Monday, November 1, 2010

Order! Order in the Courts

6 weeks ago I walked into my house at the end of a full, busy Tuesday office day. I heard something unusual, something I did not want to believe. Water. Dripping. A lot.

Some time during the day, a leak had developed in an upstairs bathroom. A tank had been draining, then re-filling, then draining. For how long, we don't really know, only that it began after we left for work that day, and was still in process at 5:30 that afternoon. It took only a matter of minutes to diagnose the problem, locate the source, and stop the water. A few more minutes to assess the apparent damage: which turned out to include both upstairs baths, carpet in the hallway and one bedroom; kitchen cabinets, ceiling and a wall; and a basement bedroom wall, ceiling and carpet. In short, the central core of our house was going to need some drying out.

And, ultimately, repairs. Now, 6 weeks later, we have our baths back, but are just getting started on the kitchen. The basement bedroom might be pretty low priority at any other time of the year. But with four grown children coming home for Thanksgiving, the clock is ticking even on that space.

It's a heck of a condition to be in to celebrate my 55th birthday this week! But I have had many occasions since "the flood" to be reminded that what my Karen and I are experiencing are only inconveniences. Two of our friends have had serious, life-threatening illnesses surface. A woman from my choir collapsed and died - quickly and unexpectedly -  a couple of weeks ago. The choir sang her service one week ago (beautifully; Virgil Thomson's "My shepherd will supply my need"). My biggest problem is not remembering where I put things, since all my usual drop-points have changed!

So, to celebrate an unexpected and completely unimportant mid-life crisis, Here's a shout out Happy Birthday to me!

Monday, October 18, 2010


This is one of those anniversary convergence years. I'm not sure why 5-year increments seem so important in our culture. Why is it that 25 years is more significant than, say, 21? (21 would be 7 years - a perfect number- times 3, accumulating perfection!) Why do we feel that a 49-year marriage is somehow disappointing, should one spouse not survive to the 50th? Curious.

Still, given how we do consider anniversaries, this is a big year for me. In decreasing order of importance:
  • 35 years of marriage (celebrated in June)
  • 25 years of full-time music ministry (quietly noted in July)
  • 55th birthday (around the corner)
Given the life-long commitment Karen and I made, as kids in 1975, it seems appropriate that this date is also the first anniversary I observe each year. It is also the one I have the most to say about year to year. I may not control my employment/vocation longevity, and I sure don't know when I will die. But so far as it depends on me, this marriage bond and covenant, this most coveted relationship and aspect of my life, is something I will do everything I can to hang onto.

The biggest surprise of my life was being called into vocational ministry. I didn't look for it, and I didn't prepare for it - not, at least, in the usual ways. But I welcomed it, and continue to celebrate the privilege and joy of it. Most of the time. There is only one relationship or commitment or covenant that trumps this calling: and I celebrate that each year, one month earlier.

Now, as to my age. Of course there is nothing I can do about that. I can't take credit for it, and I can't predict how many birthdays I'll have. I may be able to do some things, little things, wise things, to live well while I can. But I can't control my age. "My time is in [God's] hands." "So teach us to number our days aright." And that's really the best I can do.

But it does set me to wondering, as I approach that august age, 55. Official AARP eligibility. At College Church, I could move from "guest pastor" to official member of the Keenagers group. It all makes me wonder - what will the next 10-15 years of my vocational ministry be like, anyway? Will I continue to serve in all the ways I have done? Will I retain the privilege of overseeing and leading duly constituted services of worship? Will I train younger musicians to step into these roles? All of the above? Some of the above? None of the above?

These questions are not pensive, but exciting. I enjoy my work, the musicians and pastors I get to work with, and the satisfaction of entering my 15th year at College Church. I am enrolled in a graduate theology course, and applying for admission to that degree program. I think there has never been a more exciting time to be in church music - never more opportunity to serve creatively. I am convinced that regardless of how it looks, my calling will keep me engaged with planning and leadership of gathered worship.

If I don't know what it will all look like, next year, or a decade from now - well, then that is just like a bike ride in a city I haven't been in before. I know how to navigate, how to ride safely, and the right things to look for ... everything else is adventure.

Monday, October 11, 2010


I have recently tried to wrestle some order into certain parts of my life. In particular, carving out time to keep up my professional reading. It was embarrassing to see a pile of journals dating back more than a year. The Hymn and the Choral Journal would lie in a pile, or add weight to my brief case, and I would get more depressed with the arrival of each new issue, knowing it too would go unread.

But I did catch up this summer, and have chiseled my calendar to include time to do this kind of reading each week. And to take a longer time (a sort of mini-retreat) quarterly, to undertake reading that will help me but that may not appear to be "essential" to my daily work.

Of course, the thing about that is, that naturally when I do not keep up with my professional reading, my daily work suffers. Perhaps (at first) only in ways that I notice or care about. But ultimately in ways that others will notice, even if they don't know what it is that they are noticing. It's like the old saw about practicing: "If I go a day without practicing, I know it; if I go two days without practicing, other musicians know it; if I go three days without practicing, everyone knows it."

So, it was with some smug self-satisfaction that last week I picked up the Choral Journal and came across the full description of the ACDA national convention, just a day or two after online registration opened. For the first time, I was an "early adapter" - I registered long before the fees go up, and even secured the hotel room I want for the event!

The downside is ... I can hardly wait. The ACDA holds national conventions biannually, in odd-numbered years. I do not get to all of them. I have twice missed the San Antonio meetings, and apparently I will always regret that. My first national was in San Diego - which, as a midwesterner in the winter, was as close as I suppose I'll ever get to heaven on earth. For the Miami national convention I had leadership duties, but had to cut that one short due to the sudden death of my Karen's younger brother. Miami now has a pall over it, in my memory. (Though I was delighted to hear both Millikin University Choir and Wheaton's Concert Choir there.)

My all-time favorite national convention was New York City in 2003. I had been in a professional funk for a year or so, and survived it by telling myself "I just have to stick with this long enough to get to NY!" I survived the funk, and the blizzard that kept me in that fantastic city two days longer than I had planned. Excellent! The convention was a highlight of my ACDA experiences, including an extraordinary address to worship musicians, by Dr. Bruce Leafblad. Not to mention a great rate at a non-convention hotel, which was nevertheless conveniently located to everything the convention had to offer.

