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

Tuesday, July 30, 2019

Fine Tuned

This blog is called "Fine Tuning" because it seeks to help musicians, pastors, and other worship planners/leaders sharpen their skills and grow in wisdom. It came about as a resource associated with Liturgy Solutions, an on-line publisher operated from 2005-2018 by me and my co-blogger, Stephen R. Johnson. The website has closed its shop, but is still up taking its tiny space on the web with its homepage announcement of the publishing company's closing. The last straw for us was a Supreme Court decision in favor of internet sales taxes - taxes we are not equipped to assess and to collect should they be levied. But the energy behind the site had been winding down over the years due to many life events and vocational changes for both me and Stephen. Add the need to update the site from its 2004/5 design to a website compatible with smartphones and it was just time to let it go.

We keep the website up in hopes that we might do something else with it someday. We may even put all our music back up and just give it away. Wouldn't that be something?! But that probably won't include the ESV texts because we no longer have copyrights on those. Logistical concerns come to mind, too, as we just don't have time or ability to rebuild the site. So if there's something you'd like from our old catalog - or if you are just looking for some music or need some advice - just contact me directly. I won't link to my email here due to all the spammers who periodically drop in on Blogger, but if you don't know it I think you can figure out how to contact me - at Concordia Lutheran in Kirkwood, MO, if nothing else.

"Concordia, you say?!" Yes, the former cantoral face of BJS is now happily Director of Sanctuary Worship at Concordia-Kirkwood. My, how things change, one might say! On the other hand, I've really not changed that much: in LCMS circles I've always been sort of a "liberal among conservatives and a conservative among liberals." Cue Mama Cass. I'm about to start my second year here and am doing well. The position is half-time. I am also a half-time called missionary to francophone Africa, where starting next year I'll deploy 3 months a year to teach music, hymnody, and liturgy. I'll work primarily at our seminary in Dapaong, Togo and at our novitiates in Guinea and in Congo-Brazzaville, but will also be branching out to lead workshops among our other church partners in West and Central Africa.

I'm also doing some contract work for the synod's Office of National Mission, primarily in terms of developing educational materials for the Making Disciples for Life initiative, but also overseeing chapel at the International Center during the interim between chaplains (Rev. Will Weedon is leaving to take a position with Issues, etc. and so there will be a vacancy at the IC for the next few months). I also continue to do serve as "chief musician" for DOXOLOGY, do workshops - including one coming up in South Dakota early in October - and lead hymn festivals - including one coming up in February at Zion-Harvester. I also just served again as convention musician for the LCMS convention this past week. Life abundant! :)

So where does this blog go? We'll see. Certainly if I get more comments I'll start writing more. I took a Facebook holiday for a few weeks this summer and have concluded that it is good to spend less time there. I need to stay on there for Messenger and think the sharing of family pictures & life events is great - but real professional discussion was better back here in the "old days" of "the blogosphere" and so I'm hoping we might get back to cantors blogging again. At the same time, though, with Liturgy Solutions in hiatus, I think Fine Tuning can be more personal. Stephen may show up here again and we may well add more guest authors, but I think shorter, more personal observations and reflections can be expected from me. We'll see if folks find it helpful.

So what's my "point" today? It's simply this: looking at how this blog, Liturgy Solutions, and my life are not at all what I imagined they all would be after 15 years and yet also seeing how, by God's grace, I am a better man in a better place, I just want to acknowledge the hand of the Lord in all that has come to pass and thank Him for all the "fine tuning" I have had over the course of the past 15 years. It wasn't all pleasant, and it certainly wasn't all I wanted, but it has all been worked out for my good and for the blessing of those around me. I'm still a work in progress, but I'm happy to say that I'm feeling "fine tuned" these days. Soli Deo Gloria

Monday, November 13, 2017

An Easy Way to Boost Congregational Singing

This little trick is so simple that anyone can do it - unless they are in a congregation so small that they don't use microphones. Because, yes, this has to do with microphones. When it is the congregation's turn to confess their sins, confess the Creed, or say the Lord's Prayer, turn off the mic. It is arguably the easiest way to help a congregation find its voice, and yet so many places don't do this.

For pastors who don't have someone at the sound board who can do this for them - though I'd think someone can and should be found to do this - the alternative is for the pastor not to say those parts. Just like the pastor does not say the responses "Thanks be to God" or "Praise to You, O Christ" after the readings.

