MWM: Misinformation and mistakes “out there”

A lot of misinformation floats around “out there”—false impressions about the realities of education, theology, nutrition, events in the news, medical treatment, facets of the Constantinian fallout, and so much more.

One bit of misinformation that I suspect infects a great many otherwise in-the-know people is the idea that church music notation is somehow protected by copyright differently from the way that lyrics are protected.  That is a false impression.  I don’t know all that much about intellectual property law as it pertains to trademarks and registered service marks, and there are aspects of performance rights law (think ASCAP and BMI) that baffle me, but post-1923 church music is relatively easy to deal with.  If you have a standard CCLI license or other standard permission to use a song, you can print the melody or a published arrangement and distribute handouts in a church bulletin, project it on a screen, or even print it in a published supplement for congregational use.  This is quite an important message to get out there, in order to head off the ignorant actions of some who unintentionally end up eroding congregational singing.  (Standard disclaimers apply:  I am not a lawyer, and the above must not be considered legal advice.  It could be considered a relatively educated information-sharing.)

The correspondence I’m reproducing below may indicate several things, including, but not limited to,

  • my longtime interest in notated music in a congregational setting
  • my intensity and boldness about the same
  • the existence of multiple, basically good enterprises and people out there who care about church music in various styles and formats
  • the unlikelihood of doing much to improve the scenario out there
  • a disconnect between what I want to offer and the “felt needs” of people and churches out there
  • the natural resistance humans feel when errors and deficiencies are in view (no one likes to be corrected)
  • a rare concern (rare in the sense that both my interlocutor and I are in a tiny minority) with mistakes and accuracy
  • something of the behind-the-scenes energy required in technical areas

With that said, maybe many of you will want to skim or scan or deeply read the conversation below.  This conversation—about mistakes but also about much more—occurred approximately three months ago.

Me to A View of Worship (via web form):

I was visiting in a church on Sunday evening that used one of your songs.  This song (Reuben Morgan’s “Cornerstone”) needed some more music editing, so I thought I’d write to inquire.  I have done some proofing for The Paperless Hymnal (last two volumes) and would be interested in contracting with you, as well.  I have two graduate degrees in music (conducting), more than three decades of experience leading in a cappella churches, and more than 500 arrangements and 100 Christian song/hymn compositions.  I hope we can be in touch.

A View of Worship to Me:

Thank you for your offer.  All of our subscribers are encouraged to send us any corrections that need to be made, at any time.  Usually we make corrections the same day and, since we are in the cloud, the corrected music is available immediately.  We usually release around 100 new songs each year, so there are corrections that need to be made now and then, but we usually catch them before they are available for download, since we have 3 congregations and praise teams that use them before they go to the subscribers.  That allows us to catch mistakes, change keys and modify the arrangement to match the needs of a cappella congregations.

I appreciate your offer, however, our current system seems to work well for us.  If you will let me know the issue you saw, I will correct it.  There are three arrangements of Cornerstone in our catalog.

Thank you for your inquiry.

Me to AVOW:

Thanks so much for the prompt reply.  I don’t recall the specific things I noticed in “Cornerstone,” but I recall both rhythmic and harmonic issues.  (You should have heard this church gathering of approximately 500 trying to sing that song!  The result was distracting, but not totally disastrous, and part of it was attributable to the fact that the leader didn’t really know or predict the issues.  But some of the issues were definitely notation-related.)

My inquiries and observations are out of the blue, I know, and you have no context to evaluate me and any credibility and capability I might or might not have.  I get that.  I have been with CofC groups in DE, TX, WY, AR, CO, NY, and MO and have visited many more.  I have worked with youth and camps and a performance group.  I see congregational singing declining in every place I go.  Fewer congregations and leaders are paying attention to what is notated, and more leaders seem to be in their worship leading roles based on charisma or youth instead of capability/gift.  I have the desire to help in ways I can, such as helping to keep congregational singing alive through improving notation — and keeping the notation available!  This is an area in which I’m still trying to work, although it seems to be a losing battle.

