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i have to find another church . . .

Guest blogging event!
 
Dean Estabrook relates this story:
 
Just to vent,  I had an epiphany of a negative sort in church yesterday.  I was standing in the bass section of our "Traditional" church choir, not joining in the singing of one of the praise songs for that morning, because the practice of that form of congregational singing makes me so uncomfortable. Ergo, I was trying to concentrate on the actual words being sung, and seeing if I could separate the message from the music.
 
The singing was being accompanied by a very loudly played piano,  electric bass, and of course, the now ubiquitous drum kit. Somewhere in the mind numbing repetition of  Now I've come to worship,  my mind became suddenly hyper sensitive to a line of text describing Jesus on the cross  combined with a sort of night club/bossa nova/rim-shot on the off beat from the drums.
 
The antithetical ludicrousness  of the moment cut through to my soul. I  just stood there, shaking my head, comparing that musical treatment of such a profound concept  to that which, say, Bach did in the B minor Mass.
 
I have to find another church.
 
on June 11, 2009 6:25am
I share Dean's feelings, but as I watch the congregation of our Episcopal church become increasingly older and smaller -- along with the all-volunteer choir which used to be able to do fine traditional Anglican music -- I wonder if the current trend towards "karoake God" (as my sixteen year old son labels it) is inevitable.
on June 11, 2009 6:45am
For what it's worth, I have generally found that insisting that I am going to stay and continue to do things my way has at least discouraged the 'bad guys' -- but as I reflect on this, it has always been a matter of running things not aesthetics.

I recall the time when, back in the 1960s, the Singapore Cathedral Choir -- run on strictly Royal School of Church Music standards and regularly inspected -- was suddenly preempted by the first Chinese bishop, who soon fell under the spell of the speaking-in-tongues crowd (there was a lot of it around in those days). In just a couple of years the whole Anglican choral tradition had been sold down the river and it was hingles, jinglers ad nauseam. But I was already out of there.

I visited some years later, in search of some of the wonderful music we had sung, especially for Christmas and Easter. My connections were still good, and I was escorted up a winding stair in one of the towers, to a place where all the disused music books had been relegated, and I reverently searched for the best-preserved of each and took it to a copy shop (they were pretty new in those days). I'm talking, for example, of the Cowley Book of Carols.

I still have my hallowed collection, and I hope to pass on what I saved at that time to the next generation of church musicians (we'll sort out copyright later -- believe me, we really do pay for everything we use, since our current direrxctor is a composer himself.

nd drilbu for an Evensong this ciming Sunday.But Dean, I really sympathise with you. I have been there, done that, and got the T-shirt. But I am also still in a church that has changed very much since I joined it 35 years ago, and, DV, I am still singing in its choir (though looking out a tambourine and drilbu for Evensong. Any lucky guesses at what I'm using them for?)

Stay in there,

Doreen the (reaonably) flexible

on June 11, 2009 8:14am
 Doreen ... thanks for the reply. Wow, methinks you have more courage than I ... I congratulate you for your tenacity. 
 
Take Care, 
 
Dean
 
on June 11, 2009 11:00am
Dean, I truly sympathize. But I have to look at this question from the point of view of a college professor who has to stand up and explain things like this to a class of Music History students, and not just as a choral conductor with an abiding love for our choral traditionas. (And simultaneously, of course, as someone who spent close to 20 years as a professional entertainer and does NOT accept the 20th century's spurious dichotomy between "art" and "entertainment"! I truly believe that all "art" should entertain, and that all "entertainment" should be art, but of course that depends on your personal interpretation of those two often-mishandled terms.)
 
<lecture mode ON!>
 
Music is not, ever, an either/or proposition. It falls, ALWAYS, somewhere along a continuum with true cretive genius at one end, capable of communicating the most profound truths through its art, and the everyday at the other end, capable of appealing to almost everyone but of communicating only the most obvious truths. Both are good, both are valuable, and both are part of every human culture above the subsistance level.
 
And one thing that a study of history shows us, beyond ANY question, is that things change. And when they DO change, there are always those who argue and rage against the changes, and others who accept and follow the changes, and of course it is the latter who alwasy win out, and who shape the next in an infinite number of changing musical style periods.
 
Tradition, on the other hand, teaches that some things never should and never can change, and that any change--or any attempt at change--is a Bad Thing. Thus there are many traditions that have long outlived their usefulness but still hang on, and that's true in any and every modern culture.
 
