Friday, December 24, 2010

The Grinch and the Shawshank Redemption

Christmas is not always a happy time for those of us who work in the church.  Advent Vespers and Christmas services alone are more work than a typical July for a church musician, and I know that pastors, secretaries, and volunteers in churches everywhere feel that same strain, as do mothers and fathers as they decorate and buy gifts.  The holiday season has perhaps become more famous for its stress than its joy.  Throw in days of shoveling, a chaotic final exam schedule, and travel plans and you have the makings of a very Grinch-like blogger.

Yesterday, I spent hours baking and cleaning and packing and preparing for services, enjoying it and yet moaning about it.  I had become a Grinch, and my Advent was no longer about preparations for Christmas but a yearning for the blissful calm of January.

Then in the evening, we sat down to watch a movie - The Shawshank Redemption.  An odd Christmas choice, perhaps, but my significant other had never seen it, and since he's a big fan of the television series "Prison Break," Netflix thought he would enjoy it.  I hadn't seen it in years.  And when the movie reached the scene where Andy plays the duet from the Marriage of Figaro over the prison public address system, I suddenly remembered what the Christmas season was about.  It did, indeed, redeem the season for me.

Music restored my calm, and helped me rediscover the purpose of the season.  In the movie, Andy says, "You need [music] so you don't forget...that there's something inside that they can't get to, that they can't touch, that's yours...Hope."

It may seem trite, but it took that reminder for me to discover again the beauty of the music and the message of Christmas.  My ears were opened again to the music, so that I can enjoy the choir and bell choir and brass and organ and piano tonight.  I can focus on the beauty and joy, and the redeemer that came to us two millenia ago.

I hope we can communicate that message with you tonight, and I hope you all have a blessed and merry Christmas.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Bethlehem Sunday and John the Baptist

We continue our Advent preparations.  This time of waiting is not the impatient foot tapping of the grocery store line but the pleasant work of preparing our homes for guests, just as we prepare our church and our hearts, minds, and souls for Christmas.  The call to remind us of this preparation comes from John the Baptist.  The hymns this week reinforce the lessons perfectly: On Jordan's Bank the Baptist's Cry; Comfort, Comfort Now My People; and Hark, the Glad Sound.

These are the great hymns of Advent that we sing only once a year and hear only in church.  Shoppers at the mall miss out on such joyous texts as "Hark! A Thrilling Voice is Sounding!...Cast away the works of darkness all you children of the day!"  That hymn's concluding verse reminds us of God's everlasting power, embodied at Christmas: "Honor, glory, might, and blessing to the Father and the Son, with the everlasting Spirit while unending ages run!"  Take note of the prayers during Advent, which reinforce these same themes.  They always include the line "Stir up your power, O Lord."

This second Sunday of Advent has come to be known as Bethlehem Sunday.  To match that theme, the choir will be singing an arrangement of "O Little Town of Bethlehem" by Ken Jennings.  The new tune highlights the text as a gentle lullaby.  I hope it conjures the beauty of cold, dark, starry nights.  But the song also reflects the joy of the coming holiday, as each verse reaches a dramatic climax describing God's power, before ending again in the quiet lullaby of expectation and waiting.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

A moment to rant

Saturday's edition of the Akron Beacon Journal included an article (reprinted from the Cleveland Plain Dealer) that fired me up as I read it, and it still nags at me today.  It was the sad story of the planned closing of Broadway United Methodist Church in Slavic Village.  The 92-year-old church will be closing after Christmas.  In some ways, that is just one more anecdote of the challenges facing the greater Cleveland area.  Of course, church closings have become all too common around us, and they are always a tragedy.

However, what got me worked up were the quotes that implied the closing was inevitable or part of a natural cycle.  Why has this defeatist attitude been allowed to flourish in recent years?  Where would we be if past generations had seen shrinking congregations as a normal part of a cycle?  The beautiful churches of Cleveland were built in expectation of a perpetual congregation, and the church as a whole has flourished for over 2,000 years!  Why are so many leaders (clergy and laity) willing to accept defeat?

I realize that we face economic problems and that the city population has diminished significantly from its peak.  But there are still plenty of people here, and the church can play an important role in rebuilding.  We cannot simply convene for one hour on Sundays and ignore our broader responsibility to the congregation and community.  Because of that belief, I found the more hopeful quote from the article to be the comment that change is necessary.  As we see congregations and budgets shrink, as churches around us close, rather than wait for our own demise, let's seek out the lessons and opportunities to grow.  So how can we adapt and grow at this time?  How does the church stay relevant to the community?  I have my own broad set of ideas and answers - and music is part of them, of course.  I'm sure many of my readers have their own ideas too.

Maybe a first, small step is to volunteer in our own church, to attend the upcoming Vespers service, and even to invite a friend or neighbor to come along.  Advent is a season of hope, not fatalism, so let's all do what we can to create a bright future for our church.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Sing in the choir for Christmas!

The choir has a busy season coming up.  We have different pieces to match the theme for each of the three Sundays in Advent.  We have the Vespers service on December 12th, which has a plethora of music - solos, small groups, and choir pieces.  Finally, we have the Christmas Eve service.

All of that music will only sound better if we can add a few new members.  We'd love to have people join us for the next four weeks - all ages and abilities welcome!  It would be a great way to participate in the church and to find time in this busy season to focus on the true meaning of the Christmas season.  Come together with friends and help us Make Joyful Noise in worship.

I would love nothing more than to run out of robes again at Christmas.  However, that is an even bigger challenge now since we've purchased six new robes (thanks to a generous donation from Steve B.).  At the ministry fair in September and in various conversations, people have mentioned to me that Christmas might be a time they would be willing to sing.  I hope you'll follow up those comments with actions.  We rehearse this Wednesday: Bell Choir at 6:45 and Chancel Choir at 7:15.  Hope to see you there!

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Wake, Awake

It's still November; there's still no snow on the ground; I still don't have much of my Christmas shopping done; but Advent will arrive this Sunday.  It's the beginning of a new church year.  This season of expectation and preparation begins with the lighting of the first Advent wreath candle.

Sometimes in our rush to sing Christmas carols and hymns we forget about the great music of Advent, which is a shame.  There is such a variety among them as well, and I'll try to highlight a few of the greatest in the next few weeks.  This first week, I want to mention one of the best known: O Come, O Come, Emmanuel.  The tune and text are both hundred of years old, but the origin of each is obscure.  The Latin origin of the text and the Gregorian chant tune are perfect for the theme of the first Advent candle: prophecy.  Some people also refer to it as a symbol of hope and expectation.  In this season of darkness, we yearn for the return of the light.  The symbolism of Advent is among the most theatrical of the church year, and the hymn text previews the entire season for us.

The choir will be taking the week off in appreciation of their participation in the Thanksgiving service on Wednesday.  But we will still have special music because David will be playing trumpet throughout the service.  We'll be playing more Baroque music by Telemann for the prelude and postlude.  The Rainbow Ringers will also be playing along with one hymn.  As always, I hope you enjoy the music and that this week it deepens your appreciation for the start of this new season!

Monday, November 22, 2010

Come, Ye Thankful People, Come

This week brings Thanksgiving, and we have a special Wednesday night service for the holiday at 7:00.  Many of us spend time this week cleaning, cooking, shopping, and catching up on schoolwork.  But in the midst of that flurry, it's important to take the time to reflect on our blessings and give thanks.  In the same way we gather with family, we should set aside time to gather as a congregation.  It allows us to express thanks for our church and community and God's blessings in our lives.

We'll be singing all the classic hymns of Thanksgiving and praise, including of course "Now Thank We All Our God."  That hymn tells us to praise God with heart and hands and voices.  Singing is explicitly part of the celebration, and I hope we'll have a full church making joyful noise together.

As a special treat, we have David returning to play trumpet.  A BW alumnus and frequent visitor to Bethany, he's back in town to visit family for the holidays.  He's currently studying trumpet performance at the Hartt School of Music at the University of Hartford.  We'll be playing several Baroque trumpet pieces by Telemann, and he'll also be playing along on many of the hymns and liturgy.

The choir will end the service with one of my favorite choral pieces, a setting of the Nunc Dimittis by Robert Scholz.  The text is sometimes referred to as the Song of Simeon, and it comes from the second chapter of Luke.  When Mary and Joseph bring Jesus to the temple, Simeon utters these lines:

Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace according to thy word.
For mine eyes have seen thy salvation,
Which thou hast prepared before all nations,
A light to lighten the gentiles and to be the glory of thy people Israel.