But ACDA 2011 will again be back in my home town, Chicago. This is the 3rd convention (2nd national) here since 1996 when I moved back to the area. I love to be downtown even in the winter (and yes, the 2nd week of March is still winter here). And I love to protect that convention time. Most people know that conferences, meetings, conventions, and retreats are always better "away." There is too much gravity pulling you back to your desk, your office, your calendar, your life, if you sleep in your own bed while trying to be somewhere else during the day. So, when ACDA is in town, I take a room in the city and make it an "away" event.

I easily bypassed the convention hotel for another on the list. I was offered a room with a city view or a lake view, by my personal favorite, the Swissotel. Both were steeply discounted for ACDA registrants, and even the costlier lake view is less expensive than the convention hotel. But for my money (literally) I'm with the city view. A - I won't be in the room during the day; B - it's March, for crying out loud; that means a basically gray lakeview with possibly no distinction between lake, sky, and shoreline; C - who can pass up this amazing skyline, lit up at night. Hey, I'll stay away from cocktail parties for that view!

(Note to church members reading this blog: what do I know about cocktail parties?)

So, that's the kid in me - a trip to the city, staying in a nice hotel, and 4 days downtown. The professional in me is every bit as eager for the convention proper. Throughout each day, concert sessions feature 3 or 4 auditioned choirs - choirs of all types - each presenting a 25-minute program. We will hear children's choirs, students of all ages, and community choirs. Special performances punctuate the event, including choirs from around the world, professional groups (Chanticleer, anyone?), and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Chorus with Elijah conducted by Helmuth Rilling. One has to have a high tolerance for outstanding choral music to survive this convention. No, I wouldn't miss it.

Not to mention workshops, interest sessions, reading new music. All this in the context of friendships renewed and begun. The ACDA national convention is the most tiring four days I ever look forward to. And I always come home (even just from downtown) ready and eager for the rest of the choral season.

I can hardly wait!

Wednesday, October 6, 2010


OK, so I've been busy, all right? And some of that busy-ness has prompted reflection that I'd rather not air in a public forum. It's been hard to write, and all 3 of my blogs have been somewhat dormant.

I've been on hiatus, but not one of my choosing.

My email filter caught a message this week from a regular email correspondent. I'm not sure why this particular note was held as junk mail. The subject line was simply "Hiatus," which made me wonder, did my spam guard not know the meaning of that word? I had to stop myself from spinning that out - how could Mr. Filter make something nefarious out of "hiatus?" Best left unexplored, I think. Hiatus.

Lacuna. I've always loved that word - lacuna. I probably would not know it but for studies in musicology. A blank space or missing part. I've been on hiatus from my blogs, and that has left a lacuna, for me if for no one else. Another word that might be misunderstood, I suppose. It does make me feel like taking a vacation, perhaps in a cabana beside a quiet ... you know, laguna. "Lacuna matata," the catchy slogan for a blog gone quiet.

Laconic. My daughter replied to an email earlier this week, "I'm always being ironic." To which I shot back, "while I'm always being laconic." Patently false, in terms of my actual blog posts, by the way. But I think pretty close to the mark in conversation. Just ask my Karen. And my colleagues. Perhaps my choir wish it were more so in rehearsals.

Now here it is, October, 6 or 7 weeks into a new choir season, leaves turning brilliantly, Christmas music prep underway, a sort of mini-disaster at my house (still in disarray), a grad course in theology threatening yet one more aspect of my self-esteem, and yet oddly it feels like I am just settling into "normal."

Let the hiatus draw to a close, the lacunae fill in, and the blog posts be laconic.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Phish or Ghoti?

The band Phish played two concerts in Chicago this weekend. A couple of my grown children used to be Phish fans (and maybe still are), which was my point of reference when I heard the announcements on Chicago's public radio station - which was both cool and ... strange. And hearing the band's name again set up a string of associations. Bear with me!

First, the spelling of the name. Well, it's rather obvious. But I had recently seen the YouTube post "Everyday IPA" at the ChoralNet daily blog, and was still chuckling over that. And that made me think of the notion, generally attributed to George Bernard Shaw, that with the outrageous inconsistencies in English spelling, the word "fish" could be spelled ghoti.

Shaw is credited with this facetious observation, because he was an ardent advocate for the reform of English spelling. A reform which I suppose school children would welcome, as would those learning English as a second language. But without an English version of L'Academie francaise it just never can take hold. The argument - made to highlight how crazy it is to have a language with such diverse spelling options - goes like this:
gh - "f" as in laugh
o - "i" as in women
ti - "sh" as in election or initial
Of course, there are rules of pronunciation that actually rule out that the letters put in the given order would be pronounced "fish." Gh only carries the "f" sound at the end of words, for example. And yet, I suppose this is part of the point for Shaw or whomever would use ghoti to argue for spelling reform. Those may be the rules, but ... why?

OK, I can't help but think of my work, and particularly that part of the work that decides what the congregation will sing in worship. If we want to sing about "fish" - must we sing "phish" to appeal to a younger, pop-music-driven crowd? On the other hand, may our song ever be so esoteric as to hide "fish" in ghoti? What if we have both a youthful crowd, and a highly educated crowd, together? Wouldn't "fish" be best served up, in its simplest, most straight-forward, standard form?

I can certainly ask the same of preachers. Why talk "phish" in a multi-generational context? And please, don't take a detour in the arcane and tell me why "fish" is really ghoti is really - after all -  fish!

I'm trying to finish up my prep work for the new choir season. We won't be singing any Phish, and I'll try to be careful that ghoti doesn't factor into the repertoire here, either. Here's to clarity: which is not simplistic, not the tried and true, and certainly not tasteless. But which we can count on being direct, honest, and beautiful.

Monday, August 2, 2010

photo op

I had to take my dog to the vet the other day. Poor fellow. And my dog, too; I also felt sorry for Truman.

Truman (it's not a political name; it's for the Jim Carrey role) had to leave the examining room with the vet, while I stayed behind. Normally my Karen takes Tru in, and I understand nearly all visits go this way. The poor vet. I had to wait in the examining room and, unusually, had not brought along something to read.

