Tips on teaching new hymns

If you've ever found yourself singing a solo as you tried to get the congregation to sing a new song, you'II welcome these suggestions for getting everyone involved.

Wayne Hooper is executive secretary of the church hymnal committee.

When it comes to hymn singing, most of us are afraid of that little word new. If a leader announces an unfamiliar hymn we tend to think, Oh, it will be too difficult, or I wont like it! (We usually like what we know, and know what we like.)

However, I have never seen a congregation reject a new hymn that was introduced with careful planning. Now that our new Seventh-day Adventist Hymnal is available, we can all profit from a few ideas to help make the new material accessible, inspiring, and exciting to everyone.

Before introducing a hymn

Learn the hymn yourself. From a careful study of the text, you will likely discover why the committee chose to include it. Ask the following questions: What great spiritual truth does it teach or reinforce? What poetic analogies are readily apparent? Are there quotes or allusions to texts of Scripture? Is the use of all the stanzas necessary to complete the thought or story? Or could one or two be left out without ruining the progression of ideas?

Find the special poetic phrases that turn on the imagination. One of the greatest things hymn singing can do for us is to help us understand in a clearer way what our religion is all about, what God is like, what Jesus has done for us. Look at No. 233 in the new hymnal, "Christ, Whose Glory Fills the Skies," by Charles Wesley. In the second line of the first stanza, he quotes from Malachi 4:2:

"Sun of Righteousness, arise,

Triumph o'er the shades of night;

Dayspring from on high, be near;

Daystar, in my heart appear."

Notice all the words he uses—light, beams, shining, radiancy, glory; and then their opposites—shades of night, gloom, dark, cheerless. The hymn has done its work when you say, "Oh, that is what Christ in the life is like—the brilliant sun arising every morning to chase away the darkness!" When you make such a discovery and then pass it on to the people before they sing a hymn, it has a good chance to "come alive" and mean more to them.

Memorize the melody so you can easily sing it as you would one of your old favorites. (If you can't sing, get someone who can stand up there with you and carry the melody with authority.)

Analyze the structure. Is the second score a repeat of the first score? Where is the highest note or climax, and how does the architecture of the melody prepare you for it? Are there any unusual or surprise intervals that need to be pointed out or demonstrated? What is the general mood? What are the note values? Are they mostly eighth notes? quarter notes? half notes? This will help you establish the best tempo.

Rehearse with the organist (pianist). Make sure there are no surprises here. Decide on the tempo, what you want done for an introduction to set the tempo and teach all or part of the melody, and what kind of sound support will be needed for the size of the congregation and the acoustics of the room. Many hymn sings have been ruined by the organ playing so loudly that would-be singers became discouraged. If the organ is filling the room with sound, how can one little voice make a contribution?

Do a little research on the author and the composer of the hymn. What kind of people were they? Where did they live and what conditions prevailed at their time in history? Was there some terrific "mountaintop" experience that gave birth to the hymn? From your reading you can glean a few sentences that will be of interest to all as you tell why you want them to learn and sing this hymn. It will help your congregation to identify with the hymn writers. Your audience will more likely feel and think, These were real people like us who set down words and music on paper to enrich our worship.

For research on hymns found in our old Church Hymnal, you will find Edward E. White's Singing With Understanding most helpful. It is actually a handbook to that hymnal, containing information about the authors and composers, and is available at Adventist Book Centers. Most of the major denominational hym nals have similar handbooks or compan ions. A companion to our new hymnal should be ready in about a year.

Teaching the hymn to the congregation

When? Some churches have found that a ten-minute period before the worship service begins is ideal. The entire church family is together then and can join in the learning experience. Some part of the Sabbath school time also works well, especially late in the period when most of the people have arrived. Friday evening and Sabbath afternoon are great times for this, since you will not be rushed and can take the time to use all your best teaching techniques.

How? If you are fortunate enough to have a choir in your church, let them learn it first in rehearsal and then sing it for the congregation. Then have them sing just the first stanza, all in unison on the melody. When the people hear the melodic line in a clear way, it is easy for them to think, That is beautiful—I think I can sing that! They are no longer afraid of the unknown and are willing to give it a try. If you don't have a choir, a solo voice or quartet can help here. If this preparatory work is done well, the congregation will hardly be able to wait for their turn to sing!

Now have all together sing the melody on the first stanza. The repetition helps. Have the piano point up, or emphasize, the melody in octaves to support those who leam a little more slowly. When the melody is well in hand, then you can go on to four-part harmony and explore the other stanzas. Sing all of them. Each one is meaningful and deserves to be sung and thought about. Again, repetition helps to enter the melody indelibly into memory.

Above all, show enthusiasm. Not long ago I heard a union conference president make this statement in Annual Council: "I travel around and visit many churches. Without exception I have noticed that the churches that are alive and moving forward are the ones who love to sing!" Obviously the ones who love to sing have had leaders who love to sing.

The noted Presbyterian hymnologist James R. Sydnor, in his book The Hymn and Congregational Singing (Richmond: John Knox Press, 1960), gives us this outline of the responsibility of the pastor for the quality of his people's hymn singing: "A vital leadership in hymn singing can come only from one who loves hymns, who knows the spiritual values of congregational singing, and who uses hymns to strengthen his personal devotional life. Such affection for hymn singing cannot long remain hidden from his people. Here are some specific ways in which a minister can exercise his leadership in this sphere of worship: (1) his use of his personal hymnal, (2) his use of handbooks about hymns, (3) his choice of hymns, (4) his choice of proper stanzas, (5) his manner of announcing hymns, (6) his use of hymn anthems sung by choir or soloist, and (7) his use of certain hymns as counseling tools."

Another book you will find useful is James R. Sydnor's Hymns and Their Uses (Carol Stream, III: Agape, 1982). And if I had to get along with only one book about hymns, it would surely be Albert Edward Bailey's The Gospel in Hymns (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1951). He analyzes and gives historical information on 313 hymns, mostly favorites, found in six of the ten major denominational hymnals.

As we begin to get acquainted with the unfamiliar hymns in our new Seventh-day Adventist Hymnal, let us put away our fear of the "new." The chal lenge of a fresh approach can spark our creativity. And we can take heart from these words of David in Psalm 40:3: "And he hath put a new song in my mouth, even praise unto our God: many shall see it, and fear, and shall trust in the Lord."

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Wayne Hooper is executive secretary of the church hymnal committee.

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