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

Friday, May 5, 2017

Let There Be Gin

Our esteemed colleague Jacquelyn Magnuson recently put this awesome story up on FB, so we asked if we could share it here. It's instructive as well as amusing, and a great reminder to all of us to always do our homework. Enjoy!

Let There Be Gin: A lesson on the importance of practicing
During my senior year of college, a friend and I sang the hymn "Scatter the Darkness, Break the Gloom" (LSB 481) at church. This was our first encounter with this hymn, and it came as a somewhat last-minute request from the kantor that we sing a duet to introduce the hymn to the congregation, who would sing it for the first time the following week.
So we arrived at the church early. We were left to run through the hymn on our own as the kantor was getting ready for the prelude. We agreed that it would be a good idea to sing through all the stanzas so that we wouldn't stumble over words during the service.
It's a good thing we did. Stanzas one and two went off without a hitch. Then came stanza three (do you see where this is going yet?):
"Crying and sighs, give way to singing:
Life from death, our Lord is bringing!
Let there be... gin"
Yes, gin. Let there be gin. Not one, but both of us somehow overlooked the hyphen in the word "be-gin", which unfortunately occurs at a line break in the LSB. Cue the uncontrollable laughter. Cue the writing in our hymnals to make sure we'd get it right later. Well, it went smoothly during the service, but thankfully that line is at the end of the hymn, because it was hard to keep a straight face with the mishap so recent in memory. I cringe when I think what might have happened had we not rehearsed before the service.
Lesson learned? Never, ever play or sing for a church service without practicing. (There are a few exceptions when this is actually unavoidable, but they are rare.) Even for those hymns that we have played hundreds of times. Even for that instrumental part that is incredibly easy. Even singing a hymn we've known since we were young children. Always practice everything. Why? Because as church musicians, we ought not be a distraction. Sure, mistakes happen, and quite often. But to make mistakes and cause distraction because we're unprepared is unacceptable. I'll save the more serious side of this topic for another time, but suffice it to say, the importance of practicing cannot be understated. And it'll inevitably save us some embarrassment along the way too.
Oh, and the actual hymn text? "Let there begin the jubilee-- Christ has gained the victory!" Christ is risen and is bringing us out of death to life. Indeed, a much better thing to sing about than gin!

Sunday, March 5, 2017

They got it!

Guest post by Emily Woock.
Not too long ago my small (ten voice) children’s choir was scheduled to sing for the Fourth Sunday after Epiphany and I searched high and low trying to find a setting of the Beatitudes that would be appropriate for them. I really wanted something other than "Blest Are They" from All God's People Sing, but I wasn’t finding anything that would work well for children, let alone something that would work with only three rehearsals after just coming back from Christmas break.
I reached out to my friend and colleague Phillip Magness to see if he had a recommendation, and he suggested his setting of the Beatitudes from Liturgy Solutions and sent me a copy to preview. I knew right away that this piece was perfect for my group and purchased it immediately.  It was simple enough to learn in three rehearsals, but still beautiful and interesting for the singers. As an added bonus, there were many teachable moments built right into the piece.
My choristers responded very favorably to this piece, excitedly pointing out to me (as if I hadn’t noticed!) that there were repeated phrases that “have the same notes but different words.” This was done without any prompting from me. Several of them left that first rehearsal humming the melody, so I felt confident they could pull this off in time since it was clearly sticking with them.
I have a practice of marking my young choristers' bulletins ahead of time so they can be confident in their leadership role during worship, and I also try to help them make connections to various things in the service or about the season, often putting little notes in the bulletin of things for them to think about. On this particular Sunday, I wrote simply “Do you notice something?” right next to the Gospel text. I watched with delight as heads snapped to attention one by one as the Gospel was read and they made the connection that the Gospel text was the same text as our anthem. Several winked or made a face at me as if they were in on some big secret just because they were in the choir, and one of my very youngest singers ran over to me during the passing of the peace, unable to wait until the end of the service to exclaim, “Miss Woock! Pastor said the same words that we are singing!” They got it!
This wonderful arrangement was a joy for my choristers to experience, fit beautifully within the Divine Service that morning, and left me one happy cantor that there was so much teaching mileage packed into a single anthem. Thank you, Liturgy Solutions, for providing resources like this.

Sunday, February 5, 2017

A Magical Moment

We all have special moments we experience in worship, both as worshipers and as worship leaders.  Some are downright "magical." Before I continue, let me insert all the Lutheran caveats here: by "magical," I don't mean anything gnostic or occult nor will this be about using the art of music to manipulate emotions.  I say "magical," merely in the sense of a phenomenon that is "beautiful or delightful in an extraordinary way."  This can and should happen when the art of music is joined to the Word of God.  It certainly happened for us this morning at Immanuel.  Key to this happening was my preparation for this as a worship leader - and so I'd like to share with you what I did so that it might help you as you strive to bring the Gospel similarly to your people.

