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What is Wrong with Church Music

Page history last edited by Andrew Alder 1 month, 1 week ago

This doesn't really belong in index of theology nor in my Music index but I have no better place at present

 

Please, stop making excuses

 

There's a lot of rubbish spoken about church music. I have often been in seminars in which I was told "Australians just don't sing in public". In one of these I was bored enough to start gently singing "Happy birthday to you, happy birthday to...". The presenter had the good grace to collar me afterwards and say "Look, you have a point. But do you see mine?" I replied "You got off easy. I could have sung "Am I ever gonna see your face again?"" He knew exactly what I meant! If you have never been in an Australian pub when that was played, ask someone who has. The reply starts "No way get lost..." and goes downhill from there. The punters always sing it, women more enthusiastically at first but the guys join in, and so enthusiastically that some pubs have banned the song.

 

I do see his point! But I want to look deeper. Let us stop making excuses for bad church music. Nearly all people love to sing if given a fair go. Let us use that.

 

I was invited to a New Year Party several years ago and asked to bring my guitar. I did with reservations. I never did any grades on guitar, and my hosts and most of their friends have degrees in performance on their instruments. Most of the songs I had in practice were Christian songs and my hosts were Buddhists and I guessed correctly that most of the other guests would be Agnostics. But I brought it, the lovely Maton 12 string that has great dynamic range and has successfully accompanied on one occasion a twelve year old vocalist and on another two hundred male inmates of Her Majesty's prison system and has on neither occasion needed amplification for either singer(s) or instrument. It was the right instrument for the gig, anyway, and I produced it on demand, and we did Morningtown Ride and Leavin' on a Jet Plane and Like a Rolling Stone (now that one has some teeth to it) and Yellow Submarine and Waltzing Matilda and a few more and it went over very well and I was wishing I'd brought my mandolin to do some Bushwhackers stuff because I was running out of songs. Best to quit while they're still wanting more but I thought we weren't to that point so I decided to try Amazing Grace and almost immediately regretted it, "What are you thinking?" my fears yelled at me. But by that time I'd played the intro, and they sang the first verse so well that I thought OK, thank you Lord, I'll sing the second verse as a solo and then the first again to finish and it will make a lovely end, the only songs people ever remember from a gig are your first and last anyway and that will be a good finisher.

 

We sang seven verses. They knew the words better than I did. It was a very good finisher. Thank you Lord, I should trust more. I know. I know!

 

People love to sing good music. People hate to sing church music. The logical conclusion is... Isn't it?

 

 


 

 

The big no-nos

Make people uncomfortable

We often observe that men are under-represented in church in Australia. There are many reasons for this but here are two of them.

 

Make them feel uncomfortable enough and you might as well have sent two of the ushers to throw them out into the street. Seriously. And it is easy to do and I have seen it done regularly.  

 

Choose a key they can't sing

The tune should go no higher than C and Bb is even better. Many tunes in our hymnals go up to D, some to Eb. Get real.

 

Choose a hymn with a men's part that everyone else knows

"Oh for a Thousand Tongues" is a great song but it would be best to ban it.

 

Put yourself in their shoes. The men on either side and in front and behind are singing it gustily. But you just have to stand there and feel stupid. You feel expected to do something you have no hope of doing.

 

Would you be back? I wouldn't be. The message at all levels is, you do not belong here.

 

Encourage the incompetent

Now this is where I really make some enemies.

 

Discipling keen musicians of all ability levels is good. But give your competent musos a break too. Find outlets for everyone's talents that fit their talents and experience.

 

The pipe organ

I love organ music. So does the secular world. Bach continues to sell well, like all good Christian music.

 

Warning, long rant follows.

 

But both church organists and church organ builders have been allowed to bully their congregations. It's become a strong tradition. Many (perhaps most) church organs have even been built that allow the organist to neither see nor hear the congregation. Many (perhaps most) organists neither notice nor care. Hello...?

 

I'm a drummer. There has been lots of bad church drumming too, in fact bad church drummers and bad church organists have a lot in common. When I set up my drum kit in church I want to be able to hear the congregation. Get the message?

