Singing in church -- need advice


(Joel Norris) #1

I have a confession to make – I don’t like singing in church, and my emotional reaction to the prospect of singing eternal praise to God in heaven is not one of joy.

The reason is that every song we sing in my church, or any church, always goes outside the range of comfort and into the range of pain. We usually sing the soprano line from the Trinity Hymnal (men an octave down) or occasionally unison praise songs mostly adopted from soloists. Both are too high for me. How high? If everything were transposed down a fifth, it would be perfect for me. So if singing in church is comfortable for you and you want to understand my experience, try singing everything a fifth higher.

I think I would be classified as a bass-baritone, and my comfortable singing range is limited to the bass clef, including the F below. A choir director at a previous church once remarked that I was strongest in the lower part of my range, which she seemed to view as unusual. So singing the soprano line an octave down means spending a lot of time singing above the bass clef, which hurts my throat (although there are some hymns in the Trinity for which I am able to sing the entire soprano line two octaves down). Praise songs sung in unison are no better since the original soloist usually had a much higher voice range than mine, and if not, our former pianist transposed them higher to better suit her voice range before putting the music into our songbooks.

Some of you are probably wondering why I am not singing the bass line of hymns (though this would not help with unison praise songs). I would sing bass if I could, but it is extremely difficult for me to sustain a different tune when everyone else in church is singing the soprano line. It turns out that I am a trained musician without a shred of musical talent. This perplexed the teacher of a sightsinging course I took in college and a choir director in a previous church – I can easily read music and recognize intervals by ear, but I am unable to reliably sing the right notes. I know how it should sound and can easily recognize when it is off, but somehow my brain isn’t connected to my larynx so as to produce the intended pitch. I don’t have much trouble following along and singing the dominant tune, but it is extremely hard for me to pick up the bass line from a piano across the room.

Others are probably wondering why I am not content to simply make a “joyful noise unto the Lord”. This is my curse – I lack the ability to sing well but possess the ability to recognize when I am singing badly. And if we are praising God, shouldn’t we try to do things well?

I’ve raised the issue with the music committee and worship leaders at my church but haven’t gotten any traction. Part of it is that they have a higher voice range than mine, so the present situation suits them well. But the bigger part is that there is no easy solution. The Trinity Hymnal was never intended for unison singing, but that’s what we do because no one knows how to sing parts anymore, and it would be a huge task to teach parts to people who don’t even know how to read music. Transposing the Trinity soprano line or our praise songs lower to fit my range wouldn’t help either, since then they would be out of range for the sopranos and tenors. The reality is that singing in unison only works when the tune is in a narrow range – not going too high for people like me, and not going too low for the sopranos and tenors. This means we can’t use songs originally written for soloists because they have a large range, but what else is there?

Any suggestions?


(Kelly) #2

Have you ever sung any shape-note? My husband, who thought he was tone-deaf, greatly improved his singing by practicing shape-note, and going to shape-note sings. I wonder if it would be helpful for you to get in a lot more practice, so that eventually you can hold your own singing the bass.

Are there others at church who wish to learn parts as well? They might like to get together and work on parts. We do some of that, and it’s a lot of fun.

I know there’s a church that puts the soprano & alto parts of various hymns up on YouTube; that’s how I’ve learned the alto to some songs. I wonder if there’s someone else out there who does that with the bass & tenor…?

Edit: here’s that church’s channel- they call these videos the “Cantus Corner”, and the songs are lovely to listen to, even if you aren’t looking to learn the part!

https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCqKB-S_LFV2yijJh7EC5IIA


(Fr. Bill Mouser) #3

@Joel, you have my sincerest sympathies and my genuine frustrations on your behalf. In our much older hymnal (1940 Episcopal Hymnal), the problem also exists, but I think it’s to a smaller degree.

And, I make a suggestion which risks yanking this topic onto a different (and hotly contested) one, namely the singing of English texts of the Psalms, pointed for Anglican chant. The reasons that this is a fantastic solution for any group of Christians has almost nothing to do with theology of worship.

Here are the best (but not all) of those reasons:

  1. Anglican “chant” is not chanty at all. Never was, still isn’t. It’s highly melodic, so melodic as to risk becoming an ear bug.

  2. All Anglican chants are so simple to sing that anyone (except the genuinely tone deaf) can sing them from memory in about 2 minutes flat.

  3. All Anglican chants have exactly the same “shape.” Ten (rarely eleven) notes, four of them to the first half of a verse, the remaining six to the last half of a verse.

  4. Psalm texts are marked (with what’s called points) to guide the singer in knowing when the next note in the melody should be sung.

  5. Because of the rigid, inflexible form of a Psalm pointed to be sung, then any pointed Psalm can be sung to any Anglican chant!

  6. With an organ or similar source of music to help support the singers, a congregation can belt out a Psalm (or any pointed portion thereof). My parish routinely sings texts they’ve never sung before, doing it accurately the very first time. If you know how to ride a bike, you can ride any bike. If you can put on a glove, you can put on any glove. If you can sing a pointed Psalm text to Anglican chant, you can sing any Psalm to that chant. Or, to any other Anglican chant.

AND (here’s the kicker for you @Joel ) - Any chant - if it’s not already “in the range” can easily be transposed to a key that works for everyone. Shucks, most electronic keyboards/organs today can transpose between keys by twisting a dial or changing the position of a slide.

