MWM: Three providers

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.

A View of Worship

“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!)

Taylor Publications

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

The Paperless Hymnal

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.

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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.] 

MWM: Manilow & Jingles . . . KISS & God?

This is another rather unusual entry in the Monday (Worship) Music quasi-series, which can be accessed by following this link.

As I considered this blogpost after writing most of it, I realized that it dates me.  Oh, well . . . I don’t often care much about pop culture or about fitting in (or seeming to fit in) with the times.

I remember when Barry Manilow’s songs were popular.  It must’ve been his creative songwriting and his voice, because it surely wasn’t his looks.  His songs were often sexually suggestive, and I don’t think the Christian housewives even noticed it, because Barry just charmed the women so much.

I’m almost embarrassed to admit that I own a Manilow vinyl album, but I’m not as reluctant to admit I have 3-4 of his songs in sheet music form (collected and played/sang, surely, during a time of life in which I, too, wanted to charm the ladies).  I also had the pleasure of playing piano in a slightly-souped-up arrangement (enriched for jazz combo, courtesy of my high school band director, Mr. Byerly) of one of Manilow’s top-notch songs, “This One’s for You.”

Some Manilow fans—and I do think some are still living!—may remember that he got his start by writing TV and radio “jingles” (a genre that has just about disappeared, I believe).  Some aging Christians like me who spent considerable time with young people at retreats and camps may also remember that at least one of Manilow’s  jingles, written for a Dr. Pepper commercial, was transmuted into a Christian song.  Fortunately, the horrible, Christian-parody lyrics must’ve fallen out of use.  (I can’t find them on the WWW.)  I doubt I have a copy saved in my “camp song” archives, and all I can remember is this:

Be a Pepper . . . drink Dr. Pepper. . . .

became something like

Be a Christian . . . yeah, be a Christian. . . .

Anyhoo . . . tonight on the radio, I had the interesting experience of hearing a song by KISS.  Incidentally, I can actually name all four KISS members (and once wrote an ill-advised essay that sought to justify their existence!), but I can’t for the life of me remember the name of the fourth Beatle.  I hadn’t heard the KISS song in more than 30 years, but it was a memorable one:  “Calling Dr. Love.”  The lyrics for this song are beneath questionable, but I must admit that it contains both the melodic “hook” and the catchy lyrics that led to its being a “top 40” hit.

Tainted by my own memories, my creative side, and my oddball humor, I instantly started to attach Christian lyrics to “Dr. Love,” wondering if it would ever pass muster:

“They call me ‘Dr. Love’”   became   “We call Him ‘God of Grace’”

“I’ve got the cure you’re thinkin’ of”   became    “And through His mercy, sin’s erased”

Does this work?

Nah.  Forget it.  The rhyme is good enough for poppish music, but some songs just won’t permit forced adoption of Christian thoughts and words.  We can sing the German drinking song tune that became “A Mighty Fortress” without negative association.   And the jury’s still out on Manilow’s “Dr. Pepper.”  But as long as KISS fans can still recall the original, we’d better forego singing about God to the tune of “Dr. Love.”

B. Casey, 8/28/2015

Mixed-up, messed-up

Once upon a time, on a Sunday . . .

Many hyphens were missing  — and just as many hyphens, duplicated.
There were ties that should have been slurs.
There were notes written off the beat that were sung on the beat (and vice versa).
There were 16th notes sung as 8ths, and 8ths sung as quarters.
(All the above is based on one song’s PowerPoint slides.)

There were poppish, me-focused words shoe-horned in with worship words.
There were underscores used in two different ways in the notation.
There was a mixed metaphor — in the same line, God was asked to reign and to flow.

The above relates to the material being used in congregational singing — material that should have been prepared with better quality.  I was thankful, by the way, that there were no women singing tenor an octave too high.  That over-zealous practice makes an upside-down mess of the sonic state of affairs, too.

A great deal of the problem can be summed up in these words:  disconnect between the visual and the sonic/aural.  

Now, I’m in a minority here, and I know it.  I suspect that less than 1% of the churchians out experience anything like my heightened awareness of all this.  But I also suspect that if the the visual and sonic were better connected, things would be much better.¹  Most of the other folks wouldn’t be able to identify why,but they would benefit from the new coherence just the same.

