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

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."