So, I looked at the informational posters. The photo montage of the cats and dogs that this vet cares for, whatever was on the wall. And eventually I got to this photo I'm going to try to describe. You've seen a photomosaic before, I'm sure. Perhaps the classic is the "photo" of Abraham Lincoln. As you approach it, it takes on a pointillistic look, and then upon inspection you see that it is comprised of fourscore and seven tiny photographs, all of them of Abraham Lincoln, but not all of them alike.

This was that technique, a picture of "a dog" that was, upon closer inspection, many pictures of all kinds of dogs, put together in just such a way as to create someone's idea (I suppose) of the ideal dog. (Though, I have to say, it didn't look like Truman, so ...)

And, POW! It was but a small quick hop to see how like a photomosaic a choir is. Visually, a robed choir is like this. I recently had occasion to defend the concept of a robed choir at my church. My argument is always: we want to be seen as a whole, not as a group of individuals; no one stands out in a robed choir. Those who see are not distracted by the very well dressed nor the, shall we say, sartorially challenged among us.

And aurally, any choir is like this. "More than the sum of its parts" only begins to describe it. Let's say the featured "dog" in question is an Australian Shepherd mix (just for example's sake, and let's call him Truman). He is beautiful, and you want to get closer to him. But as you do, you notice that his picture is comprised of other kinds of shepherds, bird dogs, lap dogs, ratters, fancy show dogs, and that lousy mutt down the street whose business always ends up in your front yard. The church choir, in particular (and I suppose most school choirs, many community choirs, and others with which I have no experience) may include the gamut of musical experience, ability, finesse, etc. They have, perhaps, very little in common, and mostly that is: they sing. One may or may not wish to hear every participant sing alone, just as one may or may not wish to own a Dachshund or a Great Dane. But their combined sound will, with proper care, result in a "picture" that may be surprising - surprising in its composite ("what?! you made us into an Aussie?!") and surprising in its detail ("what?! you included a Chihuahua?!").

Some artist has to create the photomosaic. I see that there is software that will do this. Of course there is. But in the end, it takes an artful eye to make it truly pleasing and more surprising the closer you get to the picture. It is not all about technique.

Some artist has to create the choralmosaic. Sure, I can learn techniques to help with it. But in the end, it will take an artful ear to turn a group of people (I refuse to stoop to the easy joke here) into a choir that people will want to hear, week after week, season to season, year to year.

I don't have a photomosaic in my home or office. If I did, I'm sure I would begin to take the overall picture for granted. I might even get bored with it. I certainly would if I didn't stop, now and then anyway, to look at the little details that made up the whole. To explore and enjoy the little Lincolns, or the array of breeds, that made up the big picture. Just like working with the choir. It is not all about the overall sound, the big picture, it is every bit as much about the details, the tiny pieces, the individuals who allow themselves to be placed just so in this work.

Well, it's an imperfect analogy, and I want to consider it more. But it's a helpful one. I should just probably use the Lincoln photo, and not the dog photo, when I begin to apply it to my own choir.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Directors Chorus

I've been out of the office for three weeks, and there are a few stories from that absence. But right in the middle of this vacation I attended the IL-ACDA Summer Re-Treat. One of the highlights of our annual summer conference is the Directors Chorus, conducted by a guest of national/international stature, and always a stimulating few days of music-making.

The Chorus is comprised of all the choir directors attending the conference. The days also include reading sessions (by interest area), other plenary sessions (on topics of choral musicianship, conducting technique, etc.), gatherings around interest areas (for example, Music in Worship), and some really fun social time. There are people I look forward to seeing at each Re-Treat, whom I never see at any other time of the year. And always new people to meet and enjoy.

This year's guest conductor was Charles Bruffy. Mr. Bruffy is the artistic director of the Phoenix Chorale, the Kansas City Chorale and the Kansas City Symphony Chorus. Oh, and he has a church gig. In the first 30 seconds of our first rehearsal, I knew I was going to enjoy this! Over the course of two days, we had seven rehearsals with Mr. Bruffy, ranging in length from 60 minutes (the standard was 50) to 20 minutes (just before 'curtain'). The second evening of Re-Treat we performed a program of 8 pieces. None of them were perfect, but most of them were sung well and meaningfully. The others were .. fun, at least.

There was not a lot of music in this program that I could use in worship at College Church. And, to be completely honest, there was a lot said in rehearsal that I probably won't be repeating in my own church choir rehearsals! Nothing inappropriate, mind you, but maybe just a tad outrageous for the folks I stand in front of each week. Apt, and instructive, and with good results obtained. And loads of fun.

The big take-away for me, for my work, was Bruffy's intense concentration on the clear articulation of individual words. The texts really jumped off the page. I am eager to get going in our own rehearsals and implement especially the diction lessons. As a choir in worship, what we are privileged to sing is so important - I really want us to improve in the way that comes across each time we sing. I have a feeling it will be a tough go at first. We will sing things we already know, and slip into our comfortable habits with them. When we learn new pieces, working diction will feel like learning slower. But I hope that we can establish the concepts quickly, and learn to apply them consistently to music familiar and new. It will take some time! And patience on both sides of the podium. And consistency on my side of the podium.

I think I laughed a lot in these rehearsals. It's always fun to be a chorister, and a Directors Chorus is every bit as intractable as a church choir. But I resonated so much with Charles's personality and approach. To my own choir, I often apologize for sarcasm (it is my besetting sin). But I have to admit, in the right hands it is an effective communications tool. I only wish mine were as easy to take as we got in these rehearsals. (And, though I never felt they were called for, Mr. Bruffy did often stop to apologize. In my view, he needn't have bothered.)

A few quick quotes that my choir will no doubt hear early in the next season. As Charles said right up front, "plagiarize ... and interpret ideas as if they are your own." So, who knows where some of the following originated. But here are a few from this summer's Directors Chorus:
  • "Get a return on your investment." In other words, if you worked so hard to get this thing right, here, why squander that time and energy by not applying it everywhere?
  • "Make it a game, to get things right the first time." Why are singers apparently so content to muddle through in sight-reading?
  • "Listen louder than you sing." This I've heard any number of times, and I always can use it.   
  • "Vibrato is a beautiful thing, until it draws attention to itself. And/or causes intonation problems. D - all of the above." Enough said.
I only wish the Directors Chorus experience could somehow be held about a day and a half before my first rehearsal in the fall!

