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

Thursday, March 2, 2017

Lent I: A Cappella Sunday

photo credit: Music that Makes Community

This Sunday, my congregation in Toronto will be observing A Cappella Sunday, and I hope yours will too.

To begin this season of Lenten reflection and renewal, our entire worship service will be unaccompanied, joining our voices in praise and prayer without the support of instruments. At our church, worship is usually accompanied by some combination of piano, hand percussion, wind instruments, guitar, and occasional organ -- on this first Sunday of Lent, they will all remain silent to make way for the voice of the church.

A Cappella Sunday is an initiative started by the Center for Congregational Song of the Hymn Society in the United States and Canada, but it echoes a tradition already observed by many worshipping communities across North America and worldwide. If singing an entire worship service unaccompanied sounds daunting, start small: sing just one hymn or song a cappella. If you are singing an unaccompanied service for the first time, think about how the physical space of your sanctuary will impact congregational singing; I rope off some of our pews so that people sit closer together, a hack for robust singing that I learned from John Bell.

Lent is a particularly poignant season to sing unaccompanied. One element of the Lenten journey is lament, and the Psalms lift up some of the most anguished laments of the scriptures. You might intone the Psalms, or read them antiphonally with sung refrains; however you engage them, singing the Psalms unaccompanied connects us powerfully, with renewed attention, to this ancient prayer book of the church.

There are many reasons to take a Sunday to worship in this way, and some of them are outlined below, courtesy of Brian Hehn of the Center for Congregational Song. For resources and ideas on how to shape a service of unaccompanied singing, including hymn performance examples, contact me.

What:   A Capella Sunday is when worshiping communities across the United States commit to singing acapella in their Sunday morning worship service. For communities where this is a new concept, it could just be one hymn, but for communities that are more comfortable singing unaccompanied, they are encouraged to sing their entire service acapella. Below are why we do it, when we do it, and attached to this e-mail are some resources to help make it successful.
Why:     Spending one Sunday a year to focus on your congregation singing acapella (without instrumental accompaniment) has many benefits and purposes.
-          It connects us to the history of the church. For thousands of years, acapella singing was the mainstay of the church’s song. By recognizing this and exploring this way of music-making, we are acknowledging and honoring the saints of the past.
-          It connects us to many Christian denominations, traditions, and regions of the world that continue to use acapella music as their primary mode of music-making in corporate worship. Those include but are not limited to many Mennonite denominations, the Church of Christ, many Orthodox traditions, the Church of God in Christ, and South African Methodists. 
-          It offers to God something that is, for many congregations in the United States and Canada, a gift that is different from our usual music-making. Psalm 96:1 tells us to “Sing a new song to the Lord,” which can be achieved for some of us by singing acapella.
-          It encourages the congregation’s song by building up confidence in their own voices. Many in our congregations believe that they can’t sing, or can’t sing well. Singing acapella presents those people with the best opportunity to hear themselves and others singing, giving them a fresh perspective on their assumptions of their own abilities and the ability of the congregation’s combined voice.
-          It emphasizes the unique ability of instruments to enhance the congregation’s song. By showing the congregation that they can sing without instrumental accompaniment, instrumental accompaniment can then begin to enhance and empower the congregation’s voice rather than acting primarily as a crutch.
-          It allows the instrumentalists to spend a Sunday listening carefully to the congregation to assess where their voice needs support. Often times it is hard to listen carefully to the congregation when you are focusing on playing your instrument accurately and musically. This gives the instrumentalists permission to step away for a Sunday without feeling like they are leaving the congregation stranded.
-          Finally, singing acapella is fun! By removing our typical means of accompanying song, our minds are often challenged to come up with new and creative ways to sing together that maintains energy and vitality. It can bring out the best in not only the congregation, but in the musician’s leadership.

Courtesy of the Center for Congregational Song, the Hymn Society in the United States and Canada.

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Five Congregational Songs to Teach During Black History Month

February is Black History Month, and you may be wondering how to embody this theme in your worship services in the coming weeks. Singing together is one great way to engage with the diverse faith journeys and cultures of Canadians of colour. They say you don’t know someone until you walk a mile in their shoes, but I think relationships begin when we sing one another’s songs. Working to build these links in our worship and beyond is always vitally important, but it becomes all the more urgent in a time which has seen a deplorable upsurge of hatred and violence toward people of colour and other marginalized populations, both abroad and here at home. This February, and in all seasons as ministers of music, let us sing toward God’s vision of love and justice for the whole inhabited earth.