The text has a long tradition as part of compline or night prayer, and we'll be singing a particularly lyrical and beautiful setting of the text.  It will provide a quiet and contemplative ending, in contrast to the big hymns of praise.  I hope that we'll all depart into the dark night pondering the many reasons we have to be thankful this week.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Crown Him!

"His eyes are like blazing fire, and on His head are many crowns...He is dressed in a robe dipped in blood, and His name is the Word of God" ~ Revelation 19:12-13

This week is Christ the King Sunday, the last Sunday of the liturgical calendar.  The ELCA church in which I was raised paid little heed to this particular celebration, and I wonder how common its celebration is among Lutheran churches.  After all, the festival was instituted by Pope Piux XI in 1925 as a reminder of Christ's dominion.  However, his encyclical wasn't focused on the earthly or even heavenly reign of a monarch.  Instead, his encyclical referred to Christ's reign over our wills, our hearts, and our bodies.

Despite adopting the holiday, we might have forgotten to adopt that broader message.  The hymns we'll sing this week are suffused with language about earthly rule, about kings and thrones and power.  In particular, we'll sing "Crown Him With Many Crowns," which has its own conflicted history.  Six verses of text were written by Matthew Bridges, of the Catholic faith, and six verses were later written by Godfrey Thring, an Anglican who wanted the text to align more properly with Protestant theology.  Don't worry, we won't be singing 12 verses this week, though interestingly, the ELW retains four verses from Bridges but only one from Thring.

I read the text of the hymn in vain for any depiction of Christ's influence on our own daily lives and actions.  It's purely a hymn of praise and bombast.  Then I searched through the other hymns for the week and found exactly the same.  It seems we will gather for a true festival of praise this week, leaving contemplation and application for our prayers.  We might do well to recall in those prayers the intent of Pope Pius to instruct us on Christ's reign over our lives, rather than over our country, world, or heaven.  That might better transition us toward giving thanks for our blessings, preparing for the pentitential season of Advent, and beginning a new church year.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Ring Them Bells

The bell choir is re-forming, with our first rehearsal coming up this week Wednesday at 6:45.  All are welcoem and invited to come join us.  It's fun and easy to learn and a great group activity.  In fact, I once heard a member of our church describe bell choir as "the ultimate team sport."  It's quite different from playing in a band or singing in a choir, in which individual players can play or sing their own melodies and harmonies.  Instead, each player has just a few notes, and the melody is passed from player to player.  It takes coordination and teamwork to make beautiful music.

What bell choir does not require is an expensive instrument, a good voice, a strong embouchure, fast fingers, or any of the other skills and talents that you might associate with being a musician.  In other words, it can be a great way to participate in a musical ensemble without requiring lots of practice.

The bell choir will play for our first worship service at the Advent Vespers on December 12th, so we'll be hitting the ground running.  I hope to see you there - and stick around for Chancel Choir to follow!

In the meantime, hum a few measures of Liza's famous number, which is its own Joyful Noise:
Ring them bells, come on, ring them bells
Make 'em sing, you'd better ring them bells
It's such a happy thing to hear 'em ting-a-ling
You gotta swing them, ring them, swing them, ring them bells!

Monday, November 15, 2010

Mark your calendars now

The Worship and Music Committee has decided to schedule an Advent Vespers service for the evening of December 12th at 7:00 PM.  We're still hard at work hammering out details, but it will be a night of meditation and prayer, candlelight and beautiful music.  It will mark the return of the bell choir and feature not just the Chancel Choir but a number of soloists and small groups.

It will be a worship service, not a concert, but it will be different from Sunday morning worship.  We will be focused on the symbols of darkness and light, waiting and preparing - all themes of Advent.  I'll be writing more about some of the specific music soon, but I hope you mark your calendar and spread the word.  It should be a beautiful service, and it would be fantastic to share it with a full church!

Saturday, November 13, 2010

O Day Full of Grace

This Sunday will feature some of the greatest hymns in the ELW: "If You But Trust in God to Guide You," "This is My Father's World," and "Through the Night of Doubt and Sorrow."  The choir will also be singing a great piece by Mozart titled "To God Be Joyful."  It has the distinctly Mozart-ian sound that makes you sit up straighter in your seat and walk with a bounce in your step.  I hope it conjures images from Amadeus, the costumes and the wigs and the dances, all so much more formal and elegant than everyday life.

 But the song that I know will be my favorite is our opening hymn, "O Day Full of Grace."  Whenever I hear the text, I always hear the St. Olaf Choir singing the incredible arrangement by F. Melius Christiansen.  It's among the best vocal tone painting ever written.  The music beautifully depicts the sunrise.  The text of the first verse describes the day just appearing on earth's horizon, while the second verse takes us from the "gracious midnight hour" through dawn and the rising sun, driving gloom from our hearts.  Later verses continue the swell of activity and joy as the day continues, and it all ends with a nod toward the future and our trip to the eternal promised land.

With the amazingly beautiful fall weather in Ohio lately, it's easy to understand where the inspiration for this hymn came from.  Thanks to the end of Daylight Saving Time, we can drive to church in the early morning sunshine shining through the newly bare trees.  For me, it also brings to mind November deer hunting weekends, sitting in a tree stand as dawn came slowly to the landscape and birds began to sing.  Such beauty slips by us unnoticed so often, but tomorrow we will sing and remind ourselves that we are enjoying a day full of grace.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Glory Bound!

We heard a fantastic range of music for All Saints Sunday.  Mary's vocal prelude ("Angels, Bright and Fair" by Handel) helped create a contemplative mood in memory and honor of departed family and friends.  But the choir's anthem went in a completely different direction.  Rather than mourning our loss, the text of "I'm Glory Bound" focused on the joy of new life for our loved ones, even singing Hallelujah in a piece of music that is still appropriate for such a service of remembrance.

These two musical styles couldn't be more distinct, but they reflect the dichotomy in funeral customs.  It's reflected in the difference between sitting shiva and dancing in a New Orleans jazz funeral parade.  Individuals and cultures all have their own practices and musical styles, and there is room for them all.  We added our own ELCA point of view by singing "I Know That My Redeemer Lives" (all 8 verses) during communion.

Appropriately for this discussion, my grandma sent me a news clipping from the St. Paul Pioneer Press that made me laugh.  I'll share the gist of its story here, which summarized the difference between hymns and praise music:

An old farmer attended church one Sunday and returned home to tell his wife that they had sung praise songs instead of hymns.  "What's the difference?" she asked.  He replied, "If I say to you: 'Martha, the cows are in the corn,' that would be a hymn.  But if I were to say: 'Martha, Martha, Martha, Oh Martha, the cows, the big cows, the brown cows, the black cows, COWS, are in the corn, the corn, the corn, corn, CORN' and then repeat the whole thing two or three times, that would be a praise song."

The next week the woman's young nephew was visiting, attended church, and returned home to report that they sang hymns instead of his usual praise songs.  Once again, the woman asked for the difference.  The boy explained, "If I said: 'Martha, the cows are in the corn,' that would be a regular praise song.  But if I were to say instead:
"Oh Martha, dear Martha,
Hear thou my cry
Inclinest thine ear to the words of my mouth
Turn thou thy whole wondrous ear by and by
To the righteous inimitable glorious truth..."
and go on like that for about four more verses, and then only sing verses one and four, with a key change and organ interlude in between, that would be a hymn."

I couldn't describe the difference between Glory Bound and our communion hymn any better than that!

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Burning the candle at four ends

If anybody sees the second half of October lying around, be sure to let me know.  I think I misplaced it!

The fall season has been flying by, and while I've stayed on top of planning for Christmas and managed to prepare music for every service, the blog fell by the wayside for a bit.  I hope you missed it - maybe even enough to help out with content and comments sometime.

My blog post today refers to something I used to say when I was an undergrad.  My grandma would warn me against buring the candle at both ends, and I would reply that I had cut the candle in half so that I could burn it at four ends.  Of course, that was right before I was diagnosed with mono...but that's another story.

This is a busy time of year for everyone.  We've celebrated Halloween and Reformation.  We try to savor the nice days by getting outside - though too often lately it's to rake leaves or prepare for winter.  We're planning ahead for the holidays and trying to finish up school projects before the deadlines loom too close.  But rather than abandon the quiet moments of reflection (like blogging), it's important to reclaim that time for ourselves.  The burning of a candle is not the raging inferno of a wildfire; it connotes calmness and quiet.  For me, that means finding more time to listen to and create music and church music and sharing thoughts on both.  What will you do to help find calm this season?

