A lesson in contrasts and supporting congregational song…
(Editor's Note: Cantor Phillip Magness writes the column "Not your Grandfather's Church" for BJS. This edition is not about a local parish but about the church more broadly speaking as it met for its convention in Houston a few weeks ago.)
This article is not about the primary things among us, but about something secondary: the art of music. So, being a musical article, it is the kind of thing that is usually discussed over at the Liturgy Solutions blog, Fine Tuning. However, Pastor Rossow prevailed upon me to write this here, as he is convinced that non-musicians in the church need more education on matters musical. Given the scope of musical decisions that are made by the whole church these days, I am persuaded that such is the case. So here follows an example on how it is not the tools in the contemporary musical toolbox that are a problem in our churches, but how they are used.
At the recent synodical convention, the assembly sang two hymns within the same afternoon that illustrate how technology and contemporary rhythms can be used effectively to lead 1200 people in singing and how those same tools can easily get in the way.
First, before the assembly cast their ballots for synodical president, a praise team from one of the area churches led us in singing "Let Us Ever Walk with Jesus." They did an excellent job. The singers' microphones were set at a level which enabled their breath to be picked up, allowing the initiation of their phrases to guide the assembly. However, the level was not so high that it overwhelmed the assembly. They blended in with us as we sang, just as a choir would have. The volume approximated the volume of what a good church choir would have presented in the room. Also essential to their success is that the quartet sang homophonically–i.e., the same notes & the same rhythms, without embellishment. Their unified sound projected the melody they were assigned to lead. In no way did they draw attention to themselves.
The assembly sang beautifully under their leadership, an important component of which was the piano part. Given that organ was not used, the pianist needed to cover the elements of bass, harmony, and rhythm in order to complete the singers' leadership of the assembly. By using a harmonic rhythm that had a harmony changing every two or four beats rather than one or two (such as the organ would), the pianist was able to use a combination of arpeggiation and block chording to keep a vital rhythmic pulse going throughout the hymn–just as a good organist does by releasing pitches rhythmically. In the process, the pianist used a harmonization which brought in richness to the texture and gave it a fresh sound. Yet because the harmonization submitted itself to the harmonic logic of the progressions and remained subservient to the melody, the harmony did not draw attention to itself, but served the text. So we had three tools often used in contemporary worship: microphones, piano (or electric keyboard), and the use of a "groove" or rhythmic accompaniment all done in a churchly and skillful way. And the result was a beautiful rendition of the hymn that was fully embraced by the assembly.
Later, these same tools were misused along with some other tools from today's kit thrown in for good measure. The hymn was "Holy God, We Praise Thy Name." Instead of live musicians, the convention was supposed to sing along with tracks. They were so alien to corporate singing that I thought we had borrowed these from Maranatha! (Turns out they actually came from one of our Concordias and are being promoted by CPH for use in corporate worship.) Sure, there was some singing along with these tracks, as the hymn is very familiar to us. And some of the delegates really loved them. But they did not support corporate singing. Their effect was to cause some to sing along, some to move around, more people to talk, and many to leave the room. Whereas "Let Us Ever Walk with Jesus" united us, these tracks, used several times during the convention, failed to bring us together.
Why was that? Well, certainly the sound of "Nashville meets TechnoPop" caused a visceral reaction in many. But even those who would put that aside for the sake of occasion and the text were frustrated. This is because the tools were not used according to the principles of liturgical church music performance. Everything that the first group did right, these tracks did wrong. First, the volume was way too high. People could not hear themselves or their neighbors sing, so they treated the tracks as radio/concert music. Second, the singers on the recording did not sing homophonically, but heterophonically: they freely embellished the melody with all sorts of improvisatory notes. This drew attention to their voices, rather than unifying the people's voices. Third, putting aside the excessive numbers of sounds used (another topic), the sounds that were used did not establish a clear harmonic rhythm. Instead there was a wash of colors that drew attention away from the melody, rather than served the melody. Finally, percussion was used in a way that "drove" the music. In other words, the drum tracks were the unifying force in the music, not the melody.
(I want to add here as an aside that confessional Lutherans often react viscerally against percussion, much to our discredit. There is nothing unscriptural about playing drums. At Bethany-Naperville we have timpani, congas, hand drums, a djimbé, and lots of miscelleneous percussion. Psalm 150 supports this. The question is, how are they used? Are they used to support "singing skillfully" (Ps. 33) or as a means to create an atmosphere? Is the music Word-driven or beat-driven?)
Now I realize that the musicians on this recording are well-intentioned, and that many people have a taste for the style of music they play. I'm fine with someone enjoying these CDs in their car. I'm not trying to diminish anyone involved with the actual project: I simply want people to understand why such tracks are not supportive of congregational song, so that they understand that it is not the tools being used per se, but how they are used.
We need to do better. Given the size of our church body, we have no excuses. We should be able to find "techies" that can use amplification appropriately for liturgical worship. We can bring in different tone colors and use new instruments while still serving the melody and leading the assembly in the text. We can use rhythms that support singing and have singers who lead us with skill rather than affect. We have great musicians in our church body. Let them do what they do best: lead corporate singing. And, while we are at it, let's stick with the tools they know how to use. Let's face it: electronic instruments are powerful tools. Sort of like guns. And, as the old NRA slogan used to say: "Guns don't kill people. People kill people."