Monday, June 21, 2010

Encouragement, not self-congratulation

Reading others' blogs recently, I was encouraged in a couple of ways.

First, from a Welsh preacher who was in the College Church pulpit on June 13. An excellent preacher with a vibrant ministry in Cardiff, Wales, Peter Baker was our guest for special services to kick off our summer. It was good to meet Peter, and to have a few minutes to talk about music in the life of the church. Two minor quibbles - his accent is English, not Welsh, and he apparently doesn't do Richard Burton impersonations. But he does have the same handsome features. And he is funny!

Peter was visiting a number of churches of various types, on a 3-week "study" trip to the U.S. In his last post before heading back to Cardiff, he wrote:  "When I joined in the singing of Guide me O Thou Great Redeemer ... I remembered how rarely I had felt personally involved in the worship of the majority of churches I had attended in the US. Worship as a spectator sport was the consistent experience over here, except in College Church Wheaton." What a nice nod to his time in our morning services. This is not self-congratulatory - of me or of this church - but rather just that it's encouraging to have someone experience what we probably take for granted, and then to say so, so publicly

And I have to ask, but again I don't mean anything by asking: Is it coincidental that College Church is also the most "traditional" of the churches Peter visited? Seriously, it is an honest question. And again, I mean nothing self-congratulatory by even asking the question. Food for thought.

The second bit of encouragement, or food for thought, comes from today's Choral Net blog post. Today's post points to a favorite author and blogger, Alex Ross. The subject is the culture of applause, with some surprising history that suggests our concert etiquette (strict rules about when to applaud) are fairly recent. The blogger, Allan Simon summarizes: "the 'traditional' way of listening to classical music is largely the invention of Wagner, who created a quasi-religious aura around his musical creations."

The questions raised by the Choral Net post have to do with an audience's engagement with the music being made in their presence. Is there a mechanism for immediate, even visceral, response to beautiful and/or moving music? Do we lose something by controlling individual responses as music is being made? Why do we have to wait for the last notes to fade away before applauding?

It is one of the replies to Allen Simon's post that elicited another small bit of encouragement: "If you really want to hear beautiful music performed without applause put on your favorite CD or go to a fine church service. (There are exceptions!)." Interesting that Alex Ross points to the quasi-religious setting of Bayreuth as the beginning of concert etiquette restraint. In his essay (which is linked to the Choral Net blog) Ross demonstrates that Mozart's concert music was routinely "interrupted" by applause. But it is hard to imagine that this happened in the Salzburg cathedral, with his vocal music or even the church sonatas. So, a sense of decorum that one has to assume comes with a sense of place and of purpose.

And, again, I ask the question, apropos the reply just quoted (go to a fine church service. (There are exceptions!)) - but I don't mean anything by asking it. Would that be more true of "traditional" church services than other "fine" services? And what is gained, and what is lost, by our control of the peoples' responses in public worship? Or is it really a virtue, that there exist church services with a sense of place and purpose that make applause seem ... out of place?

I do not mean it to be self-congratulatory when I say that I am thankful for this place, where people still participate heartily in the acts of praise, and where there is a sense that whatever our responses may be, the response of the concert hall is somehow inappropriate. Inadequate, even, if I may say so. I long for more responses, and deeper, interrupting (if you will) the flow of our service. But let's not confuse things by mis-reading the venue or changing the direction of our attention.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Humility and Limitations

Several guys from our pastoral team attended the conference, Together for the Gospel, back in April. They brought back the conference booklet, which contained the songs (er, rather, hymns) sung at that gathering of some 7,000.

A couple of things really struck me in this collection:
  • of the 18 songs (er, rather, hymns) sung, only one (1) was completely new to me. We have since introduced it to our evening service, and I commend it: "All I have is Christ" by Jordan Kauflin
  • of the 17 songs which were not completely new to me, only 4 have not been sung in morning services here at College Church (and, interestingly, 3 of those are among the oldest hymns in the lot)
  • Only 5 of the 18 have "new" words or tunes.
  • I could go on with other interesting tidbits about the selections, but the most interesting feature, to me, is
  • All the songs are presented in 4-part harmony!
T4G music leader Bob Kauflin (whose fine "O great God" is included) wrote about this decision in his always readable blog. The author of a book I have been recommending, Worship Matters, Kauflin discussed the request to present music this way, was frank about how this put him out of his comfort zone, and demonstrated what it looks like to serve others with joy.

Just to give a little taste of this post: Whatever limitations you face when you lead, see them as opportunities for God to do something better than what you would have done on your own. If nothing else, limitations imposed on us by others are occasions to trust God more intently and “look not only to our own interests, but also the interests of others” (Phil. 2:4)

Take a look at the hymns used at the conference, and learn at least one new one, for the good of your spirit this week!

Monday, June 7, 2010

No turning back, no turning back

I've just had lunch with a friend whose leadership in church music is quite different from mine. He has served churches as a full-time musician, as a part-timer, and in a volunteer capacity. I have often said that I have served two large churches because I am not talented enough to serve a small church. Keith (let's call my friend Keith) is talented enough to serve small churches, and would make an excellent music leader in a large church as well.

He is currently in a church now as a lay participant, which he used to serve as a staff member. In that earlier period, he introduced contemporary music into the services- under the leadership of the church board. He has been away, and is now back in a different capacity, and said to me over lunch, "once that change [to a contemporary service] is made, there is no turning back."

This from a man who appreciates contemporary music, and whose ideal musical setting he describes as "blended." Keith has history in this church, and is hardly a "baby with the bath" kind of guy. But he has come up against the juggernaut of style-driven, revelevance-seeking music decisions. That is, the juggernaut of contemporary services.

Not "contemporary music" mind you. Contemporary services. To be clear, in this case the objection is not to the musical selection, but the musical limitation that comes with a self-described contemporary service. And it sounds like the church in question is pretty sincere and rigorous about what is contemporary. The copyright date drives the music placed before the congregation. "Contemporary classics" from the 1990's do not factor into the services, even as nostalgia pieces. Turn of the millenium songs do not pass muster. The calendar does not turn back farther than five years, in this place.

Once down that road, it seems, there is no turning back.

I'm struck with the importance of turning back. Of looking back. Of welcoming what came before. Of learning from my elders, my forebears, my ancestors in faith and practice. I won't sing everything that has survived the test of time ... may sing very little of it, in fact, given its sheer volume. But how could I ignore it? How could I thrive today without the inherited riches of yesterday?

Once down that road there is no turning back. But by turning back, I hope by God's grace to better navigate the road ahead. Unlike driving, in which all that is behind disappears in the rear-view mirror, in this thing of congregational song we can bring all that beauty along with us as we move on down the road. So, why wouldn't we?

Monday, May 10, 2010

A long faithfulness

I had the pleasure this past weekend to attend the alumni-driven retirement dinner for an important person in my musical education. Mr. Gerald Edmonds has retired from a distinguished 41-year career at the Moody Bible Institute. For 33 of those years, he conducted the Moody Chorale - long considered the flagship musical 'face' of MBI. In 1970, as a young faculty member, he founded the Moody Concert Band. And it was primarily as my band director that I interacted with "Mr. Ed" during my matriculation at Moody, 1973-76.

He also taught choral arranging, and conducting, and some of the church music sequence. And orchestration. So, come to think of it, he really was my primary music professor for 3 years. And as the band director, he also headed up the instrumental division in those years. That meant taking the lead on weekly Repertoire & Ensemble classes, semester juries, and recitals. So, yeah, Mr. Ed was pretty much my music education.

But, really, you can't blame him for the results. He did what he could. And you may rightly pity him, since as a young and immature music student I was never easy. I came to the Institute woefully unprepared to be a music major, and as a trombonist, only marginally qualified. First testimony: I was in the program, and in the band, by grace - and that mediated through Gerald Edmonds. I know (really, honestly, truly, I know) there are days he regretted that. But I hope that there were also moments when he felt there was hope, and I trust he has come to appreciate that God somehow had some purposes in it. I'm writing today to say that I am thankful Mr. Ed was instrumental in those purposes. (yes, pun intended)

We have some stories, good and bad. Have I mentioned that I was young and immature? How about a supreme goof-off? This isn't about those stories. Saturday night was an evening of tribute for a man who loves God, loves his people, has a high standard for music-making and instilled that in generations of students. And through and over it all, knows all this comes from God and is genuinely a tribute to God's work in his life.

A generational connection was beautifully demonstrated. Mr and Mrs Edmonds, before they were Mr and Mrs, sang in the Moody Chorale, with Donald Hustad conducting. Dr. Hustad was present Saturday night to participate in the recognition. So, many in that room were able to see that they are "the grandchildren" in the tradition. An evening of appropriate recognition of a man's impact, in the context of God's greater work. Someone aptly said, "the kind of evening you don't want to come to an end." And as one of my band mates said, "the sort of thing you usually only hear at funerals." How nice to hear and participate in it with the honoree still able to enjoy (and correct) it!

Adding to all that I have noted above, Karen and I had the joy of hanging out with former band-mates and renewing those friendships and telling our own, non-Chorale, stories about Mr Ed. I said we were the "sullen minority" - because those of us who were in his bands felt "betrayed" when he took up the baton for the Chorale. Of course, it made perfect sense that he would, and wisdom is proved right by her children. Still, we made our presence and our preferences known. Rowdy is, I think, how the MC described us. And obvously, since he was our director before any Chorale alum's ... we were the oldest present.

A small group, our presence there was pretty much random. None of us made any special  effort to get band members to turn out for this. So it was especially fun, and remarkable, that the 5 couples associated with band - and that meant 7 former band members - had all been in band at the same time. 6 of the 7 had been on the one international tour the band took in Mr Ed's band career. 2 of the 5 couples are the the lifelong unions begun as band romances. My Karen, at least, was a band "groupie" since that was where nearly all my Moody friends were. So we were not just bound by a common experience but by that particular experience - a few brief years, under the direction of a fine musician doing remarkable things for an historic institution.

I leave most funerals and memorial services, (a) wishing that I had known that person, or known her/him better, and (b) feeling that my own life does not and will not match up. And such was the impact of this recognition as well. It hit especially when his daughters spoke. They grew up having to share their father with generations of students in a busy career including both the school and church. But he clearly managed it well, as heard in their testimony ... And as I have witnessed first hand, since one of the daughters is a key volunteer colleague in the music ministry of College Church; married to a chorale alum from the Edmonds years. Huge testimony, that.

We are all called to something, and equipped according to our calling. Comparisons are meaningless, at best, and dangerous at worst. But in one thing, we are held to the same standard: Faithfulness in our calling. And a long faithfulness, at that. What a privilege it has been to see Mr Ed's long faithfulness, up close and personal, from a distance, and then through his students and his family. It doesn't really matter, finally, what my children or my church will say of me at the end of my career or my life. What really matters is whether I am faithful to the end. This weekend I was privileged to see what that looks like - like the biblical examples, even if imperfectly. "So teach me to order my days!"

Monday, May 3, 2010

A privilege I don't covet

I have had occasion to preach. A sermon. In a church service. With people in attendance.

As opposed to "preaching to the choir."

It is a privilege I don't covet, and I am all too happy to be a partner to preachers, by planning and preparing music appropriate to the text of the day.

But I will spend the bulk of this week in the annual Workshop on Biblical Exposition at College Church. This is a gathering of several dozen preachers, for "spring training" in a particular approach to Christian preaching. As ours has been the host church for years, and my previous senior pastor was the host/co-headliner of the event, it has always been one of those "command performances" in my annual calendar. And (like men's retreats, and Sunday evening services) something I don't really look forward to, but am always glad I went.

I do not look to these weeks as a way of inching my way to what some consider 'real ministry' ... that is, to become a preacher. But I have found over the years that by going through the Workshop I become a better student of scripture, and thus a better partner to preachers and the preached part of our gathered worship. And yes, sure, on those random occasions when I do preach, it helps immensely!

