Thursday, January 31, 2013

Tallahassee Church Music Conference: Day (or Night) One

Since the event began this evening with a hymn singing as its kickoff event this can be a fairly brief post.  The name "Big Sing" gave me pause, wondering if someone had gotten a wild hair and plugged in a shape-note sing a la the "Big Singing" held in Benton, KY every year from the Southern Harmony and Musical Companion.  But no, this was quite a different event.

Led by John Thornburg, pastor, musician, and now itinerant leader of singing and worship consultation, the event was themed around "important questions a song enlivener must face."  (Yes, that term is new to me.)  To keep on point I'll go straight to the songs, so you can think about them too.

1. How much work are we actually willing for the people to do?  Paired with a simple, energetic Cameroonian chorus, one which, if you trust your musical leaders and/or congregation, could actually be elaborated and enlivened by having new stanzas devised on the spot.  Are you that brave?

2. How does your community go about "making a song its own"?  Is the song sacrosanct as given, or is a musician/congregation willing to make some sort of adaptation to increase its recognizability or accessibility.

3. What are your bottom line principles for what constitutes a proper text/tune marriage?  There are occasionally composers of hymn tunes who quite deliberately create tunes for new texts specifically to create tension between that tune and the mood of the text.  The prime example: a text about children hungry, poor, in desperate need, paired to the tune of ... "Twinkle, twinkle, little star."

4. What is the thing we really fear about what is ahead for the song of the church?  How willing are we to dig deep down to the roots of what ails us in the church, demonstrated by a bracing text on the man at the healing pool, paired with a tune described by Thornburg as bluesy or even depressed (to me, on the other hand, it sounded like a ballad that might have been cut from Godspell.)

5. To what extent is the balance between sequential and cyclical song forms (as Michael Hawn defines these categories) a spiritual necessity and not just an intellectual category?  The contrast of old familiar tunes known by heart and in heart, often fairly repetitive, versus tunes more strophic in nature which necessarily require intellectual pursuit to follow where the tune and text lead next.

6. Just because there are laments in the Psalms, does that mean we have to sing our lament?  Is the variety of song in the Bible descriptive of its time, or prescriptive for all generations?  The contrast here between American/European traditions of lament singing vs. the virtual absence of it in African practice, supposedly because the "pain is so close to the surface, there is no need to sing lament."  (My gut reflex here was straight out of pastoral care: the fact that the pain was so close to the surface is the very reason the lament needs to be drawn out, whether spoken or sung.

7. What are the true limits of subject matter in the songs and hymns we choose for public worship?  When you say, "We can't sing that," why do you say it?   The example being a Shirley Erena Murray text which includes the "abuser and abused" at the same Lord's table.

8. How do you 'weave people into the song' (Mairi Munro), i.e. give them a reason to appreciate why this song is being sung and why it is being sung now?  What is the role and what are the limits of song introductions in song enlivening?  Having already been warned against "cultural tourism" in our sing, it is natural to make sure why this South African tune is appropriate and even needful here.  Even a good hymn story, though, might be too long for the moment.  Here is a spot in the parish where pastor and musician probably need to work together.

The sing was followed by night prayer.

I doubt I'll have the strength or time to provide thorough breakdowns of the next two days, but I do hope to reflect on some of the highlights each day.  Just in case anyone's interested.

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