Teamwork for a Nation of Altos

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If Thomas Day of Salve Regina University were to update "Why Catholics Can't Sing," he might retitle it "Why Catholics Can't Sing - And Protestants Are Going Flat." Our mutual reluctance to belt out "The Star-Spangled Banner" indicates how far the average singing range in the US has declined. So does gradual replacement of four-voice treble clef/bass clef hymnals by song sheets and "follow the bouncing ball" slides.

Overprofessionalized choirs, amplification of soloists, "new" hymns that won't stick in the ear, and other factors identified by Professor Day have pushed congregations toward musical passivity - as opposed to melodies that soared and words that thundered in most Protestant churches back in the 1950s and early '60s. Small wonder many church members search for emotional fulfillment in political activism, now that there's no music and poetry waiting for them on Sunday.

Here are three steps for members who want to be able to say, "Let's go to church next Sunday and sing, not just listen!"

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Make sure the congregation sings in "alto-friendly" keys. Compared with a generation ago, more of us (at least 80 percent now) are altos and weak baritones for whom a high C is tops and the high B-flats and Fs in our hymnals are out of the question. "Faith of Our Fathers" is still singable, since its high F (in the key of F) should certainly be transposed down a fourth to the alto-friendly key of C. (One of the newer Presbyterian hymnals is a step in the right direction.)

Better a pitch pipe with everyone singing in a comfortable key than a magnificent pipe organ with everyone croaking and groaning, except a few show-off sopranos and tenors.

Make sure the choir has an outreach role. Singing in a first-rate choir is rewarding, musically and socially, but its volume and virtuosity can intimidate the congregation.. Hence the need for a church's choir to include extramural concerts and performances, especially for school and senior-citizen audiences. And, if people in the congregation can actually hear themselves singing, they're bound to get better in a couple of years, far more so than if they have a pack of supersopranos screaming at them three or four times a Sunday.

Make sure there's continuing musical growth for children in the church-school program. Since tomorrow's congregations will be made up of today's children, "Faith of Our Fathers" and other perennials should be plugged into the curriculum early, including memorization of the words.

Going further, the learning-link between melody and content argues for matching solid tunes with appropriate content, paralleling Shakespeare's lines (in "The Merry Wives of Windsor") about singing the 100th Psalm to the tune of "Greensleeves." Why shouldn't a program's music component produce double value: serving as today's tool while preparing tomorrow's congregation to sing with confidence, conviction, and verve?

It comes down to one word: teamwork! As matters stand, many churches have marvelous choirs and very productive school programs. But the decline in the quality of congregational singing - especially full- congregation harmony singing - calls for more concern about the relationship between these three partners: choir, school, and congregation. Especially about how they can work together for common goals.

Pete Seeger's recent column, "Let the Altos Lead" (in Sing Out magazine) called attention, long overdue, to the singing-range problems Americans face today. May Protestant churches join the Music Educators National Conference to reach the national goal, "Let's get America singing again."

* Robert Oliphant is executive director of Californians for Community College Equity.

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