Saturday, October 16, 2010

"[The organ] adds a wonderful splendor and a special magnificence to the ceremonies of the Church.  It moves the souls of the faithful by the grandeur and sweetness of its tones.  It gives minds an almost heavenly joy, and it lifts them up powerfully to God and to higher things."  ~Pius XII

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Popes on the pipe organ

A few months ago, The American Organist magazine included some quotes about the pipe organ.  I'll be sharing snippets from those quotes this week.

"Although the proper music of the Church is purely vocal, nevertheless, the accompaniment of an organ is allowed...Since the singing must always have the chief place, the organ and other instruments should merely sustain it and never smother it." ~St. Pius X (1903)

Through its range of pitch, timbre, and sounds, the pipe organ can express a range of moods.  By incorporating well-known hymn tunes, the music can inspire particular words and thoughts for meditation.  But the organ is at its best when joined with a choir and congregation.

Reformation Sunday is approaching, and it is one of my favorite celebratory holidays of the church year.  There will be great hymns and guest brass players and beautiful music.  I want to invite everyone to consider joining the choir for one Sunday only to swell our ranks in singing some of the great hymns of the church.  Give us a try; we sing at both services that day, but you're welcome at either.

I'll be holding a special rehearsal on Sunday, October 17th, after the late service.  We'll spend 20 - 30 minutes introducing the music for Reformation Sunday.  You're also invited to rehearse with us on Wednesday, Oct. 27th at 7:00 pm to help be ready for Reformation.  If you've enjoyed the choir's music this fall, show your support by joining us in this special festival chorus!

Friday, October 8, 2010

Make Joyful Noise: The Sounds of Home

How I love your Temple, Lord Almighty!
How I want to be there!
I long to be in the Lord's Temple.
With my whole being I sing for joy to the living God.
Even the sparrows have built a nest,
and the swallows have their own home...
How happy are those who live in your Temple,
Always singing praise to you.
Psalm 84: 1 - 4, TEV

The other night, we hosted a dinner party.  It was the perfect excuse not only to clean the house and cook a big meal, but also to get out the Halloween decorations and muse on the subject of the sounds of home.

All day long, I was listening to the sounds of the washing machine and the blender.  I opened and closed the refrigerator and oven a dozen times apiece.  The television provided background noise and company for the day's work.

That evening, with music in the background, the sounds of glasses clinking, silverware clanking, and a chorus of voices were the symphony of friends enjoying an evening together.  Late in the evening, one person remarked, "It sounds just like Thanksgiving."

No single voice or single sound in my memory is particularly joyful in its own right.  (Some people might consider a washing machine to be a particularly non-joyful noise, as a matter of fact.)  But the pleasant blending of domestic sounds conjures home and family, comfort and joy.  Like the sparrows in the nest described in the psalm above, we should celebrate and sing in joy for our own homes and family.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Praise to the Lord, the Almighty

We're singing another of my all-time favorite hymns this Sunday.  The tune "Lobe Den Herren" is among the most familiar and singable hymn tunes ever composed.  It rolls along like a pleasant folk song, meandering up and down the scale in a lilting triplet rhythm and ending each phrase with a lengthened cadence that gives it a sense of finality and arrival.  It's an absolute pleasure just to hum the tune, and I defy you not to smile when you do.

The text mirrors that joyful praise.  Many people can sing the first verse easily from memory:
Praise to the Lord, the Almighty, the King of creation!
O my soul, praise him, for he is your health and salvation!
Let all who hear now to his temple draw near,
Joining in glad adoration!

Maybe you learned it with a different word or two along the way.  To me, the only proper text is the one sung by the St. Olaf choir in their rousing rendition.  I prefer the last line of the hymn to be "Join me in glad adoration."  The tune is so simple and pure that to me it makes sense for it to be in the first person, a call to join and share in celebration.  The final verse switches to the plural pronoun "we," which reinforces the sense of welcome to a community of believers.

The prelude this week will be an arrangement of the tune by Paul Manz, with the melody in a strong bass line, beneath a faster ritornello in the upper voices.  As with the text and the hymn itself, the entire piece builds to the joyful close:

Let the amen sound from his people again.
Gladly forever adore him!

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Life with "Glee"

I know many of my readers are fellow fans of "Glee."  The show's return is one of the highlights of the fall season for me (something to cheer me up despite the cold, gray weather this week).  It's always fun to see the way the show incorporates a range of musical styles to enhance its story.

Like all movies or television programs about music, the show is full of over-produced fantasy numbers.  The recent Britney Spears episode had most of the songs as fantasy sequences, which seems redundant in a show where a glee club sings new hit songs perfectly each week, complete with back-up band, dancers, lights, and costumes.  The show depicts what we all wish we sounded like, the perfect performance that we give in the shower, the sense of joy in community and the ability to express yourself in song.

But the show isn't meant to be a realistic documentary, I know.  To me, it's meant to capture the optimism and pluckiness that can define youth, and that we all need to reclaim during times of trouble and times of joy.  Like a church choir, the characters sing to express themselves in words and tunes.  Each listener hears something different, but I think Jane Lynch (who plays Sue Sylvester) put it best in a recent interview with Larry King:

"Musicians...basically love music, and they understand the power of music.  I think it touches them all very deeply that this is a show that celebrates making a joyful noise."

Sunday, October 3, 2010

I too sing praises with a new song!

We sang one of my favorite hymns today - Earth and All Stars - and the tune has been in my head all day.  The text epitomizes my fall theme, as nature, musical instruments, workers, classrooms, and people all join together in a joyful song of praise of God's "marvelous things."  There's a running joke among the choir that it's a pretty crazy hymn for its mention of boiling test tubes, but the universality of praise from all kinds of quotidian sources is part of what makes the hymn so great to me.

I heard plenty of positive comments about the choir anthem today, and I want to thank the choir again for devoting their considerable talents and time to enhancing our worship.  We've been having a lot of fun with the descants and psalm antiphons every week, and I hope they're adding some sparkle to your Sunday mornings.

I also had a few people ask about the tune of "Blessed Jesus at Thy Word."  They noticed that it seemed just the slightest bit different from what they had grown up with, and they were right!  The Bethany hymnal has the Bach harmonization, which in typical Bach fashion has plenty of added passing tones or what some of us now hear as "extra notes" compared to the LBW version, which often simplified hymns to a quarter note based chorale.  At second service, I played plenty of other versions of the hymn tune - from the simple to the highly ornamented, traditional to dissonant.  I hope the hymn tunes from this Sunday stick with you and brighten your week with hymns of praise.

Friday, October 1, 2010

Make Joyful Noise: The Sound of Language

At first, the people of the whole world
had only one language and used the same words.
Genesis 11:1

The sound of languages has always fascinated me, from the mellifluous tones of French to the guttural sounds of German, from the dark lilting tones of the Scandinavian languages to the musicality of the Chinese tones.  That last example is often cited as a reason that perfect pitch is more common among the population of China (and other Asian cultures that share the language's emphasis on pitch and tone to provide meaning).

When I was in Montreal a couple of years back, I spent Sunday morning walking from church to church to hear the range of language and music in some of the city's most beautiful churches.  I heard the same Bible verses read that day in English, French, and Latin.  My French was nowhere good enough for me to translate, but it was a unique experience to know the gist of the text and enjoy the language as a musical interpretation of it.

I know that a sizable portion of our congregation prefers us to stick to English (and it is part of our church's name, after all).  But I can't help thinking that we're missing out on part of the musical experience if we don't get to hear other languages on occasion.  In some religions, to read a text actually means to sing.  One highlight of a bar mitzvah is the chanting of a Torah verse, and the Koran is often sung as well.  We often do the same when we chant the Psalms.  The challenge of comprehension can be part of the fun when we travel, and it can broaden our minds with a new perspective.  Then the sound of our native language can be a joyful noise when we return home.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Blessed Jesus, At Thy Word

This Sunday, you'll get to hear several variations on the hymn "Blessed Jesus, At Thy Word."  This is one of the great early German chorales that was in the LBW but unfortunately omitted from the ELW.  Thankfully, we have the Bethany Hymnal as a supplement!  The original tune was composed by Johann Ahle, a 17th century predecessor to J.S. Bach, who adapted several of Ahle's tunes as chorale preludes.

