I no longer assume that the children entering into my choir are familiar with the Lutheran liturgy and standard hymns, even Christmas carols. There are several reasons, including the lack of sacred music in the schools, families’ sporadic worship attendance, and attendance at “alternative” services. Our staff is making more deliberate efforts to encourage families to worship together regularly. I schedule our 2nd-6th grade choir to sing for worship at least once a month. One of the third grade boys recently told his mother that church was more fun when he was in the choir, because he had more to do. Yes, indeed - church is much more fun when you can participate because you have rehearsed the responses and know the hymns!
One of my main goals as a children’s choir leader is to enable the children to become lifelong full participants in worship. How do we accomplish this?
1. Constantly teach the parents, children, and congregation that when the children’s choir sings in worship, they are worship leaders, not entertainers.
- Have the choir wear robes. (This can even calm nerves for children who don’t like to be in front of crowds. Tell them that, like the pastors, we all look alike by wearing special “servant uniforms” to draw attention away from ourselves and toward God.)
- Have them sit together as a group for the entire service. Parading them in to sing and then immediately out sends the message that their offering is a special interruption, and not really an integral part of worship.
- Have the children process, if your regular worship practice includes a procession.
- Let them sing other parts of the service, in addition to an anthem. They can serve as cantor for the Kyrie or a psalm, or sing a descant on a hymn. The first time my elementary choir sang the Kyrie in worship, some in the congregation were emotionally moved to tears. Now the children always serve as cantor at their scheduled services, and a couple of choristers who are now teens “go solo.”
2. Teach liturgy and hymns at every single rehearsal.
- Physically use the hymnal. Practice looking up page numbers, psalms, and hymns. Teach them how to use the indexes. Make it into a game: Who can be the first one to turn to page 147 in the front of your hymnal? Can you find the hymn number for “Silent Night?” What are the two hymns listed that can be sung to the tune “Azmon?” Who can tell me which hymn in our hymnal was written by George Frideric Handel? Make it age appropriate. Some younger children will need a lot of practice just to find and differentiate between page numbers and hymn numbers in the ELW. Challenge the older children with the indexes, starting with First Lines and Titles.
- Explain all the information on each hymn page. Talk about the author of the text and the composer of the tune, and when they lived. (The ELW Hymnal Companion is a great resource.) Tell them that the tune name is different than the title of the hymn. Have them sing the words to a different tune (try singing “I Am So Glad Each Christmas Eve” to the tune of “Amazing Grace.”). They will think it’s cool and fun! Explain what the funny little numbers (the hymn meter) at the bottom of the page mean.
- Use hymns to teach music reading and vocal techniques. Use the refrain of “Angels We Have Heard on High” as a vocal warm-up: it’s great for range, flexibility, and breath control. Ask questions about a hymn: Are there two lines of music that are the same? Does the melody go up or down on the third line? Is that a half note or a whole note on the word “grace?” How many beats are in each measure? Reading four-part multiple stanza hymns can be confusing compared to unison or two-part choral music. Practice following the music in this way: Play the hymn and stop at various places. Have them tell you the word or syllable on which you stopped. When singing the hymn, strive for beautiful tone, accurate rhythm and good diction.
- As much as you practice reading fluency, work toward memorization on some things, too. The result is that even when minds wander during worship, they will come back when they hear “The Lord be with you,” and can easily respond “And also with you.” If you have taught them “Lamb of God,” they will sing it from memory on their way to receive communion.
3. Don’t “dumb down” for the children. Challenge them! There is nothing in the hymnal that they cannot learn.
- Children will learn many things faster than adults. They learn foreign languages more easily and memorize quickly.
- Yes, poetic texts can be difficult, especially older texts and translations. There will be many new vocabulary words. Talk about what the text means. Is this a statement of praise or a prayer? Is this hymn telling a story? Who is speaking, and to whom? If it is based on a scripture passage, discuss that.
Most things worth learning take work. You may even find that it takes less effort than you first thought to teach hymns and liturgy to children. Approach it intentionally, and these young people will gain skills and develop their faith in a way that will stay with them forever.