Make His Praise Glorious

By elder John Torlach, EPC Winnaleah


Our Church, the Evangelical Presbyterian Church of Australia [and Pilgrim Covenant Church in Singapore], acting in accordance with the Reformed understanding of Scripture, engages in the practice of a-cappella Psalm singing in the worship of our God. We, as members, are often reminded of the Regulative Principle and of the sound Biblical grounds for such a practice. We also see and acknowledge the depth and breadth of the Psalms and the Gospel of Christ contained in them; and yet so often our singing can be dull and joyless. Some may even quietly wish for some musical accompaniment, arguing that it would lend some sort of cohesion and depth to the singing. Without going into the arguments against musical accompaniment, I would like, as a means of encouragement and help in our use of the Psalms for worship and praise, to discuss various practices that we ought to consider when singing the Psalms. Much of the following is not new to many of us, but, as with all things worthwhile, it does no harm, but is often beneficial, to go over them.

First and foremost it is important for us to remember that God looks on the heart (1 Sam. 16:7) and no matter how beautiful or pleasing to the ear our singing is, if our heart is not engaged then it is unacceptable to God. We ought to be concerned about the worship of God, not the entertainment of ourselves and others; therefore, let us endeavour at all times when singing God's word to have our hearts and minds engaged as well as our mouths (1 Cor 14:15). It is often helpful to read through a Psalm before singing it (this is one profitable use of quiet time before the service). Often there is a perceptible difference in the quality of singing when one sings with a full understanding and expression of the words.

God, in His word, also calls us to make a joyful noise unto Him and to make His praise glorious (Ps 66:1-2). Much of what can be said about how we ought to sing the Psalms relates back to the importance and meaning of the words. The following five aspects of singing, if put into practice, together with a right spirit, serve to develop a more harmonious, tuneful and appropriate singing of the Psalms in worship to God.

Speed

There are those who believe that the Psalms should be sung slowly, there are others who believe they should be sung much faster and there are yet others who believe a moderate speed would be most suitable. All of these views tend towards will worship - they are the "I like", or "I prefer", or "I enjoy it more". We do not sing the Psalms primarily for our enjoyment; we sing them as praise and worship to God and therefore ought not to be asking,- how would I like to sing this Psalm, but rather, how ought this Psalm to be sung that it glorify God (1 Chr 16:9). The speed at which we sing should vary from Psalm to Psalm according to content.

Psalm 148, for example, cannot rightly be sung slowly, as it overflows with praise for God's glory and goodness; while on the other hand, it would be ludicrous to think of singing Psalm 88, of grief and chastisement, other than slowly. The speed of a tune is also inappropriate when (1) it is so slow that the words cannot be distinguishably enunciated (this leads to very sloppy singing and difficulty in staying in tune) or; (2) it is so fast that the average singer cannot keep up and has no time to follow what they are singing. Naturally, with various precentors, there will at times be different interpretations of speed and it is necessary, for harmony and order, that we respect that interpretation. By this I mean that, once a Psalm is begun at a certain speed, the congregation ought to follow that speed regardless of whether they think it appropriate or not. It is certainly not glorifying to God to have half the congregation pitted against the other in a duel of speeds (1 Cor 14:40). There is a time and place outside of worship to speak to a brother about his choice of speed. Of course there are Psalms within which the sentiment changes and this brings us to the next point


Dynamics

By dynamics, I refer simply to levels of volume. Take for example Psalm 1. This is a Psalm which reflects on the two ways in life - the way of the righteous and the way of the wicked. There are two distinct moods in the Psalm - the happiness of the child of God planted in Christ in contrast to the misery of the wicked. How can we reflect this in our singing? To change speeds halfway through the Psalm, or even halfway through a verse as in this Psalm, is, for untrained singers, simply not practical. However, we can express these thought/moods/emotions through volume. Those who own Irish tune books are assisted in this matter in that the dynamics are marked. However, even without these markings, if we are familiar with the words, we will note the definite change of subject in verse 4. A simple way to approach this Psalm, and all of them, is to sing at a moderate volume; words of great praise and joy should be sung louder; and words of sobriety and judgement should be sung softer. Those who do not own a tune book could perhaps borrow one and pencil in the dynamics. I have included a list of dynamics and their meanings at the end of this article.


Punctuation & Diction

Punctuation, contrary to modern education, is very important to meaning. Once again I could argue that if we are singing with understanding, the punctuation should come naturally. However, it can be noted for our encouragement, that if we follow the punctuation it may help us to more fully understand what it is we are singing. If there is a comma in the middle of a line, the whole congregation ought to pause (only momentarily of course) and if there is not a comma or full stop at the end of a line, then the congregation ought not to stop but continue on to the next line. It is important to note here however, that the correct length of the note at the end of the line be held before moving to the next line. Of course this does not mean that the whole congregation should struggle from one comma to the next without taking a breath. (There is nothing worse than hearing gasps for breath at each pause!). A breath should be taken whenever it is needed while also paying attention to the punctuation.

By diction, I mean the clear enunciation of each word, making sure that the consonants on the ends of words are produced. When this does not occur, there is a blurring of vowel sounds and words cannot be distinguished. Naturally notes are carried on the vowels but be careful not to carry nasals (m, n or ng) or the letters 1 and r - make sure their production is short and sharp.


Suitability of Tune

Some tunes may be used, quite suitably, for Psalms of widely varying content, depending on the speed at which they are sung. Other tunes however, due to the nature of their rhythmic or melodic structure are only suitable for certain types of Psalms. Perfect Way, for example, would not be a suitable tune for Psalm 60. It fits metrically, but, being a cheerful tune, it would be at odds with what is being expressed in the words. Again the Irish tune book assists in this matter by suggesting suitable tunes for each of the Psalms.


Pitch (& Part Singing)

Pitch is perhaps one of the most difficult aspects of presenting, particularly in a congregation of very few part singers. Many have suggested using a pitch-pipe. The use of a pitch pipe is only of benefit in a congregation of part singers as the melody, if correctly pitched, would often be too high for many of the congregation. The precentor, therefore, must decide on a pitch that he thinks will be most suitable for the congregation. Please be sympathetic towards the precentors in regard to pitch and, if at times it is too high or too low, allow him to stop and begin again. The Lord has created us with voices of varying pitch and the Psalm tunes are written in simple four part harmony, covering the range of the four major voice types - soprano, alto, tenor and bass. I would encourage everyone to take whatever opportunity they can to learn the parts most suitable to their voice type. To learn a part is no harder than learning a new tune and to sing in one's own vocal range leaves much more room for expression and adoration than when screeching or groaning.

Although far from comprehensive, I hope that this serves as a small help toward improving our singing and our understanding of the precentors’ job. Let us more and more appreciate the Psalms and use them in a way that is most glorifying to God and edifying to our souls.

—John Torlach

Dynamics Key                

pp    pianissimo       very soft

p      piano               soft

mp   mezzo piano    moderately soft

m     mezzo              moderate

mf    mezzo forte      moderately loud

f       forte                 loud

ff     fortissimo        very loud

c      crescendo        gradually becoming louder

d      decsescendo    gradually becoming softer


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