Thinking Out Loud

August 25, 2018

Music Ministry: Methodology

Yesterday we looked at some very superficial reasons which draw people into the larger music business with a hope that church musicians can understand their own music-personality type. Today we want to be more specific in looking at the raw, on-the-surface practicalities of drafting the music for Sunday morning.

treble clefFinding the recipe

If you look at a recipe, it’s always divided into two sections. First you have a list of ingredients, and then you have the instructions as to how you wish to use them. Worship planning is very similar. There’s a list of songs you want to use, but how do you blend and mix them? Perhaps there’s a song that is going to occur at the beginning and the end of the service. Possibly two songs might play off each other (i.e. How Great Thou Art and How Great is Our God). Some might stand alone, while others might combine into medleys.

Ingredients are key

You want to choose your ingredients carefully. Just as in baking, some elements might conflict. Some choices might be too spicy. Others might be too bland. In a salad, you go for color and music is no different. A seasoned worship leader will have about 5,000 songs in their head at any one time. Unless you get to plan a worship night, you’re probably only going to do about five songs. You have 4,995 songs to leave out.

What people are hungry for

Your job is to give people the means by which they can respond to God for his greatness and goodness, his holiness and majesty, his love and compassion; just to name a few. The songs should resonate with young and old, and therein lies a challenge. With different strains of ingredients (classic hymns, 20th century gospel hymns, Maranatha! Music, Vineyard, modern worship leaders, modern hymns, soaking music, Hillsong, UK-based songs, etc.) you can appeal to different demographics, or you can choose to present a more musically-unified selection. If you want to see a younger demographic, you also have to skew your choices to people who perhaps aren’t there yet. That’s risky, but some churches do this.

Appetizer or main course?

Some Evangelicals see the worship time as preparing the hearts of people for the teaching of the word. Some Evangelicals see the praise time more liturgically as valid on its own. I personally lean more to the second position. Still you want to know what the sermon topic is so your two selections don’t conflict.

Toppings

A worship time will be rather uneventful if it is just straight singing. You want to intersperse related quotations, read one of the verses before or after singing it, include quotations, or even do a “story behind the song” type of introduction. Many leaders default to Psalms, but some congregants tune them out. But there are exceptions; last week in our church the readings were all from the same Psalm and the songs chosen around that.

A shared meal

One of the values of corporate worship is that there are things we can do together that we can’t do alone (i.e. just listening or singing along with an album or Christian radio station at home.) The music should somewhat exploit the congregational dynamics. There should be some lively songs (by whatever parameter you measure that in your style of church) and there should be some songs where the beauty of blended voices can be both heard and felt.

When people like the recipe, don’t take credit

It’s very humble to say, “God gave me these songs this week;” but better to deflect the credit to the creators of the songs, or best, God Himself. “This is a new song, written by a musician who God is really using to stir us to deeper worship.” Or, “This song really focuses on God’s knowledge and wisdom and helps us consider how the ways of the Lord are so much beyond anything we could understand.” With opening statements like that it takes the focus away from you; you’re seen rather as a hunter and gatherer of worship that’s already out there.

We’re part of a much larger banquet

Occasionally, I would remind our congregation of the vast number of churches that were joining us in worship across our city, across our denomination, and in our nation; and then I would remind them that in North America, we occupy a place at the end of the timezones, joining a worship service that has been taking place around the world that weekend. Just thinking about that now, I am reminded of its potential to reshape how we approach worship.

So those are the superficial factors. But there are also some very spiritual considerations. That would make a great third part to this weekend series, but Laura covered that for us so well a few years ago, I’m going to invite you to simply click here.

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August 24, 2018

Music Ministry: Motivation

So you want to be a rock ‘n roll star? You can do that in many ways in many places, including your local church.

What attracts people to work in the music industry in general? I’ve listed a few things below that I think apply both within and outside the church context, and one, at the end of the list, that I believe is more common only within Christian experience. Worship leaders: Perhaps finding what attracts you to music in the first place will help you understand your personality type as a musician.

treble clefPerformance

Some people just want to play. They live to gig. If you’re a drummer and you can’t sing, you’re never going to be center stage, and people might not even know your name, but that’s okay, right? The idea is to simply make music, either in a live context or in a studio. The busier the schedule, the better.

