Solo Flights

I stood with my hand over my heart in front of the flag waiting for the Soloist to begin her rendition of “The Star Spangled Banner.” It’s a nerve-racking feat to sing a song with such a range of high and low notes in front of a crowd of people, and I’m sure this moment was no picnic for the lady as she began.  She didn’t mean to, I’m sure, but she sang in at least nine keys before the song was over. Every line seemed to jump up a half step or down a whole step musically, and I just closed my eyes hoping it would be over soon. The gracious audience applauded at the song’s end, and the sporting event commenced. And I got to thinking…

Why don’t we the audience sing “The Star Spangled Banner” together anymore at sporting events? Why is it relegated to a Soloist? Granted, some soloists can sing any song so well you think you were transported to another heavenly dimension when they are done, and I love to hear good singing, believe me; but there is something missing–something big and uniting missing when the voices of many are silenced for the one.

I thought about the most moving moments in the movie “The Sound of Music”  when Captain Von Trapp leads the Austrian audience in the singing of their anthem “Edelweiss”. Their collective voices joined together in a common affection for the country they held dear, and it was beautiful.

It’s not just the National Anthem that has been turned over to soloists. I’ve visited many churches in my lifetime and have watched a trend in worship music move from the collective voices of the many to the soloing voice on stage.  Congregations aren’t singing like they used to. I know there are multiple factors: new songs, no written music to follow, multiple lyrics, keys that aren’t congregation friendly, syncopations  that are tricky, vocal runs, octave jumps, and an inability to try to master the melody before its three minute run is over. All of these things can contribute to a worship experience that is only entered into by the ones on stage who rehearsed for hours before presenting.

I’ve attended conferences where the worship band for that night is recording their new album live, and I am part of the live experience in the audience, and that is fun except when I don’t know any of the songs, and an hour passes with me being a spectator instead of a worshiper. Like a kid waiting to enter a double-dutch jump-roping session, I’m looking for an opening, but can’t get in. So I just close my eyes and sing my own song to God in my heart.

One of my children told me the other day that they struggled to learn a new song in church, and just gave up singing. I said, “Imagine what the older generation is going through. Worship leaders don’t sing their songs anymore in church.”

“I never thought about that!” they said.

How can we create connection,  shared fellowship and story by soloing? Don’t misunderstand, I have been a soloist and singer most all of my life. I love to sing, and I love to hear singers. We need soloists.  It’s just that there are some pieces of community where the collective voice has gone silent, and almost extinct, and that bothers me. I’m glad my kids here professionals and soloists sing the National Anthem, but they also need to hear the voices of their neighbors, and the American Veterans singing that song together even if their voices aren’t as polished. My kids need to see and hear their grandparent’s generation singing “Great Is Thy Faithfulness” and watch them get caught up in the goodness of a God that has carried them through the years, as badly as they need to hear their favorite worship band sing their newest release. Both are valuable. Together they tell the story of God’s goodness. Together they give depth and meaning to the lyric and rhyme.

Wiser people have written on this subject, and I can’t begin to articulate the nuances of our culture shifts like others can. My friend Manuel Luz, a worship pastor has written several articles like this one, and I would recommend reading his thoughts on the aging out of worshipers, and other cultural hurdles in our churches on his site: www. .

Honestly, I don’t have all of the solutions, and I certainly have no desire to pick on churches or sporting events. Our culture is shifting in front of our eyes, and there is a lot to keep up with, but I do want to get a conversation going. So, I would love to hear your thoughts on these things. Do you notice the silence of the collected voice? Does it bother you? How has your church or organization dealt with these issues?


8 thoughts on “Solo Flights

  1. Hi Cate,
    That is a hard one! There are 2 sides of that coin. Imagine if complex beautiful worship songs were prohibited because they were not “Congregation approved.!” What if we had to make our worship songs so basic, that the creative imaginations of skillful soloists/songwriters were not able to really be free to explore! The challenges in music of creation are to me such a blessing! But is it only for the secular arena? Can both of these worlds meet and both be included! Yes I REALLY DO miss some of the old simple worship songs for sure, and would love to see them come back, but I would hate to see creativity stifled to an ALWAYS “less is more” pattern of thinking! As a musician, this would frustrate me to no end. Maybe the creative complex songs are meant for something other than Sunday morning services! Please help me…I want to know!