The Workshop has 3 components:
  1. Instruction: background, tools, and topics presented by mature, gifted pastor/preachers. (This year the focus is on Hebrew poetry and wisdom literature.)
  2. Model exposition: the Workshop leaders (usually 2, sometimes 3) preach a recent sermon as a demonstration of this particular approach. A couple of comments here. First - "model" as in example, not as in "hey, look at me and try to top this!" My experience is that these are always offered very humbly. And (and this is a part of the humility, I think), the sermons are to be the preacher's most recent (or most recent of the genre), and not their "silver bullet" sermon.
  3. Small group workshop: here's where everybody rolls up their sleeves and gets dirty. All participants prepare outlines and preaching points, and these are shared for peer review in groups of 5-8 fellow preachers, who often don't know each other before the week begins. Guided by a gifted or more advanced preacher - always an alumnus of the Workshop - the group helps one another fine tune their work in the passages at hand. That's humbling, and encouraging.
So, as a musician, where and how do I fit into this? Well, to be honest, some years I beg off the small group aspect. But most years, I do my homework and come to the small group as prepared (or not) as the other preachers. And I take my lumps, and I contribute to the conversation. And at the end of the week I have a little more in my toolbox, and have sharpened up some older ones, and I move ahead and say ...

"Preaching is a privilege I don't covet."

But I do enjoy the felllowship of this kind of ministry, and I have the very great privilege of preparing our daily time of singing together. Of introducing new songs and old hymns, and interacting with pastors who are eager to learn more about what they could be doing musically in their churches, and how to find resources, and how to interact with their musicians. These are conversations that I could not have if I did not engage in all the Workshop. They know I am not just dropping in to lead singing, then retreating to my office until the next morning.

I wish other music pastors came to these Workshops with their preachers. (And yes, I wish preachers would go to Music workshops with their musicians, too!) For one thing, I would like to become acquainted and spend time with more church musicians who see their work as Ministry of the Word. For another, I think a lot of really committed church musicians are more serious about this kind of ministry than their senior ministers are aware, and would eat it up and benefit from it. Also, preachers can and do inhabit their own little worlds, just as musicians can and do. It would be great if more of these partners spent this kind of time together and became "iron sharpening iron."

Of course, almost nothing in anyone's education for ministry suggests this kind of partnership, cross-pollenization, or camarderie. So, we should be creating it wherever we can. And that's what I look forward to in my "preaching week" this week.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Spring Gardening

Immediately following Easter, Karen and I had a small window of opportunity to get our gardens ready. The days were warm, and we finally had some daylight after office hours. Bulbs were pushing up but not yet in bloom, and the ornamental pear trees (the early glories of our small yard) were beginning to blossom.

When Karen and I moved into our house in Winfield, there was a back-yard deck/porch with some evergreens around it, and not another plant in the back lawn. Grass from fence to fence to fence, and a swing-set. It was pretty sparse, and for a couple of country kids who enjoy a garden, very unsatisfying. Our first summer in this home, this started to change, and now we have gardens rimming the back yard, and two maturing trees – one of them in glorious bloom the first week of Easter. This is our 14th year here, and if we didn’t have pictures of the early years, even we wouldn’t believe how much the place has changed.

That week following Easter, we got to work weeding, cleaning, and mulching the gardens. Much as wanted to sit and relax, those hours that week were given to work in the gardens. Cleaning, weeding, and mulching had to precede sitting and enjoying them. And we were in a race against nature’s clock – trying to stay ahead of the inexorable emergence of the succession of perennials. So we rushed home after office hours, to get the last couple of daylight hours in our garden. Dinner followed.

One just can’t take a garden for granted! They are a lot of work, and they operate on a time-table that we can’t control. As I spread a lot of mulch, I thought about the care, feeding, and protection of music ministry. We just can’t take it for granted, that our work will thrive, weed-free from season to season. We don’t control the time-table of ministry, and Sundays (like perennial plants) arrive whether we are prepared or not! So with our musicians we work at preparing the soil, clearing out the stubborn old weeds, and protecting against their reemergence. And cooperating with God in the results – for he gives the growth, and it is his beauty on display.

Monday, April 19, 2010


Senior Pastor Emeritus, Kent Hughes, College Church in Wheaton, had the most impressive pastor's library I have ever seen. He once related his response to the most common question he was asked in his study.
Parishioner: "Pastor, have you read all these books?"
Kent: "Some of them twice."

Here is a short list of my other books - those that have not been read, much less twice, but stand apart on a separate shelf. This is where I feel I must go when I need something else to read. Unless, that is, something else ininuates itself. It could be an invigorating summer!

  • Eugene Peterson, following on Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places - Eat This Book and The Jesus Way
  • D.A.Carson, A Call to Spiritual Reformation
  • Dever, Duncan, et al, Preaching the Cross
  • John Piper, A Hunger for God
  • Paul S. Jones, Singing and Making Music
  • Robin Leaver, Luther's Liturgical Music
  • Hart and Muether, With Reverence and Awe
  • Scott Hyslop, The Journey was Chosen: the life and work of Paul Manz
  • John Witvliet, Worship Seeking Understanding
  • John Tyson, Assist Me to Proclaim: the life and hymns of Charles Wesley
  • Jeffrey, Ovey & Sach, Pierced for Our Transgressions
  • Martin Luther, Three Treatises
  • Timothy George, ed., God the Holy Trinity
  • D. A. Carson, The Difficult Doctrine of the Love of God
  • Jacques Ellul, To Will & To Do
There are many more to be read, the first time. These are not even all the titles on my "to be read next" shelf. And I can't begin to guess what might assert its priority over these. But now being a bit better organized, I think I can set myself to the glories and surprises at hand.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Spring Cleaning

It isn't always like this, but I find myself with a bit of margin here after Easter. Having sung Quasimodo Sunday, the Octave of Easter, we get this coming Sunday off before galloping on to our final Sunday of the season, June 6. Repertoire is all picked, and I'm caught up on my post-Easter service planning.

While the choir charges on, I have one more Sunday away myself. It is the actual end of a marathon season that began the day after Christmas. With one thing and another, I have a stretch of over a month of evening services that have not required my music planning. And the sun is shining, and I am trying to keep from day-dreaming about the mulch I'll be putting on the gardens over the next few evenings and early mornings.

