Sunday, February 3, 2013

Tallahassee Church Music Conference: Day 3 and some more general thoughts

Last night proved a little too stressful to make a last post on the gathering, which might be as well since it allows for a day's reflection on the event as a whole and on music in the church more generally.  But first, some thoughts on Saturday's events:

Keynote III moved from consideration of congregational music to thoughts on the role of the choir in the music of the church.  Westermeyer's first major point, or assumption really, was one that I will hazard a guess that the vast, vast majority of church choir directors do not observe at all: the choir has to practice what the congregation wings, in such a way as to lead the congregation.  Not just when there's a new hymn or some unusual bit of service music, but regularly.  Every week.   Each hymn.

I can hear the browsers clicking off to surf new destinations now.

Westermeyer cites as a main assumption behind this that the congregation deserves musical respect.  True enough, but the claim also assumes that the primary function of a choir is to support the singing of the congregation.  I will guess that this is the really offensive part to the typical church choir director, or for that matter church choir member.  Westermeyer cited as an extreme example of the opposite the choir that sings its anthem and then leaves.  That is of course a pretty egregious example (though I do not doubt it exists in multiple places), but one hardly has to go to that extreme to find choirs that see themselves as having absolutely no responsibility towards the congregation (of which, theoretically, they are a part!) and specifically towards the congregation's singing participation in worship.

It is probably worth mentioning that the church musicians and pastors who made their way to this conference were those who already had some sympathy to that point of view, so in effect Westermeyer was, to use a dreadfully obvious cliche, preaching to the choir.  I'm guessing that in relaying this claim here, I am not.

Other issues in the final keynote were perhaps less contentious.  The choir's use of large works in worship is problematic primarily for practical reasons; they're too long to fit into the typical modern service without the sermon getting shortchanged or eliminated.  Even works like Bach's cantatas, which after all originated as service music, are not without difficulty, since the services for which they were created were two or three times as long as our services.  If you have a creative pastor and musician working together and a relatively patient congregation, go for it.

There were a lot of other points made, but I wish to move on to the final Discussion moderated by Charlotte Kroeker, director of the Church Music Institute, one of the sponsoring organizations of the conference.  The nominal subject of the discussion was "The Clergy-Musician Relationship."  Mostly I will observe that putting this last was probably a mistake; after so many good things at the conference, this provided an unfortunate opportunity to let the meetings end on a downer.

OK, I'm going off on my own here, sort of.

One of the key issues in most such relationships is that a large number of clergy have no more than a minimal understanding of music and the issues that accompany it.  On the flip side, a large number of musicians hired to lead music in the church have no training in theology, and are not specifically trained in church music.  While there are opportunities for both to repair such gaps in their preparation (such as this conference), many on both sides will decide they have "more important things to do" and the gap will remain a permanent feature of the relationship.

This gap can manifest self in many different ways.  The two members can each simply go their own way, with little cooperation or even communication.  One can take it upon him/herself simply to 'be the boss' and presume to tell the other how to do his/her job, despite the first party's complete ignorance of that job and its demands (pastors, particularly those coming into a new call, are pretty bad about doing this to the musicians who have been in place for a while, but I'd presume it can happen the other way too).  The two can end up warring over their differences, damaging the congregation in the process.  Maybe, if the church is deeply fortunate, the two will figure out that they need to listen to one another and figure out how to help one another learn what each is doing and how they can work together.

These thoughts were somewhat tempered from what they could have been by attending a service this a.m. at a church where the latter happened.  I hadn't been back to First Presbyterian Church in Tallahassee at all for at least five and a half years, and not for a worship service for much longer.  I was reminded just how much the evident mutual respect and cooperation between pastor Brant Copeland and organist/choirmaster Michael Corzine manifests itself in the planning and execution of worship (although this case is different in that Corzine does have sacred music training).  I was also reminded just how much the choir of this church follows the first point Westermeyer made in Saturday's keynote. I sat in to sing this morning, and I was gloriously tired afterwards (emphasis on "gloriously").

Back to more general thoughts.  How much of the gap brings other factors into play?  For the musician, the church is quite likely his or her second job in many cases and the time and energy devoted to it will be measured accordingly.  That person will fall back on the habits that work in her/his primary job.  If the sanctuary choir ends up sounding like the local high school show choir, so be it.  Conversely, the pastor (it pains me to say this) may not only lack any knowledge or training in music, he/she may not actually care all that much about worship.  People get into the pastoral vocation for a lot of reasons.  For me worship was one of the primary reasons, but that's hardly universally the case, and I'd guess that might even be a minority position.  Faced with the gap, they're likely content to let the church musician do what they will and get on with what they consider the important stuff -- outreach, evangelism, social activism, youth ministry, whatever.  Or, when someone offers them a way to "liven up" worship with just a few guitars and drums and keyboards, well, why the hell not???

Since I'm writing this in the Atlanta airport and the wifi keeps trying to quit on me, I'll cut short for now.  You bet I plan to follow up on this later.

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