Having spent countless hours following music scores while either audiating or auditing a recording doesn’t help.  Score study and close attention to detail are part and parcel of who I am.  My only choices appear to be 1) deny this huge component of me, have a section of my brain cut out, and stop doing what I’m paid to do in my vocational life; 2) take over every congregational process in my path, or 3) stay distracted during musical sections of gathered worship.  Since (1) and (2) really aren’t viable options, I’m kind of stuck with (3).

In the real-time working out of some of the songs referred to above, on that isolated-but-oh-so-typical Sunday morning, the pulse was destroyed by constant, visual beat-division that not only distracted but also slowed several songs down.  The leader might have felt the congregation was dragging, but his own arm was the main problem:  he was turning on its head a basic principle of the visual evocation of musical pulse.

This problem is often seen in lesser-trained band conductors, not to mention a lot of cheer-leadery song leaders who’re desperate to get things moving, while ironically having the opposite effect by “pumping things up” with their arms.  For an example, see this video from the Harding University lectures last fall, and notice

  • 1:08-1:22 (“The Battle Belongs to the Lord”) — not a bad tempo, really, but way too much division of beat
  • the beginning and ending tempos of “Marching to Zion” (which begins 3:12) — radically slower toward the end, likely largely the result of an over-divided beat pattern
  • the beginning of “Blessed Be your Name” near 6:35

In pointing to that Harding lectureship leader, whom I do not know, I am not intending to be unkind.  He appears to be strong-voiced and enthusiastic about good things, and I’m sure he loves God.  He is simply unskilled in the use of the hand/arm to evoke musical sound, and he unintentionally creates a disconnect between the visual and the sonic.

For my part:  I find it nearly impossible to worship when stuff is so mixed-up and disconnected.

Please don’t bother suggesting, “You need to chill out.”   That would be unhelpful.

B. Casey, date undisclosed (but it wasn’t 6/28 or 7/5)


¹ This Rx begs an acknowledgment—namely, that another disconnect is far more eternally significant:  the disconnect between 1) what we read in scripture and 2) how we live.

Just give me the words, then

ppt lyr

vs.

newsongincipit

 

I’ve written quite a bit – both on this blog and in personal correspondence – about the logical imperative for providing notated music in church gatherings.  (Here is one rather impassioned essay that deals with this topic.  And here is another, shorter, punchier one.)

Today, a few contrasting thoughts.

First off:  if the notation is going to have a mistake or some other disconnect every line or two, reading it can be almost as distracting as not having notated music to follow at all.

Now, I understand that many “contemporary” (a vague, often carelessly used term, but a fairly helpful one, nonetheless) songs are difficult to notate for congregational use.  “Here I Am To Worship” and “We Bow Down” (10 and 30 years old, respectively—are they both “contemporary”?) are two examples that include some syncopation.[1]  Syncopation is frequently ignored either in a cappella and other musical arrangements, or in the actual singing, or in both.

Aside:  there is more about syncopation, in congregational a cappella singing, in my book The Christian Assembly:  Worship Concepts, Trends, and Leadership with Purpose.

For some music readers, the disparity between a) what is written and b) what is sung constitutes a distraction.  They are faced with a choice of 1) singing it right, or . . . no, wait . . . they’re not singing it that way here in this church . . . should I keep the accuracy because Sara and Whitney are listening to me for help, or should I gravitate to what most people seem to be singing? . . . and by that time, 1 to 5 seconds later, the worshipful moment is probably lost.

“Amazing Grace,” believe it or not, is another one that simply needs to be notated differently.  The primary problem comes mid-song, on the word “me” in the first stanza.  The question is whether it’s a tonic (I-chord) harmonization or a dominant V-chord that’s to be sung.  The more “purist” types of hymnals, including some Great Songs of the Church versions, Praise for the Lord, and the Methodist Hymnal, use the I6 harmony exclusively.  My head hears that just fine, having grown up with it.  Most hymnals I have in my collection provide the other option, though — the more common-man, V-chord harmony.  The common expectation – and obviously I know that most people don’t know the technical terms, but they hear and expect nonetheless – is the V chord there.  Call it more “natural,” more common, more Appalachian, or whatever.  The fact is, most people expect and sing notes from the V/dominant chord.

