Out of the Mouths of Children

Dear God,
If you do all these things, you are pretty busy. Now here's my question. When is the best time I can talk to you. I know you are always listening, but when will you be listening hard in Troy, New York?
Sincerely Yours,

Dear God,
Church is alright but you could sure use better music. I hope this does not hurt your feelings.
Can you write some new songs?
Your friend,

Dear God,
Could you write more stories? We have already read all the ones you have and begin again.

Most of us are either starled or amused by prayers and letters like these. We chuckle to ourselves or murmur, "Isn't that cute." And we seldom take the words, or the children that utter them, seriously enough. We tend to forget that Allen, Emily, and Barry- and millions of other children like them-are vital members of God's family.Because of our attitude these children- wo often have a very real relationship with God -are, for the most part, closed off from our Sunday worship services.

During the past decade many adult Christians have been struggling to find new ways to involve children to church.They've been trying to get out of the pattern of merely tolerating or being amused by children in church and looking for ways to incorporate them into meaningful worship. And they've discovered that one of the most promising avenues for doing si is through music.

Many churches are now following the example of John Calvin and some of the other Reformation leaders in having children teach songs to the congregation. While we readily expect that children will be learning from the hymnal during the service, many of us have never thought them capable of teaching hymnal content. But at a time when many churches are introducing new hymnals to their congregations, children can became valuable worship partners by introducing adults to the newest texts and tunes.

Why ask children to teach music? Since much of life is already an adventure for children, they often have a more open-minded approach than adults do to new ideas, new texts, varied tunes, and altered accompaniments. If you keep in mind that one of the first steps in successful teaching is motivating the learners, what better way than through children? "Children can be the best teachers of hymns. Adults often learn a new hymn more easily when taught by children than when they feel other adults are thrusting this unwelcome task on them" (Nelson, "Hymns in Christian Education" in Choristers Guild Letter, February, 1985, p. 128.).

I would like to suggest four possible strategies for having children take the lead in introducing a new hymnal. These strategies involve using published arrangements for children's choirs, combining children's and adults' choirs, having the children prepare musicals to present to the congregation, and designing new arrangements for children's choirs.

Published Arrangements

As hymn-tune arrangements rise in popularity, many publishers of choral music are preparing pieces that are voiced for unison or two-part choirs in ranges suitable for children. Most of these arrangements are clear and simple presentations of the tune, creating an anthem that is both functional and easy to learn. Descants are often added for voices or instruments (written within the capability of elementary-age students), providing a harmonic dimension for variety and interest. Selecting anthems from this category as a regular part of your church school or choir program is one way of involving children in teaching hymns to the congregation.

Combined Choirs

Organizing a combined choir of children and adults is another effective plan for using children as hymn teachers. Many directors limit the use of combined choirs to festive Sundays, such as Easter. But published arrangements for children and SATB choirs are actually appropriate anytime. This integrated activity gives the congregation another opportunity to see and hear that children are becoming a part of the newest musical offerings.

Because most arrangements for children and adults assign the children the unison statement of the melody, or occasionally a descant line supported by adult sopranos, these selections are not difficult for the children's choir to prepare. A single combined rehearsal may be sufficient for polishing the presentation.

If your church does not have a children's choir, try the combined-choir approach with church school children.


Church music educators promote the importance of teaching children the background of hymns while they are learning the text and tune; the same thing is true in teaching songs to the congregation. Two recent publications combine drama and music to focus on the people and historical situations surrounding the creation of the hymn itself. In this type of presentation the children can teach the congregation about the context in which the hymn originated, giving added meaning to its inclusion in worship and in the hymnal.

The Singing Bishop describes the historical events related to "All Glory, Laud, and Honor"; Francis, the Poor Little Man of God focuses on St. Francis of Assissi and "All Creature of Our God and King."

Designing Arrangements

Although many hymn arrangements are now published for children, the day will surely come when you can't find a setting of the right tune at the right time for your choir. But with a bit of creativity and a little organization, you can easily design your own settings. In developing "What a Friend We Have in Jesus" to the tune BEACH SPRING (p. 21) I followed these steps:

  1. Select a hymn with an appropriate text for children. "What a Friend We Have in Jesus" is a text that will have ready meaning for children. It's also a well-known text, one that most adults are familiar with. Because, in this case, the well-known text is set to a "new" tune, adults will have to learn BEACH SPRING. To do so they will have to undo decades of attachment to the former melody. In my mind, that makes this tune an especially good one for children to present.