The trick, however--the art, if you like--is to triage the many competing kinds of "change" that are going on everywhere, at all times, and try to guess without the benefit of hindsight which of them are dead ends and which of them represent the future. (If we could all do that, of course, we'd all be rich, and I suspect that most of us, like me, are not!)
 
Thus there were those in the early 20th century to whom the entire future of music hinged on "the emancipation of the dissonance," others who found nothing wrong with traditional functional harmony and common-practice melody, and continued to use them, and yet others whose experiments, searching for new sounds that could definitively deny all musical tradition, took music in new and sometimes bizarre directions.
 
Functional harmony and common-practice melody and rhythm won out in popular music, musical theater, folk music, and gospel music; in fact there was nevere any contest!! And they won out in church music as well, for the simple reason that volunteer church choirs are generally not skilled enough to perform atonal, serial, minimalist, or other types of experimental music, and for the subtantially more important reason that those experiemental styles in general had no appeal to congregations to whom they completely failed to communicate.
 
Which brings us back to Dean's original complaint--one which is certainly neither unusual nor unique. How should we approach the encroachment of popular styles into middle-of-the-road worship? And THAT question goes further back in history than many of us realize. You can start with the Black churches, in which new styles of Gospel singing developed which then fed first-rate performers into the field of popular music. You can add the many Folk-Masses that followed the combination of the neo-folk craze of the early '60s in popular music with the rejection of the Latin heritage of the Roman Catholic church following Vatican Council II. You can consider the early Contemporary Christian movement of the late '60s and '70s, growing out of neo-folk (read "hippy") culture and attracting many incompetent poet/lyricists and incompetent songwriters as well as incompetent performers, just as early rock-'n-roll did. And you then have to deal with the last 30 years of higher-quality pop-influenced Contemporary Christian (read "Praise Music" in its latest incarnation) that was driven by quality songwriters and performers like Sandi Patti and Amy whatsername, and later by such as Michael W. Smith. ("Follow the money" applies as much in the religion business as it does in any other business!)
 
So my only suggestion for those who are turned off by the changes that are going on is both simple and very difficult. TAKE CHARGE!!! Work with your pastors or priests, but try to guide them into an understanding of what GOOD music and GOOD lyrics and GOOD presentation can mean to any congregation. You (we!) are supposed to be the music experts, so use your expertise to find and promote contemporary church music--yes, in pop styles if that's what's wanted or needed--that sets GOOD lyrics by GOOD poets to GOOD melodies and GOOD harmonies REGARDLESS of the particular styles. Reject the common, the everyday, the same old 12 emotionally-loaded words that are endlessly and mindlessly recycled in the 90% of contemporary COMMERCIALIZED Christian music, and insist on presenting "art" that accepts its role as "entertainment" (in the sense of reaching out to the listeners so that the message can be communicated, and on presenting "entertainment" that strives to achieve the highest "art" in communicating that message!
 
I cannot look at the sweep of music history without accepting that change is inevitable, and is going to happen with us or without us, and that it can be as much good as it is bad if we are not too deeply burried in specific traditions (which of course can still be PART of any effective music program). Traditions change, and so must the definitions of "middle-of-the-road" and "acceptable." We can be part of the problem. But we can also be part of the solution.
 
</lecture mode off!>
 
John
 
 
on June 11, 2009 12:08pm
John ... many thanks for an excellent exegesis, which is what I've come to expect from you and respect in  you. I shall reread and ponder this .. give me some time. 
 
Thanks again, 
 
Dean
 
on June 11, 2009 11:13am
Dean -
Hoo, boy.  I could go on quite a bit about this sort of thing, because it's been at the root of a lot of the discussions and angst about music around our community (notice I don't say parish - I'm at Fort Belvoir (you know that already, but the other readers don't) and we are really built around six sub-communities with their respective Masses - so we have a Hispanic language Mass with their wonderful tradition of dance-based music; three Masses led by cantors with a mixed-bag of music - traditional and more contemporary; a "contemporary" Mass with guitars, strings, organ, etc. which is going through a real rough patch getting singers; and the Sunday mid-morning group with choir that I personally lead, doing everything from the 15th century onward).
 
One of the comments which I read talked about what "people liked/didn't like."  As the ancient Romans used to say, de gustibus non disputandum est - you can't argue about taste.  True enough; and yet, I have to note that in spite of the truism that if people don't like it, they won't deal with it, we also have to note that just because they don't like it doesn't mean they shouldn't have it.  Were people only to take the medicines that they like, we'd have a lot more dead people (well, at least, dead a lot earlier) than is necessary - and, in spite of political correctness, it may also be that they should have an opportunity to hear something they may not like BUT WHOSE MESSAGE IS NECESSARY FOR THEIR SALVATION.  Oh, dear God, what a thought:  what we sing may actually be a part of their process of salvation.  Palatability is all well and good; and I'm not suggesting we just grimly go out there and shove things down people's throats because it's good for them; but perhaps we should be less concerned about popularity than truthfulness.
 
