Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Why Do We Sing

An interesting thing happened in church this past Sunday.

We have two services here at Lamb of God Lutheran (LCMS), 8:00 Traditional (Hymns on organ, Choir leads and sings most offertories) and a "Blended" 10:30 service. The 10:30 service maintains the hymns from the 8:00 but the liturgical elements and the communion hymns are led by a praise band.

This past Sunday, we were highlighting our Youth Ministry and the mission trips that they took over the summer. So, I asked any youth who were interested to form the praise band for that week. We had 3 acoustic guitars (played by fine youth guitarists) and I played piano.
All of the music was sung in unison with the group en masse. There were no solo sections with the exception of one and that was on the Rich Mullins tune "Awesome God" where I sang the verses and the kids responded with the chorus. The other songs were All who are Thirsty, God of this City and, believe it or not, a resetting of Jesus Loves Me.

Admittedly, I led pretty hard from the piano and did my best to keep the songs in line and to keep the tempo from wandering. But, all in all, the kids did a great job.

Here's the catch - the congregation really sang. Now, I can take the cynical view and say that the congregation sang because who doesn't love to see kids involved in worship.
But here's what I think.... The songs I picked had strong "sing along" choruses. And, there were no "lead" singers but rather a choral approach.
So, this begs the question of what is the focus of worship music in the Lutheran Church Today. I heard a great word from a new member today that came from a Non-Denominational background. She said "I like your worship because it is participatory." And that's the point. We are to LEAD worship by creating a foundation that people can sing upon. How do we do that? A group approach that welcomes people to sing (like a choir). A church that architecturally supports singing (hard surfaces that create a warm, reverberant atmosphere (people sing in their showers, not their closets) and songs that everyone can follow (like largely syllabic, non melismatic tunes, like hymns).

Ok, you've probably got what I'm going to say now- Choir led services in great acoustic spaces where people are singing from the hymnal is what we are after! Traditional worship has been vetted by time and the music is forced to survive generations, not one advertising cycle. So why do we keep drifting away from the common sense answer to dynamic worship?

I have one theory - and you may not like it. Many pastors who are ill equipped to comment on worship look at their dwindling numbers and take it out on the music ministry when they should be taking time to look at their own ministry. I know pastors who are openly antagonistic to traditional worship saying that the organ is "archaic" and that the hymnody speaks to a past generation. What those pastors are really saying is that they don't want a service that ever takes the focus off of them.

Music people out there - let's take some blame also. Are you doing substandard work? Have you stopped practicing? Do you go to seminars and continuing education functions? Do you DEMAND that your church pay a fair wage for your services? I am fortunate to have a supportive pastoral staff here at LOG and a continuing education budget. But realize, as a music director friend told me recently - most of these musical conflicts don't come from the pews, but from the staff. So, when the next pastor with a bright idea comes forward for music, be prepared.

Here's a good place to start " Te Deum: The Church and Music" by Paul Westermeyer.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

The Hits Keep Coming

This weeks Witness, May 2009.  Here is a letter from a pastor.  He is part of the problem:

"I was quite surprised that the March Lutheran Witness cover pictured a young musician in front of a traditional pipe organ.  I really didn't see anything in the issue about producing young keyboardists, drummers, reggae, and hip hop artists for today's church, let alone tomorrow's.  Classical organ has been great for a long time, but it's no lover reaching people for Jesus Christ where I live and worship.  Roger Johnson, Jehovah-El Buen Pastor Lutheran Church, Chicago, Ill."

In case you are wondering, I got his email (ain't google wonderful) and sent a response to his letter.

Let's address this issue because it is becoming a prevalent attitude among a poorly trained pastorate with a complete lack of understanding about church music.

1.  The attitude is arrogant.  Pastors with "the music here isn't reaching people" attitude assume that the problem is not them.  That's nuts!  It's almost always them.  I can't tell you how many awful sermons I have had to sit through from pastors who then turn around and say "we need a new direction in the music here. What would that look like?"  We do?  What need direction is your message!  Here's a quote from one of my favorite movies, Planes, Trains and Automobiles.  This is where Steve Martin has had enough of John Candy's lame stories.  Everything is not an anecdote. You have to discriminate between things that are funny, or slightly amusing. You’re a miracle. Your stories have none of that! They’re not even amusing accidentally! You know when you’re telling these little stories? Here’s a good idea: have a point. It makes it so much more interesting for the listener! 

2.  It's ignorant.  The types of music described in his letter are wonderful.  I enjoy them.  There really isn't a type of music I don't listen to.  In addition, I have been in the professional music world recording and performing this type of music for many, many years.  But let's be clear.  This music is for entertainment.  Not art.  In other words, it main job (be it religious or secular) is to turn a profit.  I'm not an American Idol watcher, but I have seen Simon Cowell in his criticisms.  He is not looking for the best music, the best message, the best possible musician...he is looking for a marketable package.  That what this music is about.  There are no old, fat pop stars (well, maybe a few....)  Is that what we want for our church?  Temporary music with a temporary message that bows to the almighty dollar not the Almighty God?