    1. Ed, you raise some great points about artistry and creativity in writing, composing, and performing music. It is also an expression of worship and I don’t want to see it go away. What I am wondering is how do we bring others with us? Why are people opting out? I cited possible reasons, and things I have observed, but I really want to know why too.
      Keep the conversation going. It can be very educational!

  2. I have experienced a few moments, while leading people, where it must be a little like Peter felt walking on water.. Both myself and the congregation singing a song none of us knew or have heard before….A new song and not in exact unison, but enough to say we were all effortlessly headed the same direction, and of course some always stand back and wonder where you went, and like Peter it sank at some point, but it was defintely not a failure, but a highlight in worship, IMO… . Miracle moments sort of, but not the norm by any means.. I struggle with the new and old songs and getting old enough to not always be able to sing along with the new. I think most of us of all ages that are involved in worship believe that worship is no longer just some preliminary exercise so the people don’t fall asleep during the important teaching part., and true worship never was just an exercise. If its really worship it is a time of intimacy and communication thru the HS with our creator. The old, new and spontaneous all fit the requirements to be called worship. It just comes down to the desire and intent of the worshipper who must respond to the spirit n one form or another..but in spirit and truth. Of course we all have our desired styles, rhythms, keys, etc.. that might help us enter in quicker, but that’s just because we too often let our heads/opinions get in the way, when its different than our norm. I believe that the spontaneous worship is where I would like to live more, but its impossible to manufacture or repeat. Just like a great evening with your spouse.. No one simply tries to do and say everything exactly the same the next evening, but rely on each other being real and in the moment, ready for whatever is happening tonight.. Its not a place void of practice or playing the known songs, but with the intent of moving beyond the mechanics, and into a living breathing place, excited for what could possibly happen next. Too idealistic?

    1. Steven, I can relate to your story of leading people in songs we were both learning, and you are right in that the Holy Spirit works in those moments to buoy us up and move us forward. I wrote this blog wondering why people have stopped trying. It’s not true of every church, but I can’t help but be surprised when I have attended great churches with good teaching, and solid Biblical truth and when it comes to congregational singing, there appear to be more drop-outs. There are beautiful voices on stage, the band is well rehearsed, and the congregation is dis-engaged from their own voice being a part of the collective. Maybe like the Children of Israel, we are content to let “Moses” do it. I am sure there are as many reasons as there are melodies, but I hate seeing the trend of silence, and I wonder how we can better engage our hearts and voices through the generations.
      What is missing when our older generation no longer joins our melodies? What is missing when the younger generation doesn’t show up to share in the testimony, heritage and legacy?
      I mentioned in my response to Bryan that my kids didn’t know the National Anthem outside of the SNL version which we all watched repeatedly to laugh at because the lyrics were so distorted. They never sang it, and when they thought about the song, the goofy lyrics were all that came to mind. I realize the National Anthem isn’t gospel, but it used to be a song everyone knew and everyone could sing. When did that stop? I’m just curious….
      Thank you for your comments, and thank you also for your leadership in worship for so many years. You are a blessing!

  3. Cate,
    I appreciate you writing about this very hot button issue in the church universal. Disclaimer: I attend a church which has a strong liturgical emphasis (candles, verse and response readings, processionals) so I’ll be commenting from that mindset. You may not agree with me on some of my points.

    Because of how my church does their services, we don’t have a music “team” as most churches have today. We have a VERY large hymnal which is heavily infused with Charles Wesley hymns. The cantors, of which I’m one of them, stand at the back of the church when they sing an entrance canticle of 1-3 verses. The canticle changes from week to week depending on the day. The only other time the cantors sing by themselves is near the end of the service just before Communion when they sing a short hymn (1 verse) and then the Communion song (1-2 verses) before everyone goes to the altar rail for the Eucharist. The rest of the music is comprised of congregational singing and everyone is able to sing/follow along with the provided hymnal.