As for the larger picture, I was really talking about a deeper level of editing but didn’t make that clear at all (my bad).  My experience base, which includes having compiled song book supplements and arranging 500-600 songs, gives me, I’ll admit, a lot of “opinionatedness” on what does and doesn’t work for a cappella settings, but it also allows me to make many contemporary songs work even if they don’t work, if you know what I mean.  I haven’t been anywhere else that used your materials (only The Paperless Hymnal), so won’t comment on whether your system is “working well,” but I do know that I haven’t sat through a Paperless Hymnal song set in a decade that didn’t have some issues.  If you have multiple, trained arrangers and the demo praise teams and haven’t yet found a lot of need to make corrections after the fact, the system may well be just fine!

Whenever it’s a good time for you, what about a little game, just for fun?  Here’s my friendly proposal, basically off the top:  you send me 10 or 20 of the songs you’ve recently completed but haven’t published yet, and if I can’t find the need for edits in at least half of them, I’ll recommend your materials in a blogpost.  (I’ve just added your site as a link.)  If on the other hand I identify errors/things that need revision in at least half, you agree to consider seriously working with me on an ongoing basis.  Admittedly, the need for edits may be a judgment call; if you end up disagreeing with my suggestions because of your editorial policies, no harm done.  But no fair hand-picking the really easy ones you know have been tested and used a long time already.  🙂

If you’re inclined at all to consider what I’m saying, there’s no need to respond right away.  Whenever it seems like the right time—days, weeks, or months away.  And if you’re still going, “Who is this guy, and I wonder if he’s really this bold in real life,” well then, just forget it, but maybe peruse some of the materials I’m attaching/linking to, anyway!

AVOW to Me:

I appreciate what you are offering.  I have read through all the links you sent me, and read your email several times to make sure I understand it.  I do understand where you are coming from, and in many instances I think you would find me to be quite sympathetic to your cause.  I truly appreciate your offer, I really do.  What we are doing has been working well for a LONG time, and I believe we would prefer to keep things as they are.

I am aware of the arrangement you referenced, and the issues with it.  The bass part in particular does not work.  However, if you were to look at an arrangement I wrote in a matter of 2 hours, on Friday night, which I have attached, you will see that the arrangement you witnessed was not a good representation of the many hundreds of other songs we have available.  I have made no adjustments to it since arranging.  I did, after leading it yesterday, notice that slide 23 has an extra beat that has to be removed on the second system, last measure.  The voice-leading is solid (considering the limitations created by the melodic line’s range) and the song captures the essence of the composers’ original work, which is a CCLI must.  I will share the concerns about “Cornerstone” with our team.  I agree that it needs to be changed.  In fact the arrangement was a replacement for the one I originally created a couple of years ago.

Thank you for your offer, and for your concern for notation.  It is a cause which we both highly value and pray doesn’t lose its rightful place.

Me to AVOW:

I appreciate your candor and grace in responding, as well as your overall interest in related things.  I will take your refusal as intentionally final, and yet I will let you know some of the problems I see in the arrangement you sent.  No one likes anyone telling him what to do, but in case this is a test case of how I come across in proofing, please know that I’m doing this very quickly after a long day of research and writing, and I’m not making any special effort to be careful in how I point out changes needed.  In other words, don’t hold it against me if anything from here on seems terse!