There are two main points here:

  1. I and some others are distracted enough by such sight-to-sound disconnects that we think and write about them.
  2. Those who notate music would do well to consider notating things the way they’re sung, and/or teaching people to sing songs the way they’re notated.

So, if there’s going to be a notable disconnect in the notation, just give me the words, then.  Don’t provide music notation at all, because it’s not worth reading it if all it’s going to do is distract.  (Yes, it’s a curse, but it happens pretty much every Sunday for me, and I wish someone would do something about it.)

——————————-

[1] Syncopation may be briefly defined as rhythmic patterns that accentuate sounds that are off the beat.

Yet another instance (or, notation for everyone!)

Anyone who has . . .

known me for a while, or

read my blog for a few months, or

corresponded with me, or

shared thoughts about congregational worship with me, or

been near me in a church assembly lately

. . . probably won’t be surprised that I’m putting myself out there, yet again, as an unequivocal, unabashed supporter of music notation in church gatherings.  Most congregations have no excuse for not making some kind of notation available — whether printed sheets, hymnals, or projected digital image.  Words-only 1) assumes total musical illiteracy (not a valid assumption for the majority who have attended school in the U.S.) and 2) guarantees a lesser participation dynamic on the part of the people in the seats.

pierce1

(Here, I jab, with a wink, at a friend who may read this.)  Recently, I was in an assembly in which one of those add-a-part songs was sung.  You know the type:  in most of them, sopranos start, then altos are added, then tenors and basses.

Well, in this particular song (“That’s Why We Praise Him”), the projection provided words only, even as it invited, almost sarcastically, “add altos,” “add tenor,” then “add bass.”  But there were no notes to add!  One just had to know the parts.  Funny.  (I double-dog-dare you to monitor whether people actually make up the same harmony parts out of thin air.  In every normal, congregational instance, there would be variety in the spontaneous part guesswork.)  I ask you:  how are we supposed to remember the other parts when we can’t even sing the melody consistently in unison?  Answer:  we’re not expected to.  By not providing music notation, we are expressly un-expecting decent part-singing.

It doesn’t make sense to ask for part-singing without having notated parts available.

We need notation!  We need notation!lgchurch

Real (3): relevance and participation in singing

Relevance in church gatherings is sometimes overrated — at least, relevance as commonly understood.

Various aspects of church and church gatherings could be discussed in terms of whether or not they manifest relevance.  Since I am a professional musician and a longtime (read:  since I was 10 or 12) careful observer of church music habits, successes, and pitfalls, I’m opting for music as the specific subject area here, in this next-in-series post on being “real” and relevant.  (Please read the last two posts for background thinking.)

Is it possible that style in music is too important when people are trying to be relevant?  I mean, when churches that want to be “real” and “seeker-sensitive” get their heads together to decide what music is going to sound like in their gatherings, don’t they think about style before anything else?  On the surface, this seems a good line of thinking — I mean, skinny jeans and contemporary decor def give u good style points (as does my texter spelling there), don’t they, and that goes a long way toward hooking a seeker.¹  I don’t discount that style is important.  I just think it’s not the only thing.  In considering church music within the context of being “real” and “seeker-sensitive,” it is important to distinguish between style and content.

But first:  a matter of the harp. harp (By that I mean something I harp on every now & then!  See here and here for more logistical considerations and background.  These prior posts are both about the same length; one is more “brass tacks,” and the other is more “from the heart.”  Or, just stay with me here!)  The next section constitutes a rather substantive “aside” that I hope will not be ignored.

Whether the songs are familiar, somewhat familiar, or unfamiliar, more people can sing if there is music notation.  When there is no notation available, you’d better provide a lot of background texture of some sort.  Otherwise, unfamiliar music is especially uncomfortable and/or leaves out the uninitiated (seekers or otherwise).  Now, make no mistake:  at The Journey in Newark, Delaware, there was a lot of background texture!  In fact, the last time we were there, we were treated to a kind of head-banging performance version of “Carol of the Bells,” with three rockers front-and-center before things got really going.  🙂  For those with sensitive ears like me, earplugs are in order, but it’s “real’ to assume that most seekers out there already have hearing damage from their earbuds and subwoofers, and they’ll probably connect with over-loud music.

ppt lyrThere will probably always be something in me that feels deflated when I’m sitting in yet another church gathering in which someone has taken the lazy path by just projecting the words.  Words-only (or simply singing from memory) can work for a few songs that are “favorites,” and I do think it’s OK to “leave out” a visitor in some activities, since the church gathering is for the church, not the unknown and often indescribable visitor.