Profile

For others, being center stage is really important. They are attracted by the idea of being a name you would know. They might already have their own web domain. Or an agent.

Product

The goal for some people is just to make an album. They aren’t looking for bookings and they aren’t looking for fame. They just want to have that physical CD in a plastic case that they can give to their friends, and show to their kids some day. (“That’s neat, Mom. Too bad we can’t play it on anything.”) Or worst case, the digital equivalent. Sales in retail stores would be an added bonus.

Publishing

The nice thing about this as a goal is you don’t have to give a single concert or even be able to carry a tune. But if you can compose meaningful songs and get others to perform them your music can travel to places you can’t. For people who are happy behind the scenes, this is an achievable goal, though usually the singer/songwriter usually has their own material. For people who do perform, the goal here is getting their songs covered by other groups or solo artists.

Production

Just as there are frequencies that only dogs can hear, there is a smell in recording studios that only some people detect. To most of us, a 48-channel recording console looks intimidating, like the cockpit of a jet plane, but to them, the lights and dials are all in a day’s work. Their job demands that they live to serve the needs of others, but we know the names of many producers who have never recorded a single note themselves.

Profit

Although this can apply to any of the areas listed above, if we’re dealing with the area of motivation, then money can be a driving force. If you’re competent at publishing, performance, production, etc. and you need to pay the bills, you do what you’re good at.

Proclamation

This is the one I feel is more common to Christian musicians, though it’s not entirely unique since it applies to anyone who feels they have a message to communicate, whether it’s 60s hippies protesting the Vietnam War, or 80s rockers crusading for environmentalism. Today the message might still be anti-war, or racial equality, or perhaps gay rights. It is in this milieu that Christian artists raise their voices to express their faith or tell their story, though in the last dozen years, Christian music has been dominated by vertical worship — we could have had another P-word, Praise — which lessens the number of testimony or teaching songs being heard. We have, as Randy Stonehill put it many, many years ago, “the hottest news on the rack,” and so that motivates Christian musicians to make music which reflects their core faith beliefs.

…Of course, playing because you want to have a message to share is a noble ideal, but many musicians also fall into one of the other categories as well. They want to make an album, or achieve popularity, or be able to make a living from their art. That’s okay, right?

Tomorrow we’ll look at some of the practical ingredients of worship, comparing it to a recipe that worship leaders bake each week!

This may not interest everyone, but today, one of the other blogs in the Thinking Out Loud blog network is celebrating its tenth anniversary. Christian Book Shop Talk is written for the owners, managers and staff of Christian bookstores in Canada. To drop in on the party, click this link.

 

August 18, 2018

On the Passing of Aretha Franklin

Filed under: Christianity, music — Tags: , , , — paulthinkingoutloud @ 12:11 pm

So much is available for you to read online. I only want to make three observations:

♪ The first is a bit tangential, I admit, but it was refreshing to see an inspirational remembrance of the Queen of Soul displace Washington politics from the top of the network news agenda, both in Canada and the United States. NBC Nightly News devoted the first ten minutes to Aretha Franklin and this can be considered a measurement of her impact on music listeners and musicians alike. The orange man dominates the news rundown on far too many nights.

♪ I didn’t realize that Aretha’s first gospel album was her all-time bestseller. I believe the one at right (or above if you’re reading this on your phone) is the one I saw pictured on screen in one of the reports. It’s a double album, which I believe is the same song selection as the ones listed on the later-released CD version, shown below. Another example of how gospel music (and we can infer also, the Gospel itself) carried African Americans through the Civil Rights years. (There have been many other gospel collections by her in the years since.)

♪ The story, part of the next day’s reporting at NBC News on Aretha filling in for Pavarotti at the 1998 Grammy Awards is so inspiring. The show director didn’t know the opera star would be a no-show until 10 minutes into the broadcast. Aretha had performed the song as a tribute two days before at a tribute for Luciano, but this was a different arrangement, in a different key, with a large choir. She listened to a cassette in her dressing room for a few minutes, then went onstage to do her own number with The Blues Brothers, then went back to relearn the arrangement, and walked onstage saying, “This is going to be fun.” You can read the director’s story here — a related video is missing but you can watch that on YouTube.


