Writing about such a weighty topic carries a certain and obvious risk—for more reasons than one. First, I may praise that kind of music which you love—and you will feel comforted—but perhaps bored. I may criticize music which you love—and you may feel irate and question my taste and judgment. Mostly though, despite premiering many new works, despite my former grad students calling me “the Evil Knieval of choral music,” despite a continuing fascination for new and sometimes strange styles of choral compositions—I’m now thought of as a traditionalist! I’m your token legit guy!
But I’ve learned a few things: Growing old is not for sissies. Silence is sometimes the best answer. The people you care about most are taken from you too soon, and the less important people just never go away. There have been more changes in worship music in the past 30 years than the past 130. Why? Or, one should ask—why not? Lets look at these changes.
Are we there yet?
First we need to take note of the various kinds of worship that have developed—some just in recent years. We’ll look at music that is seemingly appropriate for these kinds of worship, the apparent impact of these changes, and a wild guess or two about where we are going. I’ll also venture in with some ideas of this mystical process called music making, our passionate profession, the societal conflicts, and the challenge of enhancing worship through music.
We come from different denominations and, for one reason or another, from decidedly different forms or styles of worship. As suggested by Dr. Lawrence Roff, your congregation might engage in one of these:
liturgical worship—a fairly structured liturgy and music
traditional worship—informal dignity and a variety of musical styles
revivalist worship—gospel songs and evangelistic preaching
charismatic worship—spirit-driven, with a revivalistic focus
seeker worship—an atypical church atmosphere, with a desire to connect with the unchurched
blended worship—a blend of elements of many of the above forms
postmodern worship—interactive, participatory, media oriented, counterculture style
… and these various styles expect or emphasize different kinds of instruments, ensembles, soloists, choirs, types of songs, hymns, anthems, etc., ranging from “art for art’s sake” to “liturgical autopilot,” to a dismissal of choral music as “irrelevant” in favor of “love songs to Jesus,” to anthems being “another nice thing to do in the service,” to “anthemization”—the turning of a folk song, spiritual or chorus into concert music.
In a recent presentation by Dr. John D. Witvliet, Director of the Institute of Christian Worship at Calvin College, he explained that worship historically hasn’t been merely a meditation on a profound idea, or a generating of a particular emotional state, or an aesthetic “high”—though these goals each have their values. Worship has been conceived primarily as the enactment of a divine-human relationship, an “interpersonal encounter” between God and the worshippers. A worship service is like a script of this interpersonal dialogue.
Music, and especially choral music, participates in the “script” of this divine-human conversation in what we would call an artful way. The texts of choral music either speak our words to God—or God’s words to us—or maybe we sing words of comfort and challenge to each other.
Dr. Witvliet also quoted Leo Tolstoy, who said that “art is a human activity that consciously, by means of certain external signs painting, music, drama hands on to others the feelings he has lived through. Others then experience and are infected by these feelings.”
Art in worship functions to enact the divine-human encounter. It is expressed on behalf of the congregation, rather than to the congregation. So—worship without art weakens the worship experience. Artistry effectively serves the acts of worship itself—whether it is confession, praise, prayer, and so forth. The problem can be that choral musicians are tempted to bring a “concert hall aesthetic” into worship—where the listener contemplates the music rather than praying or preaching by means of the music. The great clue to this problem is to ask whether your congregation applauds after an anthem. Maybe, in fact, it is time to call the piece a “sung prayer” or “proclamation in song”—something that points to its function in worship.
So, the claim that music in worship should express a congregation’s prayer or need, and enact the proclamation of the gospel has been commonplace across centuries. The problem is that our practice doesn’t always match our rhetoric.
Planning, Preparation & Programming
Here are eight simple guidelines to successful music ministry that have proved themselves to stand the test of time.
• Plan Summer is the very time of the year to do your critical planning. It is the time to meet with your pastor and hear his or her plans for the year—the themes, the special occasions, the scriptures—then let that be your guide for choosing music. What you want and what you need is a schedule of the September through May sermon topics, scriptures and themes lying on your desk by mid summer. No way? Then expert and inspirational negotiations are paramount. You must urge, wheedle, and plead to get that information. Point out that your music efforts will be wasted (and they will) if you cannot plan nor be supportive of an integrated worship experience.
• Be Selective There are thousands of anthems in print—and you have the luxury of picking a tiny percentage of those for your particular context each year. You are free to choose music that meets textual, musical, liturgical, and pastoral criteria.
• Take time to choose music A warning: be careful about listening too often to the studio-produced CDs with those perfectly in-tune, almost vibratoless, gentle, warm, young voices! They, for the most part, are not like your choir! And, listening will erode your evaluation process. You need to evaluate the text/source, the ranges, the difficulty level, and quality of writing for any anthem you are considering. The examination must adhere to that the age-old criteria of the true “wedding of words and music.”
