Are Solo-Driven Choir Songs Anti-Intergenerational?

Have you thought about how many songs your choir sings that feature a solo that “drives” the song you are singing? I don’t mean a simple verse solo or a small section in the song, but a full-song solo where the choir essentially takes a “back-up” choir role. If you are in my choir, you’ll sing plenty of these types of tunes. There are a few reasons this is the case in my choir and possibly yours as well:

  1. Some of the most popular songs for choirs today have solos that drive the song. I’m not in a popularity contest, but there are some great church choral songs (new and not so new) that have solos in them. I want my choir to learn lots of great things that have great texts and are solid musically.
  2. I can because I have lots of soloists. Having lots of great soloists makes it easy to present these types of songs, especially when you have some that really communicate the message in a special way…like Spencer in the feature photo here.
  3. Sometimes they are easier or faster to learn because the soloist has the bulk of the song. Sometimes the hardest part of learning a choral song are verses because of the variances of texts and rhythmic structures that can be tricky. If the choir is learning choruses only, which often repeat, the process of learning the song is expedited.

While we enjoy the flexibility to do lots of solo-driven choral literature, I am often conflicted about over-using these types of songs because of my commitment to value the contributions of all the singers in my choir. It’s a constant battle; one I’ve been contending with for years. When I researched intergenerational choirs in Georgia in 2014, I asked the leaders of those choirs how much of their own choral literature was solo driven.  Here are some results:

  1. Over half of them indicated that they only used solo-driven choral literature in about 20 percent of their anthems.
  2. About another 25 percent of those interviewed said they used solo-driven literature up to 40 percent of the time. 
  3. Smaller church choirs sang fewer solo-driven anthems than the largest church choirs.

A couple of observations from this data…

  1. Solo-driven literature does not “generally” dominate the choral offerings of churches that are intergenerational.
  2. Small church choirs probably have fewer soloists than the largest church choirs. Therefore, it’s plausible that more soloists could possibly equated with more opportunities to sing solo-driven literature. 
  3. There were no indications that age of leader or choir members had any bearing on the percentage of solo-driven anthems used.

One area that seemed to have a bearing on how much solo-driven choral literature was sung was the publishers frequently used. Those leaders who frequently purchased from more traditional publishers rarely used solo-driven anthems. Conversely, those who used only one or two publishers from the evangelical side reported much higher use of solo-driven anthems.  My personal observations (a quick count at any current choral pack from any publisher will reveal) Prism, Word, and Brentwood-Benson publish more solo-driven literature than other evangelical publishers (Lifeway, Lillenas, Praisegathering). I love, and use music from, each of these publishers, so do not think I am speaking negatively about any one publisher. I am simply commenting on what I see when I open their choral club packets/boxes.

The long and short of it? Broaden the number of publishers you listen to as you search for choral music for your church choir so you may find all types of songs—especially if you find yourself leaning towards solo-driven literature all the time.  This it is often hard to achieve, but necessary for balance if your goal is to create an atmosphere where all members of the choir feel valued and important.

Personally, I am guilty of relying on solo-driven literature at least 40 percent of the time, sometimes more. We sing tunes from every one of the above publishers and I love the variety of music types that can be found, but often I find some of the best tunes I can find (in my opinion) are solo-driven. But, since I firmly believe that valuing all in my music ministry is important, I know I must be careful to look for balance, which includes purposely looking for choir only literature that fits our context.

As a side note: thankfully, some solo-driven songs can be adapted to include more of the choir. For instance, verses that a solo would normally sing could be sung by the women or the men. I’ve done that on several songs and it has worked very well.

The Noise is Deafening and It’s Not My Fault!

This past weekend, some of our music and worship team from Ivy Creek led the music for the large group corporate worship times at the Georgia Baptist Women’s Ministry Spring Event at Stone Mountain. We had a blast meeting new folks and getting to connect with women of ALL ages from all over the state. The women were very encouraging about the musical offerings we presented and the variety of congregational songs we chose to lead, but do you know what the number one comment of encouragement was? “Thank you for not having the music SO loud that we didn’t get a headache.” OR “we could hear each other sing and yet the music was still energetic and supportive.” Don’t think that it was just older women either…no, it was folks from all ages.

Now, I’d heard these volume comments before (some good and some not so good), but they made a deeper impression this weekend because I’m constantly looking for ways to alleviate distractions in worship so the Father is highlighted and not what I am doing. Decibel levels matter, my friends. Prolonged, heavy vibrations in the ear drums can cause hearing damage. So, today I submit that not only are our musical choices important to connect generations together in worship, but the volume of that music is important too.  

Any concert or church that hands out ear plugs (and there are MANY) before the music starts says to me, “I’m not concerned with your aural health enough to lower the volume to a healthy decibel level. Accept this small token to alleviate the painful noise because I seemingly care about you. But, those younger folks here, perhaps your sons and daughters that came in with you, they can tolerate the higher decibel levels (even if it damages their hearing long term).” Really??? But I digress. I do believe understanding some possible reasons WHY decibel levels have gotten out of control may help us understand why it’s important to be cognizant when considering volume levels in the intergenerational church.

