Sunday, February 27, 2011

Mystery man and the Gospel according to Scarlett O'Hara

I thought the new liturgy went pretty well this morning.  It's always a bumpy road at first, but I know it'll be only a few weeks before we're all confidently singing the new tunes.

Speaking of singing, I want to compliment the (as yet) anonymous male singer at first service, who sounded great belting out "How Great Thou Art."  I made a few inquiries after the service - partly in selfish hopes of recruiting a new choir member, but also just to say thanks for singing with such gusto.  As I predicted, that hymn was a popular choice; we all love to sing an old favorite now and then.  It's one of the things that makes church music so great.  At any rate, if you can identify the mystery man, email me or let me know at church next week!

Also, in honor of tonight's Oscar ceremony, I wanted to point out that one of Scarlett O'Hara's famous philosophical proclamations might be drawn from Matthew 6:34.  "Do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own."  (These are the things that you start to notice and think about when you're reading or hearing the same Gospel lesson for the third or fourth time in the same week!)  It's a particularly beautiful passage, though, and it has inspired so many artists and musicians that reading it is like a conversation with an old friend.

And a couple of random musical thoughts for the night, if you'll indulge me for a moment: Alan Menken was robbed by Randy Newman tonight; the songs as a whole were uninspiring, but Zarchary Levi and Anne Hathaway both surprised me with strong vocals; and hearing Lena Horne sing a few measures of "Stormy Weather" was a perfect tribute to a trailblazer and great talent.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

More Renaissance music

The choir had so much fun with Schutz last week, that we're continuing this week with more music from the Renaissance era.  We'll sing the anthem "Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God" by le Maistre, which contains a brief prayer for guidance:

Lord Jesus Christ the son of God
Thou mighty king of heaven above
From deep within my heart I pray
Be thou my guide my hope and stay.

The music is not a simple chorale, however, but the vocal lines weave together in a round-like fashion.  The altos begin the piece by spelling out a simple, minor-key melody.  It is quickly passed from section to section, and the text becomes elongated over long melodic runs before coming together in parallel thirds for the important request that forms the heart of the prayer: "be though my guide."  The music elevates the prayer to a beautiful statement of guidance and trust.

To me, the piece calls to mind the Gospel story of the road to Emmaus, in which the resurrected Christ appears to some of the disciples.  In that story, they say to him "Stay with us for it is nearly evening and the day is almost over."  The text and the music this week beautifully portray that yearning for guidance and comfort.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Gleek moment of the week

After our discussion about the National Anthem at the Super Bowl, I couldn't let last week's "Glee" episode not get at least a brief mention here.  For those of you who didn't read the earlier post, I basically complained that too many singers today are affecting certain poses and styles as a false signal of emotion.  My particular pet peeve is singers with closed eyes, but in general I worry that singing has moved away from a genuine experience to artificial affects.

In last week's episode of "Glee," several character parodied this same thing when they discussed what it means to be a diva.  Rachel said, "Being a diva is all about emotion.  In fact, you feel so much emotion that it cannot be physically contained.  Sometimes you have to close your eyes and turn your head and push your feelings away -  they're that big!"  (Of course, the diva par excellence demonstrated what that meant, and it looked pretty much like Christina Aguilera singing the National Anthem).  While Mercedes offers this advice: "It's all about sassy fingers"

But sometimes we communicate best when we set aside convention and just act simply as ourselves.  Isn't that at least one reason Susan Boyle became a music celebrity?  Biblically, I liken it to the instruction not to pray too loudly in church, putting on airs to demonstrate holiness.  Just come as yourself, pray and sing sincerely.  There shouldn't be divas in church, just congregations engaged in worship together.  That's why everyone should sing the hymns loud and proud - and all are welcome in choir!

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

A new liturgy this Sunday: Don't worry, be happy

This week we will switch to ELW setting 1 of the liturgy.  Whenever we make such a switch, we get compliments and complaints.  (What I love, though, is that we get comments at all!)  One of the purposes of singing the liturgical texts to different tunes is to help keep them fresh and draw our attention once again so that we don't fall into mindless repetition of the texts.  I know the music might not be as familiar this week, and it might take a few weeks to feel confident with the new tunes.  But I know that soon we'll all be singing the new music as confidently and comfortably as the "old" liturgy.