But, if words-only is all a church ever does, it’s ill-advised, careless, and really, downright inexcusable.  We ought to realize that we are a more advanced society than ever, and there is simply no reason — technologically, societally, or sub-culturally — to assume we are all dumber than people were in the 1700s and 1800s and 1900s.  They all had notated music, and we would do better if we did, too.  It is not “musically elitist” to display music along with words.  As a rule, projecting the music allows more people to sing more confidently, whether they realize it or not.  The technological tools we have available (CCLI‘s SongSelect and The Paperless Hymnal, for example) make this quite easy, and not really much more time-consuming than displaying lyrics only on PowerPoint slides.  I am not, therefore, advocating that all churches need hymnals.  (Hymnals still have their place, and some of you middle-aged folks might be surprised at the broad range of stylistic preferences of hordes of twenty-somethings, but that’s beside the current point.)  I am saying that contemporary, seeker-sensitive churches have just as much reason to display (at least) the melody lines on their screens as the more traditional churches have either to project four-part harmony or to continue to provide hymnals in the pew racks.  Pretty much EVERY literate person benefits (some, only subliminally) from seeing the musical notations.

One undeniable trend in all singing churches is this:  the more we distance ourselves from notation, the less people in the seats will sing.  Personally, 1) I am flat-out mentally unable to sing a song I don’t know unless music notation is available; and 2) I can contribute vocally pretty well on a song I don’t know if I have the sheet music, hymnal, or projected notation available.

Another undeniable trend in a cappella churches:  the more years that transpire without music notation as the norm, the closer the congregation edges toward musical extinction.  You can do church without music at all, but I’ve not met the church that intends that, and no one seems to realize that they’re hurtling down this path to oblivion unless they change courses.  You see, if there are no instruments to carry things, notation is even more essential, for without it, there is nothing but a bad, rhythmically scattered rendition of a poorly remembered melody from the last time people heard the song on the radio, by some — which was it?  the 3rd or 4th? — group that covered the song.  Confusion quickly results.pierce1

Within the context of analyzing for the relevant/”real,” we have to admit that it’s a little weird for anybody but Girl Scouts and churches to sing together in a group.  (“Kum Ba Yah” is a great song, really, but it has often been the butt of jokes, showing that group singing is counter-cultural.)  It is no more relevant to the world out there to sing with lyrics-only than it is to sing with projected music notation or hymnals.  Group singing is pretty much out of style, and we simply have to major in offering relevant content within the songs we do sing in church.

With all that said, I would acknowledge that the “heartfelt energy level” of the singing at The Journey was a bit higher than at many other contemporary churches with a lot of instrumental texture.  (It was probably a bit higher than in most a cappella churches, too.)  They have something corporately energized going at The Journey.  But more often, in my experience, loud instruments inspire

  • hero worship (as with groupies and rock idols)
  • mumbling and half-hearted singing (as in most congregations)
  • silence (with some, no matter where you go)
  • the insertion of earplugs (as with me)

Loud instruments, then, would tend to discourage participation with any real personal dynamic.  But not always.  For instance, a relatively young, derivative organization in Searcy, Arkansas called Sons of Thunder recently almost single-handedly restored my faith in the ability of a “praise band” to inspire the congregation to pour our their hearts.  I surmise that assembly energy has more to do with the group’s health as a whole than with the particulars of the music.

Next:  The last post in this series comes in two days and deals with covering up the eyes, style, and content.

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¹ Don’t for a moment think that that “hooking” is reelly my line as a fisher of men.  But we must admit that hooking people is the way that some church salespeople think.  Sit there in your church row(boat) singing “Michael, Row the Boat Ashore,” and think about it for a moment, and you’ll reelize that something smells fishy, which makes you stop singing bass.  You’ll get that sinker feeling.  Then, just cast off and move on.  But don’t listen too closely for pitch; it’s very difficult to tuna fish.)

