A guest minister who came to preach at our church told me that, during the “children's time”, he planned to sing one of his own songs with the children. So, he brought his guitar and taught them a song whose chorus went something like this:
Bugs, bugs, bugs, bugs,
Bugs, bugs, bugs, bugs.
I forget what the song was about: it may have had something to do with Noah and the Ark, but the kids sang willingly enough, and trooped off to Sunday School. But it made me both wince and wonder.
I winced because the guest minister pitched the song far too low for their voices, choosing a comfortable key for the guitar (C major) that had them straining to sing an F below middle C.
Therefore, if you are a guitar player, start with the children's range before you choose the key, rather than the other way round. Typically children's lowest note is the G below middle C (the open third string on the guitar). Make sure the song uses that note very little; middle C is much better as a low note. For practical purposes, children's high note is somewhere between C an octave above (first string, 8th fret), and E a third above that. Of course, children can sing higher, but I am here writing about congregational singing, not practiced choral (or solo) singing.
I wondered at how eager children are to learn and to be challenged, and how little that song offered them in the way of musical nourishment. Surprisingly, the songs that children latch onto and make their own, are often very different from what we might expect as a “children's” song. Anyone who has worked on the editorial committee for a hymn collection knows how elusive are the qualities that make a good children's song or hymn.
Rather than looking at the “genre” of the song, I wonder if it might be better to ask some of these questions: how would a 3-year old hear this song? A 6 hear old, a 10-year old? How many “doors” does it offer a child to enter by: concrete imagery? possibilities for motion and actions? sensory details? repeatable sections or phrases? Will it allow a conversation, a question and answer, a call and response between children, the leader and the choir or praise band? (Stuart Townend's “Who Paints the Skies?” is a song that allows this kind of worship conversation to happen. “All creatures of our God and King” - or any hymn that has a repeating “Alleluia” could serve as a wonderful kind of dialogue, if the congregation sang all the words, including “Oh, Praise Him” and the children sing the “Alleluia.” I should say that I haven't done this yet; when I do, I'll let you know how it went, and what pitfalls to avoid. I will probably teach the final “Alleluia” with its 3-beat penultimate note first!
I will continue to share lessons learned and insights gleaned from the front (and back) pews of congregational song, but in my next post I hope to report on some experiences in summer music and worship festivals around the continent.