Conversation and information about music and liturgy from a confessional Lutheran perspective.

Monday, September 30, 2013

The End of All Learning

There is a quote running around ascribed to either Plato or Socrates claiming one of them said, "Books will be the end of all learning," or "Reading will be the end of all learning."  It usually gets a chuckle, as it makes the point that we tend to remember less of what we have written down.  The context today is usually a reference to the internet and our various "memory saving" devices.  Supposedly they are making us dumber.  I'm not sure if our memories really are worse today, or if it is just aging folks like me blaming the internet rather than accepting the decay of the flesh.  What I do know is that I couldn't find a source for the quote.

But the comparitive merits of rote learning and literacy is an interesting topic, and FINE TUNING here brings it up because it relates to topics extremely relevant to church music:  learning by ear, learning through a score, interpreting a score, folk music, and playing by heart.  

Many of us learn very little music by ear, and yet this is how most parishioners do learn music.  Sure, the hymnal is a great aid to them - if it is used.  But take time to discover how many of your choir members just look at the words on the music you pass out and ignore the score and you'll get a better estimation of how the congregation uses the hymnal, especially in this age where the current and previous generations received much less choral training in school.   And yet even as they don't learn as well as they could or they should, they do learn.  And perhaps sometimes in the process they listen more to the music than some organists listen to themselves! 

Which leads to learning through a score.  I think it is great, but it readily because a substitute for LISTENING, and herein lies the problem alluded to above.  So many church musicians are glued to the score.  I've even seen proud posts on YouTube of intellectual church musicians posting what they think is great music - but the great music is left on the score and what goes out into the pews or across the net is just not something the listener will want to embrace.   And so people get the idea that they don't like sacred music....or classical music....or traditional church music......or organ music, because they haven't heard performances worth listening to.   In other words, the musician is just broadcasting the symbols on the page, but not interpreting the score so that the music is inspiring, convincing, beautiful.  

This is why the folk/pop musicians in the church often attract more followers in the parish than the trained musicians.   The music may be simple, but it is well-played.  There is lyric expression, harmonic logic, textural clarity, and rhythmic vitality: the hallmarks of good music in any genre.   It is unfortunate that many "learn by ear" musicians today - even some very talented ones - are wedded to a very narrow range of music and are so focused on making what they do sound just like the recordings they hear.  For in this way they too lose the muse, becoming as focused on sound imitation as some traditional musicians are focused on playing notes that they are not longer true folk musicians but just "play by ear" musicians.   A true folk musician does play be ear, but also INTERPRETS and makes the songs he hears his own.   Yes, the "play it like the record" crowd often plays well, nailing the tune and the chords and the rhythms such as I outlined above, but it isn't authentically theirs.   They may successfully recreate approximations of performances that have inspired them which have also inspired people who listen to this music on the radio and so go to contemporary worship services, but it fails to connect with the assembly just as much as the automaton organist who hits all the right notes. 

The answer for all musicians, whether a score is used or not, is to play by heart.  I think this means more than memorization, though knowing something "by heart" certainly suggests a good amount of memory is involved in the process.   This means that the classically-trained musician listens to what he is playing so that he is able to interpret the score so that it is a means toward enacting music in a given space, for a given assembly, at a given time in a way that connects with the hearers.  In the same way, the musician who learns by ear has to move from replicating an inspiring performance he wishes to copy to interpreting that music in a way that sounds best on the instrument being used, in the room in which it will be played, and with the other musicians who will join in playing the music - again for the purposes of connecting with the hearers.   This process of interpretation is only possible when the musician listens to himself, for it is the process by which a performer truly owns the music.

This is the key to inspiring the congregation, no matter what music you are playing. As Vladimir Feltsman so aptly stated, "You cannot give something away you don't have."  

The "end" of all learning can have a better meaning: the purpose of what we do.  The end of our learning as church musicians is to inspire people with music that magnifies God's Word, that evokes the Gospel, and summons the song the Lord has placed in their hearts (Ps. 40:3a).   Listening is the key.  May we move beyond the score and beyond the recording, and use our musicianship to make authentic music for and with our congregations, for the sake of the world God so loved.  

