My own father was a song leader in the church for nearly as long as he was a Christian. All that stopped him was his health—he could no longer get enough breath or stand up long enough or wave his arm high enough to continue those last few years. He had a clear tenor voice in his youth, not the easiest part to sing. He knew and had led songs from a dozen hymnals. Not only did he lead in the church, but he sang at funerals and weddings as well. He always sang. I do not remember a time when he was outside working on a sick car or a chugging lawn mower or a broken shelf that he was not singing—hymns, mind you, nothing else.
We moved a few times in my youth, but even when we stayed in one place for a few years, it was not unheard of for a preacher from another congregation to show up on our doorstep asking him to consider changing his membership because they needed a song leader. And he usually did. Leading the song service was his bailiwick and he fulfilled it better than any man I have known before or since. Why? Because he viewed it as God meant it to be viewed—service to Him. When he died my mother buried him with a Bible in one arm and a songbook in the other.
As a music education major in college, I took classes in choral directing. Guess what I learned? Hardly anything new—I had learned it already from my daddy. What I got was a new appreciation for a man who had set about to be the best he could be for his God. Let me share a few tips with you. Some of the details come from my choral directing professor, but the concepts I saw every Sunday of my childhood.
1) If you call yourself a song leader, then be one--lead! That means a host of things as you will see below.
2) Your job as a song leader is not to show off how well you can sing by singing the most difficult songs in the book. It is not your chance to sing your favorite hymns. Your job in the church is to enable the group to worship God in song, according to their ability.
3) That means you need to know your group. If you have an untrained group, few among them who know anything about music, don’t lead songs that a professional choir should be singing. Don’t specialize in songs that require a roadmap and a compass to figure out what to sing when. Don’t major in modes and polyrhythm. If you do use some of these songs, then be realistic. Untrained ears will never manage the blue notes in “Sing and Be Happy.” Don’t be arrogant about it, as if all these ignorant people are beneath you. A lot of them can probably do things you can’t do.
If you have a predominantly older group, lay off the syncopated music. They simply don’t get it. Anyone listening on the side will think they are hiccupping as one manages it here and there, but 90% sing it straight.
Another thing about older groups—they do not have the breath capacity of younger people. Don’t sing songs so fast they have no time to catch a breath. They may all pass out on you, but more than that, they simply won’t be able to worship God, which is what you are supposed to be helping them do, not hindering them. Good leaders do not insist on what they want to do. They do what is best for the group they are leading, whether it is what they want to do or not.
4) Remember—this is not about you. If you are a bass, resist the temptation to sing only low songs or to pitch them lower. If you are a tenor, try not to pitch them too high. Either way, you will completely fail in your mission—enabling the whole group to sing, not just you. In fact, it is entirely possible to injure voices by having them sing a poorly pitched song. If you cannot sing a song where it is written, then you probably ought not to be a song leader.
5) And if you claim to be a leader you must of necessity do three things: stand where you can be seen, beat a clear pattern, and sing loud enough to be heard.
If you use a pattern, people need to see it in order to stay with it. For those who do not understand the beat, or if you do not beat a pattern, they must be able to see your mouth. That also means you shouldn’t be asking people to stand very often, particularly if you have a lot of elderly folks. Yes, they have the option of staying seated, but guess what they see when everyone else is standing? A row of backs—you will be hidden behind them. How can they possibly follow you?
As to the pattern, don’t get too elaborate. The point where the beat actually occurs (the ictus) must be obvious, and at the bottom of the pattern, not at the top. If you draw so many curlicues in the air that no one knows where the 1, 2 and 3 are, don’t get upset if they lag behind—it’s your fault.
And they do need to hear you. If you can’t sing loud enough, stand in front of a microphone. Don’t get “humble” and think it makes you a better servant of God not to be heard. Leaders of necessity need to be heard—any kind of leader. If all you do is start the song, you may as well sit in the pew. (And if you are in the congregation, then monitor your own voice and do not try to out-sing the leader. There is more than one way to usurp authority!)
6) This is worship to God, remember? That means you should give some thought to your selections. Would you ever walk into a Bible class, sit on the front row, scribble down a few passages and expect to teach a good lesson? Your song service should do one of two things—either complement the sermon of the day, or teach its own lesson. Some preachers like the songs to match their sermons; some don’t. If he does, call him and find out what the lesson is about. If the latter, then choose a topic yourself, or maybe a line of thought, and choose songs that teach about that topic or lead the singers in a logical progression of thought that will edify them. Both of those take preparation.
I could probably go on. Just reminiscing about things I heard my daddy say over and over has already made this a bit long, though. Here is the key--this is about your service to God. If you remember that, you cannot help but be the best song leader you can be.
I will tell of your name to my brothers; in the midst of the congregation I will sing your praise, Heb 2:12.