Finally, I guaran-damn-tee that singing the actual Psalm texts (not some rewritten thang) will NOT turn you into an Anglican.:smile:

If anyone wants to learn how to do this, I offer here to teach you via one or two live streaming video-sessions. I have my own Zoom account; you don’t need one to video-conference with me. PM me if you’re interested.


(Joel Norris) #4

Thanks for the response, Kelly. Does your husband use shape-notes to sing parts?

I read music well, and pretty much know on the fly what each note of the bass line is in terms of the do-re-mi system, and probably I would have an easier time singing bass if I actually sang do-re-mi instead of the actual words of the hymn. What is hard is going from one note to another in the bass line and not shifting to match the soprano note that everyone else is singing.

It would be good to find bass line alone for hymns, but all I have found is midi music that plays all parts together, and then it is difficult to discern what the bass line actually is.

I am hoping that my girls who are taking piano lessons now will eventually get to the point where they can sightread the Trinity Hymnal so we can practice at home.


(Joel Norris) #5

Thanks, @Fr_Bill.

Can you point me to the notes of the chant and to a pointed Psalm text? I could probably take it from there. Our church reads Psalms responsively from the Trinity Hymnal, but chanting Psalms might be good for family worship – we already use the family prayers at the end of the Reformed Episcopal BCP.


(Kelly) #6

He does. In fact, if he’s having a hard time with a particular hymn, he might sing the solfege softly until he feels ready to sing the words.

Practice of any kind will be helpful, but the shape-note I think would be especially helpful, since the solfege is sung before every song, and everyone sits in their own part’s section, so you get to hear your part very clearly while also hearing the others. It develops the ear in a number of ways.

Maybe you could pick one particular hymn that is often sung at your church and work only on that one for a while? Work your way up to a repertoire?


(Joel Norris) #7

The critical difference I see here is that your church sings parts, and mine does not. Being able to sing with other basses must be a great benefit. In my church pretty much everyone sings the soprano line except the fellow who sits a couple rows back from me, who instead enthusiastically follows his own tune.


(Kelly) #8

I get you. It’s hard to be the only one. I have a hard time picking out the alto, too, just from the piano. And my sight-reading is rudimentary!

We actually don’t have that many who sing parts. It’s mostly the melody. Alexander still has difficulties at times, as do I. But we sing a lot at home, and that helps. The more we can get the songs in our heads, the easier it is to hold our own.


(John M. ) #9

I’m completely untrained musically, and have no idea what a solfege or a shape note are, but I almost always will hum along to a new tune in church before I try to sing it.

Have you considered some voice classes? I don’t know about music, but my experience teaching pistol classes tells me that a little bit of training goes a long way. And folks who come in with prior training (like you have musically) tend to benefit more from the classes.


(Kelly) #10

Solfege is the collective name for the notes on the scale: do, re, mi, fa, so, la, ti, do (think Sound of Music)

Shape-note is a singing tradition which is meant to help people who can’t read music sing new songs with ease. It has deep roots in American history, and the song books are filled with Biblical themes, and hymns you would certainly recognize. Each note has its own shape, so it’s easy to identify do or mi at a glance. At a shape-note sing, we sit in a hollow square, facing each other, so we can hear all the parts (it’s quite an experience! so different from the thin singing we usually participate in). And we sing the shapes (solfege) of each song before we sing the words.

There’s your short introduction. :slight_smile:


(John M. ) #11

Thanks!
Twenty characters


(Kaleb Marshall) #12

A few tips come to mind.

  1. Make sure you can hear yourself. Take your fingertips and pull your ear forward. The heel of your hand should be down by your mouth. This will make it much easier to hear yourself.

  2. Join a local choir. You’ll have other people you can follow, and it’ll help you learn your part.

  3. Don’t worry about the words, sing a vague vowel. We sing on vowels 90% of the time anyway. Your mind will be freed up to think about the notes.

  4. Prepare. As Kelly already mentioned, you can look up many hymns, and some are broken down by parts. If you can peck out a tune on a piano, that’ll help you learn the tunes.

Alternately, you can use www.noteflight.com (I’m just a user) to write out the bass part and learn it ahead of time.


(Joseph Bayly) #13

Gotta love him.

I’m going to say that with one song at a time you’ll be able to really learn the part well and sing it alone at church. Perhaps there are individual parts sung on YouTube. Seems like everything else is there. I dunno. Or just have your kids play the bass line for you a few times. That’s a lot easier than sightreading the whole hymn.


(Paul Ojanen) #14

You may find others desiring to sing low too.

Regardless, I say take a queue from the enthusiastic guy. And don’t worry about anything else unless someone else mentions a problem. Even then, it may be their problem and not yours.

The only thing I get right from note to note consistently is whether to go higher or lower, the sign of the derivative. I’ll never been invited to a choir, but I’ve never been told to quiet down.

They’re a lot of good suggestions here. My problem at work and in much of life is letting great get in the way of good. That’s the way my boss puts it. So, by all means, be better if you want. But here’s a place to follow your heart, maybe like that guy in the back, in the meanwhile.

Yes, and heart over mind over matter.


(AndreasM) #15

Reminds me of this:

at 1:20 a bass singer comes in :wink: