This same idea holds true in church music. If you want the people to sing, you have to let their voices be heard. If week after week you sing everything loudly through the sound system, the congregation knows that their voices are not needed. If you are TOO loud, they cannot hear themselves sing at all, so why should they bother? If you embellish too much when you sing, you are sending a message that you really want them to listen to YOU sing rather than sing themselves.
If your congregation currently does not sing, and you suddenly stop leading with a voice on a microphone and start leading with instruments, they will not know what to do. But there is a simple solution that gives people a taste of how beautiful it can be when a congregation joins together in song.
In my faith tradition, there is a short sung "Alleluia" response right before the gospel reading. It seems that every Catholic in every country of the world knows Christopher Walker's "Celtic Alleluia." So that is where I recommend starting. Begin by having the cantor sing the Alleluia once and then BE SILENT as the congregation echoes it back. The cantor then sings the verse and then needs to be SILENT.
I know this idea will make some of you upset. You have beautiful harmonies that you've been singing for ages on that piece, and now I'm suggesting you just be quiet. Once your congregation begins singing, you can add the singing back in, only be careful not to overpower them. The congregation should be louder than you! Turn the mic down.
After I achieve getting the people to sing the Alleluia, my next step is to do the same for the Responsorial Psalm, but I am careful to use familiar ones that they knew fairly well. For newer refrains, they really do need a voice to lead them.
If your worship service does not include a Gospel Acclamation or Responsorial Psalm, you can still use this technique by using any song with a well known short refrain. Have the song leader drop out for the refrain.
The most difficult part of this process is having a volunteer cantor who is upset that you're asking him or her to sit something out. I find even telling a cantor directly right before to step away from the microphone or not sing that bit can sometimes not work. I have a solution: I have the mixer right next to me and am able to continue playing while turning the volume to zero.
After you have the congregation singing reliably on these two short refrains, then you do the same for any well known hymns accompanied on the organ or other sustained instrument. In a later blog I will explain why piano or guitar alone is not the next step in the process, rather, the melody needs to be played with a sustained sound in order to encourage singing. Gradually, after hearing themselves sing as a group, it will become the culture of your parish and they will sing no matter what you do!