Review of John Bell’s The Singing Thing Too

Several weeks ago I wrote a review of John L. Bell’s book The Singing Thing: A Case for Congregational Song. I (finally) finished reading the sequel, The Singing Thing Too: Enabling Congregations to Sing (Wild Goose Resource Group/GIA Publications, 2007), and I’d like to share a few thoughts on this volume.

singingthingtoo

First, I want to emphasize that my taking so long to read the book in no way reflects the quality of the writing. The Singing Thing Too is every bit as helpful as it predecessor, and I recommend it for all leaders of congregational song. Bell warns in his introduction, “be prepared to have your musical, denomination and aesthetic sensitivities tramped on as you wend your way through these pages. But also be prepared to try things out. For this is a starter pack rather than a blueprint” (10). If you’re new to congregational song leadership you will find this book to be educational and practical. If you’re a seasoned song leader you will be encouraged and reminded of basic, yet important, principles of musical leadership.

johnlbell

John L. Bell

Bell discusses the difference between a choir and a congregation in a chapter entitled “Lion-taming for lambs or sheep-rearing for tigers.” This section is especially helpful for congregational leaders who have been trained as choral directors. (Here’s looking at you, ACDA folks.) There are important differences between choirs and congregations, and underlying Bell’s writing is the deep conviction that congregations deserve at least as much respect and devotion as choirs.

The chapter on teaching technique is the most practical. In fact, I wish that I had been given this chapter to read waaaaay back in my early days of undergraduate study. Music ministers have a tendency either to make congregational instruction too complex or to completely ignore the need for it. Bell gives excellent tips for using the mind, voice, and physical gestures in teaching a congregation to sing. He first emphasizes that the music leader needs to really know the songs he is leading. The leader should be able to teach without staring at a sheet of notation. She should also be able to sing the melody without playing it on an instrument. Congregants will assume that if the leader can’t sing a song then they can’t either.

Bell devotes several pages to a topic that I have rarely heard anyone else mention: rehearsing the congregation. A music minister would never expect her choir, orchestra, or praise band to perform a song on Sunday morning without having gone through it beforehand. However, I know that the act of teaching the congregation a new song can feel very ‘unspiritual,’ which is why we ignorantly “presume that it is by the alchemy of osmosis that a congregation should be able to sing immediately a song they have never rehearsed!” (19). Bell makes a strong case for a short congregational rehearsal prior to the start of worship. “Indeed, if we believe that ‘full, active and conscious participation’ is essential for good liturgy, we should view the teaching of new material as part of the gathering rite in which the community discovers its identity as a singing assembly” (29). If the congregation is going to offer its gift of song to God, it should be given time to practice a bit, or at least get to know the songs it will sing. Moreover, I’ve found that a short time of informal teaching can be a wonderful, relationally-focused prelude to corporate worship.

Finally in regard to teaching, Bell advises, “Think less about being the knowledgeable musician and more about being the enthusiast who would like to get his or her friends to sing a really good song” (27). And he’s right – this is really who pastoral musicians are. A skilled songleader functions more as an enabler or enlivener than as a director: “The good teacher does the job quickly, then the teacher gets out of the way to let the song be a common offering” (42). I suggest this should be a guideline for ministers, no matter their area of expertise.

Following the chapter on teaching technique is a lengthy section (with examples) about song types and how they may be used with integrity. “Musical integrity—and it is a matter of integrity—requires that we respect the different types and styles of tune, and sing and/or accompany them in the best way, which sometimes might be in the original manner” (82). I’ll confess that this chapter was a bit long for me, but it is a good introduction for someone with minimal knowledge of various types of congregational music.

Let me end by sharing a couple of especially poignant quotes, each worth a read and a re-read:

“Musicianship is not about one person being able to do everything, or adapting what he or she cannot do to fit his or her skill level. It is about discerning how any given tune can best be articulated” (109).

“Leading congregational song calls for more than technique. It depends primarily on the relationship which the musician forges with the assembled people and on his or her desire to enable sung texts to become meaningful experience” (123).

Now go read this book, and please share your comments!

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