Your community may be mostly unfamiliar with this kind of repertoire. Or, these songs might already be familiar favourites, but you want to take this opportunity to learn a little more about their context. Teach one or more of them in the coming weeks, and keep on singing them throughout the year. (As a colleague once put it during a workshop on African American song: “We’re black all the rest of the year too!”)

Salaam aleikum / May Peace Be With You

words: traditional Ghanain (Arabic); music: traditional Ghanain

This gentle and playful song of blessing could be sung as people greet one another during the passing of the peace, or as a benediction to close the service. Its simple descending melody is punctuated by a fun call-and-response section where the leader calls out “salaam aleikum” and the people cry out “ho ya!” This ubiquitous greeting in Arabic means literally “peace be upon you” or “peace be with you.”

I learned this song from Debbie Lou Ludolph, leader of the interfaith global song choir Inshallah. When she teaches it, each shout of “ho ya!” gets a fist pump in the air. My children’s choir love this part, especially the five calls in a row at the end. You can accompany this song with guitar and djembe and shakers, with piano, or totally a cappella. If you think your congregation might be hesitant with shouts and fist pumps, consider having the children teach it to the congregation; adults are often more relaxed in engaging with new things when they are doing it for and with the kids. If you, as worship leader, introduce the song with confidence, your congregation will have confidence in the song.

The song is available in simple four-part harmony as arranged by Marc Anderson and Marty Haugen for GIA Publications, and is included in the Inshallah song book. Your congregation can learn this song completely by rote, with confident singers making up harmonies by ear as the song progresses.

Inshallah had this to say about the song: “This inclusive song of peace from Ghana has helped Inshallah sing peace with Arabic speaking neighbours, learn a basic Arab greeting, sing a prayer for peace in interfaith gatherings but in a non-English language, and welcome Syrian refugees. We have learned that language can both create barriers and break them down.”

Now Go in Peace

words: Michael Mair (b.1942), (c) Church of Scotland Panel on Worship
music: JUNKANOO, Caribbean folk melody, arr. Albert Chung, Faith Alive Christian Resources 

This is a simple going-out song inspired by Caribbean folk melodies. Its gentle syncopation and falling triadic motion evoke the idioms of Calypso music, and invite a simple accompaniment emphasizing the second and fourth beats of the bar. It’s easy to teach and learn by rote, and can be sung as a round.

The melody is named for the Junkanoo folk festival and parade which takes place across the Bahamas at the end of each year. The festival incorporates bright costumes and masks, dancing, and music. This folk tradition has a long history, and there are a few possible meanings of the word “junkanoo.” One possible origin is that it derives from the French term gens inconnus, meaning unknown people or strangers, since masks are an important part of the celebrations.

If you are introducing this song in worship, you may want to teach it as a simple melody, then bring it back in subsequent weeks and introduce the canon. To sing it in a round, designate another strong singer or two to help you, and lead the canon in two or three parts with a leader anchoring each group. I guarantee people will be singing this song to themselves all week.

“Now Go in Peace” appears in the Church Hymnary 4th ed. (#789), Lift Up Your Hearts (#951), and Sing! A New Creation (#289).

Photo by flickr user Errol Bodie

Guide My Feet

African-American spiritual, traditional

harmonized by Wendell P. Whalum (©1984)

This rousing four-part spiritual has a long tradition of being sung by rural African-Americans in the deep South. It is useful in many contexts, both in and out of worship, and can be adapted depending on the situation; its structure suggests it was at one time a call-and-response song, but it can be sung in straight four-part harmony as arranged by Wendell Whalum. “Guide My Feet” can be enlivened with a rhythmically-driven piano accompaniment, punctuated with trumpet and drum kit or hand percussion, or sung totally a cappella. It is a versatile song because the initial lines of each verse can be adapted and improvised on the spot; in addition to “guide my feet,” “hold my hand,” “stand by me,” “I’m your child,” you could also try “give me strength,” “share my load,” or “light my path.”

To free the singers from the printed score, teach the song by rote and have the choir support the harmonies. You can indicate to the singers which verse is coming next by singing over the final measure the words that are coming next. For example, as the congregation holds the word “vain,” sing “hold my hand!” on the fifth scale degree (or invent your own melody), and continue into the next verse without a break. You can also vary the repetitions with differences in dynamic level and by dropping out or adding in instrumentation.