Thursday, March 21, 2013


It's been a while since we've had a post here - vocational responsibilities have taken both Stephen and Phillip away from Liturgy Solutions, requiring us to focus just on the essentials of the site.   However, there has been much buzz on the net in Lutheran circles these past two weeks regarding whether our woes are a "pastor problem" or a "parishioner problem."   Given that our last post was about the singularity of objective truth - that the truth does not vary based on our perspectives of it and so is not to be found between two views but simply IS what it is, we'd like to share some excellent thoughts posted today by Cheryl Magness on Todd Wilken's blog.  

We'll get back to more "practical" posts after Easter, like we did last year.  Summer provides more time for blogging and we do want to use this space to continue to provide practical tips and informative reports.   But these more philosophical issues are important for those who lead the church's song for two reasons.  In regards to the post from September about objective truth, because we need to sing of God's truth, given to us infallibly in the Scriptures.   Whether picking hymns or choir music, we are at our best when we sing of Christ, the sure foundation, the Way, the TRUTH, and the Life.   And this means not singing so much of our subjective experiences of Him, but singing Christ Himself, magnifying His word in psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs.  

But as much as there is singular, objective truth in Christ, we must also humbly remember that each one of us is a sinner.  "There is not one righteous, not even one."  (Romans 3:10) Sure one person can be right about this or that, but we err when we think our group, our party, our friends, or even our church is not part of the problem.   We all stand under the judgment.  And so we should sing the truth of one righteousness in Christ, and the truth that one common sin affects us all.  

Applied to the current debates within the LCMS, here is Cheryl's most excellent observation:

"It's not a clergy problem.  It's not a laity problem.  And it's not a DP or IC problem.

It's a sin problem.  Satan strikes whenever he can get his nasty foot in the door, and he doesn't care what door that is. The pastor's study, the bureaucrat's office, the congregational hall, the layperson's house - they're all the same to him.  They're all pretty, red but inwardly rotten apples, ripe for the picking, sharing and eating. he will work with whatever he can find. If he has a pastor who sees pure doctrine and faithful practice as an impediment to mission, great. If he has a self-centered baby boomer who wants what he wants in worship and he wants it now, great.  If he has a council who looks at the pastor as an employee they can replace with someone they like better rather than as the shepherd of their souls, great. But the Enemy can just as easily work with the pastor who thinks that because he is upholding pure doctrine he can carry out whatever political machinations he wants to get his way. Or with the Board of Elders who thinks that because their pastor is confessional he is also infallible. Or with the layman who walks out of a perfectly good and faithful, liturgical service because there was one song he didn't like. Or with a musician who will not change or try to learn because, darn it, this is the way he has always done it and if they don't like it they can find another musician.

Kyrie eleison.   We are a mess and Satan knows it.  Come quickly, Lord Jesus."  

Friday, September 14, 2012


"There are two sides to every story" is a truism that allows people to ignore the truth.   For while it is indeed true that people in conflict share the details most sympathetic to their cause, and so we should listen to "both sides", the implication is not true that "the truth lies somewhere in the middle."   In this post-modern age, with people being taught that truth is relative, and so is supposedly constantly shaped by "perspectives" from different speakers and observers, the old-time wisdom that "there are two sides" has now become particularly useful to liars.   We see this in politics, in our families, in the workplace, and even in our churches.   It is useful to the them because people hearing the conflict between the true story and the false story just throw up their hands (often in frustration, to be sure) and avoid "getting involved", saying things like, "both parties are the same", "they just need to get along", and "well, we're all sinners."  And so people choose to believe what they want to believe, since the truth is just somewhere "out there", somewhere "in the middle."  I've done this myself.   It's hard not to.  Even trusted source authorities such as teachers and even pastors will lie and deceive.  May God grant us wisdom to discern whom to trust in our lives.   And may we always be thankful that, even amidst the noise of lying humanity, we have the gift of pure, unvarnished truth readily available to us in God's Word.   May its melodious sound resonate in our hearts.  