Kick back with some Aretha gospel! This video begins a playlist of 16 songs.

 

August 5, 2018

The K•LOVE We Never Knew

Filed under: Christianity, music — Tags: , , , , , — paulthinkingoutloud @ 1:43 pm

If this graphic image doesn’t look familiar, click the links at the bottom of this piece for two recent rants about Christian music on radio, and modern worship in churches.

All this weekend, K-LOVE has been offering an online feed called “K-LOVE Classis: 80s, 90s and Early 2000s.” You can catch it at this link.

It’s in some respects, the K-LOVE that never was, though the station’s beginnings trace back to 1980.

There were a lot of people doing a lot of creative things in the earlier days of what we call CCM, but like K-LOVE itself, this is a rather safe, sanitized version of another generation’s Christian music. Perhaps what I’m longing to hear would be more of an Air1 classics station (Air1 is a sister station network to K-LOVE.) The first hour was interesting, but then everything started sounding the same.

Some of the trip down memory lane contained a few familiar songs — we played “Guess the Artist” while waiting for the ten second delay of the song ID onscreen — there were only a couple that really resonated where I turned the volume up high, and remember I was making my living full time from sales of this music in the 80s. (My wife handily won the artist guessing contest, however.)

We’ve discussed Christian music a few times here, so I don’t want to belabor this, you can read those articles at the following links.

Also, if you missed this 14-minute video,

 

July 15, 2018

Worship Planning is both Simple and Complex

I write a lot about the worship part of our church services because that is the area where I have served most frequently and consistently. If I had spent a lifetime serving in the church nursery, perhaps that would be the focus!

Years ago, when my wife was putting together worship sets, she encountered people who saw her work has very specialized and perhaps a bit mysterious. They viewed her adeptness at this with awe, often saying things like, “I don’t know how you do that each week;” or “I could never do that.”

The point is, at the basic level, they could do it. They could pick 5 songs and put together a worship set just as easily as anyone reading this could.

But in the modern worship environment, if you’re having to supply chord charts for band members, prepare presentation files for projection, deal with sound volunteers, and organize rehearsals; the job can get quite complex.

There are certain songs which just don’t follow other songs, usually for reasons of the pitch or key of each, but often for rhythmic or lyrical reasons. There are songs some churches don’t know and others that used far too frequently. A handful of popular ones today would go against the grain of the doctrinal position of certain churches.

Trying to be helpful to my wife, and as an occasional member of her team (I play keyboards, bass, incidental percussion and occasional guitar) I created the above document. It was a recognition of several things we were dealing with at the time.

First, it’s easy in rehearsals to under-communicate introductions and endings. Second, we sometimes feel instrumentalist on stage needs to be playing on every song, when in fact, the instrumentation would work better if some people took a song out to just sing. Third, it helped me personally visualize where some of the spoken readings fit into the larger set list, especially if I was only given a song set list, and the readings weren’t actually introduced until the actual service. Lastly, she was often run off her feet and I thought she’d appreciate the use of an organizing tool where churches didn’t have a budget for anything more sophisticated or personnel were still dependent on print resources.

Feel free to borrow it.

Yes, there is some complexity to all this, but again, if the demands are less complicated, this is something anyone can learn how to do.

July 5, 2018

Theology for which we Don’t Have Songs

This post originally appeared under the title,

When We All Get to Heaven

Rapture art

If someone were to ask me if there are any paradigm shifts I’ve noticed in Christian perspectives on various issues, I would have to say that among my peers and those with whom I converse online, three things might quickly spring to mind:

  • A rethinking of the afterlife as ‘New Earth,’ rather than a ‘heaven’ that’s up there as opposed to down here. (For this, see the book Heaven by Randy Alcorn.)
  • A reconsideration of the ‘rapture theology’ that has dominated Evangelicalism for the past several decades. (See End Time Delusions by Steve Wohlberg.)
  • A re-assuming of our social justice responsibilities as opposed to placing the weight of our emphasis on doctrinal proclamation. (See Pursuing Justice by Ken Wytsma.)

