MM: An inviting invitation (musical settings of Matt 11:28-30)

[This is an installment in the sporadic Monday Music series which deals with topics related to Christian music.  Other, related posts may be found here.]

In mid-2016 and again in early 2017, I was invited, in a manner of speaking, to reconsider an invitation from Jesus’ own lips, as recorded in Matthew 11:28-30.

Even if it didn’t possess an intrinsically openhearted quality, this passage would stand out because it has been memorized a lot.  It was also “my” passage to recite during my college chorus’s scripture-and-hymns program, performed every evening while on tours.  At the time, despite my sometimes having to stutter out the initial plosive consonant on “Come to me,” I was complimented on my delivery and the perceived match of my vocal timbre with a preconceived idea of the Jesus behind the saying.  Now, however, I have negative associations with a couple of people from that time, and I definitely had a less mature understanding of the text back then, so it’s with mixed feelings that I recall the experience.

At some point, I became acquainted with the Leonard Burford song “Come Unto Me.”  The legally blind “Brother Burford” was director of the chorus at Abilene Christian College and had studied at Juilliard.  This song is available in only one of my hymnals.  I suppose it was sung in only a very few churches and would hardly be known now.  It is an inviting, near-choral-type setting and is of good technical quality (speaking musically and poetically), but it seems to excel in terms of musical form and harmony more than in communication of a text (and context).  Here is a sample:

Another setting, used several times a year in the church of my youth, was more accessible to large, untrained groups.  Both of these songs employ a good deal of repetition, but the latter is more approachable and singable.  The stanzas below, written for soprano-alto duet, are only indirectly related to the text.  The men’s voices enter emphatically at the chorus, which was the actual setting of the Matthew text.  This version, in my estimation, is somewhat better than the Burford one.  Given its era, the quasi-instrumental-accompaniment setting of the refrain here was effective.  The textual emphasis at primary cadence points (ends of lines 4 and 6) seems to be on “rest for the soul.”

It might even be supposed that the writers of many other “invitation” or “altar call” songs had Matthew 11:28 in the backs of their minds—loosely and implicitly if not explicitly.  I think here of the likes of “Come, Ye Sinners, Poor and Needy,” “Jesus Is Tenderly Calling You Home,” and “Softly and Tenderly Jesus Is Calling.”

Years transpired after my college choral days, and I became less interested in choral music.  Incidentally, I became increasingly averse to the whole churchy “invitation” thing during that time.  Nevertheless, in 1996, I wrote my own “Come To Me,” tied more directly and strictly to the passage—and specifically spurred by Gary Collier’s book The Forgotten Treasure:  Reading the Bible Like JesusA sketch history of this song goes something like this:

At what I might say was just the right time of my life, I read The Forgotten Treasure.  Bothered as I was by what I took as legalistic, un-grace-filled approaches to people within certain churches, I felt a deep impact from much of the book and keyed in on the middle of Matthew (including chapter 11), based on Gary’s emphases and structural suggestions.  Compelled, I wrote the song and shared it with the author of the book, having been in touch with him through a Bible discussion e-mail group.

A group called Lights, audiowhich I directed and sang with through the 1990s, was available to me, and I naturally went in the direction of a musical arrangement that played to that group’s strengths and resided in its comfort zones.  Lights ended up using the song in performances at youth events, church retreats, etc.  Lights made two recordings, and both recordings strike me now as acceptable, given what I had to work with, but dated.  A bass voice is heard on the solo, and my younger sister’s voice and mine are heard in countermelodic bursts in the final chorus of the recording stored here.  I am still pleased that the overall demeanor of the song is different from that of the run-of-the-mill, more churchy appeals the Matthew text with which I had been acquainted.  This song is more targeted, more insistent . . . and even the conclusion is a comparatively forceful invitation, with a half-cadence that suggests the Son of Man’s unending, energetic interest, not a namby-pamby “just lie down and go to sleep with gentle Jesus.”

I moved on from Lights, but I never forgot the song and still periodically turn to it for personal devotional use.