And here in the the office, this (perhaps naively presumed) "down time" is taking the shape of a sort of spring cleaning. It is not escapist ... really, it isn't. It is a function of organizing and harnessing my resources for a pretty focused push that will drive me through the rest of spring and all of summer.

It began today by spending an hour re-organizing my bookshelves. As a fairly bookish person, this is no insignificant task. I began to realize that I knew I had certain books that I could not find. And the categories were becoming - well, soft. And I had to admit, finally, that there are some books here that I (a) won't read; or (b) won't re-read. My wife will laugh to see how few I have culled, but it is a start, and you book-lovers will understand how painful a start it is! (Karen is also a book-lover, so yes, she does understand.) Duplicates? Gone. Dated issues? Gone. Books inscribed 20 years ago by people from a previous life, with no ongoing relationship or reading value? Ouch, these too are gone. With an  hour's work, I now stand a fairly good chance of finding what I'm after in two or three categories. I don't know how many more hours I can take to do this, but if any are half as productive as today's they will be well spent indeed.

As I finished, I heard a friend's voice in the office. He came in to chat, and of course asked "what have you been doing today?" My first response: "rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic." It's an old metaphor, and a powerful one. It's only sort of apt today. But it's always a good joke. I guess more fitting would be "rearranging the ballast on a fresh-water sloop" (which totally lacks punch, doesn't it?). Reading has to be at the center of my work. Today's labors, and any follow-on I can get, should help me stay afloat, navigable, and smooth-sailing.

Here's to spring cleaning., Now, where is that ...

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

In mansions of glory

It was the most extraordinary time for a Christian funeral. Holy Saturday. The night before, the Chancel Choir sang two Good Friday services; the next morning, they would sing three Easter services. But here they were, at Noon on Easter Saturday, to sing in memorium, for a young woman lost to a fierce cancer. Anne sang in this choir for several years, met and courted Lee in this context, was wed in a ceremony officiated by their pastor/choir director. Four and a half years later, buried, age 34.

But those are just the sad facts. It was an extraordinary time for a Christian memorial service. The night before, the Choir had sung beautifully and powerfully, "this is earth's darkest hour, but You restore the light; then let all praise be given to you who live forevermore. Give us compassion, Lord, that as we share this hour, your cross may bring us joy - and resurrection power!" We lingered at the Cross reflected in the Table, where we sang of the Beautiful Savior, "none can be nearer, fairer or dearer, than Thou my Savior art to me." With the congregation we ended the night with a song unknown: "Here might I stay and sing of him my soul adores. Never was love, dear King, never was grief like yours. This is my friend, in whose sweet praise I all my days could gladly spend."

And on Saturday, we had the privilege of spending another day in his sweet praise. Sitting in full view of the breaved Lee, and his parents (also in this Choir) and her parents (former choristers with us), it was again our privilege to lead in the singing of hymns, and to offer up an anthem on behalf of all the assembled. The hymns, the scripture, the husband's remembrance, the beautiful and apt funeral homily - and then the requested choir anthem.

Lee and Anne have not sung with this choir for two years, being charter members and active leaders in a daughter church. They last visited a morning service at College Church this winter, when the Choir sang Paul Sjolund's "My Jesus, I Love Thee" with violin obligatto. Anne had said to Lee, "I'd like them to sing that at my funeral." It was not a long-range request. In January Anne had been finally told, after 3+ years of treatment for melanoma, that there were no more treatment options. She was already facing the end of her life on earth.

And so it was that the choir loft filled on Holy Saturday, between the Cross and the Resurrection, and sang:
My Jesus, I love thee, I know thou art mine ...
I love thee because thou hast first loved me,
and purchased my pardon on Calvary's tree;
I love thee for wearing the thorns on thy brow;
if ever I loved thee, my Jesus, 'tis now.
And then, for the first time all voices together, in unison, forte:
In mansions of glory and endless delight
I'll ever adore thee in heaven so bright;
I'll sing with the glittering crown on my brow:
"If ever I loved thee, my Jesus, 'tis now."
My gracious Redeemer, my Savior art thou,
If ever I loved thee, my Jesus, 'tis now.

It is a Holy Week we will not soon forget. Anne's death on Monday colored everything we did. Many choristers sang Good Friday with an extra layer of somberness, and a clearer sense of loss, than this service itself gives. (And I have to say, we have a powerful, evocative Good Friday service.) And the glorious truth and promise of Resurrection colored the singing in the memorial service on Saturday. And the reality of Anne's eternal life lifted our Alleluias on Sunday morning.

I have said many times over the past few days, "the choir does the heavy lifting during Passion Week to begin with. This weekend they were heroes." But they? They simply did that thing that church choirs do - they showed up when asked and needed, and sang their very best all weekend long, and pointed listeners to the source of their faithfulness and strength, and gave God glory.

It was the most extraordinary time for a Christian funeral. And a most extraordinary Easter.

Monday, March 15, 2010

They sang a hymn

I've been highlighting Lenten hymns in my weekly newsletter to College Church Musicians. "For the Living of These Days" is the title of that series. It's a blog I could keep up weekly while teaching in the first half of the spring semester. Could because I sort of had to, as that is a part of my regular communication with the people who make music for worship here.

Concurrently, I have been reading on a daily basis from Christ in the Psalms by Patrick Henry Reardon. Each morning I read a single psalm, followed by Reardon's brief commentary on the same. Commentary is the best word for these reflections. They are devotional, liturgical, historical, scholarly, pastoral; together and by turns. Writing from an Orthodox pulpit (so to speak), the pages are richly ecumenical in the best sense of the term. The biblical theology that informs his understanding of the Psalms would be right at home in the pulpit of College Church. But more than simply learning more about the psalms, I am slowly learning to pray in the vocabluary of the psalms, 2 small pages of devotion per day.

But to the point, last week my slow walk through the Psalms brought me through the Hallel psalms, certainly the psalms that Jesus and his disciples sang in the upper room at the Passover meal. And most likely the source of the "hymn" that they sang as they left that room on their way to the garden. Yes, I should return to these psalms again during Passion Week. But that they have fallen to me now during Lent, along with my own devotional highlighting of Lenten hymns, has been good for my spirit.

