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


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!