How can we improve congregational singing? Part III


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This post is by way of Larry Fried via Twitter.  He responded to my previous post with this intriguing idea:

@GretchensPianos U might be interested in a very good hymn written by a rock band of all things. Cud U adapt it?

@Larry_Fried Super song! Tks for sending! May be better as a solo w/congregation added @ “I’m waiting to be called.” 

@GretchensPianos Really glad u liked it ;-) Was Hoping
u cud use something a little less traditional.The original has harmony on the verse

I’m thinking that a church choir could handle harmony as a backup to a soloist.  Having the congregation join in on the refrain would encourage participation and a sense of belonging, rather than the choir being the only people singing.  (Sometimes people in a congregation can feel removed from the music, and begin to feel like they are not welcome to sing in their own church.  We are interested in fostering the exact opposite!)

What do you think?  Comments welcome!

Thanks so much, Larry.

★ ☆.•*´¨`*•.¸¸.• ヅ★

While you’re here, please take a look at my ebook,

Goal-oriented Practice.  Now available at 50% off, only $10!

Free of musical jargon, it will save you time.  By identifying practice goals, you will soon be able to learn music more accurately, resulting in confident playing.

Click on the link to see reviews, book intro, and table of contents!

Thank you!

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How can we improve congregational singing? Part II


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Hymn example SCORE Hymn example TEXT

What are some important considerations in choosing hymns/worship songs for congregational singing?

My work as an organist/choir director/director of music in three churches over a period of several years has put me in the position of interested observer on several occasions. The churches happened to be different denominations.

There have been many efforts over time  to introduce new hymns/songs as well as to increase congregational participation.  One denomination published a reharmonization of many hymns in its traditional hymnal.  Several new hymnals have also been published. Ministers as well as congregational members attempt to lead the singing fairly often.

But how effective are these efforts?  Is congregational singing, in fact, improving?

The reharmonizations mentioned above were not a success.  People knew the first version well, even singing parts without the music in some cases.  The new harmonizations added nothing.  People disliked hearing them.  The denomination has since kept the best of the new songs and published an improved hymnal, including many original versions.  From what I’ve heard, congregations are much happier with the change.

A majority of recently composed songs are unsingable by untrained singers. They contain skips between notes that are too wide to navigate, and are so syncopated that no one can:  (a) read the music; or (b) remember how it goes after hearing it once or twice.  In two such hymnals I encountered recently, I was unable to sight-read much of the music because it was so difficult rhythmically.

Here are a few examples.  I challenge you to try singing them yourself.


Complicated rhythm


CR 2


CR 3a

CR 3b



CR 4

How did it go?

Ministers and lay people who attempt to teach songs to the congregation are often well-intentioned but need to think about how to reach their goal, getting people to SING! These leaders often do not know the music themselves, or will start singing on some random pitch.  If the song is too low or too high, people stop participating.

Sometimes a leader will expect enthusiastic participation in the singing of a favorite song… of the leader’s!  I have been in services where that was the modus operandi.  The predictable result:  the leader was the only person singing.  Followup:  the leader scolded everyone for their lack of enthusiasm!

So… OK, I’ll sing louder… how would it be if I sing Middle C the whole time?  I don’t know what to sing!

One leader, encouraging children to sing a catchy song, started on such a low pitch that the children could not even phonate!  So, no singing. Too bad.  They would have enjoyed it.

The examples above are failed attempts.  Here, on the other hand, are a few suggestions about choosing hymns. More detail about introducing songs to the congregation will be the focus of a future post in this series.

To reiterate a point from my previous post:

InWhy Isn’t Your Congregation Singing?, an article in Ministry Today, Don Chapman says:

Bottom line:  Choosing worship songs that are singable by normal mortals will create a more unified, participatory worship experience for your church.


You need to sing the song first.  Do you feel comfortable by the second try?  If your voice is straining, others will have the same problem.

