Archive for the ‘Faith’ category

Church Music

October 29, 2005

Ok, I’ll bite.

I just discovered that a pastor at my church, James Farris, has a blog of his own and wrote about church music.

He addresses two topics, singing out loud, and briefly touches on the books we use while singing. James is a thinker and reading his stuff is worth the time.

His thoughts on chuch music books inspired me to rant a little.

Before I continue, I’d like to point out my qualifications in church music.

I started taking private piano lessons before I was 10 years old. (I think.) I had an amazing teacher who I didn’t appreciate at the time. Poor woman. During lessons she would dance around her victorian room, much to my horror, trying to impress on me what it really meant to “minuet” or “polonaise”. Under her I became literate in both the notation of music, and to a degree, how the underlying theory united the notes and rhythms to make music sound like music. That heritage is with me today, and is the foundation of who I am musically.

As an early teen I played the piano in church. We were Pentacostal so this was all improv. In flats. Woe to pentacostal guitarists. Suffer the wrath of simple songs in A flat!

I played in small churches year after year. Sometimes I was the only musician, the sound guy and the roadie for the rented space. I learned about showing up on time every week and doing what needed to be done.

Later in life I discovered singing and was hooked. I was now in more conservative written music churches most of the time, where my improv piano playing wasn’t as good a fit. But I liked to sing. Eventually I discovered I liked to lead singing. I led singing hundreds of times in all kinds of circumstances.

I led congregations of hundreds, just a few, 200 pasters, around 600 girls aged mostly aged 14-20 (I kid you not), choirs of 10-20 people intersted in a mildly challenging musical experience, and choirs of 100 or so people forced to sing.

I’ve worked with amazing accompianists (Alice Tilman, Loren Elms, J. Marty Cope), and no accompiansts.

I’ve led with books, overhead projecters, and digital slides.

My chuch musical background is a decade or so of experience and rich in diversity. I believe this gives me a hill on which to speak with considerable authority.

Now about those there music books in church…

When people sing out of books they look down. When people are singing from a screen, they look up. Up is better singing posture; it produces better tone and is healthier.

The thing about screens though, is that they only present the words. Some churches with books are full of people who have a serious investment in their ability to read parts out of the books. The congregations produce a pleasant sound which you can actually hear during the worship.

I think inexperienced music leaders tend to be careful about putting too much emphasis on music. My experience is opposite. God ordained music. It is the means he picked for corporate worship. It would take a malicious effort to invert the priorities. Make no mistake however: I’m talking about the music coming from the congregation, not the music coming from the leaders.

So here’s what I don’t want missed: that pleasant sound of congrational singing is the goal of music leadership. Not because it is the worship itself, but because it is the symptom of real corporate worship. Any musical leader with remotely right intentions who manages to coax that sound from a congration will also have led that congregation into a true worship. The music does not distract from the worship. God ordained that music for worship.

I don’t think the books or lack of them are responsible for this worship though. The books let you see the musical notes, and that can’t be overlooked. But, the musical ability of the congregation is due to something more fundamental. Those churches are a product of musical leadership that respects the congregation.

Respecting the congregation means making it possible for the congregation to coporately hear itself. Respecting the congregation means setting people up for musical improvement. Apparently God intended for something primarily audible to be produced by a bunch of people together. Respecting the congregation means not drowning that out.

Furthermore, this respect recognizes that congregations are excited by and rise to a challenge. Learning to read the little black dots on the lines is one of those challenges.

I’ve been so bold as to instruct a large congregation in a detailed plan on how to sing a verse of a hymn. Plain old overhead projectors are wonderful for this. Sing this line very quietly, when we reach this phrase start to build volume, sing out the third line, then on the last, quietly. Some people think it’s wierd, but for the folks singing, it’s moving. In the mindset people subconsiously become more expressive. This expressiveness simultaneously better engages the congregation and makes the music sound beautiful. And it’s them singing. Their corporate worship. All this and you don’t have to tell them to think about the words! Hah! Believe me, they are thinking about the words. The music they are making is oozing with meaning.

All that to say, screens make for better congregational singing, and better congregational singing is better for worship. We can’t all adopt them though. Screens dumb down the music, and that’s simply not acceptable to impose on a literate congregation. It’s disrespectful. In places where music leaders have respected and inspired their congregations to better singing, the books remain.

Can we have the best of both worlds? What if we could put up a screen with words and parts for a congregation to sing? An HD projecter would give the notes enough definition to be legible from a distance. A 16:9 aspect ratio would accomodate a long line of music. To 16:9’s side by side would make a 32:9 aspect ratio. That would make for a big line of music. (But maybe peoples heads would bob from side to side. That would be quite the distraction for the leader.)

Could something like figured bass, or some other notation remove the need for written parts? Shape notes anyone?