Friday, June 8, 2012

Beat-Driven vs. Word-Driven, Another View

Rev. Larry Peters, pastor of Grace Lutheran Church in Clarksville, Tennessee, and author of one of our favorite blogs, had some thoughts about one of our favorite topics and graciously agreed to let us repost his article here:

I recently read an article on sacred music and how the music of the Church may be legitimately "modernized" and how it cannot be so "modernized."  We generally spend much of a discussion like this talking about either text or sound, but this article brought up the issue of rhythm. 

Now let me first admit that I am rhythm impaired and so can clap my hands, do hand motions, dance, or conduct only with great difficulty.  I don't know whom to blame for this (well, yes I do, my parents and probably sin) and believe this to be a genetic handicap or disability.  So it is with some fear that I venture into a subject which I can address only theoretically.

The rhythm of the music is united with the natural rhythm of the given sacred text, either through assuming the textual rhythm as its own, or by engaging in a gentle interplay with it. Strong metrical or rhythmic effects that might overshadow the meaning of the text are to be avoided. 

Perhaps one of the significant things lost in the discussion of contemporary vs traditional music in the Church is the issue of rhythm.  That which drives modern music is, in large measure, its rhythmic signature.  Who has not sat at an intersection while the speakers of another vehicle punch out the beat to a song to which you did not plan on listening?  From rap to pop, the beat, the rhythm, is what moves the music.  Sure words count and so does the overall "sound" but rhythm is the primary factor in its success.  Not so for the music of the Church.  For the Church, text is always primary.  When the music overwhelms or distracts from the text, the musical form is itself the problem.

This is often a problem with hymnody.  The successful hymn is one in which the text and tune work together in a seamless pattern -- both, as it were, speaking the same language and message.  The least successful hymns are those which require a choice -- text or tune -- because they do not go together.  One of the problems in hymnwriting (both lyrics and music) is the difficulty in keeping the text and tune married, stanza upon stanza.  This is, then, the successful character of chant, specifically Gregorian Chant.  It it the text that drives the music and not the other way around.

There are wonderful tunes that I dearly love but they do not serve the text well and the hymn is disappointing to sing.  There are also texts that conflict with the melody in such way that singing them is like swimming against the current.  Congregations that do not sing these hymns are probably not able to say why they do not like to sing them but they know the difference between one of the profound unions of text and tune and one that is a shotgun wedding.

Modern music uses rhythm more effectively than almost any other musical element and it is for this reason that modern music is less effect as a common language or song in worship than the classic form of hymnody.  It works as spectator music to listen to or as entertainment but it does not work nearly so well as the common song of the gathered assembly.  The form itself actually detracts from congregational song.  Sure, you get people humming along or singing under their breath.  This is not the same as congregational song in which many voices become united sound, united so that every voice speaks as one.  I think that this is a far greater issue than those who frame the debate as high culture vs low (or popular) culture and it also rescues us from the prison of likes and dislikes. 

One more interesting tidbit from the article: 

The human voice is always the primary instrument, and often the only instrument. Being an integral part of man, rather than his exterior creation, the voice has a unique capacity for intimate expression of the depth and breadth of human feeling and experience. It is equally accessible to all people and all cultures. When the organ or other instruments are used, it is for the purpose of supporting or enhancing, rather than dominating or supplanting, the voice.

This is another issue but not one unrelated to this issue.  When the music makes it seem like the voice is secondary or peripheral to the song, we have problems with this music in service to the liturgy.  Of course, this is an issue for voices and not a vocal track -- congregational song (chant and hymn) being primary to the criteria of effective and successful church music.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Flexibility and the Liturgy

Folks who generally stick to the rubrics when planning worship are oftentimes thought of as "inflexible" in their approach.   The spirit of the age highly values spontaneity and innovation - believing such things to be markers of sincerity, authenticity, and even creativity - and so following a traditional liturgy is seen by many as an impediment to genuine worship.  To be sure, an approach that does everything "by the book" can definitely be uncreative and even careless.   Yet worship that is "free" from liturgical constraints is not necessarily more creative nor does it really bring with it more variety.  More often than not,  "contemporary" or "low church" or "evangelical" services follow an unwritten order and a musical ethos than is much more rigid than one finds in most "liturgical" parishes.