The meditative prelude will be a modern arrangement by George Thalben-Ball.  The dissonance will create a very different sound and mood, but the melody will still be clear.  By contrast, during communion and the offering (at second service), I will play Bach's highly ornamented arrangement and Flor Peeters classical sounding version, though he lived from 1903 to 1986.  In addition, we'll be singing "Blessed Jesus, At Thy Word" as the hymn of the day.  Hearing the same tune in such a range of settings can help hear the nuances and illuminate the text.  In this case, the text lines up perfectly with that goal (quoting from the LBW version): "Let our thoughts and hearts be stirred...Jesus, send yhour blessed light; Help our hearing, speaking, heeding, That our prayers and songs may please you, As with grateful hearts we praise you.

For the choir anthem, we'll be reaching back to the 16th century for a setting of an adaptation of Psalm 118 by Lodovico Viadana.  The music is rhythmically interesting, opening with a lilting waltz, followed by a joyful march-like section, then a polyphonic fugue where each section of the choir takes its turn in leading the melody, and finally returning to the original waltz.  Listen for the meter changes and how the composer uses them to change the mood.

The text continues our fall theme of Make Joyful Noise:
Hear the sound of joy over all the earth.
God has triumphed.
God is the mighty Lord.
Songs of joy sing to God the Lord.
The foe is conquered; glory be to God.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Pew Survey on Religion

It seems like every major news outlet is covering the Pew Survey on Religion in some way.  (Here is one outlet's summary.  If you prefer to read the study itself, here is a link to the Pew Forum.)  Basically, the findings are that people do not perform well on a "religious pop quiz."  We don't seem to know even the most basic tenets of our faith; we seem to led by our hearts and not our heads when it comes to religion.

I do worry about the "fairness" of pop quizzes.  I think we'd be surprised at how poorly we'd perform on any range of topics.  Furthermore, who decides which questions demonstrate religious knowledge?  If a person can recite and explain the Apostle's Creed and the Lord's Prayer, wouldn't that show at least a minimal understanding of the Christian faith?

But despite that reservation, I don't think we can see the results of this study as anything other than a call for ongoing Christian education - Sunday School, adult forum, Bethel Bible study, and, of course, music!  Church music doesn't respect the distinction between heart and head.  Soaring tunes can be matched with texts that explain and describe our faith, thereby pairing aesthetic beauty with Christian education.

Our closing hymn "O Christ, Your Heart, Compassionate" (ELW 722) this past Sunday is just one example of that blending.  For one thing, the choir sounded fantastic on the last verse descant at second service, and the hymn itself has a beautiful tune.  But the text also contains a number of allusions to specific Bible verses, and a call to ministry.  Verse three appears below as an example:

O Christ, create new hearts in us that beat in time with yours,
That, joined by faith with your great heart, become love's open doors.
We are your body, risen Christ; our hearts, our hands we yield
That through our life and ministry your love may be revealed.

From what I can tell, the survey didn't ask people if they had any hymns memorized or how music informs their faith.  That's certainly a glaring omission of one important aspect of worship!

Friday, September 24, 2010

Make Joyful Noise: The Sound of Motors and Engines


Is any one of you in trouble?  He should pray.  Is anyone happy?  Let him sing songs of praise!  (James 5:13)


A little birdie told me that people won't comment on my Make Joyful Noise themes because I list too many examples.  So today I'll limit myself to a description and one story.  I hope my readers will step up with more stories and examples of their own.

Motors and engines aren't necessarily joyful noise to most people.  I played organ at a church in South Minneapolis for a year, and the nearby airport was a recurring cause of annoying noise for the surrounding community.  I know there are certainly times and places where the noise of airports is anything but joyful, but for the most part the sounds of airplane jet engines have positive connotations for me.

For one thing, I love to travel, and the moment of departure is always a moment of excitement, with a palpable sense of potential.  The destination hardly matters to me.  I simply love the different atmosphere of a new place, and the chance to explore and experience new things.  Of course, the return trip is also a joy, and being reunited with a loved one upon his return is also a fantastic moment.  Thus, the sound of airplanes represents either hope for a new adventure or the comfort of being reunited - both joyful events that transform the jet engine noise to beautiful music to my ears.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

This, I Believe

Being back on our fall schedule means that I no longer get to hear Liane Hanson host Weekend Edition Sunday during my morning drive.  For NPR fanatics like me, the hosts became old friends, so I miss hearing her voice, her humor, and her wit during the puzzle segments.  In exchange, I get to hear Bob Edwards, and in particular I'm back to hearing the series "This, I Believe."

I've always proclaimed that my ultimate vision for the blog and Bethany's music ministry stems, in part, from this series, based on the work of Edward R. Murrow.  The radio series has moved on from sharing the historic essays to covering recently submitted work.  They share brief statements of beliefs (not necessarily theological), in the same way that I continue to invite your opinions and thoughts and feedback about music and, in particular, our fall theme of Make Joyful Noise.

Pondering and sharing our beliefs is such an important exercise that Kent State University this year required all incoming freshman to read the book This I Believe.  The opportunity to read and reflect during formative years is an important part of maturing, but it is vital that we all have ongoing outlets for such meditation.  Let the music and the conversation help inspire you during worship and during your daily life, seek out other venues as well (Bethel Bible study is one great possibility, of course), and continue to engage in conversation about belief.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Let Justice Flow Like Streams

The danger of putting a particularly meaningful hymn (ELW 717) during communion is that not enough people sing it!  I thought this hymn did a superb job of capturing the theme of engagement.  Not only does the imagery match perfectly with my latest "Make Joyful Noise" theme of the sounds of nature, but the text also brings to mind themes of the civil rights movement.  It's a reminder that the ideals of justice, righteousness, respect, and peace should pervade all political and social dialogue.

Among the things I value about the ELCA is our emphasis on reasoned debate and respectful dialogue.  Last summer's Churchwide Assembly may have had its share of contentious issues, but we had first taken years to pray and study and consider those issues from a variety of perspectives.  In this election year, I wish more people of faith were driven to collect facts and quietly reflect on motives and implications before rushing to judgment.

Rather than rambling on with my own opinions, I simply offer the full text of this hymn:

Let justice flow like streams of sparkling water, pure,
Enabling growth, refreshing life, abundant, cleansing, sure.

Let righteousness roll on as others' cares we heed,
An everflowing stream of faith translated into deed.

So may God's plumb line, straight, define our measure true,
And justice, right, and peace pervade this world our whole life through.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Make Joyful Noise: The Sounds of Nature

Psalm 148: 7-10 (NIV)
Praise the Lord from the earth,
You great sea creatures and all ocean depths,
Lightning and hail, snow and clouds,
Stormy winds that do his bidding,
You mountains and all hills,
Fruit trees and all cedars,
Wild animals and all cattle,
Small creatures and flying birds.

I have always loved to go camping and backpacking and spend time in nature.  The experience is so much quieter and calmer, but after spending time in nature we sometimes notice a new range of sounds.  There is nothing better than falling asleep to the sound of crickets or frogs, for example.  Camping in the Canadian wilderness as a child, we would often hear a beaver slap his tail in the water first thing in the morning, and nights at the lake in Alexandria were always made more special if we heard the call of loons at sunset.

Among the great things about living in northeast Ohio is our proximity to a range of great parks and biking trails.  One of my personal favorites is to hike through Cuyahoga Valley National Park to Brandywine Falls.  Rushing water can be so calming and meditative and beautiful.

Getting away from the noises of the city can reintroduce us to the beautiful sounds of nature.  But we don't have to escape to the wilderness to hear the sounds of nature.  Like the Psalmist, I find late summer thunderstorms to be a thrilling display of nature's raw power.  The sound of my dog barking (or snoring) can also make me smile.

All those sounds of nature are joyful to me for their connotations and memories, but they can also be heard as a chorus of praise.  What other sounds of nature reveal the beauty and power of God's creation to you?

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Old favorites

We'll be singing some old favorite hymns this week, and they all speak directly to our theme (the second word from the new Bethany logo): Engage.  We'll begin with "Rise Up, O Saints of God!" as an inspiring call to action.  Next, the hymn "God of Grace and God of Glory" is a prayer for power and inspiration, with every verse including the imploring text "Grant us wisdom, grant us courage."  At communion, we being with "Take My Life," offering our own service and work in ministry.  That leads us to the least known hymn of the week "Let Justice Flow Like Streams."

