Saturday, July 25, 2015

Church Music II

Texan99's comment reminds me: participation in worship by th3e congregation is worth pursuing.  I heartily disliked screens with song lyrics projected when they first came on the scene.  As a book person, and a music-reading person, I liked having my Gestalt verses and my bass lines in focus as I sang.  Leading worship in a painfully small congregation I learned a different lesson:  people looking down and singing into a book do not build that sense of soaring elevation with their neighbors which leads to community worship; people looking up at screens do. It's just the physics of sound waves.

In an earlier era, when people had a limited repertoire - 100 hymns out of a hymnal of 250 - which did not change much over their lifetimes, they could sing up and out, using the hymnal only as an aid. Those days are gone.  If you want people to sing together, they either have to all know it ( a very small number these days), learn it on the spot (call-and-response or extremely simple), or put it up on the screen so they raise their heads.


Texan99 said...

I can't say I object to projecting lyrics on a screen. Call and response is not a bad approach, either. it just comes down to whether the song and lyrics are idiotic and vulgar or not; if they're not, then I'm on board with whatever it takes to get the audience participating, like campfire music. It can be simple without being stupid, ugly, sappy, or saccharine.

The shape-note music I'm so fond of isn't popular now--too archaic sounding--but in its time it was a response to the problem that the congregation couldn't read music. That's also a good reason to take folk-tunes and set them to churchy lyrics, which I think is fine, if it's a good folk tune. "Be Thou My Vision" is a good example: there's a reason it was a popular tune for centuries, before it had sacred lyrics stuck into it.

But we're a recorded-music society now, so there are fewer tunes in circulation that are meant to be sung without a full band and rhythm section. The M.A.S.H. tune is popular and familiar, but singularly ill-suited to congregational singing by amateurs and an average pianist with no syncopation talent. (And yes, that's a standard number now on our "Coastal Casual" Sundays once a month. Yecchchhhh.)

Earl Wajenberg said...

(There's also the problem that the words to the M.A.S.H. tune start "Suicide is painless..." In fact, that's the title.)

I invite people to consider Sturgeon's Law. Theodore Sturgeon was a leading science fiction writer of the middle 20th century, when SF was regarded far more contemptuously than it is now. In a speech at an SF convention, he scandalized the audience by pronouncing, "Nine tenths of science fiction is crap." Collective gasp. He continued, "Nine tenths of everything is crap." (The problem, he went on, was that SF was judged by its worst, not its best, examples.)

Likewise, most church music has always been cr-- ah, of poor quality. There's a reason congregations and music ministers settle on a few favorites. And it's been that way at least since Lewis wrote The Screwtape Letters. Here's Screwtape, telling Wormwood to concentrate his patient's attention on the negative aspects of the church service:

"When he goes inside, he sees the local grocer with rather in oily expression on his face bustling up to offer him one shiny little book containing a liturgy which neither of them understands, and one shabby little book containing corrupt texts of a number of religious lyrics, mostly bad, and in very small print."

james said...

I've asked about projecting music as well as words and gotten some mumble mumble and an "I've heard that's available somewhere." I should try to mock it up and see how readable it is.

Speaking as somebody who's run the screens, keeping it in synch wouldn't be trivial (especially if you're doing the sound and lights too...). And really especially when the leader wants to repeat a chorus. But it would be handy if it worked. Kids would tend to pick up a little music education as they sang along.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

I had clarinet lessons for a few years and we had basic music notation taught in the school, but reading along with hymns was pretty much where I learned most of how to read music.

Using the theme from MASH in worship is new to me. Sounds horrid.

Texan99 said...

I know I'm a snob, and I'm trying to get over my disappointed fury at having pap shoved down my throat, because I know the idea is to promote collective worship with music and rhythm. Seething resentment is a deadly mood for a Sunday service. But for crying out loud, if the congregations we can expect now will no longer include anyone who's willing or able to learn a song, let alone sight read, maybe it's time to skip the musical part of the program and concentrate on reciting the Nicene Creed and the Psalms together. Or, I don't know, maybe anyone lacking a taste for the "Roto-Rooter" jingle just has to be resigned to being chased into the music-free service. Is that the price of evangelism, really? Everything has to be relentlessly made more vapid and infantile so no one will be left behind? Must we take down all the stained-glass windows and put up finger-painting? All Christmas music becomes "Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer," because "the kids like it." The sermon will approximate the tone of a morning TV talk show: I've visited churches that are very much like that. The congregation was large and bustling. It's a successful approach.

I'm trying to master my ill-temper about this; the point of a service is not to entertain me musically. Maybe the point even is to mortify my pride. But feels very like donning a hair shirt, and then having members of the congregation come up afterwards and say, "Now, doesn't that feel comfy?" Profound alienation is not an experience I hope to have exacerbated in a communal worship service.

Well, clearly I need more practice wearing hair shirts, and not thinking "I DESPISE you people for putting this thing on me." After yesterday's service, my head and heart are not in a good place. Only C.S. Lewis's advice about not shopping for churches, and the knowledge that the same thing is happening now in all the churches, keeps me from fleeing. Only iron discipline is going to drag me back in there, without heavy sedation, next time I have altar duty.