Why is this so? Why is there no real correlation between "flexibility" and whether a service is "traditional" or "contemporary". I think it is because when you get right down to it, everyone has to have a liturgy - whether they admit it or not.   If you are going to baptize, praise, preach, pray, commune, and bless, you have to have some way of doing these things.  And, at the end of the day, there are only so many different ways you can go about it, because there are only so many cards in the deck, and some of the potential ways of laying out those cards just don't make sense.   You can't start the service with the benediction and it makes little sense to have the readings after the sermon.  So whether one likes it or not, there are certain things that everyone does in a given tradition, and then only so many different ways of ordering them.   And whether you order them according to your denominational hymnal or do things in a more parochial way, everyone falls into a basic pattern which their congregation settles into as the regular "dance" of Sunday morning worship.

This point was really brought home to me a few years ago when I was teaching a class on worship in Peoria.   As I was talking about the options provided for in the Divine Service and how certain choices  are desirable at different parts of the church year, a man raised his hand to comment that he was a convert to Lutheranism and really appreciated the variety in our liturgical services.  He went on to say, "I was raised Free Methodist and we heard all the time about how free we were and how the liturgical churches were stuck in their rituals - but our pastor pretty much started and ended church the same way every Sunday and we had no church year except observing Christmas and Easter Sunday.   It was very predictable - and really rather boring.  I much prefer the variety Lutherans have.  It makes church much more interesting."

Of course, there are many liturgical Lutheran churches who don't have much variety.   Perhaps they sing the same setting of the liturgy every Sunday.   Perhaps they limit themselves to 50 hymns all generally of the same style and all played the same way.   And certainly there are "non-liturgical" churches that have much more variety than where this gentleman was raised.   However, this all just helps set up the point that I'd like to make: flexibility and creativity in the liturgy depend not so much on your order of service or how much you use a hymnal, but rather your ability to take your congregation's basic "Sunday morning dance" and build on it.   The basic steps always going in the same direction is going to be boring, but, whatever your routine, adding dips and breaks and turns and moving around the floor makes for an exciting and uplifting dance - whether your worship is like a waltz, a tango, or the Cottoneyed Joe.

I'd like to close with an example.  Last Sunday we had the Feast of Pentecost.  In keeping with the pattern of our congregation's worship, which is basically to follow the orders found in our synodical hymnal, the Lutheran Service Book, we had the following "dips and turns" along the way:

*We divided the hymn, "O Holy Spirit, Enter In", singing stanza 1 as an Entrance Hymn and stanzas 2, 3 as a Closing Hymn.   This was because the text of stanza 1 is invocatory whereas the other two stanzas petition the Lord to sustain us with His Spirit as we go out into the world to glorify Him in our vocations.

*We sang a Russian Orthodox Kyrie, a cappella, in lieu of the Kyrie used in the order of service we followed (Divine Service II).    This was sung a cappella.

*We sang the Puerto Rican hymn, "AlabarĂ©" as the Hymn of Praise, rather than one of the Gloria or standard Dignes Es ("Worthy is Christ"/"This is the Feast") that is the hymnal's default.   And again, we used alternative accompaniment rather than organ:  piano, brass, maracas, calves, congas.

*In place of the Psalm, we sang the ancient Pentecost chant, "Veni Creator Spiritus" (in English), with the choir alternating verses with the congregation.   The accompaniment was aleatoric "bell effects" played on the grand piano.

*Rather than the congregation singing the ordinary Verse before the Gospel, the choir sang a beautiful setting composed by Dawn Sonntag.  (Yes, I couldn't help but add a little plug! )

*For the communion liturgy itself, the pastors used the options for Pentecost provided for in the Altar Book, further accenting the theme of the day in creative ways.  

