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How to use music in Pagan ritual: Seven tips for successful songs and chants

Michelle Gruben festivals groups

Group singing can truly elevate a public ritual--raising energy, setting the mood, and bringing people together in a profound way. But it can also be a major pitfall. Most people get nervous about singing in public, and a bad musical number can wreck an otherwise well-planned ritual.

The decision to include music in your Pagan ritual is a great gamble—the risks are real, but the payoff can be worth it. The seven tips in this article will help you maximize participation and impact when presenting music as part of your open rituals.

Keep it simple.

Don’t overestimate the ability of a group to learn a chant or carry a tune. Remember that people will be nervous, distracted, and quite possibly surrounded by more energy than they’re used to feeling.

In my experience, a couple of lines of rhyme or a simple four-line melody is the most you should expect the average crowd to manage on the first pass. Harmonies, rounds, and call-and-response songs can be beautiful, but they rarely work at open Pagan rituals. Save the more complex arrangements for the musically inclined.

One or two songs is usually enough for a public ritual—more than that, and you risk losing the attention of the non-singers. You can sing a song to cast the circle or to open it. You can sing in the Elements or sing them away. A song can celebrate a holiday, honor a season, toast the company or the Gods. You can sing for healing or blessing, greetings or farewells. Choose a couple of these options, but don’t try to cram all of them into one ritual.

For best results, tailor your song selection to your crowd. Of course, there’s no way to know who will show up at your public ritual—but past gatherings should give you a good idea. The more children, nervous newbies, and take-along spouses appear, the less likely you’ll have 100% participation—and that’s okay. (See the Rule of Thirds.)

Use the Rule of Thirds.

Next time you’re at a public ritual and it seems to going well, look around the room and take a quick head count. At least one third of the participants will be actively engaged in all the ritual activities—participating fully and sending energy where it’s needed. Another third will be slightly less focused, but basically in harmony with the direction of the ritual. And up to a third will be fidgeting, whispering among themselves, uncomfortable, or otherwise distracted. Even so, the momentum of the ritual is enough to keep everything moving along.

When applied to singing in ritual, the Rule of Thirds is this: You really only need about a third of the crowd to sing in order to reach a good volume and keep the energy flowing.

One third of the gathering is singing their hearts out. One third is more reserved, but along for the ride--they’re mouthing the words, humming the chorus, or following along on paper. One third is making paper airplanes out of their song sheets. (But who needs ‘em?)

As a ritual leader, this is an easy formula for success. Just work up some quick ratios. If there are five members of your coven and you’re expecting ten guests, you can carry the song yourselves. If you’re expecting a total of thirty, then you’re going to need the help of about five other attendees.

Tailor your song selection and timing so you can gather that critical third. Here are two other factors to keep in mind:

The more familiar the song or chant, the more people will be willing to sing.  Original music can be a real treat in circle, but if your ratio is in danger, choose something well-known. If you do introduce a new song, consider leading or following with a golden oldie.

It’s harder to open a circle with a song than close with one At the beginning of a ritual, people tend to be more jittery, uncertain, and energetically closed-off. By the end, folks are more at ease with each other. An opening song is a powerful ice-breaker, but the ritual team has to have the muscle to push through that nervous inertia.

Be confident.

Everyone in your ritual team should know the song(s) well and be willing to participate in boosting the music. (No exceptions!) Attendees will be looking at your group members to lead them. Nothing will derail the effort faster than ritualists stumbling over the words or appearing hesitant to sing in public. If you won’t risk looking silly, why should they? Where members of your group have reservations about singing, you should seriously reconsider the use of song in your public ritual.

Group songs work best if you designate a Song Leader in advance. This does not have to be the High Priest or High Priestess or the personal leading the main ritual. (But it helps if it’s the group member with the strongest singing voice.) The Song Leader will set the starting pitch and signal the song’s triumphant end. They will carry the melody if it lags. They will bully, goad, and (hopefully) inspire total strangers into singing together—all without coming across as a choirmaster or diva. It’s a tough job—make sure your Song Leader has plenty of love and encouragement!

Try to distribute your singers evenly around the circle instead of concentrating them in one area. If you place ritualists in each of the four Quarters, they can do double duty as song guides. Nobody cares about technical skill—be loud, proud, and joyful, and your energy will be contagious.

Come prepared.

Once you’ve practiced the song with the ritual team, think about what items you will need to present it to a group. This could include musical instruments, song sheets—even a microphone and speakers for very large public rituals. Perhaps you’d like to add a drum to keep the beat, or a chime to signal the start or end of the song? Practice these elements beforehand so things are seamless during the ritual.

In rituals that are open to the public, printed song sheets are the norm. Only a scant percentage of people can read musical notation—just the words is fine. Besides the lyrics, you can add musical directions or pronunciation notes (“Repeat chorus twice” or “Sung to the tune of ‘Row, Row, Row Your Boat.’”) Some participants will read over the song and notes before the ritual starts—but don’t assume everyone will prepare.

If you opt for song sheets, make sure that you bring enough and that the font is easy to read. (Even in low light or candlelight.) It’s best to pass these out before ritual so participants can have a look and ask questions--but not too early, or people will set them down and lose them.

Song sheets are a lifeline, but can also be an awkward encumbrance. Will participants be asked to join hands, handle ritual items, or partake of cakes and ale? Plan ahead so people aren’t fumbling throughout the ritual. Guests will also want to know what to do with their paper when the rite is finished, so designate a person to collect them or have a recycle bin handy.

Get helpers.

Before the ritual, mingle with some of the early birds. (You did show up early, right?) Let ‘em know that the main ritual includes a song, and you’d love them to aid in singing and getting others to sing. This is probably the single best way to boost participation with an unfamiliar group.

Most gatherings of people will have at least a few with strong singing voices. You’ll want their help--and to make sure they’re not drowning your team out with the wrong lyrics or melody. Rehearse the song with your helpers a couple of times, working through any unfamiliar words or tricky bits.

Brief the crowd.

The circle is cast and now it’s time to sing! The ritualists should now instruct the crowd, explicitly asking them to participate in singing. (Otherwise, they might assume they’re not supposed to.)

The main ritualist now gives the name of the song, how many times it will be sung, and any other relevant info. Feel free to credit the song authors or musicians, but keep it focused on the group. The vibe should be like a singalong, not a recital.

“We will now finish the ritual by singing a song three times through. The song is 'We All Come From the Goddess'. Please sing along if you know it, or as soon as you’re able to join in. Our friend Dragon OakBreath will be leading us with a drumbeat.”

If musicians or a Song Leader have been designated, the main ritualist should pause for a breath and allow the group’s energy and attention to be re-directed before the song begins.

Let it fly.

This is the moment of truth. Tentative at first, the melody builds into a slow and steady chorus. The Song Leader gathers up the stray voices and weaves them into a beautiful, coherent whole. As the last note fades, hearts are filled, nerves are soothed, and the circle breathes a collective “whew!” Bless the singers with a wave of gratitude—but don’t start talking or clapping just yet. The afterglow is often the best part.

Hooray! You did it! You successfully incorporated music into a public ritual—something that would make lesser men and women shake in their boots. Okay, so I’ve never heard a random bunch of Pagans sound anything like a good church choir—but hey, we drink more and practice less!

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