One example of vocal range presenting a problem can be found in Happy Birthday.  The octave leap at “Hap-py birth-day, dear [name]” is often sung incorrectly.  I’m sure you’ve heard the song change key at that point.  The reason is that an octave is difficult for many people to sing.


Can you read the rhythm from the page?  Or, alternatively, can you remember it easily upon hearing it once or twice?


Songs are composed to a wide variety of texts, in many languages.  Expecting people to sight-read in an unfamiliar language makes them feel uncomfortable.  If the language is repetitive, however, they will respond well after someone reads the words/sings the song a few times.

And remember, a certain amount of repetition (melody, text, harmony, rhythm) is not a bad thing.  Repetition makes songs easier to remember.

What do you think?  Comments welcome!

While you’re here, please take a look at my ebook,

Goal-oriented Practice.  Now available at 50% off, only $10!

Free of musical jargon, it will save you time.  By identifying practice goals, you will soon be able to learn music more accurately, resulting in confident playing.

Many thanks to C.I., Louise Hirschman, Carolina Flores, Sara O’Bryan, Brian Malone, Joe Kenney, and Paul Kenyon for their ideas regarding this blog series.

How can we improve congregational singing? Part I


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Marble Collegiate Church, New York.  Photo source:  Pixabay

Marble Collegiate Church, New York. Photo source: Pixabay

Congregational singing, along with church attendance, has declined.  With this post, I am beginning a new series that looks at various aspects of the problem and suggests some steps we can take to improve on the current trend.

A Facebook friend, Joe Kenney, posts wonderful photographs on Iowa Through the Lens. He also writes songs for his church and plays them on guitar, as I recently discovered. When messaging each other about this, he very kindly shared two songs with me.  The songs mentioned here are both written by Michael W. Smith.  Joe has promised to send me some of his own compositions as well.

“It’s a little repetitive cause it’s meant to be a simple group anthem,” he said about the first song.

Upon listening to the audio, I felt that it was just repetitive enough for congregational use.  I responded, “Great rhythm, and nice variety with the guitar and then no guitar, and then it comes in again.”

Although large churches in major cities are well-attended, that is not the case in smaller towns.  Marble Collegiate Church (pictured above), The Riverside Church, and All Souls’ Unitarian Church, all located in New York City, have many congregants who are professional musicians, even opera singers.  Everyone should experience the singing of such congregations at least once!

Smaller congregations may not be so fortunate.  When their congregations are asked to sing, people in attendance are often reluctant to make an attempt.  In order to encourage participation, it is helpful to choose hymns/worship songs that are either familiar or easy to learn and remember by exactly that group of people.  Many, if not most, do not read music.  The range of most untrained voices is limited.  Highly syncopated rhythms are just too complicated to master quickly.

So, once again, repetition is helpful.  Having the melody, rhythm, harmony, and even the words repeat (think of the refrain, especially) results in greater comprehension and, thus, participation.

Joe’s second example featured a repetitive ending.  Again, perfect for a congregation.  I responded, “People could walk away singing the ending.  It’s a winning strategy.”

In “Why Isn’t Your Congregation Singing?“, an article in Ministry Today, Don Chapman says:

Bottom line:  Choosing worship songs that are singable by normal mortals will create a more unified, participatory worship experience for your church.

Do you agree?

Take a look at a master, Alice Parker, teaching a hymn to workshop participants.  Alice is the first to say she doesn’t have a great voice.  Notice, though, her modeling of the style, rhythm, and text emphasis.  She teaches songs without using the piano, even though she plays very well.  In fact, her teaching in this video, from a hymnal she compiled, is unusual in that she and the singers are using the music.

Please let me know what you think, either in the comments or via the contact form in the left sidebar.  And be sure to check back for the next installment, and upcoming guest posts!  We will continue to explore ways to encourage participation in congregational singing. There is a lot more to say!

Also, while you’re here, be sure to look at my ebook, “Goal-oriented Practice.”  It will save you practice time!  You will know the music securely and still have a chance to go outside and work on that snowman!  50% off!