The church has its own unique pace of change.  One week can bring an entirely new sound to the service, yet the texts are ancient.  There are still plenty of liturgi-geeks in the world calling this Sunday "sexagesima," even though the term hasn't been officially in a Lutheran hymnal for years and was set aside by the Second Vatican Council.  When even the Catholic church stops using a Latin word, you have to wonder if there's still any point in it!  Incidentally, I've heard it said that the only reason for the pre-Lenten Sundays to have special names was so that people could start their Lenten fasting early enough to be allowed to skip the fast on both Thursdays and Sundays during Lent.  Certainly that practice seems to be both antiquated and poorly founded on Biblical principles.

So we set aside some old practices and sing new music.  Perhaps as consolation, we'll be singing very familiar hymns, including "Children of the Heavenly Father" and "How Great Thou Art."  Even if the Gloria provides a challenge, I hope there will be plenty of singing on those well-known hymns.

But as Sunday approaches and I continue to work on the plans for Transfiguration, Lent, and Easter, I'm comforted by this week's Gospel: "And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life?"  There's no sense spending my time fretting about potential problems; just keep working on the next task.  In other words, this week's Gospel to me simply says: don't worry, be happy.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Concordia Choir

If you missed the St. Olaf Choir when they passed through Cleveland, you have a chance at a decent consolation prize when the Concorida Choir comes to Akron in a week.  (Just kidding about the "consolation prize," but there's nothing wrong with a little inter-school rivalry, right?)

The concert will be at St. Bernard-St. Mary in Akron on Friday, Feb. 25th.  Tickets are $15 - 20.  The program ranges from Bach and Mozart to spirituals to contemporary compositions.  It promises to be a night of beautiful music.  For basically the cost of a movie, you could instead enjoy an evening of inspiring melodies.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Alleluia (part two)

In addition to some great hymns and organ music this week, we will have musical offerings from both the choir and the bell choir.  The choir will be giving up their usual anthem slot so the bell choir can play "All Hail the Power of Jesus' Name."  I've even convinced the somewhat reluctant group to play from the front of the church so you can see them play.

During communion, the chancel choir will sing "Praise God, the Lord, Ye Christians All" by Heinrich Schutz, who was among the most important composers of the 17th century.  His music falls in the gap between Renaissance and Classical, between contrapuntal chant and four-part chorales.  In the piece's opening section, you'll hear the same motifs get passed from section to section in the choir, while the piece closes with the whole choir singing Alleluia.  To modern ears, the Alleluias shift from major to minor, along with a sharp dynamic contrast.  The piece is technically modal, but such details aren't needed to appreciate the unique nature of the music.  Incidentally, the ELW includes one hymn tune by Schutz (ELW 573, "My Soul Now Magnifies the Lord").  It's a great example of how the church has preserved the work of some of history's greatest composers.  Where else could you hear a tune by Schutz this week?

I hope you enjoy the music of the choir and bell choir this week.  Be sure to thank a (volunteer) choir or bell choir member for their dedication, and provide feedback to me on the music anytime!

Friday, February 18, 2011


It's after Valentine's Day and we can still sing Alleluia in church, because Lent is still weeks away.  Hard to believe, isn't it?  The weather this week has only made it harder yet, because the only snow drifts left in my neighborhood are the remnants of snow piles next to driveways.  Maybe that groundhog knew what he was talking about?  (Or maybe it'll be back to reality next week, but we can still enjoy it for now!)

This week we get to open and close the service with two of my favorite hymns.  The opening hymn will be "O Holy Spirit Enter In" (ELW 786), a text that seems like such a perfect opening prayer that it will also be the meditative prelude.  The composer of this great tune is Phillip Nicolai.  He was born a decade after Martin Luther had died, and he served as a Lutheran pastor in Germany in the late 16th century.  His tunes have inspired composers ever since, particularly the chorale tune we're singing this week, which is sometimes referred to as "the queen of chorales."

Our closing hymn will be "Love Divine, All Loves Excelling" (ELW 631).  The Welsh hymn tune by Rowland Prichard will be well known, and the particular text here is by the prolific Charles Wesley.  I think the strong 3/4 meter has a great lilting, lusty quality that makes it a joy to sing.

That upbeat 3/4 tempo will be echoed in the postlude as well, when I play an arrangement of the Easter tune "O Sons and Daughters of the Lord" by Deshayes.  Despite being an Easter text, the hymn is in a minor key which may be part of why it no longer appears in our hymnal.  But it's a beautiful chorale, and the setting has plenty of fun flourishes for the organ and a big ending, if you stick around for it.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

The 4-H hymn?

