“I will pray with the spirit, and I will pray with the understanding also: I will sing with the spirit, and I will sing with the understanding also.”
1 Corinthians 14:15 KJV
IN SOME CHURCHES, THE ONLY PERSON WHO EVER HAS THE PRIVILEGE OF SINGING THE PITHY FIRST PHRASE OF A SONG IS THE LEADER. While many have debated where the line is between trying to turn the church into a choral group and neglecting the music entirely, there ought to be one thing we all agree upon–if it is worship from the heart, the words matter above all else. So why would we deprive the church of the most essential phrase of most songs, the thesis?
I suppose the argument goes something like this: “Well, you know, the music isn’t so important after all, and we don’t need to get too carried away with perfection here, so why don’t you just start singing and let the church jump in somewhere?” Or perhaps like this: “We don’t want to waste time up there with getting the pitch or fancy hand motions that nobody understands anyway, so we’ll just sing.” The effect of these statements is that we have reduced the worship leader to a “song starter.” He cannot be called a leader because nobody can follow him. The church cannot follow him because he is not directing; he is not telling them where he is going so that they can be prepared to go with him. Effectively, the song starter is taking off and leaving everyone else in the dust to try to catch up. As the church takes a good breath and starts pitch hunting, the entire first phrase or two is usually lost, or at least glossed over. What a tragedy!
While one should never attempt to force everyone to sing the first note or line of each song, it would behoove the conscientious leader to afford the willing the opportunity. It’s true, some folks have been starting in on the second or third phrase for so long that you probably couldn’t get them to begin at the beginning with a bouncing Mickey Mouse head. However, many of us treasure each word to the hymns we sing. Have you ever considered the countless hours the authors put into composing the lyrics of a single hymn, many of which were poured into the first phrase? Some hymnals are indexed by first line, but I wonder how many people really even know the first line. Perhaps the editors ought to index by second line instead! All kidding aside, my brothers who would lead us in worship, let the church sing the hymn and sing it in its entirety!
There are two very simple methods to enable the church to begin at the beginning: 1.) starting pitch, and 2.) the breath beat.
The starting pitch may be given to the congregation most effectively in solfege. If one is concerned that the church will not understand solfege, those who do understand will help you begin effectively. Those who do not may learn over time. The leader should determine “Do” from the key signature and find it with a pitching device. He should then face the church and sound “Do” and the beginning syllable for the lead part, often “Do,” “Mi,” or “Sol” for major scale pieces and “La,” “Do,” or “Mi” for minor scale works. He should face the church and make eye contact because the pitch is not just for him, it is also for them. It is not necessary to sound the beginning syllable for all four parts. Generally, anyone who understands solfege will be able to find their part immediately just by hearing “Do.” Incidentally, if the pitch is more than a step off from where it is written, the church will listen awkwardly for as many as several phrases in confusion since they are listening for their part in its proper range and they cannot hear it.
The breath beat lets the church know when to breath and when to sing. The leader should face the church, make eye contact, and begin conducting with one full beat prior to the beginning beat. For example, in 4/4 time with no pick-up measure where the first beat is 1, the conductor will give beat 4 as a breath beat and begin singing on 1–the down beat. The leader should also exaggerate the breath with his mouth so that he leads with his face and body as well as with his hand. Subconsciously, even non-musicians can follow that! As some have said, “Singing is for believers, not just for singers.” So lead in such a way that everyone can follow you.
NOTE: Keep your transitions as brief and smooth as possible. Do not take longer than necessary between songs.
If the above has not convinced you to facilitate beginning together, here are a few final considerations.
Worship is to be offered with reverence (Psalm 2:11). The attitude of “Let’s just have singing [and minimize the details]” is beneath our capability and the Lord’s expectation.
Worship is to be shared in unity (Romans 15:6). Could it give us a sense of unity to begin and end each song together?
Worship is to be orderly (1 Corinthians 14:40). Is a careless attitude toward the singing in the assembly in keeping with the intended character of the gathered people of the King of the Glory?
The worship leader may choose to make exceptions for medleys, the response song, or a call to worship song. Just bear in mind the principles already discussed. If you are going to omit the starting pitch and breath beat, there should be a compelling purpose. Try to arrange medleys with a natural pitch transition where the ending and beginning notes are the same or close enough to adjust without harm. It is simple enough to give a breath beat for each song even in a medley.
“Begin at the beginning,” the King said, very gravely, “and go on till you come to the end: then stop.”
LEWIS CARROLL, ALICE IN WONDERLAND