 

I have once wasted my time by setting up a foldback wedge for the organist in a "combined" all-age service where the organ was to play with the youth band. In final sound check I asked could they hear what they needed, the same as I asked every other member of the band. They replied "It's OK". I smelled a rat and sure enough, the wedge was unplugged. The organist met my eye and said "Don't you DARE plug that in again." I would dearly have loved to have given that wedge to another band member, but it was too late for that.

 

Now if I do sound for such a service I ask the organist, would you like a foldback wedge? And some day I hope one will say "yes, thank you", displaying at least the minimum standard of professionalism and courtesy that is expected in all other musical circles, and which I have received from every other musician for which I have ever provided sound, young or old, amateur or professional. And it's only logical for them to feel and act this way. There are two people in this world that you should never offend: Your PA operator, and your wife's psychiatrist. And for the same reason. Both can do you far more damage than you could ever imagine.

 

Oh, we would never use that power. Unlike a church organist. We try to be professional. They are too busy in their own little world to even notice that professionalism exists. They haven't even noticed that their pipe organ is no longer the biggest kid on the block. Pull out all your couplers, mate, these days I have many decibels on you. But I won't use them. You see, I'm here as a servant, not a bully. 

 

Oh, there are some nasty people on the stage making music, as well as the nice ones. But in this respect, church organists stand out like a sore thumb. And it's not their fault. It's the long-standing tradition that organ builders, organ teachers, and organists have been developing for centuries... ever since the coupler stop was invented probably. But it has reached its use-by date, and it will be sad if the use of pipe organs in churches goes down with that ship. And it is happening.

 

They can of course ask me to turn their wedge down or to turn it off completely. It's their wedge. But maybe they will find it helpful. Nearly every other musician in the world does. I hope that one day one of them will be prepared to try it. But I am still waiting. 

 

The word is bully. "Everyone follow me" is the demand. Sound familiar? And it's not their fault. It's a strong tradition. It's not only organists who do this of course. But it's a particular disease with organists. (Drummers come second. But it's only bad drummers, while it seems to be nearly all organists.) And it is subtly killing organ music in churches, even if it doesn't kill the churches that still have pipe organs.

 

Is it too late? A pipe organ is a big investment but it should be a good one. Many brides still want a traditional bridal march played on the organ, and to provide this the three-way choice is between a "pipeless" electronic church organ, or a real pipe organ, or a modern electronic keyboard. Over its lifetime the pipe organ is the cheapest of the three, as it outlasts many generations of electronics. The "pipeless" organ is the most expensive. You are paying a lot for the woodwork! But many churches are getting rid of their real pipe organs, and I was once on a committee that was given the job of awarding a pipe organ scholarship. We had the money. We had the teachers. We had the instrument. But we had no applicants. Eventually and very reluctantly we obtained permission to spend the money on a grand piano instead. It is very sad.

 

The electric guitar

Some years ago I helped with the sound for one leg of a tour by a major Christian rock band, an international act. It was billed as an outreach event. Bring along your kids and let them hear that Christians can have fun too. Bring along your friends on the same basis.  

 

It was terrible to my ears. Now I love loud rock music and have played some of it myself. But this was an unrelenting wall of distortion. The Stones album then on sale was "Sticky Fingers". I attended one of their Australian concerts promoting that album. One of the biggest hits from that album was "Wild Horses", a really gentle tender ballad. Another of my fave albums over the years has been Slade Alive!. The biggest hit from that by far was "Darlin Be Home Soon".

 

Good rock has dynamic range. This didn't have any. It was an unrelenting wall of distortion and volume, and I will not call it power. Any non-Christians in the audience soon left. There was nothing to stay for. As we were packing up I had the cheek to prayerfully say to the lead guitarist "You don't really enjoy this music, do you?" He took it very well. Maybe it wasn't the first time he'd been asked. He said "No, but it's what the kids want." I said "I've got bad news mate, it shows." We didn't have time to take it further, but next tour they had discovered dynamic range and gentle songs. Maybe I helped?

 

Lead guitar in church is a position of exceptional temptation. Some of the best Christian lead guitarists I know refuse to play electric in church at all. If you have not been there you may not understand, but do pray for those who do take on this ministry.

