Sunday, February 10, 2013

More thinking out loud on music and the church

So I have had a week to think about the Church Music Conference and all it had to offer, and to think more about the general state of music in the church or at least that corner of the church in which I am situated.

Well, no, not really.  I've had a week to try and recover physically from the trip, try to get back into my regular class schedule, discover that I wasn't necessarily totally recovered from the trip, catch up with assignments, and try not to forget everything from last weekend amidst all of that tumult.

How successful I was at the latter remains to be seen.  Still, while claiming no expertise beyond the minimum (my M.C.M. degree was long ago and not in a particularly liturgically inclined denomination, and I'm a long way from being a pastor yet), I do have some wonderings about the state of music in the (liturgical, non-Catholic, mainline-ish) church and how it can be made better, if at all.

Picking up a thread from the last post, for how many churches is it true that the song of the congregation is the primary musical focal point of the church?  How many churches can truly say that any and all of the musical activities that exist in the church -- the sanctuary choir under whatever name it may be given, any choirs for youth and/or children that may exist, the organ, the piano or any other instruments that may be used -- are primarily intended for and designed for the enhancement and support of the song of the congregation?

I have not been to that many churches in my years in the mainline tradition.  I can only go by what I have seen, and to a much lesser degree from secondhand sources -- what others have had to say about the subject.  With those caveats, I'm going to guess that the answer to the questions of the previous paragraph is a pretty small number.  Whatever good intentions might be out there, choirs pretty quickly tend to exist for their own sake.  If the choir gets through the anthem, however movingly or effectively or beautifully it might be rendered, then the choir has done its job.  Unless the pastor has gone off on a wild hair and put in some crazy unknown hymn, the choir is most unlikely to crack a hymnal at all (and I've seen some choirs where the members can't even be bothered to sing the hymns with the congregation -- an extreme and unrepresentative example, but out there nonetheless), or to do so only with minimal energy or concentration.

Here is a point at which something should be made quite clear; the impulse to "put on a show" and rely heavily on entertainment value is not at all limited to those churches which trade in the so-called "contemporary worship" idiom.  Showmanship, or performative priority, is just as much a danger in a church steeped in classical tradition and singing from the masterworks for their services as in your basic happy-happy-rock-and-roll church.  For that matter, it is a pitfall for the church with the fully-stocked graded choir program putting the smallest kids out there on a rather frequent basis in the knowledge that their unbeatable cuteness will put lots of family members in the pews and maybe even draw applause from the congregation (o.k., that's going to have to be a subject for a post unto itself, the whole applause business).  To the degree that the musical program of church becomes a butts-in-the-seats proposition rather than a songs-in-the-hearts endeavor to lead and edify those who are in those seats, maybe there's a problem.  Maybe something is out of whack.

Before you say anything; no, this is not to say that the only thing a choir can do is sing the hymns to lead the congregation.  Yes, it's perfectly appropriate for the choir to bring forth anthems in the service. To the degree that anthem "performance" becomes the choir's main or only reason for existence in the church that's a problem, but the choir can be an effective proclaimer of the word with well-chosen and well-prepared anthem material (and yes, there's a pretty good chance the message they proclaim may well stay in the memory of the congregation better than anything I say as pastor).  Personally, I don't even have a problem with a choir doing extra-liturgical things like concerts, or performances of large works outside the worship service.  Anything that makes the choir a more skilled musical instrument, so to speak, will be of benefit to the congregation that is led in musical worship by that choir.  Again, the question is one of priority.  If the scheduled performance of the Rutter Requiem or the Vivaldi Gloria keeps the choir from its primary role of worship and song leadership, then it probably needs to go, but the two are not necessarily incompatible and may even enhance one another.  It is about remembering what comes first and foremost.

I have a feeling there will be more later.

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