Just be aware that we’re here

True confession:  I am unable to sing an unfamiliar song in a church gathering unless musical notation is provided.

(Pause to ponder that.  Please.)

You may think the songs in your church are “easy,” but they all are built of the same melodic and harmonic materials, so they sound a lot more alike than you may realize.  Plus, the number of notes and musical tones I deal with in an average day simply does not allow me to retain the particular, banal melody of your new favorite song, whether we repeat it 8x or 20x.  No, really, I have tried recently, thinking, “I’ll bet I look silly, standing here and not singing when she knows I’m a professional musician.”  So I listen, and I try to remember “how it goes.”  By the 7th or 8th time the same phrase rolls around, I try it, and sure enough, I get something wrong — I end up substituting the melody or rhythm of derivative song #453 instead of #454.  They really do all sound alike.

You may think I should just get over myself and sing the song incorrectly.  But that is not who I am.  Some of it is a matter of choice — I choose not to do too many things carelessly and inaccurately — and some of it simply results from the glut of notes and tones in my particular life.  Many tunes do become indistinguishable after a while; I am sincere when I say I am unable to sing at times.

You may think that I could just worship without singing.  And you would be correct.  I’m trying, but it’s difficult for a musician to avoid music, focusing on only the words, when music is all around him.

You may think that I’m in a tiny minority, and you’re right.  Just be aware that we’re here — me and a few others.  Maybe we’re 5%, and maybe we’re 25%, but we have trouble worshipping with your church when you don’t provide musical notation so that we can avoid the distraction of being inaccurate with the music.  And, perhaps of more weighty statistical interest:  a huge proportion (I’d wager 50% or more) of churchgoers still exists that would be helped, to some degree (if not completely enabled), by music notation.  They may not know or admit it all the time, but they are partially musically literate, having been educated in our public schools, and they can sing more heartily if they have notes in front of them than if they have just the words.

You may think that what I’m calling for – musical notation in church gatherings in literate populations — is an elitist measure.  There seems to be a connection between this “elitist” criticism, which I steadfastly resist, and the passionate pursuit of “church growth.” When people (preachers and others whose livelihood depends on more people coming through the doors) get together to try to solve the church world’s problems apart from scripture, they can come up with all sorts of junk ideas, and this is one of them.  Aside:  I’ve also never believed the rule that says your church won’t grow past 75-80% of its seating capacity.  I find this principle largely shallow and self-serving; it leads to a drive for a newer, bigger building, which in turn makes it look like the preacher is doing great things, or else people wouldn’t have flocked to him and needed a bigger building.  While the lack of musical notation is not self-serving for preachers in the same way, it is also shallow and amounts to ignorance shown toward the worthy, generally and musically literate people who fill the seats.

You may think that there are larger Kingdom causes to be spending time on, and again, you’re right.  But this one deserves some attention, as well.

Church leaders, please consider taking the step of providing the words and the music for your assemblies.  It hurts no one, and it helps more of us than you probably realize.

P.S.  James Tackett of Paperless Hymnal (and, presumably others doing similar things in other denominations), keep up the good work of providing the words AND the music!

Left out

LaHaye and Jenkins have their Left Behind,[1] and I have my own “Left Out.”

My tiny take on a tiny slice of Christendom Pie paints no armageddish picture (but it does mix metaphors!).  Truthfully, it’s rather un-cataclysmic.  For most of you, this is probably rather boring, so the only connection with “Left Behind” may be the word “left.”

Imprimis

At times, I am left out of the goings-on in church gatherings because music is not made available when I’m supposed to be singing.  I don’t like being left out—and again, this is nothing like being left behind if there were to be a rapture (I doubt there will be)—but the fact is, I am left out.

Proposition

Displaying music on PowerPoint slides (or in hymnals) acknowledges general congregational literacy and enables the musically literate worshippers to take part fully.

Stated in the Negative

Not displaying music assumes general illiteracy and disables some of us musically literate worshippers who don’t know the song.