“Guide My Feet” is printed in many hymnals; a selected list is available at Hear it here.

Feuilles-O (Haitian Kyrie)

Haitian folk song; adapted and arranged by Andrew Donaldson

Feuilles-O is a Haitian Creole folk song which depicts a mother caring for her sick child. As she cares for her child, she sings a prayer invoking the healing power of the leaves (feuilles) she is preparing. It was popularized in North America in the folk song movement of the 1960s, especially through a rendition by Simon and Garfunkel for their album Bridge Over Troubled Water. In 2010 when Haiti was devastated by an earthquake, hymn writer Andrew Donaldson adapted the tune as a setting of the liturgical prayer “Kyrie eleison,” “Lord, have mercy.” Donaldson’s version blends the Greek liturgical text with French lyrics that resonate with the original Creole song. Though time has passed and the world has turned its attention to other crises in the ensuing years, the challenges facing Haiti continue, and this song is one way of praying together with our siblings in Christ in other parts of the world. Consider interspersing the prayers of the people with this song as a refrain.

This song can be sung unaccompanied, or with hand drum and shaker accompaniment. Consider teaching the harmonies to the choir ahead of time, then introducing the melody to the congregation by rote. You can vary the texture by having a soloist sing the French line “sauvez-moi la vie,” with the whole assembly responding “Kyrie.” Take time when teaching it to help the singers “feel” the syncopation, especially the rhythmic motive of the first “eleison,” which can be pushed to have almost the feel of a triplet. A gentle crescendo through the held notes at m. 14 and 27 will help to keep the song’s forward momentum in these moments.

The Haitian Kyrie is available for free download on AndrewDonaldson’s website. Hear it here.

Total Praise

Richard Smallwood

Grammy award-winning Gospel music artist Richard Smallwood, who was inducted into the Gospel Music Hall of Fame in 2006, composed “Total Praise” in 1996. His composition has been a heart song for many African-American congregations, and it has become popularized more broadly through its inclusion in a number of denominational hymnals, including the African-American Heritage Hymnal (#113), Lead Me, Guide Me 2nd ed. (#457), and the recent Psalter collections Lift Up Your Hearts (#420) and Psalms for All Seasons (#121B). The song’s concise and heartfelt message echoes Psalms 121 and 24:

Lord, I will lift mine eyes to the hills
Knowing my help is coming from you...
You are the source of my strength,
You are the strength of my life,
I lift my hands in total praise to you.

The hushed, plaintive sentiment of the opening lines grows both in dynamics and intensity to meet the powerful chorus. With its gospel harmonies and singable, satisfying melody, this song epitomizes the idea of “sung prayer.” The voices of the people come together to make a powerful statement on God’s faithfulness, and on our response of reverence and gratitude. Accompany this piece with praise band instrumentation: piano or keyboard, drum kit, and bass. If you prepare the harmonies beforehand with the choir, they can serve as a support to the voice of the assembly.

Part of the impact of this song comes from its slow build to the climax—both emotional and dynamic—of the chorus and the thrilling final “amen.” Its impact is derived, in some ways, from the same structural idea as Ravel’s Bolero, the Beatles’ “A Day in the Life” from Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, or Rufus Wainwright’s Go or Go Ahead; a sustained growth across the whole song from a hushed piano opening to a roiling, full-throated climax.

This is a song that speaks from the heart. I asked some friends what moves them about Smallwood’s song. One said that its gradual buildup is like an oncoming storm, which you first see in the distance and which overtakes you with its power by the end. Another alluded to a flood of emotions that well up from deep within the worshiper in enormous gratitude for God’s care and love, a gratitude mirrored by the “distance” of the hills described by the hushed opening.

Hear "Total Praise" here.

Which of these songs might become a new heart song for your community? Try it this February – or any time – and find out. You’ll be amazed at what can happen once you break into song.

I am grateful to Andrew Butler and Geoffrey Moore for sharing their experience of “Total Praise” with me.

The Government of Canada has a resource page with information about notable Black Canadians, and videos celebrating Black History Month.

