Are You Suffering from O Holy Night Syndrome?

We’ve all seen it happen. A dearly beloved church member gets up to sing a solo on Sunday morning. He or she looks a bit jittery, and with eyes glued to music, begins to sing. From the first warbly note, people in the congregation begin to get nervous. If it’s a song that has a stratospheric high note at the end, there may be some clasped hands and silent prayers being offered up, and everyone is relieved when the song is finally over. This is something I like to call “O Holy Night” Syndrome.

“O Holy Night” Syndrome happens when a singer chooses a song that is beyond his or her ability to execute competently. Of course, we aren’t looking for perfection per se, and we should certainly support and encourage those in our local congregations who want to serve God with music. After all, this isn’t primarily a performance; it’s an offering of worship. However, the other side of the coin is that poorly executed musical endeavors can distract people from worshipping rather than aiding in worship.

We as musicians ought to evaluate both our skill and our song choices in order to serve as channels pointing people to Christ rather than distracting them with screechy high notes or off-key melodies. Here’s how:

1.    Perform at 80% of your maximum skill, ensuring you can do it in public. In other words, don’t choose a song that stretches you to the limits of your skill. Even if you can pull it off in private, playing or singing on a platform in front of people is another story. Nerves can wreak havoc on our musical ability. You’ll have to execute the song with sweaty or shaking hands, a dry mouth, and a rush of adrenaline coursing through your veins. Choosing a song that is just slightly under your maximum technical ability will ensure that you can perform well even under pressure.

 2.    Choose music appropriate for the musician you are now, not the one you want to be. Another common pitfall for singers is that we often choose songs we’ve heard others do. That’s not bad in and of itself, but if that other person has a greater vocal range than you do or more years of experience, he or she may be able to sing songs that aren’t quite within your reach. Choose songs you can perform well now, not the ones that are written for the singer you hope to be someday. Practice those other songs in private until they become appropriate for you.

 3.    Don’t communicate nerves through facial expression or body language. We all get nervous, but experienced singers have learned not to show it. If the congregation knows you are nervous, they’ll be nervous too, and no one will be able to concentrate on the message of the song. Common, visible signs of nerves include failing to make eye contact, failing to smile, coughing, clearing your throat, and wiping sweaty palms on your clothes. Try to minimize these facial and body language cues so the congregation can focus on the words you’re singing rather than on whether or not you can hit the high note.

 A loving congregation will seek to encourage you as a musician no matter how poorly or skillfully you performed the song. However, we can help them worship with us more effectively if we take a few precautions in making sure we have the skill and preparation needed to sing well.