As Spring in Chicago slowly emerges, these psalms and hymns are doing some much needed work in me. Along with my pastor's preaching of "the cross," I could hardly have a more rich season if I were in a church that "observed" Lent!

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

What Does Music Mean?

Last week I broached this question, in the music appreciation course I'm teaching. It was a natural sidbar (or so it seemed to me) because we were listening to Vivaldi, The Four Seasons (1. Spring/I allegro) and the text introduced the notion of "program music." The students ought to have read their text prior to class, and to have engaged the Listening Activity - Four Seasons/Spring/I - allegro. As an experiment in "what music means" I had brought a CD with the full set of concerti; and I skipped around through various movements, asking "which season is this?"

The point was made clear, or so I hope: nothing Vivaldi wrote in these delightful pieces can actually tell us about the seasons. Because he provided a poetic program for us, we can make those associations. And they are compelling associations, once we have the key. Over the centuries, they have even come to "mean" the seasons ... for those in the know!

So far, so good. Then I opened Dr. Harold Best's book "Music Through the Eyes of Faith," and briefly posed the argument that music alone cannot convey "meaning" or "truth." Notes, rhythms, dynamics, form - all the elements of music - exist as musical/physical phenomenon. In themselves, they simply are what they are.

Not that music, by itself, stays "meaningless." Music takes on meaning by association, use, an assigned program, or words. But if you never heard the hymn "Amazing Grace" (just for an example), you could not learn anything about grace from the music alone. Yes, it might stir you; it might stir in you a longing for something. But it cannot preach or testify to the idea of "grace." It is, essentially, "just music." An organist may play an abstract Bach fugue in public worship, because the organ has a long association as an instrument of public worship. A fugue based on a hymn tune is one thing, but we hardly blink to hear an abstract fugue (no textual association) as a postlude. What does it "mean" in itself? Ask your counterpoint professor!

The body language, then the after-class conversations, both pleased and surprised me. Here was a subject - a sidebar! - that actually stirred the students. So far as I can tell, they weren't buying it. I think ultimately, with those who continued the conversation, we came to agree that music has a singular ability - that is, to move people; an emotional effect. Even this, to a large degree, is probably culturally conditioned. Regardless, music has this effect, which is not the same as having specific meaning, conveying truth. We also agreed that music is one of God's great gifts of general grace, through which the God-drawn listener might well come to the conclusion that maybe there is a God after all. In that sense, music "proclaims" the same thing as the sun and rain which fall alike on the just and the unjust. Enough to stir us, to awaken us; but not enough for us to know that God so loved the world that he gave his Son.

Thinking back on this, I am struck again with the value, the importance, of music in the church. What a privilege to make music that is "limited" to associtation with words: music that serves proclamation, devotion, maturity. And also to be able to enjoy music on its own terms, and not expect or demand that it do more.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010


This term, for 8 weeks, I am teaching a general education course to liberal arts (not music) students at Wheaton College. Three days a week I get to step into a classroom with about 40 students, and introduce them to music through an historical and chronological survery of western art music. My goal in the course is to help the students articulate their perception of music (all music they hear) in objective terms, not necessarily technical terms. To understand the main elements of music, how to hear them, how to understand the ways they interrelate and are perceived. And how to tell others more about music than "that's boring" or "it's so cool!"

And it's a good exercise for me, as well. To think about these things in ways that I often take for granted helps me also better prepare for my weekly choir rehearsal. To go back and listen to music that is no longer part of my daily diet, is a treat. We are now in the Baroque era, which is about where most of my listening begins. So to have spent time, in preparation and in class, with earlier music was a lot of fun, and refreshing.

The text I'm using highlights a few composers from each historical era. Rightly so, even if that is limiting and a bit misleading. In the Baroque, it is Vivaldi, Handel, and Bach - the big boys. How fun to introduce the names, the music, the stories.

Of course, the class is mixed. There are students there who have played piano for 14 years, and came up through choirs and orchestras. And there are students who have never seen a printed piece of music. Some are of course there only because it is a requirement, and mine is the time it fits in their schedules. They have my sympathy - I also had the gen ed hurdle to clear as an undergraduate. So I try to make it interesting for a widely disparate crowd, and that too has some bearing on my work as a planner of public worship.

I wouldn't (I can't) take on a course like this on a regular basis. But it has some merit for re-orienting in my "day job." And it is a lot of fun. Today I get to play Vivaldi and Bach for the class, walk them through the Contrapunctus I from "Art of the Fugue," and ask the question, "what does music mean?" If it fails to enrich the students' lives, it will mine, and my work.

Monday, January 4, 2010

The Marathon

This morning, a kindly intentioned staff colleague asked me if preparations for Easter begin this week. Hello? I just got in from a week's vacation following the hurricane that is December! Can someone cut me some slack here?

But, of course, yes we will begin some preparation for Easter, this week. It's what we do ...

Forget, for the moment, if I can, that we also have our rather significant annual missions festival in February. And it is no one else's fault but mine own that I will be teaching a general education music appreciation course for 8 weeks, beginning next week. No one needs to remind me that we do these things to ourselves.

In the normal course of music ministry, we run 2 marathons each year: from fall kickoff to Christmas, and from January to Easter. About 16 weeks of "training" and a short season of long-distance exertion. The weekly rehearsals and services are like the training schedule: routine workouts, regular efforts, the occasional extra workout, the lengthening long run. And then, race day (or race week, or race month, depending on the season). And when the event is done, one goes back to "normal;" there are those weekly workouts and regular efforts.

I'm a cyclist, myself, so until recently I've only heard about this training schedule. (Cycling has its own analog, but fewer people relate to it.) But this year, though I am no runner, the Easter marathon is smack in the center of an actual running marathon for which I am now in training. My first. Could be my only. (I'm a cyclist, myself.) Regardless, it could hardly be less conveniently placed in my life schedule. But there it is, and I put it there. I mention it today just because the nature of the coming season - we are always on to "the next thing" - was unintentionally forced on me this morning.

And it reminds me of the comment I heard long ago, about church choir members. They, it was said, are the marathon runners in our music ministries. They put in the long hours, week after week, and when it comes time race time, there they are. I have since celebrated them for it. Now, for the first time, I'm going to get an up-close and personal look at what that metaphor is really about!