Here's what went down.  There is a cool communion song I found a few years ago in the Wisconsin Synod hymnal supplement by Michael Joncas called "Take and Eat."  You can also find it in the latest editions of Gather.  Here's one of several recording out there on YouTube, of various quality, instrumentations and tempi.  I've always wanted a congregation to embrace it, but until today my attempts to minister with the song had fallen.  In Illinois I had even used the "have the children's choir sing the verses" trick to try to help "sell" it, but never had an assembly really own it - even the steady faithful who come to our Wednesday night services of "Catechesis and Communion" here in Oklahoma.  I had started to wonder if this was just a song I liked but really shouldn't impose on the folk.  I knew the words were good, but started thinking that perhaps I just liked the chord progression too much or something, and really wasn't singing a melody they could embrace.

Thankfully, with the readings for today providing an excellent opportunity to sing this hymn, I decided to try it one more time.  So I re-approached the hymn anew and did exactly what I teach others to do but realized I had failed to do myself.  I got up from the piano and sang the song unaccompanied.  I memorized the lyrics and mused on them.  I sang the song in the sanctuary, imagining people in the pews and considering how I might bring these words of our Lord alive in their ears.   I spent an hour doing this on Friday and another half-hour on Saturday, and then jammed on the tune for another half-hour on the piano at home.  In other words, I took the craft of cantoring seriously and did everything I should have done previously with the song in order to prepare to minister through this music.

I didn't need to hear the compliments after the song to know that I did the right thing.  I could tell by the third refrain that something was different in the room.  By the final refrain the sanctuary was filled with singing - the kind of heart-felt singing I had always hope to elicit but had previously failed to evoke with this song.   It was a very special moment.  The people were connecting with the promises of Jesus and being comforted by them.  It was indeed, in the best sense of the word, "magical."

Please note that this came about not because I was "into it" or because of some "inner feeling" I had.  I've always grooved on this song.  That kind of playing and singing might provide an inspirational testimony, but the hearers remain passive.  It can even devolve into entertainment.  No, this was because I had consciously moved outside of myself and had worked on singing the song in an intentional way, with the intention being to bless all who heard me today and to invite them to join me in singing the LORD's song.

How often do we take our musicianship for granted?  How often are we just singing words and notes on a page?  As important as notation is, the page just contains symbols.  The music is in the air.  Sure, we need to learn the music first, but never forget that notes and words and rhythms are but the beginning of true practicing.   If you stop there, you'll miss the music.  The results will be similar to that of a pastor dryly reading his sermon rather than really preaching it to you.   The psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs we offer are just as important as the preaching - and often have more impact on people.   So approach each song as if it were a little sermon, focusing not just on what you are singing, but who you are singing it to and/or with.  And let God's "magic" happen as His Word has His way with His people.  SDG

Monday, January 30, 2017


Several friends posted a video of me jamming with some street musicians before the March for Life. It was an uplifting experience, one of many that day, and I'm not surprised this little video has made the rounds.

As someone known for being conservative on percussion in worship ("The song of the Church is Word-driven, not beat-driven!"), who disapproves of applause during the Divine Service, and who strongly prefers the chorales over "happy-clappy" music, one may fairly ask, "Magness, why do you groove on this?"  

The answer is not so simple as saying, "Well, this wasn't in the Divine Service," even though that is an important point. Because I'm actually OK with some hand-clapping and even some dancing during worship--when it is real. And by "real" I don't mean whether people are "feeling it" or not, because any half-decent musician can whip up emotions and get the poorly catechized to think they are "in the Spirit." I'm talking about the reality of manifesting the faith God gives to us as brothers and sisters in Christ. That's something we can judge objectively.  

When it is real, when it is faithful, it is reverent and authentic. It is reverent in that it honors God, acknowledges God, and is focused on God. This is much more easily done in cultures with histories of rhythmic music and ceremonial dance. Which leads to the second point of authenticity. If I am in a community which sings jubilantly with percussion instruments to organically proclaim the steadfast love of the Lord, then there is no distraction or manipulation. But where such music is not part of the culture, it is at best merely entertainment, often distracts from the Gospel, and manipulates emotions rather than giving voice to our shared experience of the faith.

How can one tell the difference? It's pretty easy. By dropping out. If the community owns the song, the musician who summoned the song can step away and it will go on. There are cultures where this readily happens. Typical North American parishes, outside certain minority communities, are not among them when it comes to the music promulgated in the name of entertainment evangelism. Many, however, in their zeal to either be attractive or to generate excitement among the membership, try to make this happen artificially by having a band play jubilant "praise music" in the assembly's stead--cranking up the volume so that the impression of great worship is created. But if the assembly cannot sustain such energy unplugged, it is actually the opposite of authentic. By contrast, the sound of a Lutheran assembly chanting the Lord's Prayer or singing the Te Deum a cappella with conviction in four-part harmony is actually truly authentic. And it is just as energetic and powerful as any other culture's music, with or without percussion or an "upbeat" tempo.