  2. Choose a tune that has suitable range for good vocal production. Watch that the tessitura of the hymn (where most of the pitches actually He) is not placed too consistently in the upper or lower register. BEACH SPRING has a range of just over an octave, and it uses no extremes in range.

  3. Look for a tune with rhythmic elements that can be extracted for development through movement and/or instruments. The strong feeling of three beats per measure (triple meter) in BEACH SPRING can be transferred from a movement activity into an instrumental accompaniment emphasizing the beats. In teaching the piece I used this movement pattern as a preparation:

    Beat One: pat both legs with both hands (giving a heavy sense of "downbeat")
    Beat Two: clap hands together
    Beat Three: snap fingers {to reinforce a lighter feeling)
    Once this pattern was established firmly, we were able to introduce the rhythmic use of eighth notes on the third beat by simply snapping our fingers twice (some students were able to alternate left-and right-hand snaps).

  4. Design a number of patterns, using a combination of these rhythms. Transfer from rhythmic use of body sounds (voice, snap, clap, pat) to appropriate non-pitched percussion instruments. You have already achieved the rhythmic skill in the movement; the instrument is simply an extension, and children will quickly assimilate the new sound and feel of the instrumental patterns. These patterns can be played as os-tinatoes, that is, they will repeat themselves throughout the verse.

  5. Use melodic instruments for introductions, interludes, and descants. Many of the children in your choir have sufficient performance skill on band and orchestra instruments to play the melody of this hymn. Either have them play an introduction or interlude on their own or ask them to accompany the singing. The important characteristics to remember for your arrangement here are the color and the texture—try to create variety and interest by using various combinations rather than having everyone playing and singing all of the time. For example, in organizing an introduction to BEACH SPRING, I might follow this design:

    Phrase One: single recorder on melody
    Phrase Two: add a second recorder, still playing melody alone
    Phrase Three: add harmonic accompaniment
    Phrase Four: use melody and harmony instruments together.
    Another way to create variety is to have the melody instruments play a descant while the choir sings the tune. If you have outlined the descant, try playing it as a duet for two instruments in an interlude between verses. The descant for BEACH SPRING could be played as a duet for two recorders, flutes, or clarinets between verses.

  6. Create a lower-pitched or chordal harmonic accompaniment to use in place of the prescribed four-part harmony. Consider using an autoharp or a guitar for chordal ideas; a cello is effective for playing a bass line in counterpoint with the melody, either sung or played on a recorder. If you have Orff instruments such as a xylophone, a metallophone, or tone bells, use them for harmonic patterns too.

Two recent publications, Take a Hymn… and Intradas and Obligatos for Hymns, are rich resources for this type of blueprint for creating your own hymn arrangements. A menu of possibilities is presented with each selection, ready for you to choose a tasteful combination appropriate to your children and your congregation.

Remember that the future of hymn singing in your congregation is dependent on educating your members in the new musical material available to them. The potential for children serving as effective leaders in this endeavor is unlimited.

Bibliography of Published Music Suitable for Children's Choirs


As with Gladness Men of Old, by Robert Leaf. Choristers Guild, 1985. 6 pages. 85 cents. Unison, three verses. CGA-373.

For the Beauty of the Earth, by Betty Ann Ramseth. Choristers Guild, 1982. 2 pages. 25 cents. Unison. Orff instruments: soprano glockenspiel, soprano and alto xylophones, alto metallophone, bass xylophone; wood block, finger cymbals. CRG-48.

Have No Fear, Little Flock, by Betty Ann Ramseth. Augsburg, 1982.1 page. In Take a Hymn… Unison. Augsburg 11-2172.

In Thee Is Gladness, by Betty Ann Ramseth. Choristers Guild, 1982. 2 pages. 25 cents. Unison. Recorder, finger cymbals, alto glockenspiel. Simple movements for young singers; congregational os-dnato. CGR-48. [Same publication as For the Beauty of the Earth]

In Thee Is Gladness, arr. by James Melby. Concordia, 1984. 6 pages. 75 cents. Unison. Two flutes and hand drum. 98-2658

Infant Holy, Infant Lowly, by Carolyn Jennings. Augsburg, 1975. 3 pages. 50 cents. Two-part. 11-2006.

Lord of All Hopefulness, (Be Thou My Vision) by Marie Pooler. Augsburg, 1962. 5 pages. 75 cents. Unison, optional descant. 1323.

Lord of All Hopefulness, arr. by Dorothy Christopherson.

Augsburg, 1986. 12 pages. 40 cents. Handbells and Orff instruments. 11-0358.