However, the songs that we sing in our churches today — and by ‘our’ I mean those of us who have moved toward modern worship as opposed to gospel and classical hymns — do not reflect this change in thinking.

The hymns and gospel songs were consistent with things being preached in the pulpit and for many of us, these doctrines were ingrained through exposure to the music. Consider:

Some bright morning when this life is over
I’ll fly away

That’s rapture theology pure and simple. The hymn When We All Get to Heaven does talk about seeing Jesus and being in His presence, but implies that we are going to get to heaven, some place that’s out there.

Another example of a song under reconsideration, Onward Christian Soldiers talks about taking the cross to the world, but our crusade doesn’t appear to include demonstrating compassion or there being servant leaders among the soldiers. (Most people today agree that crusade is the wrong word; even the Billy Graham Association has dropped the term.)

I’m not opposed to those songs entirely; they shaped who I am today. It’s just that in today’s vertical worship environment, we don’t have songs that tell our story and describe more of the thinking that is currently being taught in our churches. Let me conclude with an illustration.

Last weekend we visited the anchor store in a large chain of musical instrument dealerships. I was telling the manager how my son, recently graduated in electrical engineering, has an interest in designing mixers, keyboards and especially synthesizers. I asked him if the store, when it hires people, is looking for product specialists or people who are good at sales.

He said basically that the product knowledge is a given. Nobody is going to apply who isn’t already a customer and very familiar with what’s in the store. So it’s the sales aptitude that they look for and develop in their staff.

Similarly, if I were asked to speak at a Christian songwriting conference, I wouldn’t talk about the basics of musical composition, I would, like the store manager, take that as a given. Instead, it’s a knowledge of the the lyrical foundation in the writing process that I would want to cultivate. I would want to encourage young Christian musicians to craft pieces that express where the church is today, the things that are central to us, and the things for which presently no songs exist.  

It’s not that vertical worship we have is inadequate in and of itself, but perhaps the whole vertical form is over emphasized to the point we no longer have songs of proclamation that fit our doctrine as it is constantly being amended (i.e. the parenthetic reference to crusade above.)

As we re-think certain Biblical interpretations, our music — or specifically our musicians — should be tracking with our different doctrinal emphases.


We found today’s graphic image along with a very thorough article at this website.

For an entirely unique view on this, here’s an old post I wrote about how a particular sect expresses their story in song.

June 25, 2018

The Power of a Praying Soul

Filed under: Christianity, music — paulthinkingoutloud @ 6:38 am

Image result for stormie omartian books

You know her for those “The Power of a Praying…” series of books.

But before that there was this:


BONUS SONG!


Mass Choir is the extreme sport of Christian/Gospel/Sacred Music

 

June 3, 2018

My Favorite Worship Song Doesn’t Work Congregationally

The blue Pacific on a summer’s day
Rushing in to meet the yellow sand
The view’s terrific I see Monterrey
Lookin’ mighty fine from where I stand
The water dances in the sun’s reflection
A thousand silver birds fly in my direction
Now isn’t it beauty, isn’t it sweet perfection?

If someone were to ask me my favorite worship song, I suppose I could easily think of songs like “Shout to the Lord,” “Majesty,” “How Great Is Our God,” “Revelation Song,” and a number of hymns including “Our Great Savior,” which you may or may not know.

But not every praise song is meant to be sung congregationally, and we do ourselves a disservice when we try to take every great worship chorus and force congregations to sing songs that perhaps don’t match up with their personal expression of adoration to God. Sometimes we’re just meant to listen to someone else’s thoughts.

The song embedded below is an example of that. The late Tom Howard wrote “One More Reason” with a first verse that expresses the beauty of God in creation that he is familiar with growing up in California, with its references to the Pacific Ocean and Monterrey; the spirit of which was captured by the person who made the tribute video. To sing this in our church, the first thing I would want to do is make that verse more generic, but I’ve never got around to writing different lyrics because I rather enjoy the song just the way he wrote it.

The sky is singing, the earth proclaims
Always one more reason to praise Your name.

