Monday, August 22, 2011

Dry 'bones

An unexpected gift from my sabbatical: I found pleasure in playing the trombone.

People were a little concerned, puzzled, or maybe annoyed that my official sabbatical plans did not explicitly detail musical study during the six months. It was all very well, apparently, that I would be study theology formally, but what about the music? And how well I understood the concern, how deeply I felt the need to grow as a musician.

I found that my "best laid plans" in January had to be modified somewhat, if I was to be the best grad student I could be for the semester. "Dabbling" might be the kindest description of my personal music-making through the semester. So, when classes were done, papers were completed, and finals were taken, I replaced much of that academic time with musical time.

Over the second part of the sabbatical, when we were home, I kept this after-lunch routine: practice the piano, practice the trombone, play around on the recorders, and work toward some competency on the concertina. Oh, and explore - by way of improvising - the melodica, my newest musical instrument, courtesy Christmas 2010.

My piano skills have always been deplorable; barely survival level. I discouraged more than one hopeful piano teacher at Moody Bible Institute. I did, however, manage to complete a performance degree in trombone, at DePaul University, with some distinction. Those recital chops are a remote memory. And I rarely play in public anymore. But something surprising and wonderful happened during the sabbatical: I came to really enjoy the trombone.

I know I should have written, "I came to enjoy the trombone again." But honestly, I'm not sure I ever really truly did enjoy playing the trombone in college. I think I did for a while in the early 1990's when I played with a quintet in Minnesota. But I found myself looking forward to picking up the instrument, playing through old etude books, getting some range back, and increasing my stamina. By the time I came back to work, I was having to cut my practice time shorter than my stamina. What fun!

This business with the trombone has long been a niggling stewardship issue with me. I have a good horn, an excellent education, time and space to practice, and could easily find or make opportunities to play. That I failed the stewardship test was made clear over the past week. I had finagled an opportunity to play in a trombone ensemble in morning services at College Church. Time and again since then, people have remarked, "I had no idea you play trombone." Well, but I've only been here 15 years, and you'd have had to attend just the right services to catch me playing.

I have no idea how often I will be able to play in services, and I can hardly imagine creating other opportunities to play. But still, most weekdays, I am still finding time to pick up the 'bone and keep it fresh. (And yes, I am still plugging away at those deplorable piano exercises, too!) But now it is for the sheer joy of it, the simple pleasure of making music, even if no one else hears or wants to listen to it. And I know that is going to pay big dividends as I return to weekly choir rehearsals and other conducting duties.

Today, I snuck home at lunch time to get in my practice. It's good to have got beyond that "dry 'bones" spell, and to reconnect with what got me into music study, and music ministry, in the first place.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011


I confess. I have a love/hate relationship with 19th century gospel hymns.

I generally appreciate and embrace their very personal, intimate language - but I cringe at the prevalent "lover" language in them. ("Jesus is my boyfriend" is not only a 20th century phenomenon.) I love the story-telling element of the gospel - but generally feel that they are weakened by their refrains. Some are actually fun to sing  - at the same time I have to admit that this feels like a guilty pleasure.

And at College Church, frankly, we just don't sing this repertoire much. A bit in our evening service, rarely in the morning. I hasten to add: this is not a decision based on my own feelings about the hymns. There has never been a time in our morning service history when gospel hymns appeared in any significant way.

But we do not ignore them. And sometimes, don't you know, the sermon, the context of the morning, the requirements of praise demand one of these hymns.

The past two Sundays have been such services. August 7 opened with that great Charles Gabriel text and tune, "I stand amazed in the presence" (My Savior's Love). Almost everything negative I said above does not apply to My Savior's Love. It has an interesting melody, the refrain works strongly after each verse, the text is intimate without being maudlin. It is really a fine, fine hymn. But (I said to myself) it is "one of those" hymns. And so it was, until organist H.E. Singley got his hands on it! Writing parts out for trumpet and horn, H.E. scored the hymn such that the tune and text were respected, but that the whole package sounded "classical." Elevated. It was a revelation, and a powerful, joyful way to begin a communion service.

On August 14, casting about for a closing hymn, I asked the morning preacher, junior high pastor Eric McKiddie, how he'd like us to go. He shot back immediately, "can we use Hallelujah! What a Savior"? (Man of sorrows, what a name) and continued, "the second verse summarizes the point of the text ("in my place condemned he stood") and besides, it's my favorite hymn." Well, that was a no-brainer then. As with My Savior's Love, text and tune are by the same hand, in this case Philip P. Bliss. The gospel is clear, intimate, complete. There is not actually a refrain, but each stanza ends the same, "Hallelujah! What a Savior!" The dangers with this hymn is that it can either be all-out rollicky gospel, or funereal. Again, we were led through the singing of this hymn at a perfect pace, thoughtfully, majestically even. (I would never have considered Man of Sorrows a majestic hymn, but there it was!). Elevated. It was a revelation, and a powerful, thoughtful way to conclude the service.

Following confession - repentance. Trust these old hymns that have staying power. Trust your musicians. Trust the congregation. Stay out of the way, and let the gospel sing in its many forms. It will be truly elevating.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Mad Respect

A kind reader sent me this link. I don't know this reader, but he obviously has a good sense of humor. And somehow he guessed that I might, too?

I provide the link to the original blog post (Gospel Coalition, Thabiti Anyabwile) in case you want some context for the video.

But if you have about 10 minutes, you can just see the video here. Do take time to watch it all the way through. There are some laugh-out-loud lines in it, and a nice surprise/touch at the end.


Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Interesting message, interesting tune

I've been thinking a lot lately about melody, or more accurately the need for melodic craft in songs and hymns for congregational singing. Big arena, lots of potential for disaster in it, and always the risk of pitting "my opinion" against yours.

I think when it concerns me most is when I hear song after song in student settings, with good words, interesting and apt rhythms (maybe), but directionless melodies. Non-tunes, really; often repetitive phrases with no developmental structure. And hey, I'm not exactly a music theory geek; certainly not a form & structure expert.

In a conversation yesterday with a student headed off to his freshman year of collegiate music studies, I was struck with his observation that so much more could be done in youth group music, to attract students to Christ and the Church. He was talking about preparation, and he was talking about craft. One observation that came out - why do we take such an interesting message and set it to such uninteresting tunes?

This student does not plan to study "classical" music, but "commercial." He isn't, in other words, some nerdy 18-year-old Baroque fanatic (yes, I've known those), more a "show choir band" dude. But he's thinking about the same things I'd want him to consider if he were contemplating a vocation in church music.

I am (theoretically, or at least perceived) "too old" to have an impact on the youth culture in my church or the church at large. But I hope I can still get to those who think, plan, and lead young "worship musicians" and help them see that the music really does matter. If we really have something to sing about, let's make sure it's sung in a way that is worth hearing and listening to. Let's write melodies that live up to the great words we use. Let's plant songs in our students' hearts that will stand up to the challenges of their minds, hearts, and experiences. Let's out-melody the chaos around us!