What? Pastor you say you DO say those parts? Well, stop it. As Bob Newhart famously said, "Just stop it!" Seriously, there may be an awkward pause at first and you should explain to the folks why you are doing this, but let them take ownership of their parts in the liturgy.

This is Step One to "Helping Your Congregation Find Its Voice." More to come. Stay tuned . . .

Wednesday, November 1, 2017

Making Sure Our Boast Is in the Lord

"When people take pride in the business, they focus more on customer needs and innovation." - Mike Salvino, former CEO of Accenture, the world's largest management consulting firm.
There are obvious applications for program staff in a church, but I want to focus on how this connects to a huge problem in many churches, and illustrate how it manifests itself in the Church's song.

Scripture teaches repeatedly that our boast should only be in the Lord (1 Cor. 1:31; Gal. 6:14; Ps. 34:2; Jer. 9:24). Our pride is found in Christ alone. I believe that when people take pride/boast in Jesus, they will focus more on telling the Good News about Him and meeting their neighbors' need.
Where, then, is this "huge problem" I see?
It lies in two directions--Sasse's ditches on the sides of the road, if you will. On one hand, we have two generations of new hymnals chock full of excellent hymns and canticles that in many cases have nonetheless been forced onto congregations rather than being convincingly introduced. As wonderful as much of this new music is, few will tell their neighbor "come to my church and hear the organ blast songs that few of us know but are really doctrinally pure and liturgically orthodox!"
On the other hand, despite the promises of church growth gurus and numerous evangelism workshops, the Church's experiment with worship "styles" and adoption of rock bands and radio music over the past 20 years does not lead to boasting in the Lord either. As sincere as their missional intentions may be, few congregants are motivated to invite their friends to "come and hear our garage band blast songs that some of us know and sort-of sing along with on the easier parts. The songs don't say much, either, but we do them anyway because we're trying to get folks to come."
Ironically, whether one runs off the road to the left or to the right, one is driven by the same motivation: to do things right. The devil's use of our good intentions come to mind. I don't have all the answers, but I do know they lie in keeping things centered on Christ. In my own ministry area, I can say this: if you are picking music for "missional" reasons, step back and pick hymns that your people know and love and *can sing* that are about God and His love for us in Christ Jesus. If you are picking music for "confessional/orthodox" reasons, do the same.
A good test is to take away the "wall of sound," whether it is your praise band (missional) or your organ (confessional) and listen to the people sing. Their singing will reveal to you whether they are boasting in the Lord or not. There may be need to re-center in other ways (preaching, Sunday School, church programs, etc.), but in the area of cantoral ministry, congregations need to cultivate the common songs which bind them together and move them to invite others to join in the song. Sure, there is room for each generation to add new songs to the garden, but few take pride in their church because they are singing songs they think they should be doing rather than the songs their faith wants to sing. (Ps. 40:3)

Friday, May 5, 2017

Let There Be Gin

Our esteemed colleague Jacquelyn Magnuson recently put this awesome story up on FB, so we asked if we could share it here. It's instructive as well as amusing, and a great reminder to all of us to always do our homework. Enjoy!

Let There Be Gin: A lesson on the importance of practicing
During my senior year of college, a friend and I sang the hymn "Scatter the Darkness, Break the Gloom" (LSB 481) at church. This was our first encounter with this hymn, and it came as a somewhat last-minute request from the kantor that we sing a duet to introduce the hymn to the congregation, who would sing it for the first time the following week.
So we arrived at the church early. We were left to run through the hymn on our own as the kantor was getting ready for the prelude. We agreed that it would be a good idea to sing through all the stanzas so that we wouldn't stumble over words during the service.
It's a good thing we did. Stanzas one and two went off without a hitch. Then came stanza three (do you see where this is going yet?):
"Crying and sighs, give way to singing:
Life from death, our Lord is bringing!
Let there be... gin"
Yes, gin. Let there be gin. Not one, but both of us somehow overlooked the hyphen in the word "be-gin", which unfortunately occurs at a line break in the LSB. Cue the uncontrollable laughter. Cue the writing in our hymnals to make sure we'd get it right later. Well, it went smoothly during the service, but thankfully that line is at the end of the hymn, because it was hard to keep a straight face with the mishap so recent in memory. I cringe when I think what might have happened had we not rehearsed before the service.
Lesson learned? Never, ever play or sing for a church service without practicing. (There are a few exceptions when this is actually unavoidable, but they are rare.) Even for those hymns that we have played hundreds of times. Even for that instrumental part that is incredibly easy. Even singing a hymn we've known since we were young children. Always practice everything. Why? Because as church musicians, we ought not be a distraction. Sure, mistakes happen, and quite often. But to make mistakes and cause distraction because we're unprepared is unacceptable. I'll save the more serious side of this topic for another time, but suffice it to say, the importance of practicing cannot be understated. And it'll inevitably save us some embarrassment along the way too.
Oh, and the actual hymn text? "Let there begin the jubilee-- Christ has gained the victory!" Christ is risen and is bringing us out of death to life. Indeed, a much better thing to sing about than gin!

