Fundamentals of Gospel Song Directing

A Discussion of Ideals, Objectives, and Technique.

By HARLYN ABEL, Professor of Music, La Sierra College, California

There is a desperate shortage of singing evangelists in our ranks. It would be a waste of time to attempt to ascertain just why there is such a shortage in this phase of the ministry. There are no doubt many contribut­ing factors. But the fact remains that there is an urgent need for consecrated gospel song leaders who have an insight into the possibili­ties of this wonderful gift of song, and who are so closely connected with divine power that they can be used to win souls through this gift.

Inspiring people to sing is not an ordinary task. It takes skill. It requires an understand­ing of human nature and how it reacts. Merely beating time will not answer the purpose. There is nothing that inspires participation in beautiful music like beautiful music itself. He who would be successful in this part of the min­istry must establish, early in his youth, proper habits of conduct that pertain to his physical, mental, and spiritual growth. Correct singing neither offends the ear of the listener nor does damage to the voice of the singer. For this reason the singing evangelist should carefully guard against harsh, loud, noisy pronunciation, that does so much harm to the voice. There is considerable difference between a singer with a good voice, who understands the correct appli­cation of power in producing a vocal utterance full of virility and color, and one with a loud, noisy voice.

Because of the fact that people are so easily influenced, and are so willing to be led in a service of praise and thanksgiving to their Cre­ator, it has become increasingly important that the leader demonstrate correct singing. He should direct in such a way that it does not at­tract attention to himself just to create an effect. But rather he should enter into the spirit of the song and inspire a freedom of ex­pression which, when joined by the heavenly choir, makes the very courts of heaven ring with joyful, harmonious exaltations to the King of the universe.

In assisting the future song leaders who come to us for preparation in this important service, we should outline a careful program. A theory class, a conducting class with field assignments, private vocal study, and choir, in addition to the regular courses of study, make up a com­plete program. It is easy to understand the reason for most of these required subjects, but many times the question arises regarding choir work, even including the a cappella choir.

Remarks such as the following are sometimes heard : "We enjoy the choir and all that, but is it an essential part of the building program ? Besides, most of those who take choir training will not have the opportunity of conducting such choirs in the average tent meeting or church, or even in radio efforts. And, too, the kind of music they sing is not gospel music, is it?" Allow me to show briefly just how the choir at La Sierra College, for instance, fits into the building program of the ministry of music.

Requisites in the Course of Training

Health and Posture.—Health and vitality are the first prerequisites to success in any branch of the work. Emphasis is placed upon physical education. Every choir member is required to do a certain amount of physical exercise every day in order to maintain a ha­bitually correct posture. One of the world's greatest voice builders has said that ninety per cent of all vocal difficulties could be cured by correcting the posture. During the singing period, correct posture, either sitting or stand­ing, is mandatory.

Getting the Pitch.—The second require­ment is tuning. A tuning bar, tuned to A 440, is hung on the wall of the rehearsal room. As the bar is struck, every member hums the pitch quietly. When we consider that all natural voices will tune one with the other almost ha­bitually, we realize that this effect assists the conductor in finding the voice that is out of place. He can then correct the difficulty, thereby permitting the singer to co-ordinate with the others. This practice does not take away individuality, but helps in establishing a habitually natural position of the voice box. "In unity there is strength."

Correct Pronunciation.—Pronunciation is the third step. Correct English is studied pho­netically. Standards are taken from universally accepted dictionaries, and from rules recom­mended by prominent radio authorities and recording laboratories. Choral participation in this study is accomplished by having the choir chant a rhythmic series of vocal phonetics while in correct posture and in tune. The Eng­lish language, when spoken and sung correctly, is beautiful—few other languages being as pleasant to the ear. When we set in vibration the pure vowels and vocal consonants, and sharpen their understanding with the other types of consonants, then subject that unre­stricted utterance to the will of the mind which makes use of the interpretation inborn in good music, the effect on the listener is pleasant, and the singer continues to grow vocally and has the satisfaction of creating something worthwhile.

Adaptation to Composition.—Next comes adaptation to the composition. A properly bal­anced voice should be able to sing any note within the normal three-octave range, taking into consideration the modification of vowels in the ascending scale ; that is, all vowels naturally shade toward the sound of "uh" as the voice ap­proaches the top of the range. Therefore proper habits are to be established early in the training of the voice and closely adhered to while singing. If these simple rules are fol­lowed, the voice will grow in strength and virility, and continue to be of service after the average voice has broken down because of mis­use. The unfortunate individual who has not followed these rules finds himself making such excuses as, "I used to be able to sing, but I can't now." This is regrettable, because at the age of vocal maturity (between forty and fifty years of age) he could be of greater service than ever with his rich background of experi­ence in life.

The kind of music selected for the class to study varies with the demand of various occa­sions. For this year our choir here at La Sierra College has participated in a church dedication, several anniversary celebrations, a Victory Bond drive, sacred and secular radio broad­casts, a College Day program, and a special broadcast for the Red Cross drive. Plans are now being laid to visit some of the near-by churches and efforts. All these activities help to break down prejudice and give the students a variety of training.

Choirs in our colleges should not be for the chosen few. The choir is a training center. A student who comes into the choir with the idea that he is making a most valuable contribution to the organization is wasting time and dam­aging his own character.

Students who begin to establish proper vocal habits, who then take the directing class, and try their skill on the various activities about the college, in the Sabbath school, singing bands, small efforts, etc., thereby begin to de­velop proficiency in the art of inspiring people to sing. Unfortunately, many excellent song directors have been sidetracked with the idea that music is not a bread-and-butter subject. This may be one of the contributing factors pertinent to the scarcity of singing evangelists, in which we find ourselves today. Another difficult problem is the limited number of college hours that are allowed, even to the ministerial student, in this field of study. Since so much is required of him when he receives his assigned position, more time should be given to his prepa­ration.

It is encouraging, however, to see the in­creasing prospects for the future. Let us work together more closely to solve our common problems and present a united front to the en­emy. A mighty work is yet to be wrought in these last days, and we know that soul-stirring music will play an active part. It is my earn­est prayer that the ministers of the Word and the ministers of sacred song may unite in a strong bond of fellowship that will produce an impregnable fortress and fight together a vic­torious battle for the King of kings.

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By HARLYN ABEL, Professor of Music, La Sierra College, California

August 1943

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