Music–especially hymn singing, closing songs, and instrumental interludes–in UU churches is often intended to provide a more “emotional” content to balance the intellectual content of lecture-type sermons, announcements, and the general Low Church atmosphere of such gatherings. There are congregations that provide fantastic music, and often there is a particularly gifted musical director behind this happy phenomenon.
But probably more often, UU music is limp and off-tune, even forced. This is particularly so for hymn singing. What are the reasons for this? Some speculate that is because the dominant upper middle class white demographic of UUism doesn’t have natural rhythm or soul. Certainly many a minister has tried in vain to get UUs in the pews to clap along, sway, or even smile or show any emotion at all while standing like uncomfortable statues waiting to see when they get to sit back down again. Another possibility is that UUs are unused to many of the hymns they are asked to perform: they are mostly converts who grew up with hymns other than the ones popular in UU congregations (or, no hymns at all), and even if the tune may be familiar in some cases, the words have often changed from what they knew. This is compounded by the large number of hymns in the current hymnals, many of which are unfamiliar outside the denomination and come up infrequently even within UU circles. It’s possible too that some hymns are simply unsingable, at least by non-professionals.
Perhaps another possibility, one that hasn’t been often mentioned, originates in that alleged opposition between music/emotion and sermon/intellect. After basting silently in an intellectual atmosphere for most of a UU service, it may be hard for people to suddenly shift gears into a few minutes of emotive singing. If that is the case, then greater attention to emotional balance throughout the service would likely yield greater singing. The point here is not just to make UU singing sound aesthetically pleasing, but to make it more effective (for instance, as an emotional expression) by making it more natural and comfortable. The emotion many get out of current UU singing seems to be embarrassment, which is certainly not the intention.
What factors do you think go into poor UU singing? Are there hymns that simply shouldn’t be chosen, no matter how appealing their lyrics are? And if your congregation or one you know of has managed to display an unusually good level of musical aptitude in services, what do you think is being done right in such circumstances? Here’s a chance to compare notes and perhaps raise the level of UU services over a broad area.