This is my song…

I’ve had a lot to think about this last week. I attended the national convention of the American Guild of Organists in Kansas City. It was a wonderful week of music, classes, fellowship, and worship…some very powerful worship!

Since this is the 100th year since the end of World War I, many of the events of last week were connected and intertwined with that event. They were vivid reminders of the desire–and need–for peace in our world…and the difficulties we have in being peaceful.

Yes, the “great war” was 100 years ago, but so many of the feelings and events that led up to it sounded so contemporary…unfortunately. I was reminded of a line from the song that was popular during the Vietnam War–“When will we ever learn?”

Music in its many forms can challenge us. It can give us hope. It can call us to be better people…and help us focus on the better future that we all want. It can remind us that we are all children of one God–whatever name we call the Divine.

May we somehow learn to sing together these words so often set to the tune Finlandia:

This is my song, O God of all the nations,
a song of peace for lands afar and mine.
This is my home, the country where my heart is;
here are my hopes, my dreams, my holy shrine;
but other hearts in other lands are beating
with hopes and dreams as true and high as mine.

May truth and freedom come to every nation,
may peace abound where strife has raged so long;
That each may seek to love and build together,
a world united, righting ev’ry wrong;
a world united in its love for freedom,
proclaiming peace together in one song.

Sing a new song!

This last weekend was intense and wonderful!

I attended the Community of Christ annual Peace Colloquy…which this year included the launch of the new denominational hymnal, Community of Christ Sings. And we sang!

The Peace Award was given to Reverend John Bell of the Iona Community in Scotland. You may be wondering what a hymn writer has to do with peace and justice issues…a lot! For one thing, we sing what we believe, and singing about peace and justice reminds us that that is part of our calling. Singing those sings remind us of issues that we would sometimes prefer to remain hidden–and this hymnal at times is very pointed about those issues…domestic violence, cruelty toward those who do not believe like we do, poverty, injustice, those dealing with addictions, those in prison…

In his presentations, Rev. Bell also used scripture that we would sometimes prefer to ignore to challenge us to live out what we say we believe.

We heard a wonderful concert by Emma’s Revolution, two women (with keyboard and percussion) who sing songs of justice and peacemaking. One of their songs that we had learned to love was “Peace, Salaam, Shalom”…written after 9/11. (It’s in the new hymnal.) We heard other songs of peace and justice…and while we may not agree with everything they sing, they are not afraid to take a stand for what they believe is right.

We shared in so many class/discussion sessions…of course, many of them including singing. SInging through the hymnal…singing on specific topics…singing old favorites and learning new songs that will become favorites.

We shared in worship…worship filled with music of all kinds–organ, vocal, small instrumental groups, drumming, piano, guitar–filled with wonderful messages of challenge to let this book move us forward into areas where we believe God is calling us.

And we sang!

The Psalmist several times called his people to sing a new song. Why? Because when we sing, what we sing gets deep into our souls. We remember it…we are more likely to live it.

And so…sing a new song!

Praise the Lord!
Sing to the Lord a new song,
his praise in the assembly of the faithful.
Let Israel be glad in its Maker;
let the children of Zion rejoice in their King.
Let them praise his name with dancing,
making melody to him with tambourine and lyre.
For the Lord takes pleasure in his people;
he adorns the humble with victory.
Let the faithful exult in glory;
let them sing for joy on their couches.
Praise the Lord!

If only…a church musician’s lament

The two words “if only…” are some of the most frustrating and sad words in the language to me. Often they are used when looking back with regret…wondering how life might have been different if only different choices had been made. While I believe there can be value in looking back in order to gain lessons for the future, the “if only…” way of looking back too often seems to lead into a pity-party kind of mentality. The past is what it is; it can’t be changed, and dwelling on what might have been only keeps us from seeing both what is and what still can be.

The other use of these two words that frustrates me is when I hear congregational members make comments like “If only our music was better in our services, our services would be so much more spiritual”…or “…we would have more people”…or  something else along those lines.

While I agree that good music in a service can definitely help the service (I am an organist, after all, and have been playing for church services for over 50 years), what often comes out in further discussion is that while congregational members want better music, they are not willing to respect the musicians! Seems to me there’s a significant disconnect there!!