Goal-oriented Practice now 50% off!


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E-book Cover SALES PAGE

My e-book, Goal-oriented Practice, is now available at 50% off!

Please email me with any questions at gsbook121 [at]

Bulk rates also available.

For purchasing information, click on the link below:

Free download! “Practice Hacks for Piano” by Catherine Shefski


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 FREE DOWNLOAD through Saturday, 1/24/15

Author’s description:

Practice Hacks is a (very) short e-book full of piano practice tips which I’ve gathered from teachers and friends over the years. From finding the proper hand position, playing octave passages, and creating a full range of dynamics, to interpreting and memorizing music — you’ll find a nugget of advice on every page.

The book will be available at the regular download price of $2.99 starting Sunday.

Thanks so much, Catherine!

A listening recommendation


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Bill McLaughlin, radio host of the syndicated "Exploring Music" on the WFMT radio network.    Source: Author:  WFMT

Bill McGlaughlin, radio host of the syndicated “Exploring Music” on the WFMT radio network. Source:
Author: WFMT

As a follow up to my previous post, “Why listen?,” I want to let everyone know about a radio program I discovered only about 2 weeks ago.  It’s called Exploring Music.  The host, Bill McGlaughlin, has the unique ability to draw us in, resulting in our hearing even the most familiar works in new ways.

Last week, dedicated to the music of Tchaikovsky, the host talked briefly about first piano concerto, saying at its conclusion, “I’m amazed that Martha Argerich was able to stand and take a bow after that, rather than collapsing [paraphrase].”  I, for one, am very familiar with the piece and had never thought of it that way before.  I found it delightful.

Here is Argerich performing the piece:

In another of his programs, McGlaughlin chose a bassoon concerto, playing the recomposed version for viola and orchestra.  I have played the piano reduction with bassoonists, but was unaware that there was another version.  Due to the range difference and the change in timbre, I heard the piece in an entirely new, and most enjoyable, way.  The host took the time to find an excellent recording.

Exploring Music is available free on various radio stations and on the Internet.  There are also subscriptions available.  I can’t recommend it highly enough.

Happy listening!



Why listen?

Basset Hound pup, Betty, 9 weeks old, with chin on floor and ears out

Honestly, I don’t get it.

I’ll preface this post with the caveat that I incurred a serious back injury several weeks ago, so I’ve had plenty of time to listen to the radio.

Earlier this week, I discovered how to stream WQXR on my phone.  What a find!

While living in New York, WQXR was my station for 18 years.  I loved it.

After moving away from the city, there was no access to WQXR other than via computer.  So I switched to the local station.

The difference in brain activity as indicated by a scan would no doubt be astounding.

Why do folks even bother to turn on their radios in order to be lulled into a coma?  Wouldn’t white noise do just as well?

These are some of my experiences with the local station:

  • Constant campaigns for money, including announcements of upcoming campaign dates before their arrival, a week in advance;
  • Airing less-than-the-best recordings, while the definitive recording of certain works sits on the shelf at the station;
  • Negative responses to any requests, criticizing the effort;
  • Mispronunciation of composers’, conductors’ and soloists’ names and compositional titles;
  • A lack of curiosity about what’s out there, repeatedly playing The New World Symphony and Beethoven’s Fifth instead, as if Dvorak and Beethoven wrote no other music;
  • A self-satisfied, self-congratulatory attitude on the part of the hosts and the station (i.e. We’re the best)… have you looked around lately?

So I’ve had it!  Last night, thinking I’d like to listen to jazz, I tuned in to the local station.  A fund-raiser was in full swing, again.  Where was the music?  I changed to WQXR and was delighted to hear two wonderful, eclectic programs.

Last night, two prog;ram hosts on WQXR talked about how they love looking for music they’ve never heard.  I’d like to say that they don’t stop there.  When they find a composition that is new to them, they don’t simply play the first recording they come across.  They find the best there is.  It’s refreshing!

