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

Thursday, April 26, 2012


Most of the hymns in a congregation's repertoire are sung a few times a year.  That's the way it should be, I think, especially in an age when most folks don't read music and only hear our hymn tunes when they come to church.   But there are some hymns that most every congregation sings well that they only sing once a year - such as "For All the Saints" every All Saints' Day.   Oh, sure, it is sung at funerals, too, so some folks get an extra chance to sing it now and then, but it is basically a once-a-year event.  Another hymn like this is "On Jordan's Bank", which most Lutherans sing every Second Sunday in Advent.   That one goes pretty well, too. 

This past Sunday we sang the "every Third Sunday of Easter" standard, "With High Delight Let Us Unite".  This one doesn't soar quite as well with the assembly, but our congregation has learned to sing it.  And I think they are enjoying it as much now as the choir, as it is a wonderful hymn.  So it's a keeper.  And this Sunday we'll sing "The King of Love My Shepherd Is", another once-a-year favorite.   I bring this up so we can consider both the wisdom and the limitations of the "Hymn of the Day".   Sometimes it really works, and a congregation's worship is strengthened with traditions like singing "My Song Is Love Unknown" each year on the 5th Sunday in Lent.   And sometimes the "hymn of the day" that works is not necessarily the appointed one.  At Bethany, for example, we have really embraced "No Tramp of Soldiers' Marching Feet" for Palm/Passion Sunday.   So it has become a sort of parochially-appointed Hymn of the Day, for lack of a better term. But other times, the appointed hymn just doesn't take root.  "Christ is the World's Redeemer" for Seventh Sunday of Easter comes to mind.  There are others. 

What are your thoughts?  Which hymns are strongly associated with particular days of the church year in your congregation?  Which of the appointed ones, on the other hand, are not so successful.  Are there any you've replaced and found greater success with?   And are there some that work better at other times of the year or other parts of the service? 

Whatever your thoughts, if you haven't considered these questions as part of your craft of worship planning, I humbly suggest your congregation would benefit from this kind of conversation about hymnody.  I do hope to get a few responses - but I hope even more you'll talk to your people about how hymnody accompanies are walk with Christ through the Church Year.  

Tuesday, April 24, 2012


Pardon a short commercial break from the usual discussion & commentary, but we are so encouraged by Nathan Beethe's recent experience with our music that we can't help but share.  Please let us know if we might of similar assistance to you:

I am an LCMS cantor and I was looking for a setting of the proper Verse for Pentecost to use with my adult choir. So I contacted Liturgy Solutions. Phillip Magness recommended Dawn Sonntag's setting of that Verse as one that his choir loved to sing, so I decided to give it a try at rehearsal that evening. The first time through my choir sang it well and liked it right away. I am really glad I took Phillip's suggestion, as I think this piece will become a staple for my choir. Thanks to Liturgy Solutions for providing quality, accessible music that is easily downloadable for a reasonable price. I will definitely be using them again! 

Nathan Beethe
Director of Parish Music
Grace Lutheran Church
Little Rock, Arkansas

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

What Drives Your Calendar?

A choir member at another congregation was recently sharing with me news about her choir, upon learning that I am a Cantor. As such conversations often go, the exchange of experiences turned to numbers: how many are in each choir, how many in each section, etc. It was observed that, as expected, the numbers go down after Easter Sunday, whereupon she said something that stuck in my mind: "Even though we're done on Mothers' Day. We're always done on Mothers' Day."

Now, I am speculating here, but speculating based on experience - my own and also experiences my colleagues have shared with me. I suspect that Mothers' Day was chosen once upon a time as the "last day to sing" because the second Sunday in May seemed like a compromise between stopping choir at Easter and asking choir members to sing at the end of the school year and into the beginning of summer. I certainly have done this with my youngest children's choir, though this group now comes back each year for Ascension.

Which brings me to my question for the day - and the point I'd like to make. Yes, we are going to lose choir members after Easter. But this does not mean we should let the world drive the church's calendar. Over time, I have learned that if I schedule my adult choir through Trinity Sunday each year, more and more of them stay for the whole year. Yes, our school choirs have to be scheduled around the school year. So we do need to make adjustments. But even if half the singers depart, necessitating easier music, the visible and audible continuation of the choir through the Great 50 Days of Easter and at the great feasts of Ascension, Pentecost, and Trinity Sunday will teach and encourage your singers and, more importantly, your parish.