Which brings me to my point:  dear friends of the church music world, Dean has put his finger right on the crux of the issue - the message is what is important.  What we do in church is not there because it's popular in the "real world" - which, I remind you, passes, and thus becomes ultimately unreal.  "Relevance" is a word that shouldn't cross the threshold of any church - because too often that is a cover for "relativism."  What we are about is the eternal, the immutable, the long-term history of salvation.  When we become more concerned about popularity and making what we do palatable, all we offer is pablum.  Alright, I'm a practical church musician and I understand that if they don't sing it, the pastor gets bent out of shape (oh, yes, in Catholicland we have priests who think that if the congregation isn't roaring away there's something terribly wrong with what we're doing - but you know what guys?  Focus first on your message, that's what we're there for anyway.  The music assists and augments - but isn't the real point.)  What we do in churches should NOT be like what's going on in the world out there.  It is when the church is out of sync with society (not doing wrong, but insisting on the right) that it is most powerful - and when it accommodates the world, it is at its weakest.  Poland's Catholic Church during Communist rule was powerful because it bucked the trend; since democracy, the church has been losing members and its message is confused, because the world is seemingly much more attractive - and "relative".
 
I've had folks approach me from the other Masses (I plan the music for the cantors, but they have loads of options if they think that the congregation doesn't know a piece) and hear these:  "We don't know that piece of music" (my answer:  once upon a time, you didn't know ANY of the music you now sing - guess what?  You get to learn something new! - and this plaint isn't just from the old "traditionalists" either - I get a fair bit of this from the Boomer generation that grew up on - yuck! - "Glory and Praise"); "Why don't we do a grouping of about 12-15 of the same things that EVERYbody knows" (I love this one - the assumptions built into this are just staggering - oh, so YOU know it, so must everyone else, right?  Oh, so Christ's message never changed, he never used a new parable, just kept using the same ones over and over and .....?  Oh, so you never add or subtract from your wardrobe, always keeping the same things? - it's called the fear of challenge in something new, being comfortable and not wanting to be bounced out of our comfort zone).
 
My bottom line:  We are called on as church musicians to try to augment and emphasize the message the Church (you'll note this is the first time I've capitalized the "c" in church - that's for a real reason) is called on to proclaim.  Christ wasn't popular when the real point of his message was being literally hammered home (how many were at the foot of the Cross on Calvary?).  If the message is getting lost in the music, then one of two things needs to happen:  change the music (unpopular, but necessary); or change the message (and that, even in America these days, isn't the right answer). When the messenger loses the message, fire the messenger - what he/she carried was valid regardless.
 
Ron Duquette
Catholic Choir Director
Fort Belvoir, VA
on June 11, 2009 12:28pm
 Well  spake, Ron ... and Amen!  At the top of your post, my mind seized upon the quote about one can not argue about taste ... that's a good thought, and one to which I subscribe. But, one can argue about quality.  How many times, when  I've whined about some piece of music being of low quality (for any variety of reasons), has the response come back ..."You are just a snob ....  quality  is in the ear of the listener."  To which, my response is always based upon the construct that it IS possible to make a qualitative adjudication of music, and that some music is worse or better than other music. At which point I usually go to a piano and play some mindless, disconnected drivel  (but still music, filling the qualifications of certain parameters, to wit, harmony, durations, melody, etc.) ... followed by a few bars of a Mozart sonata, and then open a conversation about just why the second example may be "better music."  Sometimes I make headway, sometimes I don't.  But I will never accept the common notion that there is no bad music, just individual taste. 
 
Sorry I rambled, 
 
Dean
 
on June 12, 2009 5:52am
Because many of us have experienced Bach's B-minor mass (and Palestrina and Bruckner and Kodaly) as performers, we've gone to spiritual places unknown to many of the people in the pews. Yet, isn't it a significant part of our job to minister to them? To provide musical experiences in the church that enhance their worship?

What kind of contemplation does the message of the day require? A simple, childlike joy? Maybe simple, snappy tunes are best. A more complex set of ideas? The music in both style and text should help people enter into that kind of contemplation.