Because there are over 500 titles in the anthem library at our church, I recently played through some the anthems unfamiliar to me. But then I realized that, though it might be valuable later, I was looking for “nice pieces to sing.” In reading sessions, have you caught yourself thinking “that is a pretty anthem” without a clue whether it will serve and enhance your congregation’s worship? Choosing a “nice anthem” can be more akin to choosing music for a concert than for a worship service.
As you are setting goals for your choirs and assessing their abilities, think of this as a time to stretch and challenge yourself. We are a part of a vast multicultural society with an incredible mix of artistic heritage, which ought to inspire us in our choices of music! This might be the year to choose that anthem that you’ve always wanted to tackle. This might be the time to do a different style.
This is a time that you may find just the right anthem, but worry that it is too difficult (for you or the singers?). Before sighing and putting it aside, know that you can plan around that piece and effectively diminish its challenges. If you plan for that anthem to be sung on the second Sunday in November, you can start it at the Choir Retreat in September. You can subtly give it more time along the way. If a special program is to be performed on Palm Sunday, start in the fall, then begin rehearsing again in January. By doing this, you are completely past the “what” question and can focus on the “how.”
• Study and Rehearsal Plans No matter how simple it is, know the music by analysis and by the uniqueness of rehearsing it. No two pieces should ever have the same step-by-step process. Just imagine the excitement of the following:
“ok, open the music; ok, sopranos, here is what your part sounds like as our accompanist plays it for you….. good. ok, altos, here is what your part…..ok, now lets try soprano and alto together…ok, now tenors… Isn’t that incredible?”
What is it that guides your plan—the rhythm, the chords, the text, the difficulty, the texture, the articulations, the structure, or the line or melody? If you do a Renaissance motet, it should be approached by its structure and line. If you do a Mendelssohn anthem, it may be approached by its text, its chromatics, its colors. If you do a contemporary song, it may be approached by its unique sounds, rhythms, or timbre. Even if two pieces are constructed in a very similar way, devise a contrasting rehearsal process for inspirational and/or educational reasons.
What do you say when an enthusiastic choir member asks, “What are we working on in the next rehearsal?”
I usually begin the first reading of an anthem (other than at a retreat) four weeks before it is to be sung. A reminder that this means that, if new, it was ordered at least 8 weeks before being sung, and service music three weeks before it is to be sung.
• Part Practice If needed, have separate part rehearsals. If Robert Shaw’s professional choruses always had part rehearsals—then surely volunteer choirs are not above that technique. The benefits are many: more members assume a leadership role; the members of one part can focus upon their tone and their own peculiar challenges; they are active, rather than sitting listening to another section shop for their notes.
• Response Level Be sensitive to the fact that the singers’ response level continually varies in a rehearsal. Don’t wear out one goal! Howard Swan often said that the best rehearsal technique was change. Know when to change your voice, speaking volume, pace, method, order of music, standing and sitting, seating, and especially when to stop. The technique of change should not be frantic, but the result of your constant assessment of the group’s response to your direction. And, remember that once you are preparing a particular selection, the pace/tempo of that music should guide your instructions and permeate your timing.
• They Came to Sing The singers probably didn’t come to hear you talk. They didn’t come to hear another section practice endlessly. They didn’t come to watch you muse aloud as to the rehearsal problems. They didn’t come to hear you gripe that so-and-so didn’t show up. They did show up!
• Recruit in Every Possible Way Use personal encouragement, letters, phone calls, ministry campaigns—all help. And, whether it is basketball, soccer, or choir—you must keep recruiting. Good singing on Sunday, won’t be enough.
And—you need to know that some folks are truly very insecure about their singing. As an example, here is a poem by Peter Schmitt called Tin Ear:
We stood at attention as she moved
with a kind of Groucho shuffle
down our line, her trained music
teacher’s ear passing by
our ten-and-eleven-year-old mouths
open to some songs now forgotten.
And as she held her momentary
pause in front of me, I peered
from the corner of my eye
to hers, and knew the truth
I had suspected.
In the following days,
as certain of our peers
disappeared at appointed hours
for the Chorus, something in me
was already closing shop.
Indeed, to this day
I still clam up
for the national anthem
in crowded stadiums, draw
disapproving alumni stares
as I smile the length of school songs,
and even hum and clap
through Happy Birthday, creating
a diversion—all lest I send
the collective pitch
It’s only in the choice acoustics
of shower and sealed car
that I can finally give voice
to that heart deep within me
that is pure, tonally perfect, music.
But when the water stops running
and the radio’s off, I can remember
that day in class,
when I knew for the first time
that mine would be a world of words
without melody, where refrain
means do not join,
where I’m ready to sing
in a key no one has ever heard.
Inspire Your Singers!
