Many musicians, amateur and professional alike, expend a lot of energy making sure that they play or sing all the “right notes,” which often translates to mean accurate pitches. Sometimes this even happens at the expense of rhythm. While I’m certainly not advocating for sloppy playing or lots of missed notes, I would suggest that in leading assembly song, a consistent pulse and rhythm is just as important as accurate pitches.
The first question I ask myself in preparation to lead any song is “what’s the tactus?” Tactus is different than beat. In the tune ABBOT’S LEIGH (ELW 526), most of us would automatically assign a time signature of ¾, and say that the quarter note gets a beat. But the tactus, the underlying, inner pulse, is probably a dotted half: one pulse per bar. Only in a large space with a broad tempo and large group of people would I set up the quarter note as the tactus.
Sing the end of stanza 1 and the beginning of stanza 2 with exactly this rhythm:
We feel rushed and don’t have time to breathe! So let’s add a beat:
This gives us a bit of extra time, but feels incredibly awkward. We could try this:
It adds time for a breath, but it’s still very rushed. Try this instead:
In most acoustics, this will feel exactly right. The tactus always needs to be kept alive (perhaps occasionally stretched) between stanzas. With many hymns and songs, this requires an adaptation of what is on the written page.
Some pieces, like Taize or Iona chants or canons, require us to keep going even if we might want to pause for a breath. There are so many different questions to ask:
- What happens if there is a pickup at the beginning of the stanza?
- What if the accompaniment has written out pulses that must be observed, such as Gather Us In (ELW 532)?
- What about For All the Saints (ELW 422), which has a down beat in the bass at the beginning?)
Plan ahead for how you will treat these turnarounds, and always be clear and consistent.
Tactus is just as important during the introduction and first stanza as it is between stanzas. The introduction is the first thing that an assembly hears when beginning a hymn or song, and it serves to set the tempo and key, and its goal is to get people singing.
A hymn introduction might be simple or complex. In an elaborate chorale prelude, the organist interprets the text of the hymn musically, giving people the chance to listen and meditate, then stand to sing. Sometimes the leader may play only the first and last phrases, especially if the tune is familiar. If a tune is new, a very clear outline of the melody (such as soloing out on another manual) may be helpful. None of these are always right or always wrong, and they need not always be the same. Perhaps the Hymn of the Day gets a rather elaborate introduction, and perhaps the sending hymn has a very brief introduction; but in the end, it must serve the assembly and help them to know when and how to sing. The end of an introduction must lead into the first stanza with a clear release and uninterrupted tactus. Great hymn leadership is musical and beautiful, but above all incites the assembly to sing.
Note: This topic and much more are addressed in a workshop, “Leading the Assembly’s Song” that is available for ELCA synods to sponsor. For more information, contact Scott Weidler, ELCA Program Director for Worship and Music, at email@example.com.