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Psalm Surfing – what is it, how to do it

Try it. Find a quiet room and open up a psalm. Instead of reading silently, read a few verses out loud, engaging your heart, mind and soul as best you can. Then start again, but this time singing the words to a tune of your own making. Don’t try to analyse the text, rather try to connect with the psalmists’ emotion as an actor might step into character in a script. Be physical rather than cerebral. You might want to stand, or walk up and down the room. You might want to tap out a tempo on a table top or, if you are at ease improvising some chords on an instrument as you sing, and it doesn’t become a technical distraction, go ahead. Don’t listen for the perfection of a performance but for the passion of a prayer.

Whether it is a stumbling two minutes or you come back to earth an hour later, you have begun to Psalm Surf! Though I am about to describe a corporate expression of it, the intimacy of your personal relationship with God is a great place to begin, and though not everyone will use it in public settings, many will find it deeply refreshing in their personal devotions.

A less exotic title might simply be ‘the improvised singing of scripture’, but I like Psalm Surfing because it sounds appropriately intriguing and hints at the adventure that it can be – including wipe-outs! However, you can call it what you like! I have described it as: ‘Worshipping God with an ‘open agenda’, catching the waves as Word and Spirit combine in the improvised singing of scripture - especially the Psalms. Seeking sacred space where creative adventures in prayer, praise and ministry can be inspired, arts and voices together in scripture-driven worship’.

Though from my early days of worship leading I would from time to time sing a spontaneous scripture song during the flow of worship, devoting whole services to it is a more recent phenomenon, and at my home church, a medium sized Anglican congregation, it has become a monthly event in the evening service ‘slot’ lasting about an hour and twenty minutes.

I prefer to set up the room in the ‘round’, setting the musicians on floor level [rather than platform] in the centre, facing inwards. This creates a more communal space and breaks up the perception of ‘them and us’ ie performers and spectators. It also has the very practical advantage of enabling the musicians to read each other’s body language, signals and even chord fingerings – very helpful in an improvisational situation! In the surrounding space there are tables set out with paper and pen and art materials, and room for any who want to stand or respond to the scriptures with movement or dance.

After welcoming I briefly explain what will happen and how to engage. The basic instructions are: Bibles are in the back of the chair in front, when you hear the instruction to ‘sing’, sing what the singer just sang, when the instruction is ‘listen’, listen to the singer singing and the players playing, until the next instruction to sing. Feel as free not to sing as to sing, to sit or stand, to engage by just listening or make use of the art table or space at the back.

With the chosen scripture open on a music stand I [or another who is leading] set a key and tempo, play a chord or a sequence of chords and begin to ‘line out’ the psalm, inviting participation as previously explained. There are ‘selahs’ when a solo instrument like an oboe or cello will improvise, sometimes I call for vocal harmonies or voices without instruments, or for male and female voices to answer each other in a round or antiphon when the melody suggests it. There are several options for leading including unaccompanied solo voice, voice and percussion, self-accompanied voice [eg on guitar or keyboard], or one sings while another leads the instrumental accompaniment. Because the vocal and instrumental initiators are improvising, it works well to settle into repeating cycles of chords. These can be set in advance, or the initiator can call them out discretely or otherwise signal what is coming to the other musicians. I have to confess that I get carried away in the flow and leave my fellow players guessing more than they would like, but it is surprising how well changes can be executed once everyone is relaxed and engaged in worship!

After a run of anything from five to twenty minutes we stop and invite people to rest and feed back anything they feel might encourage the whole group based on how the scriptures have impacted them. Then we set off on another section of psalm. There is of course no guarantee of always rising on wings of sublime inspiration! Sometimes I stumble and fail to find a suitable melody or cause musical discord in which case I prefer to stop in my tracks, laugh about it and try again. I try to ‘de-mystify’ the process and avoid what I call U.R.I. ‘unreal religious intensity’.

On one level I am just using my skills as a songwriter, seeing a line of lyric in front of me and inventing a tune for it, but on another level I am stepping out in faith trusting that God will inspire and gift melodies to us. The best times are when in the instant of opening my mouth a melody presents itself that seems ‘gifted’, but in my experience these mostly come as highlights within a more workmanlike approach.

The choice of scripture passage ranges from deliberate to entirely random. I remember choosing a psalm and enjoying a rich time singing it together after which someone pointed out that I had been singing a different psalm than the one I had announced – my eye had strayed to the opposite page. God blesses our mistakes too especially when we are singing from his book! More often than not, the choice arises out of the pre-meeting prayer time where the core team are invited to identify any scripture that are alive for us at the time.

I love Psalm Surfing because it rides wholly on the Word of God, a way to ‘let the word of Christ dwell in you richly…’ [Col 3:16]. I enjoy it because it is an adventure of faith, a rest from the song list and a respite from predictable patterns. It can take us instantly in song to places in the Bible that composed songs rarely visit, and be anything from a brief meditation to an epic journey. It is useful for personal devotions, small group worship, prayer meetings and as a devotional exercise in music team or choir rehearsals, as well as in the dedicated worship times I have described.

It is important to remain vulnerable and to beware of a presumption that gifts and experience guarantee success. It is more about listening than making music; to the promptings of the Holy Spirit, to the congregation and to the creative team. It is about humility and reverence of God, unity, community and the ‘chemistry’ between people who enjoy worshipping God together.

Far from being a novelty, a fad or an excuse for a self-indulgent jam session [God forbid!] I see it as a creative way to make space for the scriptures to do their own work of grace within us in the worshipping community.

Go and find that quiet room, open the Bible and your mouth, and see what happens!

Check list

  • Practice in private/in your core music team
  • Wait on God for direction
  • Manage peoples’ expectations (A briefing flyer on arrival can allay confusion as well as a simple demonstration and explanation)
  • Choose a scripture passage, and read ahead beforehand. Give the context where necessary, and watch out for less sing-able verses.
  • Assess the people in front of you > pitch an appropriate level – if it ‘bombs’ first time you may not get a second chance!
  • Choose a key/set the tempo/’imagine’ the first line                                                                                                                                                          
  • Just sing it!
  • Remember what you just sang so you can repeat it along with singers in your team to strengthen the congregation’s response.
  • If the next line does not seem to suggest a tune, try reading them out loud until the words want to ‘sing’ again
  • Identify a refrain and feel free to return to it several times
  • Maintain clear verbal cues i.e. ’listen’ ‘repeat’ ‘sing after me’ ‘sing that again’
  • Make room for musical ‘selahs’ and silences and other artistic expressions
  • Invite appropriate input from the larger group
  • Reinforce an emerging theme
  • Review afterwards, evaluate, remember, learn from mistakes, make an audio recording to listen back to – you could even post audio excerpts on the church website

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