January 2019
Vestry as Team

Music for Team Building

This article is also available in Spanish here. Este artículo está disponible en español aquí.

When I was teaching elementary school, the easiest and fastest way to get my students to pay attention and remember what we were working on was to start singing or chanting. Somehow, putting something to music for the class to recite or sing back to me was powerful and built community. Later, when I taught music, I included easy, multilingual songs to foster community in our diverse environment.

A technique that is easy is to use combines call and response phrasing, chants or songs with well-known tunes (including popular or classical music). I have used Beethoven’s Fifth to say: Ready to learn? And the students’ response was: Oh yes we are! I often used popular songs like “Jingle Bells” or “Thriller” to teach a variety of math or reading facts. Classes with older students came up with their own songs to help us learn. This often brought us together and helped build excitement about any subject.

Songs for building community at church

When I am invited to teach a song to a group of people at church, there are several that I use. If I have very little time, I start singing the gospel spiritual “Amen.” Most people know it and will start singing along. When we finish, I say, “do you want to learn it in Spanish?” Everyone shouts: “YES!” And, I start singing it, but with the Spanish pronunciation (short A instead of long A). People usually laugh. If I have more time, I do “Somos uno en Cristo/We are all one in Christ” (found in Oramos Cantando/We Pray in Song), “Create in Me” by Mary Rice Hopkins or one of my short songs like “No tengas miedo” or “Remain in Me/Permanece en mí.”

I asked some of my musician friends to tell me what songs they use to build community and why they think music is important in team building. All of them talked about ease, repetition and the importance of the message that invites us to become one.

Jeannine Otis, Music Director at St. Mark’s-in-the-Bowery, New York, says that her favorite song for building community is “Guide my Feet.” She feels it’s easily sung and the lyrics speak to the prayer and aspiration in life to walk with God – Guide my feet while I run this race, cause I don’t wanna run this race in vain. Other verses expand on that prayer. “I want to use my life to show gratitude to God and the universe through living a life that is meaningful and of service to humankind,” says Jeannine. “For me, this song is a prayer to move forward with God, no matter what, in faith, in love and forgiveness, confident that all is well.”

Dent Davidson, Interim Director of Emerging Liturgy and Music, St. Bart’s, New York, uses a paperless song, “Come, my Beloved. Make your home in my heart.” Dent says he loves using this song because it is easy to learn. He says that he is always overwhelmed with the notion of who is making the invitation – “Are we asking God to make a home in our heart? Or is God asking us to make our home in the heart of God? Or both!” He believes that making music with our bodies is a tremendously intimate experience. It can make us vulnerable and open to what is new. Listening to each other gives us permission to use our own voice and to be heard. A group of single voices becomes one, a choir. “There’s also an element of sheer magic,” he says, “that science will never be able to explain. It’s all God, and a total gift.”

Gus Chrysson, deacon and Costa Rican seminarian at Virginia Theological Seminary, says that he teaches three choruses that will eventually overlap – “This Little Light of Mine,” “Glory, Glory Hallelujah” (Since I Laid my Burdens Down) and “When the Saints Go Marching In.” He learned this from Dr. Ysaye Barnwell, formerly of the a cappella group, Sweet Honey in the Rock. People usually know those three choruses or can learn them very quickly. He will form three groups, and ask each to sing their chorus once alone and then all together. When the groups sing together, these overlapping choruses make such nice harmonies. He thinks folk songs also work well to get people singing, and he really enjoys teaching by call and response and then making the singing progressively fancier.

Gus thinks that music is important in community building because we are human, and humans have been building community with music (and food!) forever. “Music mirrors how we praise God,” he says, “how we find joy and how we cope with grief. So, when we build community with music, it allows us to lean into our humanness together, even if the music we know and love individually is very different.”

Singing together can show the way forward and bring hope

Ana Hernández, a member of the Standing Commission on Liturgy and Music, describes herself as a “composer/arranger, workshop facilitator, author, and mischief maker.” She discusses the power of singing together:

Whether surrounded by actual fires or communicating around dismantling racism, singing prayers together is possibly the strongest thread helping us to see a way forward on a previously unseen path. I’ve watched rooms full of people completely transformed when confronted with the following two tunes and an urgent need to work together.

John Bell's “Don't Be Afraid” reminds us to be present and faithful, even if we’re petrified. Singing together, adding harmonies and counter melodies, opens us to see new possibilities as we begin to move in sync. The fact that we notice our comfort growing as we sing allows us to explore what transformation and communion look and feel like as we practice inviting and encouraging one another and make space for each voice by deepening our capacity to listen to one another.

“All Shall Be Well/Another World” combines texts by Arundhati Roy (“Another World is not only possible, she is on her way; on a quiet day, I can hear her breathing”) and Julian of Norwich (“All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well”) in an original tune, building on the themes of God's presence and comfort by adding hope. Hope adds energy to the room, permeating each person with a confidence that makes it possible for even timid singers to find and share their voices. With this kind of wholehearted participation, all shall indeed be well.

Ellis Montes, music director at Grace, Houston, says music is a way for people to get on the same page when they are getting to know each other. He says that singing simple yet thought-provoking songs like “In My Life, Lord, Be Glorified” or “Tu fidelidad/I Depend Upon Your Faithfulness” can help people focus on an idea – especially when starting an important meeting, like one that includes multicultural liturgies, prayer book revision, inclusive language, and revising the liturgical calendar. (Ellis used these songs at his first Standing Commission on Liturgy and Music meeting.)

There is a saying: “To sing is to pray twice.” For me, singing helps in remembering prayers and Bible verses. And when music is used at the beginning of any gathering, it has the potential to bring unity, comfort and love.

Sandra T. Montes is the Spanish Language Resource Consultant at ECF. She has spent many years developing original bilingual resources for her church, school and others and has volunteered and worked in the Episcopal Church since she was welcomed in 1986. Sandra serves as a musician, translator, speaker, consultant and writer. She earned her doctorate in education in 2016 and is a full-time freelance consultant and musician.


This article is part of the January 2019 Vestry Papers issue on Vestry as Team