Practical Advice from a Music Teacher: “Build a Fire” with Singing

By Howard L. Whittlesey

Time, experience and many helpful discussions have given me greater depth and insight to what the Bible teaches about congregational singing and about song leading. No, I am not going to attempt to enlighten you about singing versus the instrument, nor shall I strive to convince one about the truth concerning whether or not all or part should sing. It is my desire to share with you some problems which so long have beset me from the simple task of glorifying and praising the Godhood through my singing.

Since I teach vocal music for a living, it is easy for me to insist on musical perfection from both a technical and an aesthetic point of view. On the one hand, I used to feel that wrong notes -were an outward indication of apathetic worship. It would be easy to cite a host of examples wherein congregations across the land make the same mistake on songs which are mutually familiar to many of us. I used to feel that a Christian could ill afford to sing a rhythmic phrase incorrectly and be satisfied with his musical worship. Yet many of us know that the dotted eighth-sixteenth combination is one of the most abused of all in congregational singing (regardless of how good the song sounds). I used to feel that the song leader had to start the song on the right pitch and use his arm on correct beat patterns in order for the song service to glorify God. I used to wonder how the “non-singer” (better known as `tone-deaf singer) could ever sing praises to God and God not want to hold His fingers in His ears. But that was `yesterday,’ in a manner of speaking, and yesterday is gone.

Today, I hear my brethren sing wrong notes, but still they are deeply engrossed in the teaching of that song. I hear them still abuse the dotted eighth-sixteenth, but they are “teaching and admonishing one another” anyway. The song leaders everywhere still pitch a few songs too low for the basses or too high for the sopranos, but that has never yet been grounds for dismissal from worship (although you might catch the faint uttering of prayers from died-in-the-wool musicians of the church). Many song leaders from border to border fail to use the prescribed beat patterns, or at best, they use them in a very undistinguishable way, but the congregation does not watch that anyway. The non-singer has sung on like a joyful pilgrim (some would say that “Here We Are But Straying Pilgrims” was written with non-singers in mind) and probably grew spiritually more than the lady in front who later complained of the congregational singing. And this is still today.

Do you suppose the Psalmist played any wrong notes on his harp when he rendered praise to God therewith? Do you think that Paul’s approved apostolic example of `singing with the understanding’ meant that wrong notes were forbidden by God? Where is the scripture that would suggest that the song leader must `go forward’ if he starts a song on the wrong pitch or fails to use universal beat patterns? By the way, the beat patterns were not prescribed by God. Do you believe the non-singer is denied a single measure of grace despite his annihilation of the final beautiful chord of the invitation song?

But we hear one saying, “Good singing builds a fire in the congregation. So it is important from that standpoint that right notes, correct rhythms, the correct starting pitches and effective song leading occur.” Well might it be said that success should be sought in these areas. However, let us not put these factors above their level of importance. Can God be glorified without one or all of these factors? If all that was wrong with an entire song service was a few wrong notes, was God denied His glory thereby? What, in that case, will a congregation do if it has no one who knows enough about music to read or lead music correctly and effectively? Does God tune out that congregational singing? What do we suppose Paul, or other of the apostles, knew about music? Did they have hymn books? The correct answers to these questions allow us to understand that a fire may vary in intensity and brightness and still be a fire; and when it is cold, even a small fire attracts a lot of attention.

The question then is: “Does the glory of God build us a fire? or Does our fire glorify God?” If the glory of God builds a fire, then I am afraid we are all doomed. The reason is simple: God’s glory is His perfection. All of our right notes, correct rhythms, correct starting pitches and correct beat patterns emanate that perfection and thereby He is glorified. Let’s face it, though-all our wrong notes, incorrect rhythms, incorrect starting pitches and incorrect beat patterns (or the absence of one at all) will serve to defile His glory. I fail to visualize a God who is so merciless and vain. I rather visualize a God who searches the heart (Rom. 8:27) and finds that my spirit is willing but my mind and flesh are weak. He knows that not all my notes, rhythms, pitches and patterns are right, but my heart, my will and desire to glorify Him are. The ideal of course is to have a good song service from both the technical (or mechanical) and the aesthetic standpoints. However, we should never choose to sacrifice His glory for a few mechanics. Let us each build our own fire and seek to magnify and to praise God thereby. God is pleased with our perfection, but our perfection is far too inconsistent to be depended upon for building spiritual or emotional fires. Yea. rather let us perfect our hearts and our spirits.

Time, experience and many discussions will help all of us to confront the realization that common sense in application is the earnest necessity in all of our service to the Master. While we insist that our individual service should grow and develop, we make concessions for our mistakes and never let them block our view of what God really requires of us.

All the scriptures of the New Testament which cover the subject of church music say absolutely nothing about the mechanics (right notes, rhythm, pitches, patterns) of music. The biggest thrust of those scriptures is to use the God-given instrument-the voice-and praise His name with it, unaccompanied by mechanical devices of music. Why ask more of ourselves than God asks of us?

Now on the other hand, in the interest of unity and cooperation, let me offer some suggestions to those of you who are conscious of your musical mechanics. First, let us all regard each music symbol as a tool for common communication. Paul told his Corinthian brethren (1 Cor 1:10) to “speak the same thing.” In like manner, we should strive to sing the same thing. This is not an admonition, for I personally believe that the vast majority of singing in the church is done by sincere, conscientious singers. Granted, there are huge numbers of people who learn strictly by rote. The method of learning to sing is not discussed in God’s Word. Second, if you are concerned enough about the mechanics of music to want to become more knowledgeable, you might begin by learning the “Do” scale and the shaped note system. If this is learned effectively, you will go a long ways toward growing in technical musicianship. Third, do not expect everyone else to show or share an interest like yours in perfecting your singing.

I am thankful to the congregations who in the past have entrusted me with the task of assisting them in improving their singing. I am confident that their collective spirits have had no unhealthy desires involved. I urge all individual Christians to make sure that the ultimate goal of all singing is to glorify God. Let not musical mechanics be overly sought nor overemphasized. May God’s glory pervade every note you sing — right or wrong.

Truth Magazine XXII: 33, pp. 533-534
August 24, 1978