 

Drums

My oldest student so far was 70 years young. She was an excellent jazz drummer, amateur but already better than I will ever be. She came to me after a large rally at which I played and asked for lessons! She had been asked to play in her church and could tell she was not delivering what was wanted. So we spent three lessons learning how to hit things a little bit harder and a lot less often. In particular, we drilled a John_Barbata style fill (which at the time I attributed to Keith Moon but I've since discovered Barbata was at it first) as a vocal cue for the chorus of Shine,_Jesus,_Shine, It had worked for me and it was soon working for her. I told here right at the start of the first lesson "Be warned, there is good Rock music, and you are soon going to be playing it authentically, and if you do that you will learn to like it."

 

It wasn't a threat. My personal definition of musicianship is the ability to play music you don't really like in such a way that listeners who do like that sort of music just assume that you do too. It was an observation. The more you love music, the more music you love.

 

She replied with a smile and a laugh "I'm to old for that!" And we got down to business.

 

Months later I was at another rally, and this time the roles were reversed. I was in the congregation. She was drumming, and very well too. And one of the songs was Shine, Jesus, Shine... not surprising, it was at the peak of its popularity. She played it far better than I had. No surprises there either.

 

Afterwards I sought her out. "Confess. You were enjoying that." The smile was awesome. "You bastard, you were right." Nothing more needed to be said.      

 

More Good News

One of the signs that Australia may be on the brink of revival is the great music that is being written and provided. (And yes, I'm even trying to be part of it.)

 

I'd love to say that revival will come from great music. But it's the other way around. Revival comes from great preaching, and great music comes from revival.

 

And one of the things that can help get people back into church is great music, and particularly but not only organ music. We just need the right instruments and the right organists.

 

How it can be done

Years ago I turned up unexpectedly at an Anglican church. I was unexpectedly at a loose end on a Sunday morning because the yacht I'd been navigating in a passage race had done a very good time. So in the best clothes I could muster I went to church. It turned out to be a sung communion, pretty much a sung mass mostly in Latin, so I knew all the words (I'm protestant but have often sung in Roman Catholic churches too). I did not know the arrangement but it was pretty standard four part harmony so I could mainly guess the bass part of the first congregational sung bit.

 

On my way in I'd been greeted by a nice young lady (young married I would guess and far too young for me, don't get ideas) who had asked where I was from, shown me what I'd need to follow in the way of books and handouts, and had then sat down beside me. Now that's a welcome! But when I stood to sing just the second congregational bit, she had gone. In her place was a young man with a bass voice who held up a copy of the score for me to follow. Now that's a real welcome!

 

And neither the melody nor the bass part ever went above a C.  It can be done.

 

Dealing with bad drummers and organists

Of course we should be using good drummers and good organists. But it's not always possible. So let us develop some. Do some cadre development. I hinted at this above. 

 

The common solution to bad drumming is a drum booth. Put the drummer in a plastic cage. A good drummer of course can play fast or slow, loud or soft. It's all control. Conversely, the worst drummers can only play medium fast and medium loud.

 

I hate drum booths. They encourage both bad worship music and bad drumming. Often something is necessary in order to keep the drums out of the other microphones, particularly if making a first-class recording. But if the drummer is in the right place (at the side not the back) a single panel screen will provide enough attenuation for that. You don't need the whole booth. 

 

Often a better solution is an electronic drum kit. And it works for organists too. Give them an electronic instrument and a foldback wedge. Set it up with their own volume control on max if possible, to get max headroom. Make sure all the musicians know the signals for the PA person to adjust the various levels in the foldback sends. Make sure the PA person knows that they have a big responsibility to respond to these signals. They can chat to their romantic prospects afterwards.  

 

When (not if, try me) they say "I need my own amplifier in order to hear myself" and perhaps they then point out that other members of the band have their own amps (bass players in particular, but lead players often use their amps as part of their sound), just point out that the worship music team is a team. Don't say that they're not the leader of that team. You don't need to. But that's the point that is being subtly and effectively made.

 

Once they get used to this I predict that most of them will be able to play a real drum kit or even a real pipe organ without being bossy. It has happened to many drummers.

 

And I'm sure it can happen to organists too.     

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