Monthly archives "April 2018"

TAO May 2018 – Feed My Lambs

Back to the Basics, Part IV

Feed My Lambs

I had the opportunity to return to one of my favorite churches the other day. It had been years since my last visit. I love the organ there. To get to the organ console, you must pass behind the pulpit. I had forgotten about the inscription carved into the pulpit’s reading surface. There it was: “Feed My Lambs.” Clearly, it’s a word of encouragement for the preacher. But, I don’t think this message is limited to just one person in the room. No, St. John’s gospel admonition, “Feed My Lambs,” is also meant for music ministers. Let’s delve into some guidelines for building a healthy diet for the folks in our care.
We began the new year with a look at ways that we can ground our work by renewing our vision of what it means to be a sacred musician. We returned to the basics – remembering our role in using the musical arts to open and intensify the mystery of God’s presence among us. We looked at how participating in the mystery is an essential part of our own spiritual practice. For the sake of the people in our music programs and in our congregations, we talked about striving for excellence in the less glamorous aspects of service playing. We have examined the “why’s” of hymn-playing, accompaniment, and sight reading in the light of our new vision. We have discovered that the heart of our profession lies in serving others. We are called to ground our work in the sacrificial nature of music ministry. Shakespeare said, “If music be the food of love, play on!” If what we play and how we play it is how we feed our lambs, let’s plan our banquet with love.
Our people are hungry, so we must consider who our audience is and what their needs are. What is your congregation’s cultural background? What influences have they assimilated from their denominational traditions? Are they sophisticated listeners with a broad background in a wide variety of musical traditions, or are they somewhat less informed? Do your musical tastes align with theirs? What musical practices have you inherited with your job? At one job early in my career, I discovered that the previous organist had played only Baroque music and ended every hymn with a loud, dissonant re-harmonization that caused everyone to cringe. My course corrections made me a very popular organist! Being a friendly, caring presence is a significant part of our calling as organists.
Going back to the basics means refreshing our understanding of sound itself. One of the things I love about the organ is its long heritage. Every age has adapted organ sounds to its own “cultural ear.” Regardless of the instrument you play, we need to listen to it with fresh ears, for sound is the medium through which we convey our musical messages. Attractive, colorful registrations invite the congregation to open their ears to what we are called to say.
Here are three guidelines to consider as we look at recalibrating organ registration for today’s audiences. First, continue to study the historical traditions. We can’t ignore the past – it’s the foundation of our craft. We must know what composers imagined their music would sound like. If you can’t go on your own tour of historic instruments in Europe, listening to recordings can help you to develop accurate sound concepts. A Mini-Course in Basic Organ Registration, by Margot Ann Woolard, is available through the Guild’s New York office. The accompanying CD contains recorded examples illustrating her overview of registration basics. The national website has several short video lessons under “Organ Tutor, Lessons for the New Organist.” As the number of lessons grows, this resource will become even more useful to you and your students.
Written material on organ registration is quite plentiful. You might enjoy the short pamphlet by Sandra Soderlund, A Guide to the Pipe Organ for Composers and Others (Leupold 800003, also available from national headquarters). Every organ method has a section devoted to historic organ designs. You can look there, or at several resources devoted exclusively to the subject. My first exposure to the great big world of historical organ registration came from Jack C. Goode’s Pipe Organ Registration (Abingdon Press, 1964). Though it has been out of print for quite a while, there are many inexpensive used copies available. John Shannon’s Understanding the Pipe Organ (Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, 2009) is very useful, too. I keep returning to Cambridge Companion to the Organ (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1999). Nicholas Thistlewaite has devoted a significant portion of his general interest book to this very subject, taking care to identify registration characteristics for the literature of all the major historic schools. Registration of Baroque Organ Music, Barbara Owens’ 1999 classic (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1999) is perhaps more specific than most of us need, but it is a treasure to behold.
Unfortunately, it is no longer enough to know everything about historical organ sound. We also need to use our own ears. Given the instrument under your fingers, what is the most beautiful sound you can produce? Not every rank of pipes is created equal – nor should they all be used. I have an obnoxious Trompette Harmonique that stays silent – so does my seven-rank mixture on the Great. Though WE may love the organ for its power, most people don’t. Gone are the days of teeth-rattling and earth-shaking! Without a good reason to do otherwise, let’s keep the organ’s registrations on a human scale – unless you are in the company of like-minded organ lovers at concerts, or alone.
The sounds we choose must attract the ear of our listeners. How will we know their reactions to our sounds if we never ask? You might start with bending the ear of a friend first. Engage them in conversation about the organ. Play one rank, get a reaction, then play another. Try some simple combinations and get more feedback. Find out what they don’t like. Such simple research is an easy way to complete the connection from organist to listener and back again. To know how others respond to the organ is to express caring and concern for all. To make changes based upon their feedback is to feed our lambs the food they enjoy. That is a recipe for success!
We must consider not only the sound of the organ. We should also consider the message our music sends. Just what is the organ saying to our worshipers? Let’s look at how we select our musical menu. There is more to choosing service music than making a cursory survey of the music at hand. A good starting question for selecting music is, “What do my people need to hear this week?” This is when your knowledge of the congregation’s worship traditions comes into play. Choosing weekly repertory comes down to three simple factors: the theme of the day, the needs of the worship moment, and the variety of pieces you have on hand. Each Sunday has its own flavor, whether chosen by the pastor, the worship team, or pre-determined by the liturgical calendar. Most often, hymn texts are your most reliable guide. Whether the hymn is going to be sung or not, a familiar melody will guide listeners’ ears toward the general theme of its words. It’s also important to consider the needs of the worship moment – what comes before and follows each piece? Does the congregation need to hear something lively, something reflective, something fortifying, or something mystical from you? Though we may not have much control in choosing worship themes, we have infinite control over our music libraries. A growing library is a sign of an active, caring organist who takes music ministry seriously. The art of music selection lies in finding the best piece for each situation. Music is an authentic response to the continuing revelation of the Spirit. “Sing a New Song unto the Lord” should be the eleventh commandment for all sacred musicians!
Escaping the repertory rut is a big challenge for most of us. It’s hard to know what you don’t know. Here are some ideas for getting an outside line to new ideas and resources. For years, Lutheran publishing house, Augsburg Fortress’s Sundays and Seasons: A Guide to Worship Planning was my best friend. Now available in print or online, it remains one of my favorites. They also offer Prelude Music Planner exclusively online. A generous helping of organ repertory ideas comes with Cantica Nova Publications, an online resource serving Roman Catholics. The Royal School of Church Music subscription publication, Sunday by Sunday, contains some terrific ideas, as well. Editors Pearson and Bryan have prepared Planning for Rites and Rituals, Year B 2018 (Church Publishing Co.) with Episcopal congregations in mind. The most ecumenically oriented resource is Prepare! An Ecumenical Music and Worship Planner 2017-2018 (Abingdon Press), by David L. Bone, which is keyed to sixteen different hymnals. While light on organ literature, it offers extensive cross-indexing that will enhance your creativity and broaden your hymn choices. Each of these is a generous buffet of ideas that will help you in planning a well-balanced, engaging menu from which to feed your congregation.
In the gospel of John, Jesus told us to feed His lambs. As sacred musicians, we have a bountiful feast to offer them. To remain faithful to our calling, first we must continue our own spiritual practice. Returning to the basics keeps our eyes upon the original vision: How often, making music, we have found a new dimension in the world of sound, as worship moved us to a more profound, Alleluia! (Fred Pratt Green, 1971.) Quality leadership in music ministry depends upon our maturation into whole persons, gifted with music, and rooted in the care and concern for the people in our flock. We have a great model to follow. Go and serve as He did!

