you don't do the song in an impossible key! Or at the very least sing the song through in your head through all the sections to make sure the bridge isn't too high.
- - to teach a new song, distribute youtube links of the song for people to listen to. Or, for a less technological solution, sing each line antiphonally (call and response).
- The main thing is not to see a cappella as what happens when all else fails - it is a unique and legitimate art form in itself. It has many benefits over instrumental music. For instance, it opens up the possibility of harmonies in the crowd - in hymn singing we often force everybody to sing the same melody line, which makes it hard for sopranos, altos, tenors and basses to all find a range they're comfortable with. In traditional hymn singing, the tenors don't sing the same line as the basses, and everybody plays their own part. If well done, harmony can remind us (as Chrysostom puts it) of our membership of one body:
Our tongues are the chords of the cithara which come forth as a diverse sound yet form a divine harmony. Women, men, the aged, youth, are all certainly individual persons, but they are not individuals when they sing hymns, for the Spirit, governing the voice of each, brings about one melody in all.
- Some of our tunes which are worth having a go a cappella might be:
- Any others that you've tried and have worked? How did you do them?
I'll leave you, for inspiration, with the wonderful Australian a cappella group The Idea of North. It's not congregational, but it's a beautiful hymn!! Clement of Alexander, ‘The Tutor of Children’, in Lawrence Johnson, Worship in the Early Church: An Anthology of Historical Sources (Minnesota: Liturgical Press, 2009), para 832; Quasten, Music and Worship in Pagan and Christian Antiquity, 73.
 John Chrysostom, ‘On Psalm 149’, in Johnson, Worship in the Early Church: Anthology of Historical Sources, para 1470. Likewise Nicetas of Remesiana, ‘On The Usefulness of Psalmody’, para 3197.
 John Chrysostom, ‘On Psalm 145’, in Johnson, Worship in the Early Church: Anthology of Historical Sources, para 1469.
I mentioned in the last post that some songs are easier to arrange for small churches (with fewer musicians, etc) - so what do I look for?
My church has a bunch of different services, some of which are very small. Occasionally it has just been me (Andy) playing piano on my own with no song leaders and 10-15 people in the crowd. Here is what I look for:
-- Choose songs which are, well, good songs: this should be obvious, but all the things which apply to any church apply here - but in an acoustic environment the quality of the song is totally exposed, as there isn't a strong band or songleader to gloss over a deficient song. Pick a song which teaches great truths, in inspiring and memorable ways, with a melody which is very singable and matches the emotional content of the song.
-- Look for melodies with strong rhythms: In this context, the melody needs to drive itself along as much as possible. It's not good having a melody which is so complicated that everybody sings it differently. Nor do you want a melody which is rhythmically so simple that it relies on the accompaniment to create interest.
-- Syncopation is great, as long as it's groovy: If the rhythm is syncopated that's fine, as long as the pattern is a regular groove - think of the old youth group camp favourite 'Ancient of Days' - it's highly syncopated but the pattern is so regular that everyone can get it, and it actually adds a great rhythm to the song which means you don't need drums or strumming guitar to make it exciting.
-- Look for songs which use pitch well: Some of the best songwriters can create a sense of building tension simply by how the shape of the melody rises and falls in pitch: i.e. the song starts lower and builds while getting higher (but not too high). If you don't have lots of instruments to build excitement, let the song do the work for you!
-- Watch out for big spaces: Some songs have gaps in them which rely on instrumentation to fill in the void... this doesn't always work with a small church.
-- Grab the chords but don't feel the need to take the instrumental parts: When you take a song and put it in a new context you are re-interpreting the music into a new creation. So leave behind the CD version if it's not going to work with your room! Take the chords and the melody and the words and play them in a style that you think will work for you. The riffs might not be appropriate, but strumming through the chords on acoustic guitar might take the song in a whole new direction.
-- Think about the style of music which belongs in your style of room: Different secular artists play in different rooms, according to the type of music. More delicate and thoughtful artists tend to avoid 50,000 seater arenas. If you are in a small room with a handful of people, think about what types of music will work there and perform the songs in that style... indie folk, jazz, acoustic pop...whatever! Compare these two rooms and the music which is being made for them:
-- Don't try to be what you're not: If God wanted you to have a fourteen piece rock band he would have put you in a stadium. If he wanted you to have more guitarists than you have already, he would have given them to you. As it is, you currently have everything which he thinks you need. So rather than trying to create the awesome rock show to rival the latest worship CD you've bought, focus on creating a mood which is right for the room you're actually serving in. If it's an intimate crowd, then intimate music is appropriate - less jumping up and down, more delighting in this precious gathering of God's people.Say something about this post