I know that the Worship and Music Committee didn't plan it this way, but I believe this hymn progression leads perfectly to the most important call for engagement with our world.  Good Christians need to take a stand in all our thoughts, words, and deeds, working for justice and rightenousness, tolerance and peace.  Current events certainly call for all of those traits and goals.

The choir will be continuing our fall theme of Make Joyful Noise with the anthem "Sing to the Lord a Marvelous Song."  The ABA structure intersperses a joyful, rhythmic melody with a beautiful chorale section.  It should inspire us to enjoy our work and engage with the world in love and joy.

Monday, September 13, 2010

We ran out of robes!*

Rally Day was a great success at Bethany.  I heard a number of positive comments about the choir and the guest musicians; the jazz saxophone arrangement of "Amazing Grace" was a particular high point, in my opinion.  We won't hear jazz every week, but it was a great change of pace.

Now I should explain about the asterisk in this post's title.  At second service, we truly did have a choir member wearing every single robe.  At first service, however, one of our younger choir members was serving as an acolyte and therefore wearing a white robe instead.  That one lonely robe still hanging in the choir room, though, should function as a reminder that we always welcome newcomers!  (And don't worry, we have more robes on order, so we can continue to grow.)

I was also proud of the congregation's singing of "All Who Believe and Are Baptized."  You might have noticed that the tune was slightly different from the original rhythmic version that Luther would have recognized.  The hymnal is sometimes updated to a "metric version" that avoids some of the more complicated rhythms and syncopations of earlier church eras.  I could sense the surprise at this dumbed-down version of the hymn in the hesitations between phrases.  It's great that our congregation as a whole is so musically literate that we notice those changes.  So congrats to the people in the pews too, for your great singing.

I hope that the energy of this kick-off to the fall season can be continued with high levels of participation and excitement for all our ministries.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Make Joyful Noise: The Sounds of Church

Psalm 98:4 (King James Version)
Make a joyful noise unto the Lord, all the earth:
Make a loud noise, and rejoice, and sing praise.

That Bible verse is one of my favorites, and the psalms are packed with similar injunctions for us to make noise and sing in joy and thanksgiving.  That sentiment is the driving force behind our music at Bethany this fall, and I want to extend that theme here on the blog.

This week kicks off my ongoing fall series titled Make Joyful Noise.  Each week I'll devote one post to a category of sounds and share some of my own thoughts on the topic.  I hope that it will spark thoughts and memories of your own that you'll share in the comments.  To get us started this week, I thought we'd discuss the most obvious place to make joyful noise: the church.

Worship services conjure up thoughts of liturgies and hymns, of course.  Some of my own favorites are "Holy, Holy, Holy," "Earth and All Stars," and "A Mighty Fortress."  Some hymns also bring back specific memories.  "Let Us Break Bread Together" always makes me think of my mom and how much she enjoys hearing me play that hymn.  "Beautiful Savior" connotes my time at St. Olaf.  "On Eagles Wings" reminds me of my great-uncle's funeral many years ago.  In fact, it's only the vaguest of memories and the only image that I can bring to mind of that day.  The power of music to influence memories never ceases to amaze me.  Perhaps you can recall exactly the music of your wedding or perhaps you simply have an old favorite that you love to hear again and again.

But we hear more sounds than that in a church.  I always associate church with the many handshakes and greetings of "Good morning" or "Peace be with you" or (on Easter) "Alleluia!"  The clink of communion glasses and coffee cups, the rustling of bulletins, and the poetic recitations of the confession and the Lord's Prayer - those sounds combine in their own symphony of praise.

Listen this Sunday not just to the hymns but to all the sounds of the church building and the worship service.  Share what you hear or tell the story of your favorite hymn.  What joyful noise do you hear among the sounds of church?

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Rally Day music

The fall season will be officially underway at Bethany this Sunday.  Rally Day marks the beginning of Sunday School, but so many of our other activities also follow the school calendar: Bethel Bible study, adult forum, our two service schedule, and of course, the choir.  You'll hear the choir singing throughout the service this week, reflecting our philosophy of integrating music throughout the worship service.  For starters, the choir will be singing the meditative predlue.  We're going back to the old Service Book and Hymnal and singing the proper Introit for the day.  Introits are short pieces of music that functioned as a call to worship in the old liturgy.  Some people might remember hearing them, and it should be an interesting change of pace for the meditative prelude.  Second, the choir will be singing a psalm antiphon.  They'll also be singing a descant on the last verse of the final hymn, which should end the service on a high note - literally and figuratively.  Finally, we'll be singing an anthem titled "With Music I Will Praise Thee" by the modern composer Natalie Sleeth.  The text is part of our fall "Make Joyful Noise" theme.  We've been working hard to put together all this music for a great start to the fall season.

We'll also have a pair of guest musicians from Baldwin Wallace college to help us celebrate.  In addition to the hymns and liturgy, our trumpet player will play a March by Bach as the postlude.  The prelude will be a Mozart oboe concerto arranged for alto saxophone.  I think the piece that will be most memorable, though, is a jazz arrangement of "Amazing Grace" that will be played on the saxophone during communion.  So this service represents a wide variety of music from the 18th century to today, from classical to jazz to contemporary with several well-known hymns that I hope everyone will enjoy singing.  I hope you like it all, of course, but can also find something that you'd list among your favorites.

Be sure to stop by the choir's table at the ministry fair between services.  We want everyone to be a part of our music ministry, whether that involves singing, playing in the bell choir, participating through the blog, or providing feedback and support for our work.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Give choir a try tonight at 7:00

I know I've been quite vocal about choir participation this fall (hopefully not quite to the point of obnoxiousness), but church music is a rather obvious passion of mine.  I truly think everyone should participate at some point; at the very least every member should sing the hymns proudly from the pews.  Furthermore, nobody will ever join the choir if they aren't asked, and my goal this fall is to ensure that everyone who attends Bethany regularly gets invited multiple times and in multiple ways.

Joining the choir can be great fellowship and stewardship, joining your musical talents with those of fellow members in praise.  Music has also been shown to provide all kinds of benefits from better health to better brain function from a more positive attitude to lower stress levels.  It's a chance to participate in something creative and artistic, which so many of us do all too rarely in our everyday lives.

Don't be intimidated if you haven't sung in a while.  Don't feel that by coming for a few weeks you're making a lifetime commitment.  Just come sing your best when you're able to join us.  We'll be glad to have you anytime, and I think you'll have fun too!

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

An instrumentation experiment

So who was playing the piano?  I got asked that once after services this Sunday.  For the second communion hymn, the first verse was played on the organ and the rest on the electronic keyboard.  Well, the answer is that I was playing both of them from the organ console.

I've mentioned it before, but I know there are still many people who don't know about the integration of three different systems at Bethany - the pipe organ, a set of Ahlborn "electronic pipes," and the Roland keyboard.  They are all linked together with a Midi system that allows me to play sounds from any of them on the organ keyboards.  So even though you don't often see me sitting at the keyboard, you are actually hearing sounds from it almost every week.

I decided this week to make the shift a bit more obvious, partly to show off the technological capability and partly because the particular hymn we were singing was quite pianistic.  It had plenty of rolling eighth notes in the interior voices, which can sound strange and disjointed on the organ.  It was composed by Marty Haugen, who was born in 1950 and is known for composing lighter, modern fare that can be played on a variety of instruments but are particularly well suited for piano (and even guitar in some churches).  He composed the liturgy that we were singing over the summer before switching back to one of the "old settings" this fall.

In my opinion, this particular experiment was only semi-successful.  I had the keyboard volume set too low at first service, for one thing.  It was also a relatively unknown hymn so that the congregation seemed to struggle with it a bit.  (The choir will be singing next Sunday, which always helps provide a solid core sound to any hymn!)

But the whole issue reminded me of the flexibility of some composers and some music.  Early keyboard works were often composed for harpsichord or organ or piano or whatever keyboard instrument you had aruond.  Bach's Well Tempered Clavier (ostensibly a keyboard work) has famously been played by string quartets and recorded by the Swingle Singers.  This coming Sunday, we'll be hearing one of Mozart's oboe concertos played on an alto saxophone.  The variety lets us hear familiar pieces in a new way, and the change of sound helps keep our attention lest we get lulled into complacency during worship.  In that sense, I think the hymn was successful this past week, as well as the change in liturgy.  I hope you enjoyed both!