How is it, exactly, that I am disabled?  If I end up guessing whether F goes to G next, or to Eb, I’m wrong half the time. I choose not to be more distracted by intuiting the notes than by being passive.  Hmmm.  That was some awkward phrasing, so let me try again….  Either way, I’m going to be distracted some, and for me, it’s usually better not to try to sing at all when there’s no music notation and I don’t know the song.  My soul does better in just trying to listen and maybe meditating for a few instants on some concept in a line I hear, than in trying and failing to sing the right notes.

Take either the positive or the negative, and affirm or deny.  I’d like to see your thoughts.

People who think displaying at least the melody line of the music is “elitist” may be 12% right, but is that 12% worth leaving some of us out?  I really don’t like being left out.  On the other hand, I am finding it necessary to make at least some allowances for trends in the church at large.

I do have to wonder whether I’ll be able to sing anything at all in 10 or 20 years if the enterprise of displaying music continues its recalcitrant path in so many churches.


[1] I have little use for the whole hyped-up LaHaye series because a) it is, well, hyped up, and b) it assumes the “rapture” and other eschatological events that I do not assume.

Pop Music Trends (2)

Powerpoint Lyric Layout

Increasingly, churches—even those that do not sing many contemporary songs—are using PowerPoint or some other computer presentation program for projection of music on a screen or wall.  Like many other practices and trends, this one is inherently neutral.

Benefits include getting people’s heads up so there is more sound and “life” in the room, better flow from activity to activity, the opportunity to employ a greater variety of worship material (e.g., devotional readings and pictorial images as aids to worship), and greater efficiency in terms of paper, cost, and transition time.

Potentially detrimental is the greater drain of planners’ and leaders’ energy, greater initial cost, and distraction, at least for a while, by technological features over spiritual content.

Incidentally, the issue of not providing music for the musically literate is a topic that crops up quite often.  Music should be provided in some form, period.  As was said to me recently, not displaying music because “most people probably know the music” is no different from not displaying the words because “most people probably know most of the words.”  My point in this brief essay is not primarily to advocate or “nay say” against PowerPoint, but rather to encourage attention to lyric layout when lyrics-only must be the mode.

When possible, do think about the way lines end and begin on the slides.  For example,

Shout to the Lord, all
The earth, let us sing power and
Majesty, praise to the
King

It might look aesthetically pleasing on the screen.  It does have a nice shape to it there.  But it doesn’t make sense.  This is one better way to lay out the words:

Shout to the Lord, all the earth,
Let us sing
Power and majesty,
Praise to the King

Consider both the musical phrasing and the sense of flow of the language used.  A specific suggestion I would make is to keep all the words of each prepositional phrase together, e.g., “to the Lord” and “to the King.”  Other phrases such as “all the earth”—which happen to be well set musically, in this case, as a thought-unit—are better kept together on the same line.

Give attention, also, to the slide-change points.  You wouldn’t want to flash to the next slide between “Power and majesty, praise” and “to the King.”  Sometimes it makes sense to cram more words onto one slide in order to keep thoughts together.  The change point may also be used to helpful dramatic effect:  the lyrics “mountains bow down” might be laid out on a fresh slide that has either a mountain scene in the background or maybe a faint “watermark” image of a worshipper bowing down.

This probably goes without saying, but do give attention to the point size of your PowerPoint lyrics.  The words must often be bigger than you think, if you want to avoid distracting people whose eyes must strain to see the words.  In most rooms, displaying the lyrics at anything less than 20-point is ill-advised.  Check for yourself, from the back of the room.  And listen to comments from your back-row people.

One other word—and this one is more for the people in the background doing the technical work than for the visible leaders:  when changing slides during a song, make sure you change early enough.  It is common among the less musically literate to assume that the change should occur precisely at the moment the first note of the next slide is to be sung.  In actuality, that is much too late. Change to the next slide well in advance, so that those who are reading (and we all read ahead, subconsciously) have time to see what’s on the next slide before the moment the words and notes are sung.

A good way to ensure good timing is to entrust the PowerPoint computer to someone who will actually be singing and worshipping, real-time!  Knowing that the computer operator is personally involved in the congregation’s worship is also one good way to encourage the worship leader!