*The post-communion Prayer of Thanksgiving was from CPH'S Creative Worship.  Sure, that resources is often misused by simply doing the sample service in toto each week without regard to a congregation's pattern and practice, but that doesn't mean that the resource can't be a great help.   It's sort of like liturgical alcohol. Just drink responsibly!   

*Finally, the attendant music chosen for the services throughout the weekend was quite varied: from John Ylvisaker's "Spirit" on Saturday night with guitar & keyboard bass to a neo-traditional hymn anthem with flute sung by the choir to the choir leading the congregation in singing the Argentine classic, "Holy Spirit, the Dove Sent from Heaven" with brass & full percussion (guiro, congas, maracas, calves, tambourine.)

We did deploy a few more musicians last Sunday than on average - but not much more.  It was Memorial Day weekend after all!   But most of what was done could have been done anyway.   We actually use this much variety most every Sunday, whether we have a choir or not.   And yet the congregation stays within a comfort zone, because the basic dance of our pattern of worship remains unchanged.

The Lutheran liturgy is rich in substance and solid in its construction.  It provides a great foundation for worship that provides for significant variety in texts and can be accommodated by all sorts of music.   There is no reason to abandon Lutheran liturgical practice in search of creativity, authenticity, or relevancy.   It all really depends not so much on what you do, but how you do it.   Indeed, the depth and scope of the liturgy actually allows for more flexibility than the typical pattern of most "contemporary worship services."

May the leaders of the Lord's song take advantage of the full flexibility provided for in the liturgy, that our worship may never be boring, and that all who are gathered may gain interest in it.                                                                                                                                                

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Intonations vs. Preludes: Introducing Hymns

This post is not just for the organist - but for the pastors and worship committees who work together with them in planning the Divine Service.   As you may have noticed, we're moving toward more bite-sized "helpful hints" posts here at Fine Tuning.  We hope the ideas we are sharing will be "solutions" for you in your parish.

The title gets right to the issue: Do we want to introduce a hymn with a hymn prelude or intone the hymn with a simple introduction?  This question often comes up with worship planners, especially when length of service is discussed.  Too often the service suffers because the decision is made to go either one way or the other.   In other words, some organists are told to play simple, short intonations for all hymns so that worship length can be cut down or organists are given free reign and then many of us musicians decide that every hymn needs 3-4 minutes of our music to set it up - potentially adding about 10 minutes to a service.

While each liturgy needs to be considered in its own context, there are some simple guidelines we'd like to offer that will help you incorporate meaningful organ repertoire into the hymnody of the service while avoiding adding tedious delays to the liturgy:

1 -  If the people are standing, it is usually best to play an intonation.  If the congregation is getting ready for a procession after announcements or Confession/Absolution, a short prelude or longer intonation can work very well, as the people will need more time to get their hymnal & bulletin prepared and are in a preparatory mood themselves, but the general rule prevails.   Folks don't want to stand for 3 minutes before they get a chance to sing.

2 -  If the people are participating in a communal or ritual action, such as receiving the Lord's Supper, then an organ prelude doesn't add time to the service.   However, care must be taken not to play repertoire too far afield from the tempo and tone of the tune being introduced, lest the assembly not understand that the next hymn is being introduced.   More varied repertoire can be used in place of a hymn stanza if so noted in the bulletin.  This maintains clarity and also can add special meaning, as a "hymn prelude" is employed to "paint the text" of a particular stanza by matching the composition with the most appropriate words.  This practice also aids worshippers in finding their place in the hymn upon returning from the Lord's Supper.   (i.e.  if the organ is playing "stanza 4", then one knows stanza 5 is next.  This can be particularly helpful to people coming back to their pews in parishes where the singing during communion is not strong enough for one to readily ascertain which stanza is being sung.)