That said, I certainly do see a role of musical testimony which edifies a congregation and broadens their repertoire. Some will inevitably be entertained by that--whether one powerfully presents a Renaissance motet or an African hymn. But that is a matter of catechesis. Once a congregation gets used to higher quality music, they'll clap no more for the music than they do for the sermon--or for receiving the Sacrament. (Seriously, if applause is really directed to God, why don't people clap after receiving the Lord's Supper?)

So, whatever you are singing, make sure you are singing the folk music of your people. Keep it real. Don't substitute someone else's joy for your own. There's no reason for it. Even if you think you are doing it "for the young," or "for the seekers." Because, truth is, you'll never be as convincing singing someone else's song as you will your own.  

"He put a new song in my mouth, a song of praise to our God.
Many will see and fear and put their trust in the Lord."  (Ps. 40:3)

Friday, January 20, 2017

We're Back!

Good afternoon, dear friends,

After 3 1/2 years, and on Inauguration Day of all days, Phillip has re-discovered how to access this blog!  He & Stephen had made efforts the past couple of years to get in and start posting again, but simply could not access the site.  Here's a brief explanation, which will also help you understand the slower pace of Liturgy Solutions these past few years, as well as our new effort to revitalize the site: 

*  In 2012, Phillip was dismissed from the cantorate at Bethany Lutheran Church in Naperville, Illinois.  He and the pastors publicly affirmed that his firing was not due to immoral life, false doctrine, or any incompetence with his duties.  Phillip had had a breakdown under work stress, after which the head pastor cited personality conflicts and a desire for a new person in the position. The congregational leaders then opted to follow this pastor's lead rather than to attempt to negotiate conflict resolution or otherwise improve the situation.   

*  By the grace of God, Phillip was blessed to serve the following year at Trinity Lutheran Church and School in Tinley Park, where he made many friends and planned on staying to build on the excellent legacy of church & school music left by his predecessor there, Carl Lisius.  However, the direction of the pastoral leadership was toward forms of "modern" or "contemporary" worship, with even the traditional services minimizing sung liturgy, and so when another call came Phillip decided it best for the church to accept an opportunity to serve where his vision for worship was in line with both the pastor and the elders.

*  While he first had access to the Fine Tuning blog while in Oklahoma, that access was lost when his wife and family joined him in Oklahoma after the Magnesses sold their house in Illinois.  Between expired emails, new computers, and forgotten passwords, we just couldn't get in!  Stephen had not posted in a while himself, having moved from full-time church work to teaching at a Roman Catholic high school in the Bronx, and also could not locate our credentials to get onto the site. 

Fast forward now to today, of all days, when, after considering the doctrine of vocation and President Trump's point in his inaugural address about a nation's greatness depending on the success of its citizens to freely pursue their dreams, Phillip decided to try to get into Fine Tuning again.   Behold, it was a success!   

We are happy to report that today, almost four years later, by the grace of God, both Phillip and Stephen are doing well.   Stephen is having a great year with his choirs and classes at Monsignor Scanlan High School in New York, and has new compositions in the GIA catalog.  His daughters are doing amazing things in music, and he continues to address the church on matters of music at various conferences.   Phillip and his family are enjoying life in Broken Arrow, Oklahoma, where he now serves at Immanuel Lutheran Church.  He continues to serve as "cantor-at-large" for the spiritual renewal retreats of DOXOLOGY: The Lutheran Center for Spiritual Care and Council, and also his teaching of the French edition of the LSB, Liturgies et Cantiques Luthériens.  He will be in Togo in March to lead a couple of workshops and also to play for worship services for the annual convention of 14 confessional francophone Lutheran churches to be held in Dapaong.  He also served as chief musician for the 2013 and 2016 LCMS conventions.  

So much for why we disappeared here and what we've been doing.  So why revitalize the site?  The brief history outlined above gives a hint of the reason:  vocation.   Throughout all the trials and in both blessings & woes, our hearts and hands and voices have been fixed on the Lord's song.  God has been good to us; how can we keep from singing?  And so with a new day for our country, it is fitting that we begin a new day at Liturgy Solutions.   Let us know what you might like us to write about, and how you are doing.  We'll see you on FaceBook, but we'd love to see you hear to.  We look forward to doing more of what we love most: encouraging, nurturing, and enlivening the art of music in service to the Word of God. 

May His peace be with you this new year and always! 

In Christ,

Your Friends at Liturgy Solutions  

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."