For more ideas about enlivening worship through congregational song, visit

Thursday, June 4, 2015

Top 5 Quotes from the Hymn Society Annual Conference

Each year at the annual conference of the Hymn Society in the United States and Canada, I am amazed by how many “aha!” moments that I have. Some of these can’t be boiled down to a sound bite, but many of them become handy phrases that reform and reshape my music ministry for the coming year. What’s also amazing is how they crop up in all different corners of the conference, from plenary addresses and sectionals, to rushed rehearsals for the Next Big Event, to casual chats over lunch or at the pub when the day is done.

Last year, the theme of the annual conference was one that resonated strongly with me, “Beyond the Page: The Power of Teaching to Strengthen Congregational Song.” I came home with many of the ideas, conversations, and “aha!” moments circling around my head √† la Looney Tunes; so in anticipation of this year’s summer conference in New Orleans, Louisiana, here are my top 5 quotes from last year’s conference:

5. “We are not bureaucrats who carry out some fill-in-the-blank exercise of plug-and-play worship.”

-- Marcia McFee

Worship consultant (and self-professed metaforager) Dr. Marcia McFee gave an amazing plenary presentation which blended congregational song, spoken word, rich visual imagery, rhythm, and silence. Her consultancy, Worship Design Studio, is a forum to explore and inspire engaging worship which marries the journey of faith with love for the arts. Marcia’s words remind us that, as church musicians, we are called to do more than what I would call an insert-song-here approach to worship leadership. While there is something to be said for familiarity, Marcia urges that there is delight to be found beyond the margins of our habitual experience. “Worship leadership,” Marcia told us, “is a kind of spiritual direction, one which we enact by placing signposts along the way, not by saying what kind of experience someone should be having in a given moment.” Rooted in an understanding of liturgy as “the work of the people,” Marcia urged that Christian ritual happens when individuals enact and embody a spiritual practice, and that an awesome task such as this cries out to be accomplished with and through art.

Note to self: Get “metaforager” added to my job description.

4. “We who are of the hegemony shouldn’t sing of God’s power too freely.” 

--Richard Leach

During lunch one day I was chatting with hymn writer Richard Leach. The Hymn Society is often an opportunity to discover hymnody that you would never encounter at your home church, and we were talking about some of what we had been singing over the previous day. Richard, referring to one of the selections, pointed out his uneasiness with some hymns written from within the culturally powerful North American context, how some hymns speak very freely of God’s great power, with the implicit assumption that God will wield this power in the service of the singers. Historically there are many examples of this, such as the steadfast hymns of German Protestantism (“Praise to the Lord! the Almighty, the King of creation!”; “A mighty fortress is our God... the Spirit and the gifts are ours through him who with us sideth.”) Or, take Cecil Frances Alexander’s “All things bright and beautiful,” which tells us that God ordained the social states of wealth and poverty (“The rich man in his castle, the poor man at his gate; God made them, high or lowly, and ordered their estate.”) “Hegemons shouldn’t sing about God’s power,” as Richard put it.

Now, these examples are hymns that I love, and I think Richard would agree with me that with proper context they still have a place in the worship life of the church. My point is, that as members of powerful mainline denominations, we have a responsibility to embrace hymnody which broadens our spiritual vocabulary and helps give voice to the voiceless. We should be just as ready to accept a framework for God and God’s church which wields no power at all, in the spirit of the one who came riding on a donkey, or of Pope Francis’s entreaty “oh, how I would like a poor church, and for the poor.” Richard’s own hymns explore images such as the dancing Trinity (“Come, join the dance of Trinity”), the paradox of the cross (“God has Chosen what is Foolish”), and the revolutionary quality of the Jesus event (“Waiting for Messiah”). Further, I think we also need to ask what is the context of some of these “power and might” texts: for example, many of the Psalms extol the greatness and might of God, but were written by a powerless people wandering in the wilderness. That is, it can be a life-giving thing for a disenfranchised people to claim a powerful God through song. My chat with Richard reminded me that we have to continually ask questions of the hymnody we sing, and be mindful of what claims we are making on divine power.

I ask you: at what other conference can you chat with amazing hymn writers about the prophetic quality of congregational song over catfish and hushpuppies in the cafeteria? The Hymn Society is the best.

3. “Church music should be subversive.”

-- Carl P. Daw, Jr.

