Thoughts on worship, congregational song
and the life of the church.

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Teaching Plan - "She Flies On"

Break into Song, Episode 2

Liturgical Use: Day of Pentecost, Pentecost Season, Visitation of Mary to Elizabeth, commissioning

"She Flies On" is a lyrical Canadian song in a folk style. This song casts the Holy Spirit as a dove soaring through the Christian narrative, and its beautiful chorus invites the singer to journey along with her and to engage in the ongoing work of the Spirit. The richness of scriptural allusions and easy singability of this song highlight what a blessing it is when an ordained minister becomes a songwriter; lyricist Gordon Light (of the Common Cup Company) is also well-known for his text "Draw the Circle Wide."

These teaching tips will help you to introduce this song to your choir and congregation. You can also watch Episode 2 of Break into Song to get a sense of the background, rehearsal tips, and possible worship uses for this song. The following comments are based on the Choral/Congregational arrangement of "She Flies On" used in the episode; this arrangement is available for purchase at

The hymnal version of "She Flies On" appears in: Common Praise (Anglican Church of Canada, 1998) #656; Sing the Faith (Presbyterian Church U.S.A.) #2122; The Faith We Sing (United Methodist Church U.S.A., 2000) #2122; Voices United (United Church of Canada, 1993) #380; The Book of Praise (Presbyterian Church in Canada, 1997) #403, and a number of other publications.

Sometimes music directors and their choirs believe that a piece like this is “just a hymn,” and that the real choral attention should go to the anthem. But this song is just as deserving as any other of beautiful shaping and attention to detail, and bringing the choir and congregation together in song can be a highlight of worship.

Teaching the Choir:

Choir Practice 1 of 2

  • For the sake of discussion, I like to have the choir label the simple SATB chorus as "Chorus A" (mm. 1--17) and the descant-like chorus "Chorus B" (mm. 36--50)
  • Begin by sight reading the parts of Chorus A to a neutral syllable, like "pa" or "no"
  • If needed, isolate the parts further, such as Sopranos and Basses only, then Altos and Tenors, or SA only, then TB only. Which of these is most helpful will depend on your ensemble.
  • Listen carefully for the syncopated rhythm at the end of Chorus A, what would be the text "...she flies on." Many ensembles have difficulty placing these two syncopations, especially having the final word "on" arrive after the downbeat.
  • Sight-read Chorus B to a neutral syllable. Listen for correct pitches, and especially for the crunches between dissonant parts, e.g. between Sopranos and Altos at mm.39-41.
  • If needed, isolate these parts further. Listen carefully for a beautiful, clean convergence onto the open fifth at the end of this chorus.
Choir Practice 2 of 2
  • Speak the text of the chorus in rhythm.
  • Listen for diction pitfalls (which will differ depending on the geographical location). I tend to have to address issues like a very pronounced "arrrrr" sound on both "her" and "journey," a good vowel on the long-held word "on" (m. 8), and the subtle but important distinction between singing "she flies on" and "she fliezon."
  • Listen for correct consonant placement, which helps the long notes be clean and soaring. Try to unify the T's on "flight," "night," and "light," for example.
  • I like to remind choristers to speak the text with the same joy and expression they'll use to sing it, because the way we do a preparatory exercise will really colour how we eventually come to sing. Listen especially for some life in the words "full of laughter, full of light."
  • Discuss the road map of the piece. I like to point out that each of the two choruses gets sung twice, and that the two instances of Chorus B come in the middle, together; that is, Chorus A bookends or sandwiches Chorus B.
  • Determine who will sing the different verses; we used a soloist throughout, except for the final verse which was sung by everyone. Chorus B is a kind of choral descant, meant to decorate the congregation singing the melody; don't worry if the melody sounds imbalanced during rehearsal, as the whole congregation will sing it in worship.
Teaching the Congregation:

Take some time at the start of worship to introduce the song. I like to speak a little bit about the context of the song, and/or draw people's attention to some of the interesting imagery. You may wish to address the idea of the Holy Spirit as "she," or this may be a natural idea in your community. 

Teach the chorus by demonstrating a line at a time while lining-out. I like to draw the congregation's attention to the long-held note on "she flies on," as we don't often get to sustain a nice long note in hymnody, and in this case the long note is illustrating the meaning of the text. You might have them give this note a try, and support their singing with an encouraging gesture to draw out the more reluctant singers.

This song is also a good example of how the text printed in a hymnal is more of a guideline than a rule. For accompanists, this means not feeling tied to the notes printed on the page. In hymnals, "She flies on" is usually written in simple block chords with a suggested guitar progression. But that doesn't mean you have to do it exactly that way. Consider varying the texture from verse to verse to create variety, or improvise an accompaniment that echoes the imagery of the song.

For singing, here are some ideas of how you might vary the texture to create variety throughout this (somewhat longer than is typical) hymn:

Chorus 1: All (unison)
Verse 1: Soloist
Verse 2: Choir women
Chorus 2: All (choir SATB)
Verse 3: Soloist
Verse 4: Choir men
Chorus 3: All
Verse 5: All (unison)
Chorus 4: All (choir SATB)

Chorus 1: Soloist
Verse 1: Soloist
Verse 2: Choir (unison)
Chorus 2: All (unison)
Verse 3: First half choir women, second half choir men
Verse 4: All (unison)
Chorus 3: All (choir SATB)
Verse 5: All (unison)
Chorus 4: All (choir SATB)

When you come to sing it, give simple gestures throughout to help the congregation know when they are meant to sing. It can even be helpful to indicate with a gentle "stop sign" gesture if a moment is coming when the congregation is meant not to sing - knowing when to be quiet is as helpful as knowing when to come in, and I think many congregants appreciate the information.

Have fun, and let me know how it goes! You'll be amazed at what can happen once you break into song.

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