Tuesday, October 28, 2008


It is full-bore autumn, and the pastoral staff are on retreat. The trees in Wisconsin - as at home - are in their glory. The air is cool, and the wind is blustery. Retreat is the pause that refreshes just before everything kicks into high gear for the holidays. It is the harbinger of an autumn birthday, and whatever else it involves it also is a few days when I can't help think of all that I have left undone. But it is a great good gift. I am thankful.

Two recent episodes with colleague friends - friend colleagues - have perhaps revealed more about myself than I care to know. Or maybe, if I dare to put a positive spin on my bad behavior, they simply illustrate the tension or pressure I feel this time of year. Blustery is probably the best way to describe the weather and these encounters.

In both cases, a simple question or comment opened some kind of door out of which rushed a torrent of opinion, a storm of high-mindedness, a lot of hot air. Without going into a lot of detail - suffice to say the adjective "boorish" might be a kind description - the upshot of these windbag encounters was a reminder that being "right" is no excuse for a lack of grace, no reason to tell everything I know, no platform for diagnosing situations from a distance, no cause for discounting the experience and subjective appraisal of others.

Today I sit here humbled ... not by my friends and colleagues, as I deserve, but by my conscience and (I trust) the Holy Spirit. I do not think my opinions wrong or unfounded or merely subjective. But my bluster betrayed a pride, an impatience, probably a fear, certainly a lack of confidence in the light I have received. I have gone back to my colleagues and friends to apologize for the bluster. I have come to see myself as a crank, a boor, and maybe a dinosaur. But I am learning to trust God to change that in me.

I do still believe these things are true:
1) it is wrong for a church to have 2 styles of worship on offer every week.
2) many of the RUF tunes are pathetic pieces of poor melodic craft.
Now, can I communicate these things with grace and humor? Apprarently not yet, but perhaps some day by God's grace.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

milestone, copyright

At home this week, on a study break. My singular task - to finally complete the syllabification of all collected hymns, to be sent on to the music editor.

I have just reached a significant milestone: I am now done with this task, for all texts under copyright. It looks like exactly 100 hymns, from about 425 in the collection. The one reservation being, that I am certain there are still a few hymns to be included, which are not in this collection. Oh well, we take our milestones where and when we can.

It is also regrettable that as I send these texts on to Ed Childs, I am finding how great is the number of tunes he was not given this summer. He kindly and diligently gave his summer to this project, and met his own deadline of completing that task (all tunes engraved and waiting for syllabified text) on time. For my part, I am still limping along, though I had the same deadline. Now I find that he still has some engraving to do.

Which is why this project seems never-ending. But today I am celebrating this step. And now I go back to the top, to work on the remaining Public Domain hymns. Though I have already done some PD, I have to look at this as 25% down, 75% to go.

Back to work!

Monday, October 20, 2008

A tempo

I heard an interview with Terry Gross ("Fresh Air") and Quincy Jones, that as a conductor and song leader, I think about a lot. In fact, I should look back and see if I've already written about it in this space! It wouldn't surprise me. (I'm pretty sure the link to Fresh Air is the interview I am thinking about.)

Ms. Gross asked Mr. Jones about his success producing recordings for so many artists in so many genres. His single-word reply: Tempo. It all boils down, he expanded, to getting the tempo right.

The counsel plagues me, frequently. It cautions me as I prepare for choir rehearsal. It colors the way I hear organists lead hymns. It makes me a little uptight as a song-leader. And when I get the tempo wrong - or am in a position to fix someone else's tempo, and don't - it haunts me, sometimes for days!

Quincy Jones, whose music and recordings have long been part of my life sound-track, is not the final word on this subject. But it is a wise word: most of getting our music right is getting the tempo right. Even when everything else is spot on, the wrong tempo will spoil it. But in reality, getting the tempo just right is often the key to getting everything else the way it should be.

Learn from the best, apply lessons wherever you can, shake off the mistakes, and press on. That's my motto today.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Gone Global

Well, it wasn't quite a full gestation. But, 8 months after hearing the Goshen College Women's World Music Choir (February 2008, Grand Rapids ACDA), we have given birth to our own little World Music Choir at College Church. And, serving as midwife? The GCWWMC themselves!

In the weeks following their epiphanic performance, I was possessed by the dream of getting something going with the high school students, singing world music. On the immediate horizon was inaugural high school art festival sponsored by our youth group. Then they were into a season of preparation for the biennial World Impact teams - 5 groups working in 5 countries this past summer. Meanwhile, my eager co-conspirator, high school pastor Jonathan Cummings, chatted up a few students on the idea. So when school began and it was time to test the waters, an announcement was made in a Sunday morning youth meeting. 16 students signed up. A week later the high school group saw a video with a couple of Goshen choir performances. The next Sunday afternoon, 15 kids showed up for our first rehearsal.

We've met 4 times over 5 weeks, and have seen a total of 20 students come at least once. The core remains about 15, with 6 guys who can sing and seem to have fun (at the same time); and young women who can hear and sing parts. We learned a South African praise song, "Sithi bonga," worked out some physical elements to the performance, and brought in a drummer to cap off our learning.

Yesterday morning the students sang for their peers and college students. That afternoon they had their long-awaited (long-awaited by me, anyway) workshop with the Goshen choir. My inspiriation, and now theirs too.