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Praise Publishing

Ran across a dilemma the other day concerning the music in our church, and wanted to throw it out there for discussion.  
As you may or may not know, the LCMS Commission on Worship decided to review the praise songs most commonly used in the church and stamp with their seal of approval 100 with acceptable lyrics.

But in considering these tunes in a vacuum, an interesting problem arises.  One of the major publisher's represented on the list is Hillsong Music, a church with its own publishing arm in Australia.  Some of the people represented by Hillsong are Reuben Morgan, Darlene Zschech, etc.  Where is this going?  The annual Hillsong Conference
welcomes Joel and Victoria Osteen as their special guests.  I don't think that I have to do much to explain that the Osteen's don't (or shouldn't) have much in common with LCMS theology.  So when we "approve" music like "My Redeemer Lives, Reuben Morgan", or "Shout to the Lord, Darlene Zschech", do we not also give approval to the publishing house that produces it?  We certainly do with our wallets.  Most CCM music is purchased with licensing sites such as CCLI, and those publishers are paid whenever we use that music.  
This is another consequence (I'm sure unintended) of working with publishing houses for whom we are unaware of theological standards.  Another example is the trouble that arose because of this years youth gathering in Texas when a Non-Lutheran "song leader" was asked to lead worship.  

Now... I'm willing to debate this in good faith.  If a LDS composer creates a choir anthem based on a hymn text that we in the LCMS use, is it acceptable for worship? (This is an actual example - not a hypothetical). 

I'd love to hear your thoughts.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Who is speaking?

He is risen!  Easter was wonderful, crazy and all of the things you would hope for.  I hope that you had a wonderful Easter.  
I haven't written anything in a while, and I apologize.  Between the masters degree in Organ and Sacred music and Easter Season and all its pressures, I have been really busy.  Enough excuses.

What are acoustics?  A strict definition is "the study of the physical properties of sound."  In musical terms, we discuss how "live" a room is.  In other words, if you clap your hands, how long does the sound of the clap take to fade away.  In my church, for instance, we have a "reverb tail" of 1.7 seconds.  It is a relatively live room.  

Now, contemporary church architecture has turned the sound of church on its ear (pun intended).  The goal of contemporary church design is to keep the reverb tail down as much as possible or to "deaden" a room.  (You can try this out for yourself. Go to a tiled room like a bathroom and clap, then do the same in a fully carpeted room and notice the difference.)

Why deaden a room?  Because these churches are designed to handle sound systems.  A sound system essentially takes a sound source: a band, speaker, choir, etc., and amplifies it.  In a live space an amplified sound bounces around, gathers in corners, ping pongs back and forth, and the intelligibility of the singer or speaker is greatly reduced.   (Incidentally, intelligibility is measured in "plosives".  Those are the K's and T's that are part of speech.  Vowel sounds carry easily.  In a mushy sound, all you hear is vowels, and you geet aaa--eeee-oooo-uuuu).  

So what's the problem?  Well the problem is this.  For whom is the room designed?  A live room is designed for the congregation.  If you did the home test, which room would you rather sing in?  The bathroom or the carpeted bedroom?  That's why most aspiring divas sing in the shower.  It sounds better.  A live room also sounds better for any type of group singing whether it be a choir or a congregation.  Good choir directors (like ours!) always work to get their choir to "blend".   That is why we have choirs perform in the live room but rehearse in a relatively dead room.  In the dead rehearsal room, we can pick out individual mistakes and correct them.  

Then, for whom is the sound system designed?  An individual.  The singer, the speaker, etc.  In fact, these sound systems will now add artificial reverb that they can control to improve on the sound leaving the speakers.   So what happens then?  The group singing effect is diminished.  Only in churches singing contemporary praise music do you see 4 or 5 people singing a unison part.  But ask yourself, have you ever seen a rock band with 5 lead singers?  No.  There is one.  And they are amplified.  Group singing is supported by a live room, dead rooms support amplified individuals.  

Now.  What are we trying to accomplish in worship?  
Let's tackle that next time!

Monday, October 27, 2008

Fried Cheese

I don't know if you realize it, but Chili's Restaurant has taken away the Awesome Blossom. For those unfortunate few who have not tried it, the Awesome Blossom was an onion sliced into many tendrils like flower petals, battered, deep fried and served with a sauce. Now if we are to return to Chili's, we are forced to order the fried cheese (also battered and deep fried).