3 - The Hymn of the Day is the chief hymn of each Divine Service and thus deserves the highest level of musical attention.   This hymn amplifies the readings for the day and is directly connected to the sermon.  The people are seated for this hymn - a position for meditation - and so are prepared for listening.   Along with the practice of assigning stanzas to choirs or soloists, using instrumentalists or handbells to accent or adorn various stanzas, the organ has its best opportunity here to help the assembly interpret the text.   While certainly a four-minute prelude is not called for each week, this is the best time for the organ to make use of the art of music in service of the Gospel.   Preservice music is heard by some, but people are gathering and often talking.   Voluntaries are appreciated by more, but the plate is being passed and folks are often distracted by their kids during this "break in the action" between the Service of the Word and the Liturgy of the Lord's Supper.   And though we love our toccatas, only a handful stick around to hear the postlude.   So the Hymn of the Day remains as the organist's best opportunity to inspire and encourage the congregation.  

Finally, keep in mind the purpose of the introduction.  The hymn introduction - whether a prelude or intonation - should clearly announce the tune, establish the key, set the tempo, and be in the character of the text to be sung. There are many compositions of wonderful hymn-based music than can and should be played in the service but are not the best choices for hymn introductions.   They can better be used as preservice music, text-painting stanzas for solo organ, voluntaries (music during the receiving of tithes and offerings), or postludes.   What is played before the congregation sings, however, should above all else always prepare them to sing.

And the more your congregation sings the hymns, the more they will appreciate the organ playing based upon these hymns throughout the service!  ;)

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Sticker Day!

Key to nurturing the liturgy in any parish is teaching the next generation the Lord's song.  This brings in not only the art of music, but the art of teaching as well.   As part of our consulting work, we share "solutions" that work with choir directors seeking to hone their craft.  Here's a report back from Emily Woock, Director of Music Ministries at Redeemer Lutheran Church in Elmhurst, Illinois.  She's a friend of ours who would like to share the great success she had with one of our ideas:

I was recently introduced to "sticker day" when Cantor Phillip Magness graciously agreed to let me observe one of his choir rehearsals so I could get ideas for my own children's choir. I watched as he placed stickers on the foreheads of his choristers as they modeled correct posture, answered questions correctly, or anything else that warranted a sticker. Watching this I soon realized that these stickers were not simply just an extrinsic reward, nor were they used as some desperate attempt to get results. Rather, the stickers served as visible affirmation of behavior and hard work that was expected at every rehearsal. Who doesn't need affirmation now and then? We all do. 

Excited about this idea, I resolved to try it with my own young choir, but decided to save it for later in the year once we had established expectations and the normal rehearsal routine. So last week while we were doing warm ups, I casually explained that today was "sticker day" and the basic principles- that they could earn stickers for various tasks today, and those stickers would be put on their forehead or hand, (not to be played with during rehearsal, of course) and that everyone might not get the same number of stickers and that was OK. Right after warm ups I noticed that only one of my kids was sitting tall, feet on the floor, music held correctly, and ready to go. Ordinarily I would have simply made everyone stand, but today I walked over, said "look at this wonderful posture", and planted a sticker in the center of her forehead. Immediately everyone else had correct posture. I never gave out another sticker for good posture. I didn't need to. That one little sticker was all it took! Their posture was fantastic for the entire hour. As I continued to give stickers throughout the rehearsal for various things, I found that even my very young and usually shy choristers were mustering up the courage to raise their hands to answer questions. The hope of a little sticker was just enough encouragement to coax them further out of their shells. It was wonderful to watch. I was quite pleased when rehearsal ended, both in how successful this had been, and how excited the children were. 

The best and quite unexpected surprise, though, came when the children were picked up. As I sent them out of the room with stickers peppering their foreheads, I overheard even my junior high kids excitedly explaining to their parents why they had stickers on their foreheads. They not only explained the concept of sticker day, but in many instances told their parents exactly what they had done to earn each sticker. So not only did these little stickers result in a fabulous rehearsal, but they helped further educate the parents about all that we do in choir! We won't have "sticker day" for every rehearsal, but I will certainly be using this idea more often in the future. 

Thank you, Emmy, for taking time to share your experience with our readers.  We look forward to sharing more "solutions" with you in the future!