I’ve always wrestled with “keeping the tempo up” in my congregational songleading. I tend toward a broader tempo than average, and my pastor will with all sensitivity ask on occasion, “Was it just me, or did the songs seem to be dragging a bit today?” He’s right to pose that rhetorical question, given my proclivity toward a slower pace.
There’s a fine line between a “thoughtful” singing of a song, and a tempo that is just plain too slow. I was intrigued by William Smith’s comments on the matter, which I ran across recently while reading his Joyful Noise:
A crucial factor in the assembly’s song is the matter of tempo: the rate of speed at which a congregation of a particular size sings a particular song within a particular worship space. Tempo must not be too fast or too slow. But who will tell us what is too fast or too slow? This is where the tune may find another opportunity to tyrannize. . . . Measured against the sound of the organ or piano, the assembly may appear to be “dragging” the song. Perhaps this is indeed all there is in such cases. But is it just possible that the assembly’s slower tempo, at least sometimes, is an intuitively-based resistance to the tendency of the music to tyrannize, to force the singers to surrender a thoughtful reading of the text? (p. 5)
I’m not so sure there is any congregational intuition in slowing down the text. We all know how easy it is to ignore the text, and it takes constant vigilance to maintain attention to songs we’ve sung many times (another good point in favor of new songs!). But I do wonder how much intuitive (i.e., unconscious) slowing of the tempo there is on my part. I so love good meaty texts–not necessarily complex texts–but texts like Wesley’s where every word really does count and deserves to be lingered over, savored. Or witness the well-known Charitie Bancroft’s “Before the Throne of God Above.” I’m leading our choir this coming Sunday in singing Faye Lopez’s arrangement of this superlative text. She rightfully puts tenuto markings with the notes for the phrase “One with Himself,” and I broaden the tempo slightly there with the choir to mark that emphasis. But really, the entire text deserves a thoughtful savoring:
Before the throne of God above
I have a strong and perfect plea.
A great High Priest whose Name is Love
Who ever lives and pleads for me.
My name is graven on His hands,
My name is written on His heart.
I know that while in Heaven He stands
No tongue can bid me thence depart.
When Satan tempts me to despair
And tells me of the guilt within,
Upward I look and see Him there
Who made an end of all my sin.
Because the sinless Savior died
My sinful soul is counted free.
For God the just is satisfied
To look on Him and pardon me.
Behold Him there, the risen Lamb,
My perfect spotless righteousness,
The great unchangeable I AM,
The King of glory and of grace,
One with Himself I cannot die.
My soul is purchased by His blood,
My life is hid with Christ on high,
With Christ my Savior and my God!
And isn’t that true of all outstanding poetry? Alternately, I find that when I lead the congregation in an “average” hymn — not bad, serves its purpose, but not outstanding — I do tend to lead a bit faster. Maybe Smith is onto something with the notion of “intuition” in regard to tempo!