SOME REASONS VOLUME HAS GOTTEN LOUDER 

  1. The advent of rock music (and specifically its live performance) is predicated on the feeling (vibration) the music brings to the listener/enjoyer (music coursing through your veins—literally)
  2.  With the advent of car radios (especially as stereo and bass technology has risen) one can be literally “enveloped” with sound
  3. Churches have tried to mimic the feeling of a rock concert to increase the emotional and physical experience

A FEW ARGUMENTS FOR LOUD VOLUME

  1.  The enveloping of sound is a perfect way for non-singers to feel “safe” to sing uninhibited
  2.  We can feel and hear the energy of the music
  3.  Non-Christians are more comfortable hearing/and seeing music like what they experience at concerts/radio, etc.
  4. Not having music that engulfs us makes the music sound anemic

In these arguments, and there are plenty of others, there’s not one that I can tell that could not be achieved with a reasonable decibel level. Perhaps not at the same degree though. Certainly it is more challenging to “feel” the bass when it’s not thumping.

SOME REASONS TO FIND A REASONABLE DECIBEL LEVEL IN WORSHIP SERVICES

  1. Music that is so loud and piercing limits creativity to some degree. Dynamics, vocal harmonies and the like, are harder to distinguish and achieve. I’ve heard “softs” that still had high decibel levels
  2. If you are going to have multiple generations in your services, multiple studies have shown that something physiological happens the older we get…the ear inside our ears gets stiffer as one ages causing our tolerance to certain decibel levels to decrease
  3. We need to hear each other as we sing together because of the biblical command to admonish and teach one another through singing songs of worship (Ephesians 5:19). Pretty hard to do that if you can barely hear the person next to you. Where’s the community in that?
  4. Loud decibel levels can distort text or make articulation incomprehensible. Pretty sure text is what sets worship apart from any other musical experience.
  5. Oversinging may cause vocal damage
  6. Loud decibel levels over extended time may cause hearing loss

To be clear, I’m not targeting modern worship music or bands that play a certain type of music. I love all types of music! I am specifically targeting the decibel level of ANY type of worship service. I’ve heard organs that have literally moved me physically with the vibrations and caused me to hold my ears.

I submit you: Extremes in volume (decibel level) may be polarizing relationally in the intergenerational church. Finding the balance is key in your own situation. Sometimes sitting in certain places in a worship center can yield a different sound. I know there are places in our worship center that are louder than others. I encourage folks who mention they can hear too much sound/cannot hear well to move around until they find what works for them.

Even as we consider this issue, there will be people in our sphere of influence that will never be pleased with volume levels because their preferences are so extreme. That’s okay; we in intergenerational churches are used to having to remind our folks that we are guided by the philosophy that we are better together, guided by the Word and the Holy Spirit, and always looking to find practical ways (volume included) to achieve the best balance for our church culture and context.

Changing Things Up Can=Baloney!

One of the things that surprises me time and time again is the “one size fits all” approach held by churches, educational systems, and other such types of organizations. What works for some doesn’t always work for others. However, often trying to emulate the successes of others seems to be the norm. Recently, I had a conversation with someone whose church is trying to reach younger families in their community. This is a noble goal. However, this church leadership(from the description given to me by the person with whom I was talking) decided that adding a “modern” service would do the trick. Familiar story, right? OR, another familiar theme is “let’s change things up because I think things are getting stale.” Again, not a bad idea if there is purpose behind it, rather than simply changing things up so people don’t get bored. This mentality is rampant in the entertainment industry…push the envelope, tweak this and that so people aren’t bored and you (as ministry leadership) look like you are “doing” something productive for the Kingdom. Baloney!

Pragmatism is the nuts and bolts, but Philosophy should be the wrench. Rather than trying to make a bunch of changes in one’s church based on the successes of others, it is infinitely more important to capitalize on the strengths and weaknesses of YOUR church. Use all generations in your church. Don’t be afraid to use varied types of music. Be authentic; be real. But let the philosophy of “we’re better together…we value ALL in our faith family” resound! Remember intergenerational ministry/worship is not something you DO, it’s something you ARE. It’s a guiding principle…

I’m in the process of getting ready to teach two similar seminars in the next couple of weeks on intergenerational worship. The first is this weekend for the annual Georgia Baptist Women’s Event at Stone Mountain. Some of our music team and I will be leading in musical worship and I will teaching a class on music in the intergenerational church. The following weekend, I’m heading to the Baptist Church Music Conference in San Antonio where I’m also teaching on intergenerational worship.  Last night I was talking with one of my 14 year old sons about what I was doing the next few weeks. He pointed out that my audiences will be vastly different. He laughed that I’ll be teaching a bunch of women this weekend and mostly men the following weekend. It is a fair assessment. We also talked about how important the women’s conference is (mostly laypeople-perhaps choir members in churches throughout the state) because these women are leaders in their church—they are the participants. The next weekend, I will be speaking to colleagues—to leaders in music ministry. I HOPE that the conversations from this coming weekend will help continue shape what I bring to our leaders. Granted, most of the leaders I will speak with next weekend believe in the intergenerational philosophy, so I hope to bring some ideas of how those leaders can strengthen their approach (philosophy) to reaching our next generations, as well as keeping all generations active and present in ministry. Both great opportunities, but I must alter my approach based on the culture of the situation. We church leaders should do the same with our churches…consider the context.

How different would our churches be that would truly embrace the multi-generational atmosphere of their churches by finding ways to capitalize on the strengths of all? How different would our churches be that didn’t constantly look to music as the MAIN tool for reaching the de-churched and un-churched? Because seriously, how much as contemporary worship music evolved in the last 30 years? Musically? not much. Textually? There have been some great strides in this area. But, in all? Not so much. Those churches who’ve found their niche (think cowboy church or mariachi church in certain locales) are the ones embracing who they are. We’d be much better off to focus on building intergenerational relationships, discipleship ministries, and having all generations involved in worship and other service ministries (not just music).

Pray for our team this weekend as we sing, share, and inspire.