As we were singing our hymn of the day, "Oh, That the Lord Would Guide My Ways" (ELW 772), this past Sunday, part of the last verse caught my eye.  Here is the entirety of the verse:

Make me to walk in your commands,
'Tis a delightful road;
Nor let my head or heart or hands
Offend against my God.

I hadn't noticed it in my preparation earlier in the week, but this verse lists three of the four H-words that constitute the four areas of personal development of the organization 4-H.  (It only took me the rest of the day to come up with the missing one - health.)  Despite growing up in rural Minnesota and despite having many friends and classmates involved in 4-H, I was never a member.  But I think the mission of the organization is pretty widely known.  Similar to the many other youth organizations, they encourage students to do their best while engaging with their community.  This is spelled out explicitly in the 4-H pledge:

I pledge my HEAD to clearer thinking,
my HEART to greater loyalty,
my HANDS to larger service,
and my HEALTH to better living,
for my club, my community, my country, and my world.

While the text by Isaac Watts was first published in 1719, it engages in dialogue across the centuries with this mission statement.  Each of these statements is an important aspect of faith, good citizenship, and a well-lived life.

The only unfortunate thing about the hymn (from my perspective today at least) is that the phrase is negative.  It talks about preventing offense.  While abstaining from offense and sin is important, it's still only a first step.  We also need engagement and participation - in our families, community, country, and church!  To take a bit of poetic license, allow me to suggest a minor rewrite:

And let my head and heart and hands
Do service for my God.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Ubi caritas et amor

"Where charity and love prevail" is among the most well-known of the Latin chants, generally considered to come from the 9th century.  It's a hymn of forgiveness and joy, peace and reconciliation, and therefore perfect for singing during communion, as we will this week.  We'll be singing the text to the more popular chorale tune, but during the interlude between the communion hymns, I'll play a few lines of the chant.  Listen and see if you recognize that snippet of chant melody from centuries ago.

Singing the hymn also foreshadows Maundy Thursday, an occasion where the text is often used.  But Maundy Thursday is many days in the future still.  The time before Lent stretches on this year, and we get to enjoy music of praise and celebration during these cold winter days.  That's why we get to end the service with "Joyful Joyful" and enjoy a postlude with the title "Alleluia!"  And the choir will be sharing an upbeat anthem of praise: "O Praise the Name of the Lord."  I hope that all of the music lifts your spirits this weekend!

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Of course, you can sing!

It continues to flabbergast me how many people respond to my urgings to sing (whether in the choir, like I'd really prefer, or even just in the congregation during a communion hymn, for instance) with a comment along the lines of "I can't sing" or "My voice is just terrible" or "You wouldn't want to hear me."  It's certainly not a new sentiment, and all church choir directors face it.  Let me try to change your mind (at least a little) with a few arguments:

1. You will never meet a kindergarten-aged child who "can't sing."  They can all write and paint and play kickball like pros too.  It seems that every five-year-old is a Renaissance child with an incredible range of skills.  Where do those skills go?  When do people first learn that they can't do something, especially something so primal and expressive as sing?

2. Some evolutionary biologists claim that singing is closely related to "baby talk."  The pitch of our speaking voice and the melody of lullabies are an important part of the parent-child bond and the development of language in children.  Truly, language is music.  In English, a question will rise in pitch at the end of the sentence.  Singing is thus just an extension of something you do naturally every day.

3. We simply get better at things that we try.  I worked several summers as the music director at a summer stock theatre where some of the actors would come to the first rehearsal and announce they were tone deaf.  Just one week of rehearsals later, they would proudly be singing solo lines in the show's chorus.  (Furthermore, at Bethany, we have such a strong core group of singers that you can rely on them to help lead while you gradually improve and gain confidence.)

All of these arguments were summed up by author Amy Chua (the Yale professor now famous or infamous for her book Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother).  I heard her give an interview recently in which I was impressed with her charm, wit, and generally easy-going nature - perhaps in contrast to the popular perception of her.  She stressed that while she pushed her daughters to succeed in many areas, it was simply because she knew they could.  She had no time for the argument "I'm no good at math."  Rather than letting them give up, she insisted that with practice and time, her daughters would become good at math.  I'm not going to claim that I back her parenting methods 100%, but that attitude that we can succeed and excel at complicated tasks is an important mind-set.  I hope and pray that it's an attitude that can help jump start the American economy, keep churches and other organizations active and vital, and even motivate a few more people to join the church choir.