Last summer, a conference was held, organized in connection with the Institute for the Art of Biblical Conversation.  When the theme was announced as centering in Matthew’s gospel, an obvious opportunity arose to revisit my song that had also been based in that document, so I did just that.  It turned out to be the 20th anniversary for my “Come To Me.”  Having become largely disenchanted with the a cappella medium of the first version of the song (excerpt shown here)—and particularly with the accompaniment style I had used for the Lights performance group—I knew it was time to abandon that approach.  Few really sing that way anymore, and the group was perhaps even in a time warp during part of its history, too.  In trying to function within the niche-world of a cappella church music, Lights appealed to some but perhaps outlived our usefulness.  I digress.

Looking back, I’d say the song is conceptually and creatively among my 10 or 15 best.  (There were many others written during that decade—some, barely mediocre.)  Gary’s book had pointed me in a focused way to Matthew’s portrayal of Jesus, so I think the song carried an authentically scriptural, strong message.  Since 1996, my understanding of Matthew (and of texts in general, and the newly inbreaking reign of God, and more) have grown immeasurably.  Here are sections of the sheet music for the updated version of “Come To Me”:

A home recording of this version is here, for what it’s worth.  It might need to be downloaded before playing it, depending on your setup.   The pre-recorded keyboard part is 5-10% too fast, and my out-of-shape voice is found wanting.  (A more in-shape female solo voice would have been better on this song!)  This 2016 update incorporated several minor musical and lyrics changes—plus adding a bridge that solidifies and significantly strengthens the whole, I think:

Hear and learn from the Master.
Understand the reading of the Old and the New.
Go and follow the Master of mercy!
He brings the Kingdom into view!

A responsible interpretation of Matthew 11:28-30 must not merely take some poetic expressions and make them sound sweet in a song.  One ought to consider those words of “invitation” apart from the “altar call” or “invitation” dynamic in traditional congregation settings.  Further, one ought to pay attention to Matthew 11:28-30 within the striking contextual arrangement of Matthew’s gospel.  No song could succeed in every detail, but in pursuing such a biblical text contextually, in this way, what Matthew’s gospel says about the Master can become clearer.

Whatever its strength or weakness of this song, I hope that you are taken further, or maybe just a little differently, into Matthew’s riches and Jesus’ invitation.

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MWM: technology in hindsight

A book is technological feat, and so is a slide.

My parents have boxes and boxes of slides—not the playground kind, of course, but the photographic kind.  Throughout my growing-up years (yes, this dates me), with the exception of a few ill-fated Polaroid™ shots, they took pics almost entirely with slide film.  The slide proj carouselprojector my family owned was a “stacker” that came with a side-mount contraption into which one could load an entire box or two of slides in one fell swoop.  Carousel-type projectors like the one shown here, much more common, took much more time to load and unload but were less likely to jam.  Slide projectors still exist, and I used one like this carousel projector a few years ago when I wanted to convert some family history pics to digital images for my parents’ 50th anniversary.

As for myself, I didn’t think I owned any slides, but I did find one recently:

worship slide

I had no memory of this item but had saved it in a “worship resources” file.  Before personal computers and PowerPoint, and quite possibly with a desire to supplant overhead projectors, this “Worship Visions” outfit was apparently producing slides with worship song lyrics and marketing them to churches who used projectors.  When my wife saw this slide, she asked, “What is that?  Like a time capsule piece?”  Well, yeah, I guess so.  I’ve never been anywhere where worship slides like this one were used, but I did own some transparencies until about 5 years ago, when I finally came to terms with the need to get rid of them.  (Since then, I’ve met with a group that actually still has an overhead projector, so maybe I should have donated my transparencies instead of making the assumption that they were completely obsolete.)

You know, this “worship slide” technology, in its time, would have been just as likely to contribute to real congregational worship as a transparency or today’s lyrics-only PowerPoint slides.  (Here, I won’t go into the merits of using music notation; I’ve written uber-sufficiently about that elsewhere.)  Every technology is merely a tool to be used, or not.

[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: 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.

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: Teaching a new song (2 of 2)

Last Monday, I suggested that it’s possible to teach a new song in the vein of group worship.  In other words, the activity of learning a new song need not be relegated to some lesser-attended occasion seen as “instructional.”  Rather, learning something can be quite worship-filled and inspiring.  Now for a description of a methodological mode.