For so many of my church-musician colleagues, worship is a deep, solemn experience - as it is for many in the congregation. But this is not true for many people who come to our church, and they need our ministry, too. Let's face it: six days of the week, and in the car coming to church, the radio's tuned to Kool 108.

Many church musicians have significant experience in pop, jazz, gospel, and rock music, and for them this music speaks on the same level as Bach and Haydn. They can provide their congregants an authentic, powerful musical experience that delivers the message and enhances worship. Blessings on them and on their congregants!

I've tried to build trust in my church - trust that the music will be appropriate and done superbly and from the heart. We'll do snappy tunes sometimes and powerful, weird modern music, and Bach and Mozart and Rutter. We'll try to do everything well. We'll never be the biggest church on the block, but I hope our people will leave worship changed.

Have a wonderful summer.

John Hoffacker
Church of the Epiphany
Plymouth, Minnesota

on June 12, 2009 10:34am
 Thank you John ... your points are well taken. To clarify my personal position ... I was the choir director at the church in question, but the experience to which I refer found me merely a listener/choir member who was no longer responsible for this music selected for that service. I.e., I no longer have any say in what occurs in our services. I guess the bottom line is that if Praise Music significantly detracts from the possibility of a positive  worship experience (and to a HUGE degree, it does), then this is my problem, not the church's. Unfortunately, there are no churches within a hundred miles or so of my home, in which I can find a personally meaningful balance between message, celebration, and music. I do continue to be involved in  my present church by occasionally  singing in the choir, playing in the hand bell choir (which my wife directs), and doing quite a bit of composing and arranging for the "traditional" choir. The church also has an excellent program of outreach which I am pleased  to support financially, but ... the mode of the service causes me the angst I described in my original post.  I've always found "dumbing down" to be abhorrent; and as I advance in age, the curmudgeonly side of my personality seems to increase in direct proportion. 
 
Anyhoo, 
 
Many thanks for all the posts. 
 
Dean
 
on June 12, 2009 2:07pm
Dean - Can I "curmudge" with you?  My wife once asked me, after listening to a wonderful group (sadly, no longer active) here in the DC area, Sounds of Symmetry, 12-16 African-American singers, every one of them solo capable, and yet able to blend themselves so well and do so many styles well (classical to rock to Gospel to spiritual), "why isn't our (Catholic) music this exciting?"  Well, it kind of goes like this....
 
Catholics get a bad rap about not knowing the Bible, and not being scripturally aware and based.  But in our music, not only is God glorified, His Word is quoted practically verbatim - and when it's not, it's usually prayers of incredible antiquity and solemnity and joy ("Veni, Sancte Spiritus," "Te Deum laudamus," etc.).  When that approach is taken, we have taken one step away from the immediate and extremely (dare I say "excessively"?) personal "I".  Suddenly, the Bible as a book of texts and stories about the salvation of the world and all of the sub-texts that go with it becomes one step removed from our personal experience.  The power and the joy of Gospel and spiritual music is that intense, emotional, "me-and-Jesus" approach.  However, while that has a measure of validity, it isn't enough - because, as I recall from the Bible, the message is also about other-than-self.  The universality of the Bible is that it is both "other-than-self" and "about self" - and we musicians have an obligation to keep that directly in our view.
 
My fundamental objection to praise band and gospel music (and be it said, a lot of the Taize repertoire) is that it is spiritually and emotionally circular in the message it offers.  It goes nowhere but around its own lateral axis.  A top is interesting for a while - and then becomes boring.  Most people yearn for a story with a beginning, middle, and end - and that has something to deliver to anyone willing to listen - God forbid, a message.  This is why hymns of a more traditional bent that are well-crafted and well-presented will need to be sung from first to last verse (within reason, of course! - some having sixteen verses are pushing the message a bit far).  There are even texts which do not necessarily "go" anywhere, which are self-contained in and of themselves (I think of Renaissance motets in particular) - but we still grasp eagerly at the message they deliver ("O magnum Mysterium" is a good example of this).  We have a responsibility to focus on that message - not only what it is, but why it is.
 
As for the music which encapsulates the text, I agree with your earlier post, that there IS objectively "better" music than not, and it can be addressed as much on an emotional level as an intellectual one.  There are studies out there which I've heard tell of which suggest that children of a very tender age respond positively to Mozart or Haydn vs. Schoenberg or Hindemith.  We may love the latter two, but when the music becomes a block to understanding the message, why are we doing this, please?  Pablum may be better than nails on a blackboard; but there's better stuff than pablum, as well.  I also have to agree about "dumbing down" in order to "keep their interest."  Whoa, wait a minute - people shouldn't be there because we have some sort of "magic message" or "it's cool," but for the message of salvation that is offered.  If that message is so poorly delivered otherwise that the music becomes the primary vehicle for its delivery, something is seriously amiss.
 