Monday, February 7, 2011

So she messed up the lyrics

I've told people that being from Minnesota originally (and therefore not allowed to cheer for the Packers) and now living in northeast Ohio (and therefore not allowed to cheer for the Steelers) meant that I could mostly ignore the game this weekend.  Neither outcome would lead to much celebration or heartbreak.  On the other hand, the musical performances and the commercials always demand a certain level of attention, and they certainly didn't disappoint this year.

Let's start with the obvious observation: Christina Aguilera screwed up the lyrics to the National Anthem.  Big deal.  We all mistakes, and what musician hasn't played or sung a wrong note or word?  I once accompanied a college recital where the singer forgot his lyrics and proceeded to replace the Italian lyrics by listing every kind of pasta he could recall.  (The memory of an Italian aria reduced to "ravioli macaroni et lasgna" still makes me laugh.)  The Super Bowl may be the worst imaginable time to forget the words, but at least they rhymed and she powered through to the end.  You've got to give her credit for singing it live and for maintaining composure.  One might wonder if next year there will be a teleprompter, or even a few helpful words scribbled on the singer's palm.

My problem with the performance wasn't her little mistake, it was the overly dramatic, self-indulgent nature of the performance.  Don't get me wrong, the song isn't sacrosanct and immune from interpretation.  Recordings of Jimi Hendrix playing the Star Spangled Banner can make you hear it in a whole new way.  But Aguilera wasn't trying to communicate her passion and patriotism and deep connection with the lyrics.  She was simply closing her eyes, raising her free hand in the air, and generally mimicking every performance you'll see on American Idol this season.  Singers now strike certain poses simply because it's part of the accepted theatricality of the ritual, not because it's spontaneous or motivated by the song itself.  How authentic can a performance be if it looks exactly like every other performance?

Aguilera violated my pet peeve by singing with her eyes closed.  Even at the community theatre level, actors know that you can't communicate with an audience if your eyes aren't open.  You can't engage with fellow actors, audience, or even an everyday conversation.  Just imagine if a man proposed to his wife without looking into her eyes; would it seem sincere?  Closing your eyes while singing only puts distance between you and your audience.  It's one of the reasons that so-called "praise bands" violate the purpose of corporate worship.  They strike poses to demonstrate their religious fervor, but their artificiality separates them from the congregation.

We sing hymns with our eyes open.  Partly because it's easier to see the text, but mostly because when we sing we are joining together in praise, prayer, and proclamation.  We are a community of faith, flawed and imperfect but in it together - much like our nation.  If only Aguilera had remembered that.  It would have made for a great performance, missed lyrics and all.

Saturday, February 5, 2011


It's one of the ironies of my work at Bethany, but the more time I spend planning and preparing and thinking about church music in any given week, the less I find myself blogging.  I suppose it's in part because I'm busy daydreaming and forming ideas, which doesn't always lend itself to sharing more fully-formed thoughts, the way I like to on this blog.  But as I was reading the text of this week's closing hymn, "The Church of Christ, In Every Age," its message of continuing change and mission and rebirth only seemed to urge me to keep working:

The church of Christ, in ev'ry age
Beset by change, but Spirit led,
Must claim and test its heritage
And keep on rising from the dead.

Discussing our musical heritage (while hopefully keeping it new and fresh) could be one way to describe my goals in writing this blog.  But the hymn presents a message that all members of all churches need to heed.  We have hundreds of years of heritage that we must not only honor and claim as our own but continue to test and question and refresh.  I find it particularly interesting that the rest of the hymn's text portrays the need for engagement "across the world" and "across the street."  The hymn is sometimes subtitled "The caring church" because it advocates direct engagement with problems in the world around us.

The theme of the week is justice, which requires our engagement and action.  Notice how many of our hymns mention a desire to act as a servant leader, not preaching or judging but demonstrating and encouraging a joyful Christian life.  In the words of this week's choir anthem "Let All the World in Every Corner Sing."  We can tackle difficult problems with joy and hope and songs of praise.  And we can even find time to engage with in those activities amid our busy lives and our work planning for the weeks (and holidays) ahead.