One of the highlights for me of the breakout sectionals at last year’s conference was a presentation by Stephanie Budwey and Susan Blain called “Queer Hymnody.” This presentation grew in part out of Stephanie’s ongoing research into how the church sings a transgressive and nonconforming God, and what more needs to be done before our song fully reflects everyone on the prism’s colourful bands (to steal from paraphrase Mary Louise Bringle). This sectional voiced vital questions that we should be asking of congregational song in a time when LGBTQ youth are committing suicide in record numbers, among any number of other abuses and indignities about which the church should be enraged. The takeaway quote above comes from a prolific hymnwriter and former Executive Director of the Hymn Society, Carl Daw, whose own hymns voice the struggle of the marginalized and who has inspired students such as Stephanie Budwey, Adam Tice, and others to engage a fuller rainbow of congregational song. In calling for the subversiveness of church music, I think Carl is not saying that it should alienate singers who aren’t used to this imagery, but that church music has a responsibility to reflect the one who overturned tables in the temple in the name of justice. Stephanie discussed new contributions to this genre that have emerged from the Hymn Society, such as Edward Moran’s “God of Queer Transgressive Spaces,” as well as exploring queer readings of more familiar texts, in dialogue with queer theology. I was reminded of early Canadian contributions to this movement, such as Gordon Light’s popular “Draw the Circle Wide,” which was ahead of its time in voicing a hope that the love of Christ can open every door: 

Draw the circle wide 
Draw it wider still 
Let this be our song 
no one stands alone...

I left the sectional energized by the discussion, and hopeful that we are continuing to take steps toward a church which is a house of prayer for all people.

2. “The task of the church musician is to drill down deep into the reality that the divine manifests itself in the human in ways that fall outside of language.”

-- Christopher Anderson

Another highlight of last year’s conference was Dr. Christopher Anderson’s plenary address “What do you think you’re doing?: The Musician and Teacher Beyond the Page.” (His talk has since been published in the Autumn 2014 edition of The Hymn, and seriously, drop what you’re doing and read it now; like, I would get a tattoo of this entire article if it were feasible). Anderson’s forays into the whys and wherefores of our profession resist reduction into pithy quotes; but he asks the church musician what it is, exactly, that we think we’re doing when we put words to music and lead them in worship (whether from the organ bench, conductor’s stand, djembe, guitar, praise band, whatever). He argues that “it” is about more than what is printed on the page; music partners with words toward a shared end that is more than either of them accomplish alone. In this way, the role of the church musician is to educate, if we take the Latin sense of the word educare, that is, to lead someone from one state into another. For him, music, like gospel, is an embodied act, an impulse that moves in the created order. It is the nature of this musically embodied act that it is never the same twice, and through it we are changed.

Another quotable quote from this speaker (who, it should be said, has inspired in many a love of scholarship and academic pursuit): “Reality never went to the academy.” As a graduate of a university music programme now working in congregational ministry, I say “amen!”

1. “Attending the Hymn Society conference has been like if I had only ever seen rivers, or lakes, and then seeing the ocean for the first time.”

-- Eric Sarwar 

A huge bonus of each year’s Hymn Society conference is that I always make a few new friends for the journey. Eric Sarwar is a composer and a research fellow at the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship.  It was his first time attending a Hymn Society conference, and on the last day, after we had participated in the closing hymn festival with Jorge Lockward and Amanda Powell, this was his response. I couldn’t agree more, in part because the Hymn Society is a place where church musicians can meet and trade ideas / experiences / challenges from the day-to-day of worship leadership, and explore music, prayer practices, and possibilities that you might not have been able to imagine in your own context. I couldn’t imagine tackling this vocation without the friends and colleagues I have made at the Hymn Society, and I know my ministry is both the richer and the humbler for it.

In anticipation of another amazing Hymn Society conference this year, I say godspeed to everyone planning, preparing, and attending New Orleans, and blessings for another year of adventures in music ministry.

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Teaching Plan - "Sithi Haleluya"

Break into Song, Episode 3

Liturgical Use: Gathering Song, Processional, Sung Benediction, Offertory, Easter Season

"Sithi Haleluya" is an Ndebele chorus from Zimbabwe. They say you don't really know someone until you walk a mile in their shoes, but I think relationships begin when we sing one another's songs. "Sithi Haleluya" expresses the solidarity of a community on this journey, sharing life's struggles and pains while rejoicing in expectation of the life to come. This song, along with others such as "Senzeni na?," "Freedom is Coming," and "We are marching in the light of God," took on new meaning during the anti-Apartheid movement in South Africa.