My Shepherd Will Supply My Need, by Marie Pooler. Augsburg, 1963. 6 pages. 80 cents. Unison or two-part. 11-0609.

That Easter Day with Joy Was Bright, arr. by Robert Leaf. Choristers Guild, 1986. 6 pages. 85 cents. Unison, keyboard. CGA-385.


All Creatures of Our God and King, by Douglas and Sandra Wagner. A musical titled "Francis the Poor Little Man of God." Choristers Guild, 1986. 43 pages. $3.50. Performance time: 38 minutes. Unison, solos. CGCA-375.

All Glory, Laud and Honor, by Hal H. Hopson. A hymn interpretation for Palm Sunday titled, "The Singing Bishop." Choristers Guild, 1978. 22 pages. $1.75. Performance time: 13 minutes. Unison/ two-part with congregation. CA-200.


All Creatures of Our God and King, by James Engel. Arranged as "A Hymn of Glory." Augsburg, 1984. 13 pages. 95 cents. Unison/SATB. 11-2241.

All Glory, Laud and Honor, by John Carter. Arrangement titled "Palm Sunday Processional." Agape, 1985. 11 pages. 85 cents. Unison/ SATB, possible congregation. AG-7273.

Christ the Lord Is Risen Today, by Hal Hopson. Concertato on "Christ the Lord Is Risen Today." Choristers Guild, 1986. 11 pages. 95 cents. SATB Choir, congregation, organ. Optional 1-2 trumpets and 4 handbells. CGA 374.

Good Christian Friends, Rejoice and Sing, by Austin Lovelace. Arranged as "The Name We Bless," from Vulpius. Flam-mer, 1966. 5 pages. 75 cents. Unison/SATB. A 5113/

Shout, for the Blessed Jesus Reigns, by Austin Lovelace. Arrangement of TRURO titled "The King of Glory." Choristers Guild, 1978. 5 pages. 45 cents. Unison/SATB/Con-gregation. CGA-198.


Take a Hymn… by Betty Ann and Melinda Ramseth. Augsburg, 1982. 95 cents. 21 pages. (13 hymns from the Lutheran Book of Worship) Orff instruments, recorder, guitar, cello, flute descants 11-2172.

Intradas and Obligatos for Eight Hymns by John Yarrington. Choristers Guild, 1986, 95 cents. 10 pages. Orff instruments, percussion, handbells and optional descants. CGA-372.


Dowdy, Roger. "Hymns and the Children's Choirs," Choristers Guild Letters (December, 1984).

Hawn, C. Michael. "Hymnody for Children: Pans I and II," The Hymn (January and April, 1985).

Keithahn, Mary Nelson. Our Heritage of Hymns—Leader's Guide. Dallas: Choristers Guild, 1986. CGBK-43 $14.95.

Lovelace, Austin. Hymns and Children (audiotape). Dallas: Choristers Guild. CGECT-102 $6.95.

Nelson, Ronald A. "Hymns in Christian Education: Part I and II," Choristers Guild Letters (February and March, 1985).

Van Dyke, Mary Louise. Exploring the Hymnal. Dallas: Choristers Guild, 1986. CGBK-44 $9.95.

To join the Choristers Guild, write 2834 W. Kingsley, Garland, Texas 75041. The guild will send you a monthly periodical filled with sample music, useful information on planning rehearsals and teaching music concepts, and other practical ideas shared by children's choir directors around the country. The guild also sponsors national seminars.


During one long session someone found an old revival songbook. It contained a hilarious number entitled "Prohibition Bandwagon," dating from around 1915, complete with southern dialect. We included it in a batch of new material to send to our theological advisors. Some got the joke, but a couple of men took us seriously and raised a variety of objections against including it. We laughed at our first discovery, and then just as hard at the advisors' response.
—Donald Poundstone (TH)

In the middle of one of our longer discussions about a hymn text, the tide of argument had slowly shifted until the tally was six for inclusion and one steadfastly against. Those of you who know me well will have difficulty imagining me being adamant about anything, but in the case of that particular text I was against its inclusion and I am still against its inclusion. (No, I won't reveal which hymn it was!) But at the end of that long discussion, my good colleague Mike VanDoornik looked at me and said, "Aw, come on, Norm. Some hymn has to be the worst one in the book."
—Norman Kansfield (RL)

Donna Brink Fox is on the faculty of Eastman School of Music and directs the children's music program at the Rochester, New York, Christian Reformed Church.


Reformed Worship 4 © June 1987, Calvin Institute of Christian Worship. Used by permission.