TAO January 2018–Be Thou My Vision

January 2018

Be Thou My Vision

Let me ask you a question: What is the most important quality an organist needs for success? Over the course of the past several months, I have been listening to a series of auditions and interviews for a wonderful church position nearby. Each of the six candidates has been a delight to meet. They have come from a variety of backgrounds, experiences and training. They played well in their auditions. Based upon their organ solos, each of them was an attractive choice. However, none of them has been hired. Why?
Only one of them could sight read well enough to meet expectations. Only two of them could follow the choral director’s beat. Most of them could not play the congregational hymns in a way the congregation could follow. In fact, the singers frequently didn’t know when to come in! Frequently, their use of organ sound showed no sensitivity to basic registration theory or to the balance in the room. I am shocked! I am dismayed! After all, two of the candidates have earned bachelors’ degrees, and three of them hold masters’ degrees. You would think that our colleges are preparing their students for working outside the academic bubble. Ironically, the one organist who had learned to play on his own was the best of them all! He had a real heart for working with people, stating his desire “to help people worship.” His music was colorful and inviting. Too bad he was about to be transferred out of town for his day job.
It has been difficult for the committee to identify the cause of their hesitation. The technical problems I just described are not the reason they were not hired. While deficits in their musical skills were the presenting symptom, the director might have been able to work with one or another of the candidates to upgrade their skills. As we reflected on our experiences, we came to describe the common deficiency as “a lack of vision” in our candidates’ approaches to music ministry. We could hear it in their choice of music, in their preparation, and in their presentation: simply no point of view other than the notes on the page. It’s not enough to be a musician playing in church—you must be a church musician!
Church musicians must be guided by their understanding of faith and by their application of faith, through music, among the people in the congregation. The well-known hymn, “Be Thou My Vision,” prays: “Be thou my vision, O Lord of my heart, naught be all else to me, save that thou art; thou my best thought, by day or by night, waking or sleeping, thy presence my light.” What was missing in our candidates was evidence in their music that God is their “best thought” or their “light.”
You might think this is awfully picky, but I agree with the committee that the choice of organists is key to the spiritual health of the congregation, so hiring someone is a significant decision with long range implications. This knotty problem has pushed me to reflect more deeply on who we are and how we prepare ourselves to serve. So, before we dive into the work ahead, I invite you to pause with me at the gate of the new year to reflect upon our purpose. Last summer, I had the opportunity to stand in front of a magnificent Holtkamp tracker in a beautiful sanctuary with twenty-five POE students in front of me. In the only event of its kind that week, we hoped to demonstrate the role of the organ in expressing the many dimensions of worship. In the homily, I hoped to clearly state the interplay between worship and music. Here is that homily, which I have adapted for this article.