No more comas for me!

Bassett hound happy

Why listen?

Mi Addy: the back story

Mi Addy

These are my new plates!

Since I haven’t driven for such a long time (since graduate school!), and since I now have a beautiful Fiat, I wanted to honor the experience with something special.

So I began daydreaming about names.

My VW bug was named Hansel, but just in my head.  No fancy plates.

This time around, a fond memory surfaced.  Several years ago, I lived in an apartment on Cabrini Blvd. in New York (near the Cloisters) with a single mother and her baby boy, Joseph.  We decided before I moved in that we would trade piano noise for baby noise.  I got a whole lot of nothing done during my 11 months there, because I played with him so much.  He was extremely cute, intelligent, and curious.  I witnessed him learning to walk!

He used to scratch things and listen to the sound.  The cushions, arms, and back of the couch; the end table, coffee table, lampshade and its base; and, most interesting to me, a tiny steel manufacturer’s tag on the corner of a filing cabinet!  The tag had raised dots and letters, so the surface was varied.

Joseph talked all the time, using his voice to experiment with sound.  When I would look him in the eye and repeat a string of sounds he had just made up, he would have an astonished look on his face, as if to say, “Oh!  Someone finally gets it!”

One day, he woke up ast 5:00 a.m. saying only one word, “Addy, addy, addy,” over and over.  He repeated it until he went to daycare at 8:30.  When he came home at 5:30, he was still saying it.  And that was the word of the day until he went to sleep around 10.

I rather liked it!

CT vanity plates can have up to seven characters, including one period.  “ADDY” seemed too plain.  “MY ADDY,” with 2 “Y’s,” looked too symmetrical.  So I went with “MI,” since I have an Italian car.

The CT DMV website has a page where you can try out your choice to see if it’s available.  So I tried it out, adding a variety of  backgrounds at the same time.  The plain background didn’t work for me.  I like lighthouses, so there you go.

In honor of Joseph and the Italians, here it is.

Now the old plates have to be mailed back to the CT DMV.  And the MA title?  I’m still waiting for the MA RMV (that’s the Registry, not the Department) to cash my check and send me the duplicate.  The deadline for sending it to the CT DMV was October 15th.  Fortunately, they use the date as a motivator.  There is no late fee.



She was always picked last

The Opera Singers by  Thomas Rowlandson.  Source:  Wikimedia Commons

The Opera Singers by
Thomas Rowlandson. Source: Wikimedia Commons

The great Christine Brewer presented a wonderful master class at The Hartt School on Tuesday.  She included some thoughts about her college days with the many insights offered during the afternoon.

Ms. Brewer attended a very small college, where she played the violin!  She participated in many groups.  Along the way, one professor (who taught many classes and directed several groups) told her that maybe she should take voice lessons.

She went on to say that she had a tiny voice.  No one could hear her.  And because of that, she was always picked last.

That resonated with me in a few ways.

My first thought was that, in seventh grade, the same thing happened to me.  I played flute, piano, and organ.  During that summer, I attended music camp at the University of Iowa for the first time, playing flute in the band.

We were required to audition for seating within each section.  I had no idea how to audition, so I just showed up, no doubt playing very badly.  I was thrilled when they read my name third!

And then I realized that there were 50 flutes, and I was walking to the back row of the section.

It worked out.  That summer, I studied with a professional flutist, a huge step up.  The following summer, I was seated in the front row.

Piano has always been my best instrument.  The music camp experience provided direction for my future.

Another thought that came to mind was the commentary I have read concerning competitions.  There is usually only one winner.  A small number of other competitors finish second, third, and in the honorable mention category.

Reality check:  when someone enters a competition, s/he may not truly be ready for a major career at that moment.  Concert Artists Guild mentors its competition winners for that reason.

Some of the interviews, articles, and blogs written about coming in second or third say that people who finish below first actually have a better chance of sustaining their careers than the first-place winners.

Something to think about.