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?