Be enthusiastic! Be excited about the quality of the music (how can we be inspired with music that is less than inspirational?). Some music is more immediate but may have a shorter shelf life—like our commercial and popular music. In fact, Barbara Holland in her book Endangered Pleasures writes that the music we listened to during ages 12 to 22 are the songs that will ring in the coils of our ears until we die. We may add a few songs but we don’t forget the age 12-22 songs. They are nontransferable; they belong to our generation, their shelf-life is limitless—and part of what makes us brothers and sisters to everyone else our age. If I play my songs—Rosie Clooney, Patti Page or Bill Haley—to our children or grandchildren, they would gaze in despair! Can you imagine that in the year 2059, when your teenybopper daughter gets to age 70, she will still be singing Britney’s songs?
Music Training And this brings us to the enfeebled music training of young people. Through budget crunches (which continue), the infamous Prop 13, and a general benign neglect, schools in California, for instance, are no longer as thorough in teaching music. In addition, our attention span now seems to last about 13 minutes—which is the length of time between television commercials. So—if we do not encourage a graded choir program in our churches—we had better stop complaining that our adult choirs can’t read music and that no one goes to concerts!
In a tiny town in Nebraska (where my high school graduating class numbered 20!), my most memorable chorus experiences were singing Mendelssohn’s “He watching over Israel,” “Sanctus” by Gounod, and Mozart’s “Ave verum corpus.” I studied piano and voice, and attempted to play the spinet organ and direct the choir at church. I was one of the fortunate ones. I think that now there are not so many as fortunate.
What I am concerned about is:
…that music education has diminished…
…that tv, the internet, the quick fix, and instant gratification guides our lives
…that the immediacy, the emotional attraction of music has overpowered the aesthetic values. Take care: this is the definition of commercial music—that which is understood immediately, sells quickly, has a direct impact, and a brief existence…
…that church anthems are becoming not simple, but simplistic…
…that the clergy believe that popularized music increases attendance, and therefore is good…
…that even the “classics” are being made more “accessible.” Messiah is now available in a gospel version, a version with tracks, a version where all choruses are in lower keys…
…that dessert has become the main course…
So given this trend—where will be be in the next 30 years? Will there still be a choir? Will there be people who read music? Will pipe organs continue to be built? Will pianos still be necessary? Will screens completely replace stained glass? Or, will there be a neo-twentieth century movement? Will we all be digitalized by then? I don’t know, but I’m very concerned. The Dali Lama has said that we must open our arms to change, but must not let go of our values.
The curious thing is that very similar questions were being asked centuries ago. In a new book called God’s Secretaries, a fascinating narrative of the writing of the King James version of the Bible, the author Adam Nicolson describes the raging and often ugly conflicts going on between the various churches regarding baptism, whether to kneel, observing holy days, using a ring at marriage, whether the music be in Latin or English, the plainness or ornateness of the churches—on and on. Some things never change.
By the way, it was also curious to learn in that wonderful book that Puritan preacher John Lightfoot of Cambridge calculated in the early seventeenth century that God had created the earth on Sunday October 23, 4004 BC, at nine o’clock in the morning, London time, or, as Lightfoot wrote, midnight in the Garden of Eden. I looked it up on a globe. That means that the Garden of Eden was in Anchorage, Alaska. Hmmm. We in music define ourselves not by our jobs but by our passions. We know that the body needs food, and the mind needs thought, but the soul has an absolute need for fascination. Thomas Moore, in The Re-enchantment of Everyday Life, reminds us that as performers, we must have frequent opportunities for experiences that have more zest, more magic than practicality. We in performance, whether in a church or concert hall, are in a sense casting a spell upon our listeners!
I believe that our passion/profession is very different from most other pursuits and professions, because it deals with our innermost spirit and instrument—our voice to each other, to the world, and most importantly, to God. The trouble is—we “grow up,” we get “sophisticated,” which means we get “too smart” to have a sense of wonder.
Remember that Jesus said, “If you become as a child, you shall know the Kingdom.” All too slowly we have come to understand this statement—it does not simply mean to be a non-thinking body of belief. Jesus was also pointing out the incredible quickness and fascination of a child to learn. We can all benefit from a certain childlike wonder!
I would like to finish with a poem that has spoken to me about our day and incidentally about the composer I most admire. It is called:
At a Bach Concert by Adrian Rich:
Coming by evening through the wintry city
We said that art is out of love with life.
Here we approach a love that is not pity.
This antique discipline, tenderly severe,
Renews belief in love yet masters feeling,
Asking of us a grace in what we bear.
Form is the ultimate gift that love can offer—
The vital union of necessity
With all that we desire, all that we suffer.
A too-compassionate art is half an art.
Only such proud restraining purity
Restores the else-betrayed, too-human heart.
Thank you for allowing me to share these thoughts with you. Let us always, always, have singing.
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