Oddly enough, this made me think about music. Specifically the role of music in the church. I have been, rather unsuccessfully I think, trying to explain my feelings toward the current crop of contemporary Christian songs (how's that for alliteration?). I finally hit on an analogy that I can live with: Hors d'oeuvres. Who doesn't like hors d'oeuvres (or appetizers as most of the restaurants call them). You've gotten to your favorite eatery, the smells are wonderful, the place is abuzz with the noise of the crowd and your stomach reminds you that you are starving. At just the right moment, a nice young man or woman says, "Can I get you something? Maybe some nachos or even fried cheese?" Knowing full well what this will do to your cholesterol, you say, "Sure, I'll have the fried cheese."

That's my philosophy towards contemporary praise in a nutshell. It's a mighty tasty appetizer. Think about it: it's quick, easy to digest, and comes before the main course. There's nothing wrong with an appetizer. Most people enjoy them. But they are not the reason you came to the restaurant. In fact, if you only had money for one item, it would be for the main course and not the appetizer only. Or, if you needed to cut down on the superfluous food and focus on healthy choices, you would stick to the main course. In other words, appetizers without something solid just don't make sense. They will leave you fat and unsatisfied. While it may seem like the less expensive option to just get an appetizer, in the long run, the cost will be greater...either in empty calories or just bang for the buck.

So for those out there who have an enormous desire to introduce contemporary praise, do so. But do it with the same care and expertise that is required of the main course, and don't leave out the meat.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

The view from the Bench

As a church musician, I view the results of what I do during the week from the bench. Now, even though my bench is either in front of a piano or an organ, the reaction that others get can be just as legalistic as a lawyer's. So the question is, how do we try to move music forward without sinking into legalism? Let's assume that our goal here is to get our church to consistently strive to improve its music. In order to do that, we have to define what is good. Let's tackle that.

If you are like me, you have had myriad conversations with (sometimes) well intentioned congregants about music. You then have heard the same people describe the same piece of music as too fast, slow, simple, complicated, meaningful, etc. Therefore, if one is to begin an argument with the lay members of the church by saying, "I'm educated in music so I know more, and what I know is that your music sucks," you will find yourself in an unwinnable argument. I had a professor who said, "If your congregation wants contemporary sounds, don't introduce them to that rock and roll garbage. Give them the contemporary harmonies of Olivier Messiaen." This is, of course, absolute nonsense. A contemporary congregation handed the Vingt regards sur l'enfant-Jésus will react as an infant to a jalapeno. (I had a friend who used to say that Ornette Coleman was not the best way to get your girlfriend started on jazz).

So, how do we get there? What we have to define is the ultimate purpose of and place for music in our worship. What role does it play (no pun intended).

We have to make several connections in worship. These connections, when correctly applied, form the shape of the cross. We are to praise God in songs, we are to listen to God in His word, and we are to confess to one another our faith. We are to strengthen our faith one to another by growing in knowledge of our God.

Let me put two texts side by side.
#575, Lutheran Service Book, My Hope is Built on Nothing Less
My hope is built on nothing less than Jesus' blood and righteousness;
No merit of my own I claim, but wholly lean on Jesus' name.
On Christ the solid rock, I stand; all other ground is sinking sand.

Here is the current #1 song from CCLI
How Great is our God (portion)

How great is our God
Sing with me
How great is our God
And all will see how great
How great is our God

The splendor of the King
Clothed in majesty
Let all the earth rejoice
All the earth rejoice
He wraps Himself in light
And darkness tries to hide
And trembles at His voice,
And trembles at His voice.

In "My Hope is Built," the theology is clear. We have a reason for our hope, and it is not our selves! There but for the grace of God...Christ is our solid rock, and to hope in anything else is to hope in vain. And that's ONE VERSE!

In "How Great" all that is done is ascribing to God His attributes: splendor, majesty, light, etc. How do we respond? What do we do with this information? Apparently, we sing with him, but that isn't very deep. The most that you can glean from this tune is that God is great.

Thursday, October 9, 2008


I was inspired to start this blog after hearing some truly terrible examples of music in the Lutheran Church.
I am a full time music minister in the LCMS, and I have a degree in piano from the University of North Texas (which we all know is the best music school in the world). I have been in church music for over 15 years and have been the director of music ministry for 10 +.
I am currently (after a 17 year hiatus!) pursuing a Masters in Organ Performance with Church Music as a related field at the aforementioned UNT.

I would love to discuss the future of the liturgy, the direction of church music, the relevance of "historical" music (my term) etc.

I intend this discussion to be mostly from a musical perspective, not necessarily a thoological one, although, we are as we worship!

These discussions have been mostly driven by pastors and lay people. Although I am keenly interested in their opinions, I really want those church musicians, either full time or bi-vocational to chime in! Look forward to your opinions!