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Building a Singing Family
to Build a Singing Church

by Mary Jane Ballou

Everyone knows that Catholics can't sing in church. There's even a book with that title. But the answer doesn't lie with the professional church musicians. It's in the living rooms, kitchens and minivans of Catholic families. Most American Catholics don't sing in church because they don't sing anywhere else! So let's start singing at home. Give it a try - and I think you'll find it catching.

Why Sing?

Let me count the ways:

  1. Singing is making music - you move from passive listener to active creator.
  2. Every culture and every age can sing. It is a link between peoples and generations.
  3. Singing has been proven to improve circulation, lower muscle tension, relieve stress, and help individuals connect with themselves emotionally.
  4. Singing at home builds the confidence needed to join a chorus or choir or just sing boldly in a church full of silent congregants.
  5. Singing is fun and it's free!

If your children already wear matching outfits and sing in harmony, you don't need this. However, you can have a singing family when your last name isn't Trapp and you aren't Julie Andrews. Read on for pointers on how to start.

Starting to Sing

Here's the bad news. You have to start singing first! Sing everywhere and anytime - in the shower, in the kitchen, driving around, out in the garden. No one else will sing if you don't. "But I'm the one Sister Louise told to mouth the words at the second-grade assembly," you say. "I can't sing."

I've heard that over and over. I've listened to people sing for thirty years and have only heard two "monotones." My advice is to forget it and start singing.

If you haven't been in the habit of singing, your voice may be a little rusty. Just keep going and it will polish up quickly. Bring your spouse in on the plan. You'll have twice the pleasure.

After you've been singing a bit, a child in the "parent-pleasing" age group (6-11) will ask to sing along with you. That's your opening. Don't worry if some of the kids don't or won't sing. Let them be the audience.

Groaning teenagers? Just ask, with a smile, that they not groan too loudly. It is an important part of being a teenager to roll your eyes at everything. Often the most resistant adolescent male will join in Christmas carols if he's not pressured. (See "Basic Ground Rules for Family Singing.")

What kind of music?

The list is as wide as your experience and your interests. Remember your childhood and camp favorites. Nursery tunes and folk songs. If there's a baby in the house, sing a lullaby. Try some patriotic songs. Simple chants and older hymns are easier than the more "pop music" ones. Rounds are a wonderful way to learn to sing different parts at the same time. Do you know that you can sing "Row, Row, Row Your Boat," "Three Blind Mice," and "Frere Jacques" at the same time and it comes out even? (See "Songs for Singing Families" for some suggestions and resources.)

How about asking grandparents for their favorite songs or hymns? You may find the heart of a musician in an unlikely place. Let them sing for you. Learning a favorite and singing it live or on tape would make a memorable birthday present.

After you've used up the songs you know, start to scout out new ones. If you read music, look for songbooks in thrift shops and at the library. If you don't, you can ask a musical friend for recommendations or look for recordings of singable music. Kelly Beck got together homeschoolers and a singing teacher to learn new Advent songs (see "Celebrating with Advent Hymns" on this site).

When and Where to Sing?

If you have family devotions, add a verse of a hymn. When you're riding in the car, you've got a captive audience. One evening a week, sing a song at the end of dinner before everybody scatters to his or her chores and activities.

In church, your pew should be the most enthusiastic.

What about holiday meals with friends and family? When I was a girl, my family shared several holidays with another larger family. And every year I was impressed when they all stood around and sang "Praise God From Whom All Blessings Flow" as a grace before we attacked the buffet table.

Singing with no accompaniment (a cappella) leaves you free to start on whatever note you choose. It also means you can sing anywhere. And you'll certainly surprise some folks by doing so. Once we were singing in the state park during a picnic and a passerby asked us where the tape player was. He'd never heard people just singing away and assumed we were "lip synching" to a hidden recording.

After you've built up your confidence, you can suggest a song become part of your homeschooling or other group meetings. Many organizations began meetings with at least one song well into the 20th century. Singing builds harmony and a sense of common endeavor.

Conclusion

Sing whenever and wherever you can with your children. Don't worry about doing it right or often enough. Relax and enjoy the process. You don't need one more way to stress yourself out. If now doesn't seem like a good time, stop and try later.

You're sowing the seeds of music and sometimes they grow very, very slowly. However, don't be surprised when a seemingly silent child becomes a youth song leader or choir member. Or when a hulking teenager offers a critique of his latest CD. They'll grow into adults for whom singing is a familiar pastime. They'll carry that familiarity and the good taste you help them develop into the church of the future. And we'll all be grateful.

About the Author

Mary Jane Ballou (mjballou@bellsouth.net) is a writer and conservatory-trained musician living in Gainesville, Florida. She has over 20 years' experience with all types of singers and non-singers in churches and choruses. She also taught three average children to sing in the backyard, on auto trips, and in church. Visit her website at http://www.sacredsong.org to learn about different traditions in Christian sacred singing.

Basic Ground Rules for Family Singing:

† Be positive about everyone's voice. No one criticizes another person's singing. (You can suggest a little "taming" for the over-enthusiastic.)

† Sing only as long as it's fun. Family singing should never become a duty.

† Be happy when you all get through a song. Don't worry on getting all the notes and words right. Repetition will solve that.

† Sing without an instrumental accompaniment. Unless you're very good, you risk bogging down with "this song's too high, too low, etc." Without an accompanying instrument, you can start wherever you want.

†If you have budding instrumentalists in the family, let them play along sometimes and you may find yourself with a family combo! Again - make this a "no pressure" item. Remember the point is enjoyment.

Songs for Singng Families:

Singing good music is an important part of building musical taste, so make sure what you're singing is worth the time. This doesn't mean that everything has to be grand opera or Gregorian chant. What you want is songs with staying power - and you can be the judge of that. In the beginning, the most important point is to sing something - just sing. Don't get hung up on picking great songs.

Here's a list to jog your memory - and some places to find even more.

† I've Been Working on the Railroad
† Three Blind Mice
† Hush Little Baby
† This Land is Your Land
† Amazing Grace
† For He's a Jolly Good Fellow
† Kum Ba Yah
† Holy God We Praise Thy Name
† Praise God From Whom All Blessings Flow
† Immaculate Mary
† Hail Holy Queen
† Michael, Row the Boat Ashore

How I Praise You cover

Resources for Songs:

  1. How I Praise You! has all 150 psalms set to music with piano and guitar scores, teacher's guides and lots more. Click the book cover for more information.
  2. Beyond Row Row Row Your Boat features a great collection of rounds that show the words and music and include a MIDI recording to ease learning.
  3. Children's Music Web includes articles and resources.
  4. Children's Music and Songs section of the Internet School Library Media Center. Lots of links to music and articles on music and children.
  5. The Choral Public Domain Library offers a wide array of scores with a good search engine. When you're ready for parts, here's a place to explore.

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