Debra Brubaker and nearly 60 women arrived at College Church Saturday afternoon, for a 2-hour rehearsal. Sitting in as they worked through Sunday morning's repertoire, I had a private master class in conducting (generally) and in working with music of other cultures. It was totally worth being indoors on a perfect warm autumn afternoon.

The women stayed in College Church homes, to mutually agreeable satisfaction, by all accounts. But they had a 7am call for our 8:00 service, and a busy - somewhat complicated - morning of missions services. I hope they feel it was worth it. The congregation's response has been warm and appreciative. Two prelude songs brought the choir out into the congregation and back to the loft in procession - an immediate connection made, physically as well as musically. Their song for the missionary procession established a joyous tone for the service. The evocative Celtic offering provided a contemplative spot mid-service, and their postlude succeeded in bringing us with the cherubim into that place where the thrice-holy Trinity is adored. In the service they sang in a South African language, an Asian Indian chant, Swahili, English (tune from Ireland), and from the Bulgarian orthodox liturgy. Transported? Yes.

After lunch, when I know the students would have happily been back on the bus to read, study and sleep before a week of midterms, Debra and the choir met with our fledgling group in a 75-minute workshop. They taught us a couple of songs. We taught them "Sithy bonga." They helped us polish our song, showed us a "move" for it, and introduced rhythmic clapping concepts and ethnic percussion instruments.

Our fledgling Hyacks World Music Choir sang in the service last night. It was a full day for them - or, at least for those who actually participated in everything on the choir's agenda for the day: 10:40 practice, 11:00 sing for peers; 2pm workshop; 5:45 call for the 6pm service. Whew! I guess we must have had a total of 18 involved during the day ... If only they had all been there at one time, I think they would have been amazed at themselves!

Given that we had heard the fabulous Goshen choir all morning, it was probably cheeky - it was certainly risky - to have the students sing last night. But sing they did, with enthusiasm, conviction, new "move" and all. And the congregation loved it. Not simply because it was "our kids." Even those not given to cheap congratulation commented meaningfully and in specific terms on how well the students did. I was pleased with the debut.

I don't know if we will continue - I'm pretty sure we will - nor how, nor when our next appearance will be. But we have just had our first successful go at it. Maybe it shouldn't take a college to start a church choir, but this morning I am thankful for the providential connections that led to our global experience yesterday. I am thankful for a new friend and choral colleague in Debra Brubaker. And I am increasingly thankful to serve a congregation that can support a growing diversity in the arts, prepared and offered to God's glory.

Monday, October 6, 2008

In praise of God meet duty and delight

This is the tag line on my church email signature, credited to Erik Routley. "In praise of God meet duty and delight." I have used it as long as I've used a signature, and prior to that it was the scrolling screen-saver on my work desktop PC. It occasionally elicits an interesting comment or reply - often from something posted on Choralnet's choralist. I've had it with me so long that it was a surprise to have someone quite close to my work here say, last week, "umm ... I never really got that."

What? She had just seen the book on my shelf which prompted the use of this quote - Duty & Delight: Routley Remembered. Erik Routley might well be considered the dean of the mid-20th century British hymn explosion. Among his many contributions to modern hymnody, his magnum opus is the 1985 hymnal (published after his 1982 death), Rejoice in the Lord: A Hymn Companion to the Scriptures. This is on the short list of my reference hymnals.

The editors of the Routley memorial, Robin A. Leaver and James H. Litton, explain the quote:
"The title of this volume, 'Duty and Delight,' may puzzle some, but hardly those who through the years heard what Erik Routley spoke or read what he wrote. "Duty and Delight" is a phrase that Erik frequently used. The words, found in Watts' hymn, a version of Psalm 147
Praise ye the Lord; 'tis good to raise
our hearts and voices in his praise:
his nature and his works invite
to make this duty our delight.
convey the rich understanding that true worship is a paradoxical and joyful combination of God's demands and our responses to Christ." (xii-xiii)

For years I have tried to maintain that conviction at the core of what I want to do in worship music. Not only the music we sing (as congregation or choir) but also in our preparation for making music in the assembly. Singing is an imperative in the Christian life; and obeying this command is also such an obvious pleasure - duty and delight!

Here is one example of how the practice of music helps us exegete the Bible and make theological application. Psalm 119:32 reads "I will run in the way of your commands for you set my heart free." Command and freedom - duty and delight. Is it not instructive that the longest psalm is an embrace of our relationship to the law of God? And the last section of the 119th psalm includes these words: "My lips will pour forth praise, for you teach me your statutes. My tongue will sing of your word, for all your commandments are right... I long for your salvation, O Lord, and your law is my delight." Duty; delight. What does freedom in obeying God's law look like in our lives? It must look a little bit like the pleasure we have when we fulfill our obligation to sing.

Sometimes people think (and sometimes say) that serving in a music ministry isn't real ministry. How could it be, since it is so enjoyable? No, this is the paradox we live and serve in. "In praise of God meet duty and delight."

Routley favorites on my bookshelf:
Church Music and the Christian Faith
Twentieth Century Church Music
and a book that clergy, church musicians, committees and elders could profitably read, The Divine Formula.
I don't know how many are still in print. Find one or more, and read some abiding wisdom about the role of music in the life and practice of Christian worship.