What do I mean by respect? It really is fairly simple:

  • Give the musician the information about the service in sufficient time for them to be able to practice and be prepared.
  • Don’t tell the musician that you need them to play / sing something in the service–and then the morning of the service, tell them, “Oops…sorry…we decided not to use that after all.” Would you do that to the preacher?
  • By the same token, don’t come to them just before the service and say, “We need you to play / sing [insert song title] here in the service.” Some musicians might be comfortable with this, but it’s not fair to put them on the spot like that.
  • See the musicians as ministers of music. For most of us, we don’t offer our gifts simply as a job. We do see what we share as ministry.
  • If the offering is through being collected before the music is finished, don’t expect the musician to suddenly rewrite the music in order to immediately bring it to an end. Allow the piece to be finished.
  • Don’t talk during what we’ve prepared to offer. The music we have selected for a prelude has usually been carefully chosen–and practiced–to help bring the congregation into God’s presence. It is not simply music to provide a background for your visit with your neighbor. There is plenty of time for that after the service.
  • Be willing to mentor young musicians who want to bring ministry. Yes, they may not be perfect quality–but neither was your favorite preacher when they started. If they are not given opportunities to learn and to share, you might find yourself without any musicians one day in the not-too-distant future.
  • Yes, sometimes it’s easier to simply pop in a CD…but then we all miss something. We miss the opportunity of hearing someone share from their hearts…we miss the person-to-person connection, the intimacy and the ways that music can draw us together.

Every church musician I know recognizes that sometimes a last-minute change can’t be helped and is willing to work with that. But when / if that happens frequently, then it’s easy to become discouraged and cynical and feel that what you provide is simply filler (religious Muzak, if you will).

If we want music in our worships that will help us go deeper in our spiritual journey, then we have to do more than simply value music. We also have to value the musicians who provide it.

Music – the spice of life!

This last weekend I went to two different–but exciting–concerts.

The first one was a fusion of two groups that one would normally not think about putting together…Quixotic Fusion and the strings and percussion of the Kansas City Symphony. I really didn’t have any idea what to expect–but had a fantastic 80-minute multi-sensory musical experience! The music flowed seamlessly from classical to fusion and back…there were dancers who danced solo, in groups, behind a scrim with animation…and there were incredible aeralists who interpreted the music with heart-stopping moves.

The second concert was an organ performance by Vincent Dubois,  a young (31 years old) performer who is the Director of the Conservatoire National of Reims and also the titular organist at the Cathedral of Soissons, Soissons, France. He played his entire concert from memory and literally danced up and down the keyboard with music by Bach (of course!), Schumann, Liszt, Franck, Dupré, and Saint-Sæns as well as an improvisation on two submitted themes (the hymn-tune Hyfrodol and “‘Tis a gift to be simple”).

They were very different concerts and yet they both reminded me how important music is to my life. It feeds my soul and provides the spice that life needs.

Muzak, anyone?

I wonder if the ubiquitousness of Muzak has had a negative impact on how we respond to music in a more formal setting…concert hall or church.

I know people tend to roll their eyes when they hear or read “When I was a child…” but I’m going to say it anyway. When I was a child, I remember that there was a difference between the music we heard on the radio and the music we heard in the concert hall and church…and there was a difference in the way we reacted to it. Radio music was (at least sometimes) background music–music we talked over, unless there was a song you really wanted to listen to (like “Big Bad John”). When we went to a concert or church, though, we made a special effort to go someplace out of our ordinary activities–and we treated the music differently as well. It was something special to listen to.

And then came Muzak.

It was everywhere! While initially it was in elevators, soon you couldn’t go anywhere without some sort of music playing…restaurants, stores, elevators…

And music was no longer something “special.” Instead, sometimes it became annoying, because it disrupted our conversations–and sometimes we had to speak louder to be heard over it.

I think we’re seeing the unfortunate results of that today.

In concert halls, there are times when you can hear individuals talk during a piece. Not just whisper something quietly to their neighbor about what they’re hearing–but carrying on complete conversations with a friend on their cell phone! Do they stop to think about how they’re disrupting the concert experience for others? or the disrespect they’re showing towards the composer and the performers?

