Singing Together, But Apart: Congregational Song for Online Worship

One of the most difficult things for me about moving to online worship platforms right now is losing the experience of singing together. Nothing can replicate the experience of singing together in one room. However, this is the kind of time where we need to sing—we need to sing our sorrows, we need to sing our hopes, and we need to sing the songs that comfort us and keep us grounded when everything is shifting around us.

I am the child of two church musicians, I am a congregational song leader and a hymn nerd, and I am also a sound designer for live theater. I've been popping into a lot of worship services, conversations, and song circles in the past couple weeks. Here are some of my observations about ways to lead and engage with congregational song.

Pre-recording is going to give you the best sound quality.

In these times, we each have to make decisions about priorities for how we worship. For some, pre-recording, being able to ensure fewer technical difficulties, and enhancing the service using some filming techniques, is the most appropriate option. Others miss the liveness and interaction of the worship experience and so opt for a live stream or video conferencing option.

If audio quality is particularly important for you, the best option you have is pre-recording. It allows you control during the recording process and during the editing, and often allows people to experience something with literally a better file quality than you will find in live streaming. You can integrate pre-recorded music into live worship particularly through video conferencing like Zoom (which can then be live-streamed to Facebook Live or other platforms, if you'd like), by screen sharing and playing the video. If you do this, make sure you use the "Share computer audio" or related setting so that the audio goes directly to the feed.

Having one leader, with everyone else muted, is going to be the next best option.

As much as we'd like to hear each other singing together, the experience can be deeply distracting. There is enough lag in the connection on video conferencing software that even if you are a group of seasoned singers, you will sound off, and the tempo will droop as you try to listen to each other over various internet connections. Having a song leader (or multiple leaders, as long as they are in the same place, social distancing together) from one feed playing and singing while everyone else is on mute is going to allow everyone to hear the leader well enough to sing along in their own homes. This is what tends to happen during live-streamed worship where leaders live-stream using something like Facebook Live without video conferencing software, and is a great way to help people sing at home!

Call and Response

A great way to engage more people in song, particularly while worshiping by video conference, is through call and response songs. Here you can have one person sing the leader, and another person on the call can model the response (with the rest of the participants’ mics still muted). You will likely experience some lag between the call and response, but we know online worship is not going to be perfect. The advantage of this is being able to add more voices to the leading, even if those people are miles apart. Music that Makes Community is an excellent resource, and has examples of call and response songs on their website. 

The Technical Side

Every one of these options will be made better with better microphones. If you are not someone who likes figuring out new equipment, the easiest thing you can do for yourself is get a good USB mic. They are designed to plug into your computer and work with minimal set-up. I have had good experiences with Blue Microphones. The Yeti is a good, relatively inexpensive microphone that works well out the box and also has a lot of options to help things sound great.  The Snowball is also good for its price. I have no experience with this mic, but I've seen this recommended again and again as an external lavalier mic that works with phones.  

This blog post from Hacking Christianity also goes into more detail about audio setups for churches right now.

If you are using Zoom, definitely check out the "use original sound" setting. Zoom optimizes audio for speech, working to cancel out background noise, but this greatly affects the audio. This YouTube tutorial shows how to use original sound in Zoom.

For pianists out there: if you have one, running a MIDI keyboard into a program like Logic or Garageband and playing it as a virtual instrument and using that as your sound in Zoom is another way to get a clear sound if you don’t have a good microphone! This is a good blog post explaining that possibility.

Use hymn texts in different ways!

If singing together and audio just isn't working for you, try to incorporate texts of beloved hymns in different ways. Weave them into a prayer or sermon. Have a "hymn of the week" where you recite a hymn text and encourage people to live in the spirit of that hymn this week. Use hymn texts for your call to worship or prayer of confession. Even when we cannot sing them together, these songs connect us and shape us. They are resources for us when it's hard to find a way forward.

All of us are still learning and figuring out how to move forward. As we do, we are reminded of the grace that surrounds us, through spotty WiFi connections, patchy audio, sound delays and all. We are still able to be together online and praise God together, and that is what counts.


Slats Toole

Guest Contributor to our Lent bundle, Wilderness (Year A)

Slats (they/them/theirs) is a writer, musician, theater artist and preacher, whose work has been published in Call to Worship, Sacramental Life, The Presbyterian Outlook, Fidelia Magazine, and Discipleship Ministries’ “History of Hymns” column. Slats holds a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Drama from New York University and a Master of Divinity from Princeton Theological Seminary.