These teaching tips will help you to introduce this song to your choir and congregation. You can also watch Episode 3 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 arrangement of "Sithi Haleluya" published in Chaia Marimba Music Book 3, by Maria Minnaar-Bailey, available from West Music. Minnaar-Bailey's excellent -- and infectiously joyful -- resource of Christian songs from Zimbabwe and South Africa features bilingual settings of four-part choruses and an accompanying CD of Zimbabwean marimba accompaniments. Her explanatory comments are a window into cross-cultural worship in a contemporary context (learn more about her teaching at

In Minaar-Bailey's arrangement, the song is in two of the three main languages of Zimbabwe: Shona and Ndebele (nn-deh-BEH-leh). We added an English translation for Break into Song which you are also welcome to use (see bottom of this post).

Another version of the song appears in the Wild Goose Publications' 1985 resource Freedom is Coming: Songs of Protest and Praise from South Africa, compiled and edited by Anders Nyberg.

It’s important to teach this song in a way that people aren’t tied down to the printed score, so that they’re freed up to move and dance. There are three main things you need to get across: how to feel the song’s rhythm, how to understand and pronounce the Ndebele words, and how to participate in the call-and-response structure.

Teaching the Choir

Choir Practice 1 of 3

      Feel the Rhythm

  • You may find a good way to start is to give a bit of context for the song, and for singing songs from diverse global contexts more generally. Why should we sing songs from different places and in unfamiliar languages? There are many reasons, and some will resonate with your community more than others. I like to say that singing in worship is sacrificial and is therefore an act of loving service; that is, (to borrow from my friend John Thornburg), sometimes in worship we are singing not for ourselves but for the person sitting in the pew next to us. To take that idea a step further (and to borrow from global ecumenical liturgist Andrew Donaldson), sometimes, we are singing for the person not yet sitting next to us in the pews.
  • Rhythm is very important to this piece. I like to begin teaching it with a simple rhythmic exercise that gets the beat into the singers' bodies. Build up three distinct rhythms adding one on top of another:
    • Basses: Quarter-note pulse (stepping or tapping feet)
    • Tenors and Altos: Quarter-eighth rhythm (slapping/tapping legs; corresponds to "Walking on we go")
    • Sopranos: Dotted eighth-sixteenth rhythm (clapping; corresponds to "Haleluya" rhythm)
    • The distinction between these last two rhythms is particularly important as they play off one another quite a bit in this piece.
    • Let the rhythmic ostinato go around and around for a while until everyone has captured the beat.
       Learn the "Haleluyas"
  • When I teach this song, I like to teach the second half of the song first. The Haleluya section starting at m.9 (what I tend to refer to as the "Refrain" or the "B-section" of the song) is a little simpler than the first part and easily picked up, so it can be a satisfying learning curve to nail that first, then be able to move from the more difficult first section into something you already know as the song gets going.
  • Speak the rhythm of the haleluyas all together, then add pitches. This song can be taught entirely a cappella, and is a great one to use as an exercise in tuning if you are trying to strengthen your choir's unaccompanied singing. You may wish to isolate the parts - SA and TB are natural pairings in this song, as well as hearing the outer voices (SB) against one another, then filling in the inner voices once the foundation is solid.
      Prepare the Foundation - Bass/Tenor Ostinato
  • Once you've learned the second half of the song, work on Part A. Have the Basses speak their rhythmic ostinato several times ("Walking on we go, walking on we go...")  I like to learn the song in English first, which allows the group to get a sense of the song more quickly, and then try the Ndebele.
  • Have the Tenors speak their rhythmic ostinato, which differs slightly from the Basses. They may find it a bit tricky to draw out the word "go" the second time; have them try it on their own and speaking it against the Bass part until it's solid.
  • When the spoken rhythms are secure, learn the notes. Listen for tuning as the Basses climb up by perfect fifths - this can be a bit tricky.

      Explore the Treble Parts

  • Again, start with the English text spoken in rhythm for the Sopranos and Altos. Make sure that the rhythms for "world of woe" and "calls us on" are the dotted-eighth sixteenth figure and don't warp into a quarter-plus-eighth.
  • Sing the parts, perhaps starting at a slower tempo. When the notes and text are solid, speed it up a bit -- though this isn't an overly fast song so don't feel the need to rush it.
      Put it all together
  • Give it a try, and don't worry if it's not perfect. As the music leader, try cantoring a pickup line over the ends of phrases to indicate that a new repetition of the song is starting; when all the languages have been learned, you can do this to indicate what language to switch to in the moment.