    I attended a dinner several years where a large number of churches participated. The host church provided the music and the team was comprised of a more “contemporary” setup. 🙂 The music leader told everyone they were going to play “Amazing Grace” and invited everyone to join in with the singing. The words were, indeed, “Amazing Grace” but the tune was SOOOOO completely different that I had NO idea what was going on at the time. I did smile a bit since it was obvious who attended the host church since they were the ones who were singing along to the “foreign” tune and worshiping. 🙂

    Ed, I admire and appreciate your talent of being able to write music. I personally like songs that are “high in the rafters” as I have a higher singing voice. I can appreciate some singers who are able to riff different songs. Keep on using your gift! 🙂

    In my opinion, one of the things that song leaders need to remember is that not a lot of congregants can sing at a high technical level. I am one of those people. Yes, I can sing but I’m very much of a sing what’s written on the score. If I hear any sort of creative riffing going on with a song, I will immediately stop trying to follow along and just listen. I think one of the other issues is when modern songwriters, well-meaning though they may be, re-write one of the old standards like “Just As I Am, In The Garden, or (as mentioned above) “Amazing Grace”. My first thought is “Why reinvent the wheel?” I admit to a bit of frustration when I hear that happening.

    I know that a lot of churches have either discarded their hymnals or simply disregard them. Would it be possible to maybe use the hymnals just to sing one or two of the old standbys each Sunday?

    Cate, I hope I came across as respectful and kind. I am not trying to slam any one group nor am I trying to sound like an old curmudgeon (for the record, I’m 51) but I do believe you raised some valid concerns. Thank you for starting this discourse. Hope you’re doing well! 🙂

    1. Thank you Bryan for your thoughts, words, and heart. I think your church tradition gives you another view into the effect of congregational unity through singing and prayer, and I appreciate it!
      I was in a music workshop class one year where the teacher, a highly skilled and talented musician and worship leader was taking Christian worship songs, and changing just a few chords here and there to give it new life. People sang along and noted the feeling that happened with chords being different. Some became jazz chords, and some were pulled from other key signatures for effect. Some majors became minors, and it felt like a new way to hear the song. Then he pulled in a hymn to do the same thing, and that is when the train ultimately wrecked. Those who knew the hymns not only knew the tunes, they had memorized their harmony parts, and when they joined in to sing this hymn with new chord structures it was ruined. Melodically it was awful. It was an interesting “experiment”, and one we all decided in the class should not be done on hymns. This was, I am sure do to the fact that people used to memorize musical harmonies because of the written notes, staffs, and lyrics laid out in hymnals.
      Ultimately, worship is our gift to God, not what the church music brings us, but I do find it interesting that we can de-rail through music and even withdraw our voice from the collective and feel ok about that. I’m saddened by the trend.
      Politics aside, I still wonder when we stopped singing the National Anthem together? My kids only knew the SNL version for many years (which was satire, with ridiculous lyrics.)
      Thank you for your response!!

  4. Cate, I think the reason people have stopped trying , or chosen to be a spectator, is complicated. Not the same reason everywhere, but for the most part people will only do what they feel is expected of them. Many have been raised where everything important happens on the “platform”. We grow up being entertained, and openly express our feelings about the entertainment in front of us. Not just worship music but teaching and preaching is all from the front, and not very interactive. I believe in leadership roles and order, but wonder if the mentality, if not the physical platform, were done away with and interaction was more encouraged, we might find that many would find themselves more prone to get involved more, and maybe even be bold enough to speak up or sing out, when the Spirit leads so. A lot of places do not encourage interaction, during our times together, and yes it does leave us vulnerable and possibly even open to hear some things we don’t agree with, or even go against our basic truths that we treasure.. We may even find some will want to scoff or ridicule us. Yes, we want order and structure, and dislike uncomfortable encounters, and/or even public correction if needed. We don’t want to deal with that, and resort to the safety of controlled times together, where any vocal questions or interaction with those not on the platform is considered out of order. Of course in a small group where we all know one another better, such is more acceptable, but I think we draw the line must too soon, as to what size group, or how well you know them is acceptable. I know I am talking about more than just worship in song, but do think it applies to singing as well. We let the professionals do it, or as in most cases, those willing to get up and make a lot of public mistakes, since we are far from professional. The service is controlled to not allow the unexpected, yet we long for something more than what we planned. A sad commentary for sure, but it seems the only role many choose to take serious is that of critic. When hearts are thankful for our Lord, what He has done and is doing, or even when filled with grief or longing for healing, expressing such in worship and prayer is not reliant on our style of music, or our particular brand of church.. It happens because we came expecting to interact with fellow believers and our Lord. We gathered together knowing we would be involved, impacted and possibly even minister to those around us. All to often I think we are sadly not prepared to give of ourselves, even in song.. A dead battery can’t start anything…. Preaching to myself here… and been praying about y own personal application.

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