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Fall choir recruitment drive

For those of you who weren't at church this morning, I wanted to share the latest choir news.  We had a fantastic first rehearsal last Wednesday, with a few new faces and more than enough singers to form a strong core group.  I'm greatly looking forward to sharing our music with you on Rally Day next week.

But just because you missed the first rehearsal, doesn't mean that it's too late to join us.  In fact, we will be more than happy to welcome any and all newcomers this week Wednesday at 7:00.  I'm still hoping that we can make Rally Day a Run Out of Robes Sunday.  Give us a try for a few weeks!

Friday, September 3, 2010

Labor Day music

First, a brief public service announcement: remember that we return to our fall schedule for worship this weekend.  We'll see you at 8:30 or 11:00 this week!

Labor Day isn't a holiday that naturally matches up with any hymns in an obvious or immediate way.  Perhaps it's due to a fundamental separation between theology (which we sometimes limit to Sundays) and our everyday lives.  It's too easy for the church and its music to get separated from our vocations.  But particularly in this time of economic struggle, it's vital for the church to speak to workers, and we are all workers.  Below is the text of a non-ELW hymn that reminds us that Jesus was a carpenter.  After that he was a preacher.  The Gospels tell us of his constant work, which should inspire us to do whatever work we have to the best of our abilities and with love.

Christ the worker, born in Bethlehem,
Born to work and die for every one.
Blessed manchild, boy of Nazareth,
Grew in wisdom as he grew in skill.
Skillful craftsman, blessed carpenter,
Praising God by labor at his bench.
Yoke maker, fashioned by his hands,
Easy yokes that made the labor less.
All who labor, listen to his call,
He will make that heavy burden light.
Heavy laden, gladly come to him,
He will ease your load and give you rest.
Christ the worker, love alive for us,
Teach us how to do all work for God.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Translation, please!

This past Sunday we sang the well-known hymn "Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing," and I couldn't help noticing how difficult some of the language is.  For one thing, the word "fount" could hardly be considered part of the everyday vernacular.  But at least the root word is obvious in the word fountain, so we can all still understand it.

The second verse provides a much larger challenge:

"Here I raise my Ebenezer:
'Hither by thy help I've come;'
And I hope, by thy good pleasure,
Safely to arrive at home."

What exactly is an Ebenezer?!?  Well, as the image hints, an Ebenezer is a rock, stemming from a rather obscure story in the book of 1 Samuel.  In that story, the Israelites are at war with the Philistines.  Samuel prays to God for help and protection, and the Israelites win the battle.  In recognition, he places a stone, and names it Ebenezer, which means stone of help.

So the hymn intends to remind us of God's presence and help in our lives.  Our accomplishments stem from our great gifts and endowments, mixed with our effort.  I can't help wondering if the hymn expresses that properly for us today.  Should the language be rewritten for clarity?  Should the second verse have a footnote in the hymnal?  Hopefully for at least my readers, this hymn now makes a bit more sense.

PS I'm still tweaking the blog design.  Stay tuned for more changes!

Monday, August 30, 2010

Back to school, back to choir, back to the blog!


The fall season is upon us, and after a (too long) hiatus, I will be back to maintaining the blog this week. Hold on for a new look, a new theme, and a new season. I hope you'll join the conversation!

Friday, June 18, 2010

Happy Father's Day


The weather has been hot and muggy leading up to Father's Day. We're also approaching the longest day of the summer, which has both fallen into a pattern and seems to be flying by.

In honor of the holiday, we'll be singing several of the great hymns about fathers: "Children of the Heavenly Father" and "Faith of our Fathers." I'm expecting to hear enthusiastic singing on such old favorites!

I just finished reading the Percy Jackson novels this summer. They're excellent children's literature. (If you enjoyed Harry Potter, I definitely suggest that you check them out.) But rather than being magical, the stories are about demigods, children of the Greek gods. The overarching plot involves the rebellion of demigods in the face of the indifference of their immortal parents. The story draws out the contrast between the greek gods with their uncaring, distant relationship with their mortal children and the loving Father depicted in so many Christian stories. Greek demigods might truly claim to be "playthings of an angry god" while we view ourselves like the characters of "Children of Eden" - rebellious children of a loving Father. The image and the relationship of Father are always complex, but we are fortunate to have one who guarantees us unconditional love.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Generations

Several times on the blog we've commented on the fact that so many of our favorite hymns were originally composed for children. It's an easy and dangerous trap to fall into nostalgia for a golden age, but we have to keep a broader picture of history when we look back. On my trip to Minnesota I picked up several boxes of old hymnals, from 50 to 100 years old and more. The quality of the music and the lyrics varies widely. To believe otherwise is to imagine that every big band sounded just like a Glenn Miller recording. Only the great hymns have survived to be reprinted in modern hymnals.

Furthermore, many of the hymnals for "children" in my collection are actually hymnals for families and schools. They're meant to be sung as part of instruction in faith for people of all ages. That's been the purpose of hymns since the times of Martin Luther (and last Sunday we sang one of his great hymns, "Salvation Unto Us Has Come").

We should also recall that 19th century education rarely extended to high school, much less college. Adolesence is a modern phenomenon, so that "children's music" would hardly be necessary in an age when adulthood came even earlier.

Related to that, we have also seen changes in our understanding and tastes in art, architecture, and literature. How many of us can "read" and comprehend the stained glass windows in our own church? How many schools still teach the same canon of literature and language that our grandparents learned? Again, it's easy to sound like a cantankerous old man, but I recognize that computers alone represent a massive skill set and level of learning that students today have. So many things have changed, and our emphasis in many areas of life have shifted.

In many ways, our hymnals (and obviously to a greater extent the Bible itself) represent a constant, unchanging set of instruction and belief. They're a great treasure, and it is our privilege to keep those tunes and texts alive today.

Monday, June 14, 2010

What a sound!

I know that the summer schedule has its defenders and detractors, but after yesterday's service I want to add my voice to the list of strong supporters! It was so great to be home to a full church and such a great sound on this morning's hymns. I know the church was full in part because of graduation, but it really created hopes for me that we can continue to have full pews of congregants with their voices raised in song together.

It also helped that we sang some old favorite hymns, of course. "Jesus Shall Reign" has been echoing and replaying in my own mind since the service. It was an inspiring way to end the service. I hope the rest of the summer goes as well!

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Marching and Dancing, Part 2

My last entry focused on the marching and military themes of some of our recent hymns, but today I want to focus on the second part of my title: dancing. Our communion hymn on Trinity Sunday was "Come, Join the Dance of Trinity," and the poetry and imagery of the text were a poignant contrast to the march tunes we've sung lately.

Perhaps my mind was on the beautiful spring weather that day, but when I read the text of the dancing, interweaving trinity the image that sprang to my mind was of a May Day celebration, with a crowd skipping around a Maypole. The inclusive call to dance also brings to my mind wedding receptions - the one social occasion where people of all ages (and dancing abilities) will head for a dance floor together. To dance is to embrace the duality of rhythm and freedom. Unlike the lock-step of marching, we can all move to the same rhythm but in our own way, with our own step, unified but individuals. That's such a beautiful image of a dancing trinity: three in one and one in three.

Monday, June 7, 2010

Dancing and marching

During my vacation, I remembered something about our hymns for Pentecost and Trinity Sundays that I meant to note on the blog. Many of the songs we sang those weeks contained military references: "Onward Christian Soldiers" and "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" to name two that I recall (but I believe there was at least one more with a similar reference). In recent years, we've become uncomfortable with such aggressive language; indeed, some of these hymns were omitted from the ELW, presumably for that very reason.

There are certainly reasons to tone down such rhetoric, but we also lose out on part of our heritage and history. We also miss the chance to discuss the poetry and imagery such language can also represent - the final battle of the Book of Revelation, for example. We are also meant to wage a war for hearts and minds of converts, are we not?

