Having been honored and pleased to hear from several people (in both Facebook and face-to-face conversations) who read the dialogue I posted in the last Monday Music installment, I’m following up here with abbreviated assessments of three enterprises that work to provide music notation for congregational use.
Aside: some readers of the previous installment seemed to think that the person with whom I was in dialogue was a bit obstinate. Thanks for being “on my side,” but I actually didn’t take him that way. I thought he was more patient and interested than most people would have been. Nevermind the errors in arrangements of congregational songs for a moment . . . if the shoes had been reversed and I was convinced my system was working really well, I doubt I would have responded four or five times to an unknown person, no matter how qualified he seemed to be. I suspect (based on an admittedly tiny sampling) that the AVOW system needs a bit more help than its own staff thinks it needs, but I felt they were nice in corresponding, overall.
Here are a few evaluative details about AVOW, Taylor Publications, and The Paperless Hymnal. I don’t intend these comments to be thorough by any stretch—nor even comparative, really, although I have in the end recommended one and not the other two.
“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.”
Given my very limited knowledge of AVOW materials, and since there is ample discussion in the last post, I will confine my comments to one area in which I believe this organization’s materials are lacking: the translation of certain contemporary elements to the a cappella medium. Based on the AVOW staff member’s confession in the above-referenced dialogue, I believe they are in the habit of simplifying contemporary music in order to make the songs seem accessible to more congregations. Also by their own admission, they are aware of multiple larger congregations’ expansions of AVOW arrangements into more skillful, characteristic versions. My guess is that the larger congregations that are doing more with the published AVOW arrangements are the only groups that are really approximating the original songs. This is only a supposition, but it’s based on a good deal of experience with groups of varying abilities. Even the most skilled, rehearsed a cappella singing cannot approach all the aspects of many original contemporary songs. My belief is that, for instance, removing an added 9th from a chord in order simplify it actually changes the character of the music in that spot. The music there is no longer the same. The simplification of rhythmic patterns is even more common. If one simplifies rhythms in order to unify a congregational song, the character of the original music has likely been essentially changed—and more broadly so than with the one chord-type alteration mentioned first. People who know the original songs can be frustrated, because it doesn’t sound like the song they know, and if a good proportion of the church does know the song, they will end up ignoring the written arrangement, anyway—with the result that no one ends up singing together.
AVOW finds that some 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,” and AVOW believes it is serving those churches’ needs. Perhaps so, but those repertoires may also be impoverished. (Here I am commenting on the congregations more than on AVOW.) Some difficult songs are worth taking time to learn and may be just as worthwhile as certain simple songs (whether found in hymnals, heard in informal settings, or arranged from contemporary sources). I find that there are
- some contemporary songs that most congregations can sing
- others that need praise teams to shore them up (and then, of course, the congregations aren’t doing much of the singing, anyway)
- yet others that shouldn’t be attempted with a cappella congregations at all (end of story)
If your church is ravenous for new songs arranged simply, you might want to try AVOW, and you may find an arrangement of your favorite radio song relatively quickly this way. (Or you could ask yours truly for a custom arrangement!)
I have limited experience with Taylor Publications, as well, but the experience I have spans different music styles and several years. Having recently visited a church that used Taylor projected music exclusively, my opinion of their ePraise Hymnal (not their other products, necessarily) was cemented, I’m afraid: I cannot by any means recommend Taylor, based on what I’ve seen.
Now, everyone makes mistakes. AVOW makes mistakes; James Tackett makes mistakes, and I certainly make mistakes myself. (I regularly find mistakes in my own music, blogposts, and other writings, and I’ve been appalled.) But we are talking about marketed products that should be carefully edited here, and the Taylor arrangements I have seen and used are far beneath the quality of the others. Doubling the melody in the bass is not OK. Neither is the persistent doubling of thirds; there was clearly no thought given there. Within the lyrics, comma splices had been inserted, and other punctuation had been mangled. I have one printed Taylor contemporary songbook and will never use it. There are better arrangements available elsewhere, and some Taylor arrangements should, frankly, be recalled (unless what I’ve seen were beta-test versions of songs that have long since been corrected/replaced).¹
Focusing on Church of Christ hymnal repertoire, the extensive Paperless Hymnal library incorporates multiple versions of many songs in order to correlate to a few widely used hymnals. (This “pro” can also be a “con,” because few leaders actually seem to notice that there are multiple versions, or perhaps they don’t care, and they end up using the wrong one. Variant words and harmonies can be switched, creating momentary confusions.) TPH also includes a relatively small but growing number of contemporary songs, and the arrangements, while sometimes simplified, seem to draw on better sources than those produced by either AVOW or Taylor.
TPH regularly (on multiple occasions each year) produces corrected versions of songs, and it is up to someone from each congregation to stay on top of this process, updating the church’s files.
Having worked a bit with James Tackett on reviewing and proofing two volumes of the Paperless Hymnal, I can attest to the fact that his process is refined and thorough. Although I disagree mildly with some cosmetic/notation choices he has made, he has reasons for them and has consistently applied them.
Based on aggregate quality and the connection I perceive between stated mission and achievement, it is my pleasure to recommend The Paperless Hymnal above the other two sources I have seen in this market. It is not because the Paperless Hymnal focuses on hymnal repertoire that I recommend them; I simply find that they have a more viable raison d’etre. In other words, focusing on arranging contemporary songs in an a cappella milieu is destined to be a somewhat problematic venture, so I prefer to advocate a service that helps this group of churches spend more time doing what they can do well.
[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.]
¹ I do not plan to spend any time writing to Taylor as I wrote to AVOW. I’m not sure there would be much point in making suggestions to Taylor, because what I have seen of their materials show that they’re on a different page altogether with regard to skillful arranging, accuracy, and quality.