Sunday, March 5, 2017

They got it!

Guest post by Emily Woock.
Not too long ago my small (ten voice) children’s choir was scheduled to sing for the Fourth Sunday after Epiphany and I searched high and low trying to find a setting of the Beatitudes that would be appropriate for them. I really wanted something other than "Blest Are They" from All God's People Sing, but I wasn’t finding anything that would work well for children, let alone something that would work with only three rehearsals after just coming back from Christmas break.
I reached out to my friend and colleague Phillip Magness to see if he had a recommendation, and he suggested his setting of the Beatitudes from Liturgy Solutions and sent me a copy to preview. I knew right away that this piece was perfect for my group and purchased it immediately.  It was simple enough to learn in three rehearsals, but still beautiful and interesting for the singers. As an added bonus, there were many teachable moments built right into the piece.
My choristers responded very favorably to this piece, excitedly pointing out to me (as if I hadn’t noticed!) that there were repeated phrases that “have the same notes but different words.” This was done without any prompting from me. Several of them left that first rehearsal humming the melody, so I felt confident they could pull this off in time since it was clearly sticking with them.
I have a practice of marking my young choristers' bulletins ahead of time so they can be confident in their leadership role during worship, and I also try to help them make connections to various things in the service or about the season, often putting little notes in the bulletin of things for them to think about. On this particular Sunday, I wrote simply “Do you notice something?” right next to the Gospel text. I watched with delight as heads snapped to attention one by one as the Gospel was read and they made the connection that the Gospel text was the same text as our anthem. Several winked or made a face at me as if they were in on some big secret just because they were in the choir, and one of my very youngest singers ran over to me during the passing of the peace, unable to wait until the end of the service to exclaim, “Miss Woock! Pastor said the same words that we are singing!” They got it!
This wonderful arrangement was a joy for my choristers to experience, fit beautifully within the Divine Service that morning, and left me one happy cantor that there was so much teaching mileage packed into a single anthem. Thank you, Liturgy Solutions, for providing resources like this.

Sunday, February 5, 2017

A Magical Moment

We all have special moments we experience in worship, both as worshipers and as worship leaders.  Some are downright "magical." Before I continue, let me insert all the Lutheran caveats here: by "magical," I don't mean anything gnostic or occult nor will this be about using the art of music to manipulate emotions.  I say "magical," merely in the sense of a phenomenon that is "beautiful or delightful in an extraordinary way."  This can and should happen when the art of music is joined to the Word of God.  It certainly happened for us this morning at Immanuel.  Key to this happening was my preparation for this as a worship leader - and so I'd like to share with you what I did so that it might help you as you strive to bring the Gospel similarly to your people.

Here's what went down.  There is a cool communion song I found a few years ago in the Wisconsin Synod hymnal supplement by Michael Joncas called "Take and Eat."  You can also find it in the latest editions of Gather.  Here's one of several recording out there on YouTube, of various quality, instrumentations and tempi.  I've always wanted a congregation to embrace it, but until today my attempts to minister with the song had fallen.  In Illinois I had even used the "have the children's choir sing the verses" trick to try to help "sell" it, but never had an assembly really own it - even the steady faithful who come to our Wednesday night services of "Catechesis and Communion" here in Oklahoma.  I had started to wonder if this was just a song I liked but really shouldn't impose on the folk.  I knew the words were good, but started thinking that perhaps I just liked the chord progression too much or something, and really wasn't singing a melody they could embrace.

Thankfully, with the readings for today providing an excellent opportunity to sing this hymn, I decided to try it one more time.  So I re-approached the hymn anew and did exactly what I teach others to do but realized I had failed to do myself.  I got up from the piano and sang the song unaccompanied.  I memorized the lyrics and mused on them.  I sang the song in the sanctuary, imagining people in the pews and considering how I might bring these words of our Lord alive in their ears.   I spent an hour doing this on Friday and another half-hour on Saturday, and then jammed on the tune for another half-hour on the piano at home.  In other words, I took the craft of cantoring seriously and did everything I should have done previously with the song in order to prepare to minister through this music.