This method is not one that I’ve had much recent opportunity to use, but I have worked like this some in the past, and I’ve been in enough different leadership and worship and assembly situations that I believe this is both valid and viable.

The method, put simply, is to line it out.  In other words, break it up into short segments.  It’s more than segmenting, though.  It’s learning how to infuse “instructions” with exhortations to worship.  This doesn’t have to be a pedantic or overly technical activity.  Learning a song can actually be simultaneously satisfying on both emotional and spiritual levels.  It can enhance congregational esprit de corps.

img_20160307_093938_093.jpgWith a song text that’s as concise (the whole song is pictured here) and full of meaning as “We Praise Thee, God,” nothing is really sacrificed when individual lines or sub-phrases are sung separately.  Each expression can stand on its own.  (It’s a little different—easier, in a way—when using a song with more regular rhythm; then again, there is more to teach in a song longer than the one used here.)

The instructional time could go something like this (blue/bold is sung by leader; purple/bold/italicized are all-sing lines):

“Listen to the first line.  It goes like this:”

We praise Thee, God.

“Now sing it with me:”

                                We praise Thee, God.

“Great.  We can say that together with ease and with heart.  Sing it again with me:”

                                We praise Thee, God.

“Yes.  Now here’s the next line:”

We acknowledge Thee to be the Lord.

“This one is a little harder, but not much.  The rhythm is a lot like it would be if you simply spoke the words.  Listen again:”

We acknowledge Thee to be the Lord.

“Now sing it with me.  Don’t worry about missing a note; just sing it to God:”

                We acknowledge Thee to be the Lord.

“OK, good.  Some of you went up on “acknowledge,” but it actually goes up on ‘be’ instead.  Think of it like an emphasis on the fact that He is the Lord—we acknowledge Thee to be the Lord.”  Here’s how it goes:”

We acknowledge Thee to be the Lord.

“Hear how it stays on the same note until the word ‘be’?”  It’s not a big deal if someone hits the wrong note; I do that sometimes, too.  But it’s good if we try to be as ‘together’ as we can be when . . . “

We acknowledge Thee to be the Lord.

“Now let’s sing it again together.  We’re saying something important directly to Him.”

We acknowledge Thee to be the Lord.

“Good.  Ready to put it together?  Even now, we can praise God in a way that’s pleasing to Him.  Let’s sing the first two thoughts:”

We praise Thee, God.

We acknowledge Thee to be the Lord.

“Great.  Now we go higher, both musically and conceptually, expanding the praise:”

All the earth doth worship Thee.

“You can almost feel the strength of the collective praise in this line.  Together now. . . .”

All the earth doth worship Thee.

. . .

You get the idea.  One might call this “didactic worship leading,” teaching the music along with the concepts.  I would use the method next Sunday if I had the opportunity.  Can you do this in your church?  Probably . . . although you’ll have to deal with a few naysayers.  (Instead, you might deal directly with the purported leaders who are afraid of the few naysayers.)  Personally, I had the most “success” with this kind of methodology in working with a) younger Christians in b) settings that were seen as relatively informal.  This observation begs several questions:

  1. What makes a setting “formal” or “informal”?
  2. Who determines the above, and why?
  3. Why were young people more likely to experiment freely than older people?
  4. Am I even correct in asserting that worship occurred in others’ hearts in the “didactic” context?
  5. Am I right that times intended for “learning new songs” are never as well attended as other assemblies?  Am I also right, then, that learning new songs on other occasions could contribute to the further marginalization of some people?  In other words, if only those who consider themselves the “singers” of the church learn the new songs, the rest of the people are left out more decidedly.  Why do things in such a way as to divide singers from those who consider themselves non-singers?

I’ve never been sure why there seems to be an obsession with the relative newness of songs.  As is often said, “at some point, ya learned the songs ya know now.”   In other words, everything was new at some point.  Why do we need to worry about a little discomfort in learning something new?[1]  Obviously, a trained, highly literate, broadly experienced musician will be comfortable with new music, and most others are not.  Still, the leadership method and the (sense of the) setting are key factors.