May 8, 2018

The Hymns We Sing Meant Something Different to American Slaves

Filed under: Christianity, music — Tags: , , , , , — paulthinkingoutloud @ 7:23 am

Saturday night we attended the first in what is hoped to become an annual concert series, The Hymns to Freedom Project. The venue was the beautiful Toronto Centre for the Arts; although it was built in the late 1990s, we were seeing it for the first time. The tickets were purchased by our son who wanted to see the concert and invited us to join him.

He became aware of the event after attending a previous concert by the Toronto Mass Choir (TMC). The connecting link is Corey Butler who is Musical Director and who conceived this program, composing and arranging the selections, and conducting a 38-piece orchestra.

The music was often bright and lively, and this stood in contrast to the subject matter: Slavery in the United States. The words of Martin Luther King, Jr. were played, including the famous “I have a dream” speech, with the film footage synchronized with the live orchestra.

Four of the selections involved Canadian soloist Jackie Richardson who combined readings with singing. The song “Elijah Rock” had the audience clapping and singing.

But the more sobering theme of the night was never far removed. There was a reference to the gospel song, “How I Got Over” and an explanation of its reference to fugitive slaves escaping to northern states by crossing the Ohio River; but also a reminder that it’s a metaphor for the wider emancipation of black Americans as whole, with the added caveat that this process is incomplete. The accompanying slide show included an images of Trayvon Martin and the more recent image of the black men removed from a Starbucks location just last month.

We were reminded that the “band of angels coming after me” in “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” was actually a reference to friends on the northern banks of the Ohio (identified as the Jordan River) often signalling when would not be safe to cross and then helping them when it was.

The concert was also the launch project for Zamar Music Productions, a new “not-for-profit organization committed to excellence in music art and performance” in three specific areas: Education, Entertainment and Production utilizing a variety of music styles. (Learn more at zamarmusic.org)

My only regret is that the entire program was quite short. We were told ahead of time that the running time would be 72 minutes.  It should also be noted that from where we were sitting, it looked like almost a quarter of the audience arrived late; strange considering the ticket prices. Also, there were two competing elements here; the songs featuring Ms. Richardson belonging to an entirely different genre than the more classical-styled, instrumental-only songs featuring the full orchestra. That may have been an attempt to appease a more diverse audience.

The next Hymns to Freedom Project concert is scheduled for February in Brampton, Ontario.


Footnotes:

  • My wife and I got to sing with the Toronto Mass Choir in a yearly event they do called Power Up and we continue to attend their concerts yearly. I’ve had several conversations with Corey Butler, including a front row seat in Newcastle where I could almost reach out and touch the piano. (You can read my story here.)
  • In another lifetime (for both of us) Jackie Richardson sang with a dance band that did Jewish weddings, Bar Mitzvahs and Bat Mitzvahs, for which I was a roadie. Thanks to that experience, I’ve been inside almost every Synagogue in Toronto.
  • The Toronto Centre for the Arts is located in Toronto just steps away from where the April 23rd van attack took place. At the end of the event, Corey Butler dedicated the concert to the memory of those who lost their lives and to their families, and those who were injured. We went for a walk to the memorial after the concert and you can read that reflection here.

April 21, 2018

Adding to the Difficulty of Singing Modern Worship Songs

Filed under: Christianity, music, worship — Tags: , , , — paulthinkingoutloud @ 8:12 am

When the musical aspect of the last ten years of modern worship is examined, the unique technical distinctive that will be remembered is what’s known as “the octave jump.” For reasons outlined in the video below, it has become a staple of modern worship. Unlike “the key change” which increases energy, but usually doubles the number of chords required for any given song, octave-jumping allows musicians to continue following the same basic chord structure, while the vocalists do the heavy lifting.

If we’re talking about a concert, then it’s the people onstage who are trained singers. However, in a church setting, the aforementioned vocalists are you and me, and the result is going to be vocal strain. Bungee jumping might be safer than octave jumping, and that’s allowing for the screaming when you first jump.

After two weeks looking at the issue of the pitch range of modern worship songs — especially when contrasted with their hymn counterparts — a veteran worship leader looks at octave jumping. We’re joining David Wesley in the middle of a series here, so if you’re up for more or are just a frustrated congregation member who wants to forward something to your worship leader (!) click through to YouTube — on the bottom right of the video — then click his channel name underneath the video.  On the other hand, you can just click here.

 

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