  1. Slide 4 has doubling issues (Alto/Tenor-Bass), not to mention too much space between upper voices (in this case, A/T). I myself might let the 2nd item go, just in this one case, since it’s building to including more parts and not up to 4 parts yet.
  2. Slide 6, 2nd syllable of “Kingdom” (and similar spots below) either has mistaken alto & tenor or bass — I suspected this should’ve been a dominant 11th harmony, but I checked the lead sheet, and it only shows the IV. A case could still be made for bringing the bass up to A there for the G/A or dominant 11th, but a more purist approach would have moved alto down to D and tenor to B.  There shouldn’t be a C# there, really, to imply the V so strongly.
  3. Slide 7, I might have done “joy and prize” differently, but I wouldn’t call it an error in this genre.
  4. Slide 8, I would make 2nd syllable on “captives” an A in bass, since melody is leading tone. Lead sheet IV chord may just be too simplified here, not reflecting the original?  (Slide 9, “our” — same as above)
  5. Slide 10, 2nd syllable of “re-vive” should show the suspended 4th indicated in the lead sheet. Also, next to last note “this” (and similar spots) — mistake in bass.  A P4 should never be the lowest vertical interval, and definitely not that low.  Problem could easily be resolved by moving tenor to G (Dom.  7th) and then to F# resolution rather than unisons.
  6. Slide 11, “-dom here” (and similar spots below) — parallel 5ths, could be fixed by giving alto two quarter notes (E and G) before F# on “here.” I will sometimes write P5s in contemporary styles, but there’s no need for them here.  (Zoe began using some of these un-apologetically some years ago, but I’m not sure they were really wanting to be intentional in changing common-practice harmonic sensibilities in the course of it.)
  7. Slide 12, “land” — to move the bass down a 4th in that 8th-note figuration strikes me as out of place for congregational basses. It’s not something I would apply a “rule” to per se, but it’s not likely to be sung correctly by church singers, and it would be better just to have the bass on a quarter-note A.  (Similar observation on Slide 14, “here.”)  (Compare these to, e.g., “Christ” on Slide 18 — this, I think, is perfectly smooth and effective.)

I’ll omit theological critique of the songwriter’s words. 🙂

I think that covers all the separate (although repeated) issues I find on a once-over.  I hope you will use at least some of those suggestions.  Personally, I wouldn’t lead this arrangement as it stands without whiting out and blacking in a few notes.  Not all the items above would be barriers for me, but some would.

Again, I get that no one likes to be told he needs to fix things.  I have been a proofer in quite a few settings (with my dad who was an English teacher, with NT scholars and another book author, with financial analysts, with colleagues in college music departments, and as grad student telling your professor he’s made mistakes), and it’s not a comfortable position.  Proofreading rarely results in easier, strengthened relationships.  Plus, I do accept that you have many better arrangements than the one I happened to see that evening a couple weeks ago.  If this new one is any indication of the rest, though, you could still use some refinements.  Whatever the flaws are — and there will always be some — I’m sure you will continue to be strive to serve God and some of his churches.

AVOW to me:

Based on your notes, I detect a disconnect between AVOW’s mission and your personal ideals for church music.  AVOW is focused on creating “Hal Leonard Easy-To-Play” arrangements of contemporary worship music and note-for-note transcriptions of hymnal pieces, available in both standard and shaped notation (for churches that would object to contemporary literature otherwise).  We are aware that subscribing churches with several trained musicians often change the arrangements to suit their group’s preference, using our arrangements as a starting point and to be projected and sung by the wider congregation.  AVOW caters to Midsize Church of Christ, with a well-intentioned praise team, rotating musical leadership of widely varied ability and a leadership that wants blended worship.  These congregations will generally only introduce a new song to the repertoire if it can be taught in one or two repetitions or praise team rehearsals.  For those churches, we are a God-send.

It sounds to me as though that’s not your passion, and as a professional musician with experience equal to yours,[1] I totally get it.  I can also completely understand your suggestions for my arrangement.  I challenge you to revisit Build Your Kingdom Here with “7th grade band” in mind.

I thank you for your time and kind offer, but we will pass at this time.  I wish you only the best.

[1] His experience and credentials, as publicly posted, are actually quite different from mine, and I took his assertion as hasty and as perhaps indicative of a desire to exit this conversation (and it that was his desire, it’s understandable—we’re all busy).  In other words, I doubt he seriously thought about particulars of our backgrounds and traning and how they might impact his stance or mine.

[This is an installment in the periodic Monday Worship Music series which looks at hymns and other topics related to worship music of the church.] 

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