It's worth doing. Keep 'em singing.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

"Music's music!" (aarrrgghh)

We'd like to hand the platform over to Cheryl Magness, who has some excellent observations on authenticity in music - something we're very big on here at Liturgy Solutions, as you know. We've all run into this growing attitude that music is commodity to be consumed, and that it is value-neutral. Cheryl does an excellent job of reminding us of the value of real people making real music:

Recently my friend Susan wrote a blog post called "Real Music" in which she highlighted one of the things that sets live music apart from recorded music: with live music you can hear the sounds of the music being made--things like the singer's breaths or the depressing of the organ or piano pedals or the guitarist's fingers sliding up and down the strings. She wrote of these things not as distractions but as things she is happy to hear because they are representative of real music being made by real people.

As someone who is increasingly distressed at the ways recorded music is replacing live music in our world I greatly appreciated her post. Many people don't see a difference between a recording and a living, breathing performance. A few days ago I saw a pastor friend on Facebook touting a product called "The Virtual Organist." His post began, "No organist? No problem." As someone who thinks it is quite possible to have reverent, beautiful worship without any organ or even without a musician, part of me responds positively to that sentence. At the same time, I bristle at the claim that a human musician can be replaced by a digital one with nothing lost. I think in fact that much is lost. And I think it is a huge problem that it is getting harder and harder to find musicians of a certain skill level. It reflects a troubling trend in our society, one that more and more views music as something not that people do but as something that they merely receive.

This morning I saw this comic strip in my blog reader:

(Original link here.)

The issue is different, but I think it demonstrates a similar lack of appreciation of many for what goes into--and comes out of--live music. Music is music, right? So there is no difference between a real, live organist and a recorded one. Hey, that recording will probably be more accurate and rhythmically clean than an imperfect, human musician. Yet I would far and away rather attend a service accompanied by my friend of limited ability who is working hard to fill in the gap created at her church by an organist's failing health than to attend a service accompanied by "The Virtual Organist." The latter might be clean and neat, but the former is authentic. Real. Honest. Alive.

I am currently playing in a pit orchestra for a local junior high's production of Bye, Bye, Birdie. I have immense respect for this school and its music and administrative staff for appreciating the difference between a live pit orchestra and a recording and for being willing to pay for the former. We will not be as clean as the recording will be. But each performance will be unique, something that is a reflection of a particular combination of musicians, performers, and listeners at a specific point in time. The pit will be able to adjust to the performance in a way that a track cannot. And the young people in the production will get something that more accurately reflects the give and take that happens in a real musical/theatrical event. It is something that can't be bottled, with a worth that can't be measured.

I also have great respect for schools in my area that annually hire live accompanists (like me) for music contests. A friend and colleague of mine recently shared the experience of adjudicating a school contest in another district. All of the students were accompanied by "Smart Music" tracks. My friend was told to go easy on his judging of the students because, after all, they had never had the benefit of playing with a live accompanist. As with virtual organ programs, I can appreciate some of the practical applications of recorded music. But I grieve what is being lost when people begin to look to it as a replacement for live music. "No accompanist? No problem." I'm sorry, but it is a problem. The students are missing out on the enormous benefits of working with an experienced accompanist, getting additional musical coaching, and collaborating to achieve a harmonious and unified ensemble. That cannot be replaced by an accompaniment track.

But again, most people don't seem to get this. Except for the American idols who command millions of fans and dollars, musicians seem to be getting less and less respect. I recently heard a pastor argue for compensating organists hourly along the lines of secretaries. So if one plays for a service, and the service is an hour long, one should get paid about the same as a secretary would get paid for an hour of his or her time. I don't mean to disrespect secretaries, but the time and study that goes into developing the musical skills necessary to accompany a worship service, not to mention the time that goes into practicing for that specific service, is beyond that required to learn to be a secretary. One can decide as an adult to be a secretary and can realistically set about acquiring the skills in a reasonable period of time. It is much harder in adulthood to take up music if you have never, ever studied it before. But I can see how someone who thinks "music's music" might not get that.