I didn't need to hear the compliments after the song to know that I did the right thing.  I could tell by the third refrain that something was different in the room.  By the final refrain the sanctuary was filled with singing - the kind of heart-felt singing I had always hope to elicit but had previously failed to evoke with this song.   It was a very special moment.  The people were connecting with the promises of Jesus and being comforted by them.  It was indeed, in the best sense of the word, "magical."

Please note that this came about not because I was "into it" or because of some "inner feeling" I had.  I've always grooved on this song.  That kind of playing and singing might provide an inspirational testimony, but the hearers remain passive.  It can even devolve into entertainment.  No, this was because I had consciously moved outside of myself and had worked on singing the song in an intentional way, with the intention being to bless all who heard me today and to invite them to join me in singing the LORD's song.

How often do we take our musicianship for granted?  How often are we just singing words and notes on a page?  As important as notation is, the page just contains symbols.  The music is in the air.  Sure, we need to learn the music first, but never forget that notes and words and rhythms are but the beginning of true practicing.   If you stop there, you'll miss the music.  The results will be similar to that of a pastor dryly reading his sermon rather than really preaching it to you.   The psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs we offer are just as important as the preaching - and often have more impact on people.   So approach each song as if it were a little sermon, focusing not just on what you are singing, but who you are singing it to and/or with.  And let God's "magic" happen as His Word has His way with His people.  SDG

Monday, January 30, 2017


Several friends posted a video of me jamming with some street musicians before the March for Life. It was an uplifting experience, one of many that day, and I'm not surprised this little video has made the rounds.

As someone known for being conservative on percussion in worship ("The song of the Church is Word-driven, not beat-driven!"), who disapproves of applause during the Divine Service, and who strongly prefers the chorales over "happy-clappy" music, one may fairly ask, "Magness, why do you groove on this?"  

The answer is not so simple as saying, "Well, this wasn't in the Divine Service," even though that is an important point. Because I'm actually OK with some hand-clapping and even some dancing during worship--when it is real. And by "real" I don't mean whether people are "feeling it" or not, because any half-decent musician can whip up emotions and get the poorly catechized to think they are "in the Spirit." I'm talking about the reality of manifesting the faith God gives to us as brothers and sisters in Christ. That's something we can judge objectively.  

When it is real, when it is faithful, it is reverent and authentic. It is reverent in that it honors God, acknowledges God, and is focused on God. This is much more easily done in cultures with histories of rhythmic music and ceremonial dance. Which leads to the second point of authenticity. If I am in a community which sings jubilantly with percussion instruments to organically proclaim the steadfast love of the Lord, then there is no distraction or manipulation. But where such music is not part of the culture, it is at best merely entertainment, often distracts from the Gospel, and manipulates emotions rather than giving voice to our shared experience of the faith.

How can one tell the difference? It's pretty easy. By dropping out. If the community owns the song, the musician who summoned the song can step away and it will go on. There are cultures where this readily happens. Typical North American parishes, outside certain minority communities, are not among them when it comes to the music promulgated in the name of entertainment evangelism. Many, however, in their zeal to either be attractive or to generate excitement among the membership, try to make this happen artificially by having a band play jubilant "praise music" in the assembly's stead--cranking up the volume so that the impression of great worship is created. But if the assembly cannot sustain such energy unplugged, it is actually the opposite of authentic. By contrast, the sound of a Lutheran assembly chanting the Lord's Prayer or singing the Te Deum a cappella with conviction in four-part harmony is actually truly authentic. And it is just as energetic and powerful as any other culture's music, with or without percussion or an "upbeat" tempo.

That said, I certainly do see a role of musical testimony which edifies a congregation and broadens their repertoire. Some will inevitably be entertained by that--whether one powerfully presents a Renaissance motet or an African hymn. But that is a matter of catechesis. Once a congregation gets used to higher quality music, they'll clap no more for the music than they do for the sermon--or for receiving the Sacrament. (Seriously, if applause is really directed to God, why don't people clap after receiving the Lord's Supper?)

So, whatever you are singing, make sure you are singing the folk music of your people. Keep it real. Don't substitute someone else's joy for your own. There's no reason for it. Even if you think you are doing it "for the young," or "for the seekers." Because, truth is, you'll never be as convincing singing someone else's song as you will your own.  

"He put a new song in my mouth, a song of praise to our God.
Many will see and fear and put their trust in the Lord."  (Ps. 40:3)