Dear St. Cecilia,
I am organist at a wonderful congregation that averages 120 in worship per Sunday. The congregation sings (in the words of John Wesley) “lustily and with good courage,” even when an unfamiliar hymn is introduced. The problem concerns one member of the church who feels moved regularly to improvise her own descants. She has a pleasant voice, but her descants rarely sync with the harmonization written in the hymnal, and if I’m playing a free harmonization or the choir or an instrumentalist is providing a descant, the results are cacophonous. The singer in question is oblivious to this musical chaos.
She is a very strong singer with a personality to match. I’ve been aware of the discordant singing for some time, but now I’m getting complaints from others in the congregation, and fear that her improvisations are disrupting the song of the congregation. Any suggestions as to how best to handle this?
Dear Tooth-Gritting Organist ,
Thanks for writing to St. Cecilia. Yikes! How to deal with difficult people is often the hardest part of our work. And you know that you must deal with her in order to get something to change. You don’t want to hurt her feelings and pride in her singing. That could alienate the two of you and perhaps even embarrass her to the point of …well, we don’t know. That’s why its so touchy.
I would suggest that you not do this alone, but bring a respected member of the congregation with you. They should know what is going on and how you plan to proceed. Their role should be as an accompanying listener, and, if necessary, one who keeps the conversation on track. This is not an attack, but an effort to keep the assembly song united in beauty and coordination for the good of the people of God. Your maverick singer needs to be told that her improvised descants are not promoting good congregational singing, but rather discourage the assembly’s voice. As an alternative, perhaps she could learn a descant specifically written for a hymn and be a beautiful addition for the adornment of the assembly song. Perhaps she is unaware that you might be playing an alternate harmonization that clashed with her intention to bring an uplifting descant to the final verse. She needs to learn that. She also needs to learn that good musical presentation is only one descant at a time.
This can be an opportunity to use your training and skill in music education to provide her with some music lessons. As the Church Musician, you are to set the standards for excellence in congregational singing. While she has a pleasant voice, it is her responsibility to use it in a way that enriches the assembly song.
That’s the content of your message. The manner and opportunity for delivering it is the challenge. I think you can start with disclosing your own discomfort at needing to address this issue with her. Your intent is not to make her uncomfortable, but to make her aware of appropriate singing so that the congregation’s song is for everyone and adorns the worship.
You have not said if you are also the choir director besides being organist. Perhaps the choir director could accompany you with the same message. Perhaps your pastor would be a good person to accompany this conversation. If you have any response to my suggestions, I welcome it. Before I send this to the ALCM site, I welcome our conversation.
Thanks again, and blessings on your ministry,
Dear St. Cecilia,
Thanks so much for responding to my “St. Cecilia” question. As you have surmised, this is more than just a case of an overzealous singer [sounds like a good title for an Erle Stanley Gardner mystery!]. The woman in question has a strong personality, and is pleasant – as long as she is in control. Our pastor (a gifted young man in his early 30’s) has had several run-ins with her in the two years that he’s been at our congregation. He and I both recognize that her high-flying descants are an extension of her personality.
I really appreciate your suggestions. The choir director and I have invited her to join the choir, but she declined, so we don’t have that forum in which to teach the do’s and don’t’s of congregational singing. The pastor feels that a direct conversation with the singer about this matter would most likely result in her and her family leaving the church. The time may come when a confrontation is necessary, but neither of us feels that her singing should become the issue that sends them looking for another church home.
The possibility of creating a descant just for her strikes me as the most tactful way of approaching this delicate situation. Working with her on that would provide the opportunity for me and our choir director to drop some hints about the ramifications of singing as a group. It would also lay some groundwork for further conversation, if needed. Christ’s peace to you.
Hi again, Tooth-Gritting Organist,
Thanks for the clarifying note. I support your effort to work with her individually so that she can become more a part of the assembly. Her descants may be an extension of her personality, for sure. Your fear of her leaving the church over this issue is a point — to a point. It seems to me that if such a meeting, entered into in all good faith on your part, is cause for her to leave, I am concerned as to why it is so important to keep this kind of person/attitude around. If she is so shallow and self-absorbed to make this a point of departure, maybe she’d be happier and better off finding a new church home. I know that “everyone is important,” and all that. Were I in your shoes, and your pastor’s, I might say the same thing. But I am dispassionate, and thousands of miles away. It may be that there are people in your congregation who are waiting for leadership to stop her, lest they move along to another congregation where the singing is corporate. It’s just another thing to weigh.
And it may be that as careful as you might try to be, she will “take it personally” and leave anyway. On the other hand, I can recall several “success stories” where people, when educated with the idea of the assembly song being foremost, and with the idea that the musical/pastoral leaders are here to help that happen, actually make changes and are happier for it.
My prayers are with you.