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

Saturday, October 11, 2008


One of the resources to which I subscribe is the Cantus Novus "list-serv" provided by Pastor Stefanski's "CAT-41" site. (CAT-41= 'Confess and Teach for One'). Recently, a poster asked the folks on the list to share their customs regarding the use of the various settings of the liturgy. Responses confirm that some parishes use just one or two settings, others more. Each situation is different, given the liturgical history of a congregation and the average musical literacy of its members, but most parishes do some rotation of musical settings.

I think it is usually a good thing for a parish to have variety in its musical practice of the liturgy, though certainly some situations may call for the use of but one setting. I'll give specific reasons for some of the kinds of variety I advocate below, but before we get to that I think it best to point out that the liturgical principle itself is the establishment of a pattern around which meaningful variety and creativity can form. Indeed, good patterns such as one has with the order of the historic liturgy (or the rules of counterpoint, or the laws of harmonic motion, or the rules of rhetoric) allow greater freedom and creativity than we ever could have without them.

Because the liturgy uses the idea of variety-within-pattern with its balance of ordinary and proper texts (i.e. texts which are the same and texts which are appointed for a given day), and has simplifications and elaborations around its basic form (such as omitting the Gloria during Lent, a longer Verse with more alleluias during Easter, etc.), judicious and intentional selection of tunes for the liturgy serve to highlight liturgical form, amplify its simplifications and elaborations, and allow the overall shapes and forms of the liturgy to resonate more clearly. I am convinced that such use of the art of music can add meaning and sustain interest in the hearts and minds of worshippers, letting the Word dwell in them more richly.

Let us know what your custom is. Perhaps our conversation may enrich our mutual practice. Meanwhile, here's how a suburban congregation in Chicagoland makes full use of the resources of LSB:


GREEN SUNDAYS OF EPIPHANY - special setting, using Gloria, Sanctus, and Agnus Dei from Haugen's "Mass of Creation" (we have OneLicense), Celtic Alleluia, and Nunc D from LSB III.
JULY & AUGUST - a local setting (composed by the local Cantor, soon to be available for download via Liturgy Solutions!)

*In October we take a break from LSB I and either do LSB III or LSB V for Reformation (and some of the prior weeks). We alternate between these each year. When we do LSB V in October, we set it up by singing various hymns from the Deutche Messe throughout the year. (e.g. by singing "Kyrie, God Father" as the Kyrie during Lent).

We have the Lord's Supper twice a month at each of our four service times. The most popular service times, 9:00 & 11:15am, commune a third time whenever there is a fifth Sunday. We also add extra communion services on feast days.

When we do not have the Lord's Supper, we use one of the prayer offices (such as Matins or Evening Prayer most of the time, but do use "antecommunion" (the Divine Service w/o the Service of the Sacrament) on first and second Sundays. Antecommunion provides us some good opportunities to use some of the alternative Canticles or other options for the Entrance Rite (such as a hymn paraphrase of the Gloria). Our day school chapel services on Wednesday mornings use either Morning Prayer or the Service of Prayer and Preaching.

Our rotations on the prayer & preaching offices are as follows:

Advent, Lent, Summertime, October in the AM- Matins
Christmas, Epiphany, Eastertide, September, and November in the AM - Morning Prayer
Wednesday Lenten Services - Matins in the AM; Evening Prayer in the PM
Wednesday Advent Services (PM only) - Evening Prayer w/ Taizé music.
Saturday 5PM Services - When the sun is up, Vespers; in the dead of Chicagoland winter, when the sun is down, Evening Prayer!

Why do we do this?

The advantages of seasonal rotations are considerable:

1 - Everyone gets to "settle in" to a particular setting over several weeks' time. This is especially important for young people learning the settings, and even more important for catechumens and visitors.

2 - It reinforces the primacy of the TEXTS over the tunes. Many Lutherans unfortunately think of "the liturgy" as a particular set of melodies w/ texts in a book, rather than the historic prayers and patterns of prayer of the Church.

3 - Seasonal rotations, when done consistently over several years, highlight the seasons of the Church Year. It is common in parishes with this practice for people to voice hopeful expectations toward specific seasons when their favorite versions of various Canticles might be sung (ex. "I can't wait until Easter when we sing 'This is the Feast' again," and "Isn't Epiphany when we get to do the Haugen 'Glory to God in the Highest'?").

4 - Using a few different settings also improves the music literacy of the congregation, thereby strengthening their hymn singing. No, it doesn't make sight-singers out of them, but the use of varied settings and various options on the Canticles, Alleluias, and responses makes people pay attention to the notes and helps their music reading at a fundamental level.