It’s a Mystery to Me
Do you know how electricity works? How do airplanes fly? Can you explain the electoral college? I am sure that someone here can explain one or more of these questions, but I can’t. Unless I do some research, the answers will remain a mystery to me. How does love work? I’m not sure anyone can really explain that! Some people are curious, and others just benefit from the product. Are you curious?
The organ is a mystery to most folks, maybe it was to you when you first arrived. But now, each day you are getting a clearer picture of how it works. Just because you are learning about it doesn’t make it any the less interesting, right? Look up at this organ. How beautiful it is! There are the pipes. You know have been learning how the wind makes them sound. Some of you even know how the trackers work to start the sound. You know a lot about it now! But we don’t know everything yet.
But even if we understand everything about the organ, there remains a mystery: the music we make on it. How does music work? Teachers and performers here have spent their lives delving into learning how music works. You are learning some of our insights, and soon, you will have your own insights to share. One thing that we all share is, the more deeply we get into the way music works, the more we realize what a mystery it is.
We realize that there is something behind music that inspires its creation and makes it “go.” What is it about music that moves us and excites us? How does it do that? The spirit of music is its energy, the many different moods it projects, its character. When we listen to music, we are changed. We are encouraged, we are thrilled. Literally, we “en-joy” music. It’s our job as musicians to bring music into the world. The best musicians are partners with the music they make.
The spirit that makes music is just one part of a larger world of spirit: art, literature, drama, dance, movies. Even this week’s Comic Con is a convention devoted to a shared spirit of fun and adventure. All these art forms are part of a larger spiritual world that eventually grows to include everything that exists, whether you can see it or not. No one really can totally understand how it all works. Truly, when it comes to the universe, “It’s a mystery” to all of us! When we get to that all-inclusive point, when we ponder the spirit that moves the world, we call that mystery, “God.”
We are invited to participate in the mystery of God. That is what worship is all about. Worship is accepting the invitation to enter into the mystery of God. We do that in many ways. We designed this service to show the five main ways of encountering God in God’s mystery and how the organ helps us to connect with God. I hope you will notice how the organ uplifts and reinforces the experience of: `
• Praise: Wow! Hooray!
• Adoration: Welcome!
• Confession: I’m sorry!
• Supplication: Help!
• Thanksgiving: Thanks!
Frankly, the mystery we encounter in worship is too vague and distant for most of us to grasp. People really need help in grasping onto the Mystery, and music is one of the best ways of communicating about it. In the deepest of ways, music helps us connect with it. The profession of Sacred Musician is ancient and biblical: the most famous psalmist was King David. The psalms he wrote were used in the national worship center of the Hebrew people in Jerusalem. As sacred musicians, we follow in his footsteps. We dedicate ourselves to using our musical tools to help people understand a little more about God.
Sacred musicians combine the study of music with our study of theology, the ways of God. At its deepest level, music itself is a tool, a way of learning more about God. All of us still have much to learn, so we keep practicing our art. The art of music—expressing the mystery of God in sound. We will never be able to grasp all that it means, so may we always be able to say in the best of ways, “It’s a mystery to me!”

Ideally, following the trail from mystery to music will lead us through experiences of personal transformation, so that our personalities and our music glow with the light we have encountered along the way. The auditions I monitored last summer demonstrated how important service playing skills are. Clearly, the keyboard has many challenges that need constant development. This year, let’s make a resolution to look for that light and to bring it into our dual practice of ministry and music. So, let’s spend the next few months getting “Back to the Basics” of the ministry of repertory, registration, accompaniment, hymn playing, and sight reading. This year, “Let your light so shine…”