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

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Letting It Happen

OK, so perhaps the examples I cited in the last post may have seemed like "straw men" - but then again, perhaps not. Sure most of us don't have to get our organ playing ideas approved by a committee and then explained to the congregation, but, believe it or not, in some parishes elders or worship committee time IS taken up with discussing whether or not the organist should be allowed to drop out on a stanza for a cappella singing. And while good spontaneity can and does happen in the liturgy, having an improvisation flow into the congregation's standing and singing the final refrain of a song takes planning and coordination between pastor & musician. So sometimes we think we should be able to do something w/o discussion, only to discover the opposite; other times things may appear to "just happen", but they are the result of discussion and planning.

So how are we to know when to run something through "the process", and when do we go with our inspiration? Truth be told, there are no "8 Simple Rules" on this one. Such judgments are more of an art than a science. But here are some guidelines:

1 - Does the innovation effect just you, or the pastor, or the whole assembly? People are more accepting of novelty that others do; more resistent to anything that would affect their accustomed pattern of worship.

2 - Does the innovation serve the text in an overt way, or is it more subltle? When people are surpirized by something obvious, they "get it" and think it is cool that it just "happened". If the innovation is more sublte, though, the people need some teaching lest you want them to think you are promoting change for the sake of change. (!)

3 - Will the innovation be done well? This may seem obvious, but sometimes it is not. Sure, the first time conga drums are played, they best be played well if there is to be no backlash, but do we always remember to similarly prepare things like the first time the children's choir chants a part of the liturgy, the first time handbells play a free ring on a doxological stanza, or the first time the acolytes do a Gospel procession? Ideally these things would always be well done, but, in my experience, I've seen too often that these good ideas are poorly implemeneted, and so an opportunity to promote an enriched liturgical life in a congregation is lost because people don't respond well to anything poorly planned or poorly executed. The children need to memorize that part of the liturgy, and thoroughly reheasrse doing it in the context of what comes right beforehand in the service. The bells need to know exactly how the director is going to get them in and out of the free ring, particularly how they are to dampen their bells at the end. And why can't district worship services ever seem to get a Gospel procession right? Because sufficient time is rarely put into doing such things well.

Over the next few posts, I'll share a few examples of how meaninful innovations were either successfully "sprung" or successful planned and prepared. Maybe you've got some stories to share too!

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Learning By Doing

Our Lutheran culture is big on "knowing what we are doing" - at least, supposedly, about worship. Suggest doing something liturgical and a predictable reaction will be "well, we might want to do that, but let's be sure to instruct and explain before we do it." Now, there is some healthy conservatism in that approach, and certainly we do want to catechize. But sometimes the liturgy itself teaches us, and our fear of "moving beyond" the level of the "average laymen" prevents us from doing just that. This strikes me as ironic, since the average layman doesn't know much about what we are doing in worship to begin with, and so is "learning by doing" all the time!

I'm going to break this down into more than one post - I've figured out that my posts have been too long! - but, to get everyone thinking, consider the following statements:

"Playing an introduction to the hymn of the day that is in the tempo of the hymn, establishes its mood, and reinforces melodic ideas of the tune might very well improve singing - but let's be sure to explain what you are doing to everyone before you do it."

"Using the proper invitatory would be cool. It certianly reinforces the season of the church year. But visitors would get lost because it's not in the hymnal. But I guess we could do that on a special Sunday if you announced it!"

"So you'd like to sing the last refrain of that hymn at the end of communion distribution with everyone standing. Yes, that would literally be 'uplifting' now, wouldn't it? And you've done that in other parishes, too? But I don't know. We wouldn't do that every Sunday. How would people know when or if to stand? Seems a bit too spontaneous to me. People might get confused."

How do these thoughts sound to you? Next I plan on sharing some examples of where people were prepared for something new and where people simply experienced something new as it happened - with both successful and unsucessful results with each approach.

Thursday, November 6, 2008


I apologize for the lack of posts in recent weeks. The recent election was rather totalizing!

But we "trust not in rulers; they are but mortal. Earth-born they are and soon decay." (LSB 797:2) We need to be reminded to that no matter who governs us. And as our leaders prepare to increase taxes and regulations on us, let us also sing "and take they our life, Good, fame, child, and wife, Though these all be gone, Our victory has been won; The Kingdom our remaineth." (LSB 656:4) God is indeed our fortress; we shall never be shaken!

So, turning back to things eternal, I thought we all could use something a little lighter, and so I point you over to my latest post over at the Johnny Steadfast website. It shares a fun little video Stephen sent me that I'm sure will brighten up your day.

Here's part of a follow-up comment I posted over there. I'm quoting it here to pique your interest and perhaps stimulate some more serious discussion regarding the art of church music:

"For late 70's, it was fairly cutting-edge New Wave. And I do give them credit for being tight. (musician slang for being in sync rhythmically and not hitting any wrong notes) And one has to admit that there is a certain catchiness to the whole thing.

But now I think this illustrates an even stronger point: even if the Church can succeed in being "hip" for a moment, the world will move "hip" immediately somewhere else. And so looking back such efforts will always seem comical, at best. (I have had similar riots singing some of the religious pop sheet music in a Sinatra style by well-intentioned Anglicans in the 50's, and have had a real fun time singing some religious pop from the 1920s.) So I think people will look back at LCMS "praise teams" in 30 years and get similar chuckles. It's just the way of our "fast changing world", to quote Dr. Barry.

The core problem with ALL of this is that the music is driven by a desired sound. It may be the beat of the Charleston, the lush chords of the jazz era, or the punky grooves of New Age. So the text is then contrived to "fit" into the prescribed sound, and deemed OK as long as the sentiments are judged to be religious and sincere. Music is valued for its psychological effects, not for its ability to magnify the Word.

A good text may actually find its musical form in a peppy beat ("Christ Has Arisen, Alleluia"), pick up some jazzy chords ("How Clear Is Our Vocation, Lord"), or even be hip for a moment ("Gabriel's Message" as sung by Sting, for example). But such music succeeds over time in the Church - and is valued as good art even by secular musicians - because it is driven by the words, not by the beat or the harmony.

Jesus is indeed our Friend. The great Good News is that He calls us friends, even though we are unworthy servants. But without the primacy of the lyric element, music cannot proclaim that message. At best it might be able to carry it along in an obscured way; at worst it is simply a diversion."