5 - Having at least two settings guards against the false idea that there is some uniquely holy setting of the liturgy (all settings are of human construction and therefore fall under the Judgement!), and helps preserve us from vain repetitions of the service. To be sure, vain repetitions come from the heart of man and so can and will occur no matter how much variety there may be in a parish. The problem is not the repetitions (otherwise the Lord's Prayer would be settings us up!), but in the vanity of man. However, providing at least some variety does communicate to the parish that their performance of any given set of tunes is not a meritorious work.

6 - Variety also defends the liturgy against charges of being 'boring'. Let's face it, though it is extremely rare for someone to complain about saying the Lord's Prayer every week, people do get tired of singing the same tunes ad infinitim. Even the best music gets tiresome over time, even music composed for such a purpose (like good liturgical music). Rotation of settings maintains interest and inoculates against liturgical burnout.

On a personal note, I want to add that this last point has been proven in several parishses, including the last two where I have served. In these cases, where there was little liturgical variety, many folks were clamoring for 'contemporary' worship; however, when greater liturgical variety became the custom in the parish, most of those expressing dissatisfaction with the liturgy became satisfied and moved from saying that the worship music was boring to saying that the worship music was something to which they were looking forward! Care must be taken to provide the right amount of variety, and to introduce new things at a deliberate pace, so as not to overwhelm the congregation, but the practical lesson in such cases is clear: it is not that the liturgy has been tried and found wanting, it is that the liturgy in all its fullness has not actually been tried!

So there you have it: "how we do it" at Bethany. I certainly don't think our rich and varied practice should be normative, but I offer it as an example of the customs of a singing parish that mines the riches of LSB and avoids the "worship wars" that plague so many parishes today.

Saturday, October 4, 2008

All Kids Can Sing

I am a music teacher. I teach at a Catholic high school in the Bronx, NY and have about 120 students this semester consisting of freshmen and seniors. The music program at the school is underdeveloped, which is why they had me come in. They want to cultivate a singing culture at the school. They want the kids to sing in the liturgies and to build a good choral program. My classes have several components. I teach voice pedagogy and basic theory as well as music history. And we sing – a lot.

I started by just singing at the kids. You know, singing the announcements, instructions, etc. Their first assignment was to come to class the next day and sing me a greeting. They thought I was out of my mind. Like anything else, these kids have gotten used to the antics of Mr. J. So, my singing is now to be expected, as is the daily regimen of song in which my students must participate.

The other day, I was listening to small groups sing canons (for a grade). One senior was having a hard time with pitch (well, several do, but this one in particular). It so happened that I could hear a couple of pitches that he was singing in tune. He was singing way too low (trying to sing an octave below where the men sing the canon). That means that his lowest notes were really unsingable, with rare exception. When he got to the upper notes he hit the “D” below middle “C”. When I asked him to do that again, he did and, after a little coaching, began singing the canon in the right octave and, by in large, on the right pitch. I asked him if he understood what had just happened and he kind of shyly grinned. I asked if he had every done that before and he admitted no. It was a breakthrough for him! I learned something and so did he – but so did the class. Their lack of skill in singing is not due to an inherent inability to do so, but because they have not used their voices in such a way since they were little children. When they have time and someone to teach them those voices come back! There are more examples of this but time and space prevent me from sharing them just now.

In the church, parents, Sunday school teachers, DCEs and pastors become the gatekeepers of what children sing. It is often believed that they cannot sing things perceived to be too difficult for them. But when there is time and someone to teach them they can, do and are even enthusiastic about learning difficult hymns. I have proven this over and over in my work with the church. So has my wife, who had worked with children on songs like “Of the Father’s Love Begotten” at Christmas time with complete success. The kids sang it as well or better than anything else on the program that day.

Experts would not be surprised and would likely stand in unanimity about the abilities of children to sing music adults perceive as too difficult. Still, even after more than one such example of the abilities of kids to comprehend musical substance and execute it, parishes still resort to canned music for events like VBS and Sunday school Christmas programs with superficial tunes and lyrics, depriving the children of early exposure to rich spiritual food contained in hymns of the Lutheran heritage and building a comprehensive musical vocabulary. Ironically, the church musician is often the last person who it is believed has credibility on such matters. I guess it is hard for people to believe that the musician would actually know something about the teaching and learning of music.

There is good news for you pastors and church workers who wonder whether your kids can embrace, sing and enjoy the Lutheran hymn heritage. The answer is a resounding YES! Find the time to teach them with a competent teacher and you will find success. It may be a little intimidating for the parents, though, when the kids sing hymns with ease that give their folks trouble. But maybe the kids can then teach their parents!