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Break into song; helping congregations find their voice.

In my experience, learning and singing songs together in worship is a deeply formative act, one which strengthens communities and helps us encounter God in unexpected ways. But exploring something new in worship can be challenging, even daunting; we need a friend to guide us through the richness of music available to us.

I am a graduate student and a working church musician, and my passion is inspiring congregations to sing together. Last year I started a project called Break into Song (, which aims to inspire church leaders to make friends with new music.

Like many people my age, I spend (read: waste) a certain amount of time on YouTube watching videos about anything from cute kittens with yarn, to mini-lectures on how tropes in videogames shape our culture. Some of the content out there isn't so great, but some of it is not only well informed and cogently written, but also looks fantastic. One day it hit me: if I can learn how to fold a fitted sheet on YouTube (and be entertained at the same time), there should be a similar resource for inspiring and equipping leaders for vital congregational song. The result, Break into Song is a free web video series that is fun, educational, globally-minded, and inspired by the playful possibilities of worship.

Each episode features a particular worship song (such as the percussive African chorus Sithi Haleluya or Canadian folk favourite She Comes Sailing on the Wind), and explores the song's background and context, the best ways to teach it, and how to creatively incorporate it into worship. The videos include original interviews with composers and teachers, as well as tips on teaching, percussion and interpretation.

I think today's church musician is stretched thinner than ever before. Even as we become more connected with music from all over the world, as the possibilities of church music expand, the church budget gets smaller. Worship leaders are left knowing there is much that could be done, but with limited resources at their disposal. At the same time, the idea of getting music off the page and leading worship as a cantor or song leader (in the styles suggested by the Iona Community and Taize, among others) is having a moment. The Hymn Society of the United States and Canada has led the way with campaigns and conferences that promote congregational song pedagogy, and a theology of learning in worship.

My work is also informed by my engagement as a teacher for Music that Makes Community, which is all about teaching songs in community.

On the website for this organization there is a blog by Rev. Meagan Manas of Queens, New York. She writes: "I grew up steeped in music--piano lessons and choirs, playing at my church regularly as a teenager. But I never felt confident as a singer. I was fine in a group, sure, but I had resigned myself to the cold truth that I simply was not meant to be one of God's special soloists. Over the years since then, I've become a Presbyterian minister, and had the chance to work with several very talented musicians in NYC churches and in ecumenical worship settings at the United Nations and Ecumenical Advocacy Days. Through these experiences of creative, imaginative, expansive worship. I've witnessed the power of simple music used to engage people of different cultures, languages and backgrounds; the magic that happens when folks are invited to join their voices into something beautiful. I've also realized just how dependent I am on 'someone else' being there to work this magic."

Her confession probably resonates with many leaders of worship, and from where I stand, equipping leaders such as Manas is more important than ever for our communities. I wanted to contribute to this movement by creating a resource that could be accessed from anywhere and which might inspire people who wouldn't otherwise know where to begin. Have a look and see for yourself; you'll be amazed at what can happen once you break into song.

You can see the first episodes at

Hilary Seraph Donaldson is based in Toronto.

By Hilary Seraph Donaldson
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Title Annotation:MUSIC
Author:Donaldson, Hilary Seraph
Publication:Presbyterian Record
Geographic Code:1CANA
Date:May 1, 2015
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