For some reason, the hymn "Onward Christian Soldiers" always brings to my mind an episode of "Little House on the Prairie." (I believe it was the finale, but I may be wrong since it has been so many years.) The town's people are being evicted from their homes, with the whole town being forced to move. I can't remember the details of why exactly - some faceless and sinister "corporation" is behind the whole thing, as I recall. Anyway, the reason it's relevant is that the community chooses to blow up all their homes and buildings before walking, riding, and marching their way out of town with the remainder of the possessions. As they march, they sing that hymn, and it represents their fortitude, their rectitude, their positive attitudes in the face of adversity. They stand up and do what they think is morally correct, waging their personal battles of faith, and they do it without acts of violence, of course. The image has stuck with me for years for its emotional impact. To stand up for what you believe is to be a Christian Soldier, and I think that's worth singing about.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

On the trails this Sunday


This Sunday I won't be in church. I'll be running the Deadwood-Mickelson Trail Marathon in the Black Hills of South Dakota. The weather forecast is promising, and it should be a beautiful morning to run the route through the Black Hills.

It's always amazing to me how long it seems like I've been away from the church when I take a week off. The service becomes an ingrained part of the rhythm and pacing of life so that it's absence becomes notable. If only my running could always be such a consistent part of my week!

It reminds me of Aristotle's famous quote about excellence being not an act but a habit. We can only reach great accomplishments through consistent preparation and practice, which is not that different from becoming a musician. High quality repetition and practice make us better, including better at understanding our faith.

My iPod will provide music of all kinds for me during my run this week, and I look forward to getting back to the usual Sunday service next week!

Friday, June 4, 2010

Summer season begins

Public service announcement:
Worship is at 10:00 this Sunday! We've gone to our summer schedule, so make sure to arrive on time.

We're also changing our setting of the liturgy to setting 2, which will be familiar from last summer. It has a bit more casual and modern sound that I think is appropriate for the summer season. I hope you enjoy its return. I also hope that the new tune causes you to refocus on the text and purpose of the liturgy once again. It can be an important chance to refresh our focus on the words of the Kyrie and Gloria, Sanctus and Agnus.

These prayers are so important that they are repeated weekly, but ironically that very repetition can distract us from noticing their message. They become a kind of mantra, worthy of study on their own. We approach the liturgy anew each week, with our changing moods and experiences, but they are the constant in our week, the musical rock upon which we build the service. I may have said it before, but renewed focus on the text and meaning of the liturgy is a call worth repeating.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Practice, practice, practice

When I switch to the piano, it always seems to catch the ear of the congregation. I think that's one reason that so many people commented on this past Sunday's prelude. Since it's my first instrument, I always enjoy the opportunity to play some of the classical repertoire during the service from time to time.

By popular demand (or at least thanks to a few quite vocal requests), I'll be playing the Beethoven variations again as the prelude on July 4th. The more I think about it, the more excited I am to have the luxury of revisiting and polishing the performance. After all, one of the frustrations of a church musician is the lack of practice time. Every week there are 4 or 5 new hymns, a prelude, postlude, and offertory (in addition to the repeated liturgy). That much polished performance repertoire could represent as much as half a semester for most college students.

So in addition to trying to balance musical styles, volumes, registrations, a church musician is always trying to balance the difficulty of the service music. A virtuosic prelude gets paired with a simpler postlude; a newly learned offertory is played the same week as a more familiar prelude. For me, summer means a bit of a chance to catch up, to explore new repertoire, and to keep planning and learning.

John Lennon famously said that life is what happens to you while you're busy making other plans. Similarly, church music is what you play while you're struggling to learn and plan for the week ahead! I just hope and work to enhance the worship service, remembering that it's not a recital, and that next week is just around the corner so I'd better get back to practicing.

Monday, May 31, 2010

Congrats and Thanks!

Last night's concert was a big success for the choir. I think I speak for everyone involved when I say we were pleased to see so many people in attendance, especially on a beautiful holiday weekend, and we appreciate the applause and kind comments.

I also want to add my personal thanks and admiration for the hard work and talent of everyone involved. Last night went so far beyond a typical choir concert by incorporating original musical compositions, poetry, photography, sculpture, and drawing - I suppose even the food represented a creative art form. It was a fantastic finish to the spring season, and the choir will definitely be missed during its summer vacation.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Unorthodox Wisdom


Musical geeks everywhere have fallen in love with "Glee," of course, but for pure unadulterated geek-dom, you really need to be watching "Big Bang Theory." The story follows four college professors and proud dorks and their interactions with the girl next door.

The most recent episode included a quote about theology that made me laugh. In response to one character's disclosure that his mother makes him attend church at least once per year, his blind date replies:

"I don't object to the concept of a deity, but I'm baffled by the notion of one that takes attendance."

It's both funny and shows a profound misunderstanding of some of the benefits and purposes of worship. Music is one of the best expressions of corporate worship, with all our voices raised in songs of praise together. That is an experience that you cannot have unless you gather with others. It made me think of the song "His Eye is on the Sparrow" and it's answers to why the singer sings. The reasons for worship are the same (not simply to get attendance credit!):

"I sing because I'm happy.
And I sing because I'm free.
His eye is on the sparrow.
And I know he watches over me."

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Patriotic music by Beethoven

This weekend marks the unofficial start of summer with the arrival of Memorial Day. For me, the holiday always brings to mind warm mornings spent toting my trumpet from cemetery to cemetery to play taps and marching with the band in the VFW's small parade in my hometown. Besides veterans, high school musicians may be among the most likely people in the country to observe the holiday properly for a moment at least - not simply going shopping or lounging at the beach.

This week's prelude will sound to the congregation like "My Country Tis of Thee." But I will actually be playing Beethoven's piano variations on "God Save the King." We don't get to hear much of Beethoven's music in church. He was a transitional figure from the classical, enlightenment period of the late 18th century toward 19th century romanticism. Furthermore, he lived at a time when he could make a career as a piano virtuoso and composer, no longer as reliant on employment as a church musician as Bach and other earlier musicians had been. For all these reasons, he composed very little that is appropriate for church music, so I like to take the opportunity to play this particular piece on patriotic holidays from time to time.

I know that some members of our congregation have been directly affected by our ongoing military engagements around the world, and I know that our prayers are certainly with them, our military and government leaders, and veterans on this holiday.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Choir concert this Sunday

Mark your calendars for this Sunday evening's choir concert. The concert begins at 7:00 and explores the theme "Love and Creation," dedicated to the memory of Bill Pearsall.

The evening will feature art, poetry, and music that has been created by members of the congregation. In that way, it epitomizes the sense of community that should always infuse worship in a congregation. We'd love to have a full church Sunday night!

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Veni Creator Spiritus

That's Latin for "Come, Holy Spirit." Tomorrow is Pentecost, so remember to wear red. It's the one Sunday of the year that we focus explicitly on the Holy Spirit. One medieval Latin chant that is appropriate for the Sunday still appears in the ELW, but we won't be singing it this week. Instead, it will be the meditative prelude. You might want to open to ELW 577 to follow along to the text there.

Here is one translation of the first verse, for our own prayers to be guided by the Holy Spirit:

Come, Holy Spirit, Creator blest,
And in our souls take up thy rest;
Come with Thy grace and heavenly aid
To fill the hearts which Thou hast made.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

What Would Julia Do?


The world lost a great actress with the recent passing of Dixie Carter, and symbolically, we lost her most memorable character, Julia Sugarbaker from the television show "Designing Women."

I always enjoyed the show, and Netflix has recently reacquainted me with the episodes. I always admired Julia. She was the embodiment of intelligence, style, class, and wit. She managed to combine strongly voiced liberal views with a devout faith. For me, her personal philosophy was the driving element of the show, and her rendition of "How Great Thou Art" is a stirring scene from the show.

But there's also a quote from Suzanne that came to mind when I was thinking about possible links between the show and church. One of Suzanne's role is to drum up business for the decorating business, and in one episode she notes that it isn't easy just to stand on a streetcorner hawking throw pillows. How do we market the church and keep it relevant? What roles do fellowship, stewardship, and outreach play in our mission? How do we balance our daily lives with our church membership? Somehow I always felt that Julia knew the answers to such questions and confidently lived her life to the fullest. May we all be so lucky.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Mary and Martha


Having worked within as many community theatre organizations as I have, you can safely assume that I've performed, directed, played piano for, or just generally been a part of all of the popular musical chestnuts. A list of such shows would definitely include "Nunsense" - the ongoing saga of five nuns and their work to maintain their small convent.

This week's sermon reminded me of one anecdote from the show. One character asks if you're more like Mary or Martha - do you play the piano or do you feel the need to dust it?

The story of those sisters can be a frustrating story for the hardest working members of any congregation. Don't we all want to recognized and rewarded for our good works? (Recovering Catholics in particular perhaps?)