Finally, I will say that my personal experience is that no matter the congregation, people recognize music & message of great beauty delivered well and appreciate it.  I think that, irrespective of the style, John Hoffacker's comment really says it all - "that the music will be appropriate and done superbly and from the heart" - and I'd add, from the head as well.
 
Ron
on June 13, 2009 9:37am
 Hey Ron ... as always, most interesting and very well put together.  One small clip of your post, to wit .. "I agree with your earlier post, that there IS objectively "better" music than not, and it can be addressed as much on an emotional level as an intellectual one",  touches well upon that which I was hinting earlier, but never really said. In the proof of the relative quality of a given piece of music, I would say that if the intellectual qualifications have been met by the composer,  that the emotional needs may have also been met ipso facto.  I feel that if, when composing,  the "rhythmic cycle" (Arsis, Thesis, Stasis)  is made clear in all applicable parameters, say, durations, amplitude, harmonic selection and rhythm, density, intensity, range, etc., and that this is well managed in every gesture (microcosmic to macrocosmic),  and that all those elements are logically connected with strong inter-musical references, THEN, the emotional spectrum is attained ... at least for me. If these things are not present in a given piece of music ... I feel comfortable calling it "bad music" ... and I say so unapologetically  ... even if said music is causing those around me to apparently have a deep experience of some sort. I'll leave it to psychiatrists to explain why there is such a profound reaction in humans to the un-profound  in art. 
 
Hope all this makes at least a little sense. 
 
Dean
 
on June 12, 2009 11:50am
What a can of worms has been opened!  These are wonderful insights and observations.  Of course, it's impossible -- or extremely difficult -- to divorce oneself from his/her musical training.  I've found myself mellowing over the years.  Not "selling out," mind you, but mellowing.  I can give lip service to the altruistic rationalizations (excellent ones, by the way) of singing many different genres, but I'll never do a good job of presenting or "selling" them to my singers if I'm not sold on the musical setting and text myself.  I have to please both the singers and the congregation, not just myself.  Accordingly, I've found myself doing less purely a cappella music and more concertato settings that involve the congregation, typically with a descant.  But first a piece has to move or speak to ME.  Although there's an awful lot of junk out there, I've even found a few pieces that I think of as "classy schmaltz" that I like!
 
Thanks for starting this up...
 
George Berglund
Sanctuary Choir
Golden Valley Lutheran Church
Golden Valley, MN
on June 21, 2009 10:57am
My friends:
 
Let me share with you a picture of our church service today and a couple of thoughts on this issue.
 
BACKGROUND:
My colleague and I serve as Co-Directors of Music at New Congregation, the joining together of Asbury UMC and Oakland Ave UMC in South Minneapolis.  Asbury has a rich heritage as a Norwegian methodist church, and Oakland Ave (an Evangelical United Brethren church before the 1969 denominational merger with the Methodists), has a long history of being an multicultural church.  
 
Our worship service this morning contained the following elements:
A Mighty Fortress is Our God, a spanish hymn, our world drumming ensemble, Stand by Me (a great African-american spiritual hymn from "Songs of Zion"), Awesome God, May You Run and Not Be Weary, Your Everlasting Love, and another modern-ish hymn.   Tambourines, maracas, and jimbe drums also.
 
We have prided ourselves of having a variety of music.  We still use organ, handbells, choir, and praise team.  We have guitars from time to time.  On Easter Sunday, we had all of this plus 2 trumpets, violin, and the Hallelujah Chorus.  And, in case you're wondering, this is with an average attendance of 60-70 at each church (it's summer and we've only been together 3 weeks, so I can't give you what our new running average is).  
 
When I was hired at Asbury 3 years ago, things were a mess.  We literally started all over with the contemporary music, and we have alays been careful to balance the words and sound in those pieces.  Our seniors sing that music, and our youth learn the hymns.  
 
I totally agree with John -- we can be the solution.  It doesn't have to be "either or".  The foundational message hasn't changed, but some of us "musician leaders" have been swayed by a performance mentality, which I think is more of the issue here.  As leaders, God has called us to lead, and that means from time to time we need to help our pastors and church leadership see the true value of ALL the music.  
 
In the meantime, let's keep the discourse going.
 
Daniel Adolphson
Co-Director of Music
New Congregation (the joining of Asbury UMC and Oakland Ave UMC)
Minneapolis, MN