Choir Practice 2 of 3

  • At a second practice of the song, sing through what the choir has learned so far and see what you remember. Encourage the choir to move as they sing - it's a pretty lively and infectious song and lends itself well to movement.
      Introduce the Ndebele
  • I like to start by reading through the entire text out of rhythm, then taking some time to go over the meaning of individual words. The meaning of the Ndebele (nn-deh-BEH-leh) text is reflected in the translation used in Break into Song:
    • singaba = we
    • hamba = walk
    • thina = another word meaning "we" (emphasis on the community; here we are, we ourselves)
    • kulumhlaba = "place of troubles" (ku = place)
    • siye/siya = we are going
    • kaya = home (siyekhaya = we are going home)
    • ezulwini = heaven (i.e., "we are going home to heaven")
    • sithi = we say, or, we sing (not a big distinction in Ndebele, unlike in English)
    • woh = vocable, nonsense syllable; "yeah"
  • There is one main pronunciation different of Ndebele with a sound we don't have in English. The word "kulumhlaba" features an "hl" sound which is made by forming a "d" or an "l" with the mouth, but then using that shape to blow the air out the sides. It sounds a bit like hissing or lisping. It sounds a little bit like when Sylvester the Cat says "Sssufferin' sssuccotash!" Have the choir try just this sound on its own, then within the whole word "kulumhlaba," then in rhythm with the rest of the text.
  • Teach the text by speaking it in rhythm in small chunks (a couple of words at a time) and have the choir answer back. 
  • Remind your choir that it's okay if their Ndebele isn't totally perfect! The kind of humility that comes from exploring a new language, to making ourselves vulnerable and even laughing at ourselves, is part of what is powerful about exploring congregational song from a variety of contexts.
  • Once the words are coming together, put the Ndebele to the music.
  • Put it all together and see how you do. As cantor, try singing a tag line over the end of the Haleluyas to indicate whether the upcoming repetition will be in Ndebele or English.

Choir Practice 3 of 3

  • At a third practice of the song (or at the end of the second if your choir seems ready for it), learn the dance. Dancing and moving is as integral to African choruses as singing (and of course, drumming). 
  • The simple dance consists of a few basic moves:
    • Together we walk along... - "Walking" along to the quarter note beat (walking in place)
    • For heaven calls... - Gesture arms from one side to another
    • Home we go - Point upward (to heaven)
    • Haleluya... - basically a "jazz hands" move back and forth
    • Note that the text essentially illustrates the words, so the men will just walk for Part A and gesture the "Haleluyas" for Part B. You can stop walking during the Haleluyas and just do your (liturgical) jazz hands.

If you'd like some help learning the dance, Maria Minnaar-Bailey teaches it midway through Episode 3 of Break into Song.

Teaching the Congregation

We've all been in worship services like this: a leader gets up on front of the group and says "alright everybody, we're going to do something new, you're probably not going to like it..."

The impulse to forewarn a congregation that we are about to do something unexpected and unfamiliar is an understandable one, but it does a great disservice to a new song to preface it with the idea that it might not go over well. It plants the seed of doubt before anyone has even experienced the music. I like to keep the attitude that any song chosen for worship is worth doing well, and in a manner respectful to its original context (whether that's a William Byrd motet, a lilting anthem by Faur√©, or a syncopated African chorus in three languages). 

You can teach the melody of this song to your congregation in a simplified version of how you taught it to the choir:
  • Give a bit of context for the song;
  • Learn the Haleluyas first in a call-and-response manner;
  • Speak the text in rhythm;
  • Add the notes;
  • Learn the dance, and go for it.
You may wish to learn just the English and dance one week, then the Ndebele another time; or one "element" at a time over several services (English, Ndebele, dancing). See what you think will be the most supportive way to learn for your group. 

Sithi Haleluya (English translation):
(By Hilary Donaldson, Andrew Donaldson, and Maria Minnaar-Bailey)

   Together we walk along in this world of woe,
   For heaven calls us on,
   And home we go.
   Haleluya, haleluya, 
   haleluya, haleluya, haleluya!

     Bass ostinato: Walking on we go...
     Tenor ostinato: Walking on we go, walking on we go, on to our heav'nly home we go!

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