But I personally hear the story as a reminder that we are meant to do work that we love, out of love. As always, it seems that children's Sunday school songs convey such a message most succinctly: We love, because God first loved us. Our love and service can take many forms - be it playing the piano or dusting it!

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Ascension

The Easter season is coming to an end this Sunday. It's amazing how the spring has flown by, and we have reached the time of Ascension. This is not a holiday that is marked by famous hymn tunes, like most festivals of the church year.

The closest we will come this week is our opening hymn "Hail Thee, Festival Day!" It may not be the best known hymn, but the chorus is memorable and hopefully allows an opportunity to ring in tunefuly for part of each verse at least.
We'll also sing "Beautiful Savior" at communion. As a St. Olaf alum, it's naturally one of my favorites, and I expect to hear plenty of voices during communion for a change! The closing hymn will bring a musical ending to the Easter season with "A Hymn of Glory Let Us Sing!" which is sung to one of the most well-known Easter tunes.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Trivia


Who is the patron saint of music?

My guess was Gregory, after all, Gregorian chant has been the foundation of so much liturgical music for 12 centuries. Who else could it be?

Well, the answer turns out to be slightly more complicated. According to the trivia question I heard at lunch, the patron saint of music is Saint Cecilia. It surprised me so much that I had to spend a few minutes online tonight looking it up. According to what I can find, I wasn't completely wrong - Gregory is the patron saint of musicians, while Cecilia is the patron saint of church music and poets. I was reminded of the series of church music books named after her and then read the story of her martyrdom and life, which was said to be full of the power of music.

Does such arcana truly matter? On the one hand, not at all. These are people who lived centuries ago, and my significant other would certainly argue that saints can quickly become inappropriate idols who distract us from the proper objects of worship. On the other hand, can't the saints and their stories help inspire our own faith? Besides, it's good to have an example of a pious, notable woman associated with church music as we approach Mothers' Day.

And if nothing else, maybe you'll get it right in a Trivial Pursuit game someday!

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

A moment of silence

Moving to Kent, Ohio, means that May 4th will never be the same. This year is the 40th anniversary of the infamous shootings. The site has been added to the National Register of Historic Places, and campus has been over-run with media and alumni. There have been plenty of memorials, peace rallies, and other recognitions of the tragic events.

There hasn't been much music, though. So often, we recognize tragedy with moments of silence. Our response to such pain and loss is complicated and difficult. Many memorials in recent years have involved listing the names of victims, tolling bells, or speeches. Concerts and sing-alongs have been notably absent.

I wonder if a politically correct desire not to offend people of diverse religions has precluded many of the hymns of comfort. But musicians have responded to so many events with music - I will never forget the first time I heard "Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima," for example. The silence that follows music is even more profound and more comforting than an artificial moment of silence, in my opinion.

I've been trying to think of the hymn or music that would be appropriate for May 4th, and the best suggestion I've thought of is MacDowell's Requiem, which uses the text of Whitman's "Leaves of Grass," rather than the typical Latin mass. But perhaps that doesn't properly capture the turmoil of the period. Anyone have a better suggestion? In the meantime, please observe a moment of music and a moment of silence to ponder the implication of May 4th for civil discourse and peace among us all.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

Tra La! It's May!

I've had a long tradition of listening to Julie Andrews sing "The Lusty Month of May" on May Day. Yes, I know it's silly and corny, but it's become a touchstone of my year, like putting the star on the Christmas tree, preparing a special dish for Thanksgiving, or making S'mores on the 4th of July.

May Day is not a religious holiday. It's among the most pagan celebrations of nature. But Christianity has a long history of absorbing and transforming pagan traditions and symbols. The Bible and the Gospel message are capable of embracing our entire lives, and sometimes we do need a reminder to throw caution to the wind, to be happy and enjoy our lives.

Surely our celebrations today won't take quite the same form that Guenevere's song implies, but I hope everyone does embrace life with a lusty zeal. Sometimes I see May Day as another chance to renew New Year's resolutions. It's the season of spring cleaning, summer plans, miles of running in the warm weather, yard work, and all kinds of ambitious new projects. Think of Julie/Guenevere and sing Tra La as you embrace spring!

Thursday, April 29, 2010

This Sunday - the hymns!!!!!

Five exclamation points in today's title. That's how many appear in this week's hymn titles. If that doesn't tell you how to sing them, I don't know what does.

We haven't run out of Easter hymns yet, and this Sunday we're singing two of my favorites: "Hallelujah! Jesus Lives!" and "Alleluia! Jesus is Risen!" They're great pieces of music, of course, upbeat hymns of praise. I was also thinking, though, that it's their scarcity that adds to their value. (Somedays my economic and finance training interact with my music.)

There are no malls playing these hymns as part of their background music. No rock artists record albums with these tunes. No dogs will ever bark these tunes. Chances are you hear them only once or twice a year at church, yet I bet most people have at least the first verse memorized and instantly recognize the hymn from just the first few measures of the introduction. Don't those facts speak strongly of the power of music in general, as well as the educational power of church music?

While writing this post, I had fun imagining the new release of Bob Dylan's Easter album (just as horrific a train wreck as his Christmas album), and thinking how much I would love to hear Renee Fleming's performance of them. What singer or group would record your dream album of Easter hymns? What tune would be the first track?

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

He's baa-aack

Where has your church music blogger been?

Well, quite frankly I was burned out from Lent and Easter. I've been busy and tired with schoolwork as we near the end of the semester. And I've been wondering about the value of my blog.

I heard once that almost anyone could write a newspaper column for a few weeks. Everyone has a great story or two to tell. The daily grind can become drudgery, however, and I found myslef with less to say for a bit.

I've heard from some readers encouraging me to write, though, and I've been feeling more refreshed and inspired. In particular, it was an episode of "Glee" that reminded me of the power of music. Fans of the show might think it was the Madonna-themed episode with its production numbers. The moment of inspiration, however, was the quiet duet of Lionel Richie's "Hello." It reminded me of the intimacy, connection, and communication that takes place when music is performed superbly by musicians in perfect harmony.

Church organ music is a much less intimate experience than accompanying recitals, performances, or even musical theatre. In those settings, the performers collaborate and give back to the keyboardist so that everyone involved is providing support and encouragement for an excellent performance. I realized that among the motivations for my blog was to have another outlet for connection and conversation about church music, a chance to come out from behind the altar to talk about music.

So I'm back...hopefully without having lost or offended too many of my readers. I truly want to encourage your comments and dialogue. I'm thinking about some upcoming projects and revamps to the blog and to my music, and I hope that you will feel my renewed energy and join in wholeheartedly in the ongoing music and ministry at Bethany.

In the meantime, what tune is it that revives your spirit? Not a church hymn, but an anthem of your own. Lately, mine has been "My Life Would Suck Without You" (the Glee cast version). It has helped me push the pace when I'm out for a run; it's been getting me out of bed in the morning; and it's inspiring me to keep blogging. I'd love to hear about the music that's doing the same for you.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Spring, Easter, and a brief harangue

Easter continues! Who doesn't love the season of spring? My drive to church gets greener every day, and the sun is up when I leave home now. Plus, we get to sing Easter hymns week after week, and those are some of the greatest and most popular hymns.

But why don't we sing them at the top of our lungs? Why, in particular, do congregations always sound so timid about the high E-flat at the end of "Christ is Risen! Alleluia!"? The title has two exclamation points in it, and it was our closing hymn. On a sunny morning, it should have been a chance to sing loud and proud.

Musicians often face the question of quantity versus quality. I grew up singing Boy Scout camp songs, and I sided with quality, asking people to do their best to carry the tune properly. I still do love good music, but I've come to think of quality as people singing their personal best. In so many settings, and especially for a congregational hymn, the blending of voices creates its own beauty and quality that transcends the individual voices.

Besides, we sing an E-flat every week at the high point of the liturgy (the sanctus or "Holy, Holy, Holy"). When we sing "The Star Spangled Banner" we typically hold an even higher note for an even longer time for the text "...land of the free-ee-ee."

Is it a Lutheran trait? A mid-western trait? Or perhaps a Cleveland self-effacing attitude? Maybe we've all heard the lesson about not praying too loudly in church one too many times. Instead, let's focus on not hiding our light under a barrel. Let's sing joyfully, loudly, to the best of our ability. Don't be afraid of the hymns, but embrace our congregational sound - especially during the season of Easter!