And church… The prelude, rather than providng a means for the congregation to enter into the spirit of the service, unfortunately has often become church Muzak–music to visit by. And if the poor musician has happened to select a piece that builds to a climax, so does the volume of the congregational visiting. What about the postlude? Again, rather than seeing it (along with the prelude) as the “bookends” for the worshiping experience…the “stuff” that holds the service together…it’s seen as music to leave by, visiting about lunch, whatever seasonal game is on…

 Is it time to do away with Muzak? I’d like to–but unfortunately it’s taken such a hold in our society that I don’t think it’s possible to dig it out.

Perhaps it’s up to those of us for whom music is soul-nourishing, whether it’s in concert or church, to set the example…to educate by word and deed…to reclaim music as something to respect and honor.

People who impact your life…

I just received word today of the death of someone I haven’t had much contact with for a number of years…but who had a significant impact on my life.

Millicent Daugherty was active in the fine arts for many years in my hometown. She sang the soprano solos in Handel’s Messiah for the Independence Messiah Choir eight years, and that is where she impacted me.

One of those years, the choir–or a small portion of it (that could fit in a TV studio)–sang a number of pieces for a combination promo / community services program. I was accompanying them at the time, and among the pieces selected were a few of the favorite solos.

I don’t remember who the other soloists were. I suppose that’s because we practiced their pieces a couple of times and they were satisfied that we were ready and would do a good job.

But that wasn’t Millicent’s way. She was going to be singing “I Know that My Redeemer Lives”–and we practiced it until I was about ready to scream! She had it down by heart…I knew it well…why did we have to keep going over it?

I discovered part of the reason why when we began the filming. Everyone was a bit nervous…unsure of what was going to be going on–and there a number of distractions with all the cameras. I don’t remember any problems with the other soloists–I guess it went well.

What I do remember with Millicent’s solo, though, was that because of the hours of practice we had put in, we both knew it so well that nothing could distract us. We were perfectly together–I knew what she was going to do! We were in tune!

And for Millicent, that solo wasn’t just words. It was her statement of faith. There was no doubt in her mind that her Redeemer lives.

She taught me a lot in that experience. I’m not a vocal soloist–my area of music is keyboard playing. But she reminded me of the importance of knowing something so well that you can be right with someone, making changes if necessary without anyone being any wiser. She helped me understand that music can be a witness of what you believe–it’s more than just words and / or notes on a page. She taught me the importance of practice, even if I’ve done something many times before–each performance is new to those who hear it, and I need to make it the best I can.

Her music, as Bach’s, could indeed be prefaced by “Soli del Gloria”–“to God alone the glory.” And I will never forget her testimony–“I know that my redeemer lives!”

“They will know we are Christians by our love…”

I thought about this song this morning as I was teaching our senior high class…

The reason it came to mind was because of a couple of stories I heard recently. In one of them, a young single mother, working as a waitress, had worked really hard to meet the needs of an after-church crowd at a nice restaurant. After they left, she saw what looked like a $20 bill on the table. She was really excited because this meant that she could pick up some much-needed supplies for her baby. However, when she picked it up, it was only a look-alike. On it was this note: “Were you excited when you thought this was a real $20 bill? How much more excited you would be if you only accepted Jesus as your savior.” The friend who was working with her–and who told this story–said that the young woman was really let down…and wondered how Christians could be so cruel as to pretend to lift someone up, only to drop them.

In the other story, a man indicated that one of their favorite restaurants would now be closed on Sunday. They had been closed on Monday, but they were now going to reopen that day and give their staff Sunday off. They knew it would cause them a significant loss of income–but it wasn’t for any religious reasons. When the owner was questioned as to why, the answer was this: “The Sunday crowd was rude, unappreciative, demanding, and difficult to work with. The restaurant was having problems getting staff willing to work on Sundays because they did not like the abuse they had to take from customers.”

I have no problems with people bearing a witness of their beliefs. But my dad had a saying that he often used: “What you do speaks so loudly that I can’t hear what you say.”