I will say that some songs are more singable than others.  Some are more tuneful than others.  Some may be introduced with more ease and an instant “catch-on” factor than others.  So, some discretion is advisable when bringing new songs to the church in this way.  We shouldn’t proceed with a devil-may-care attitude about new songs.  On the other hand, with an attitude of comfortable experimentation, perhaps those who are naturally resistant to new songs may be ushered, in a worshipping mode, through new expressions into more comfort.

The idea to “Sing a new song to the Lord” was never about separating the more musical men from the boys, making the less literate feel uncomfortable.  To my knowledge, no scripture passage suggest that any times are more, or less, appropriate for singing new songs than other times.  The regular introduction of new songs can actually imbue the praising God with newness, energy, and life.

I have long wished I were part of a group characterized by comfortable, purposeful experimentation.


[1] The answer, it seems to me, lies in two areas:  a general laziness found in most people, and the over-zealousness of some leaders in pushing too many new songs at once on a group.

MWM: Teaching a new song (1 of 2)

Some years ago, I posted on an assembly in which I led worship and misjudged the familiarity of a particular song.  That particular song “flopped,” creating far more distraction than inspiration (presumably hindering the overall assembly experience for some).  The main issue on that occasion was my miscalculation—leader error—and not the mere newness of the song in question.

There are ways to predict (which I had simply ignored that one Sunday) and then to enhance familiarity.  I submit that it is possible to be both strategic and inspirational vis-à-vis the introduction of new songs.

There are better and worse methods for introducing new songs.  Let’s take a relatively simple song—the chant “We Praise Thee, God.”  This song, quite unfamiliar in recent decades, would be relatively easy to introduce—primarily because of these factors:

  • It is short.
  • Its text is meaningful (bearing repetition).

img_20160307_093938_093.jpg

So, how to try introducing a new song like this?  I remember hearing,  years ago, that Matt (someone whose family I was acquainted with) introduced a new song, “on the spot,” with his church.  On that occasion, he hadn’t known a certain song that was suggested, but he examined it, found it valuable, and helped the congregation learn it.  I gathered that it wasn’t a very formal occasion, so Matt was able to be natural, dropping whatever “guard” he has as he agreed to try the song.

It’s good to be genuine and transparent, even if you’re not the most confident music reader.  Learn the song in advance, of course, if possible.  There’s no merit in embarrassing yourself or the congregation.  But it’s just as helpful to establish an attitude of comfortable experimentation, and making an honest mistake in front of everyone is not that big a deal.

Now, before you shut me down, either because you think your church won’t buy into anything that seems informal, or because you yourself find some level of experimentation irreverent, consider this:

A sincere heart learning to worship God, faltering through a new expression, is just as pleasing to God as a sincere heart who knows the song already, singing “perfectly.” 

Maybe more pleasing!

Next Monday—a suggested method 

MWM: The Last Past-Blast Worship Music Review (8)

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.  Here, I’m offering the last of my published reviews (all published during a short period in the 1990s) of worship music—music that was then being released and is still “contemporary” in broad perspective.  Here is the most recent post of this specific type, in case you want to see another.

This review treats two separate albums that attempted to focus on helping people who are hurting.

Magazine
Magazine

Ministering in Times of Distress
1.  Integrity: God Will Make a Way
2.  Vineyard: WWW – Healing
(Published March 1999)

by Brian Casey

Fundamental to the notion of “ministry” is helping those in need, and these two recordings can help to fill that need—impacting souls in, or being pulled out of, spiritual holes of doubt and struggle.

“God Will Make a Way” consists entirely of previously released material.  Those who naturally are drawn to Integrity’s sensibilities and polished-glass sonorities will assuredly draw strength from this repackaged music.

The lush adult choir arrangement (Fettke et al) of “Be Strong and Take Courage” (from the musical God With Us) is effective. “You Are Eternal” is a conceptually significant inclusion: Knowing that God doesn’t change is crucial if we are to trust that He is in charge and will make a way.  As author Max Lucado has said, “In times when we can’t trace His hand, we can trust His heart.”

It’s a powerful connection indeed when someone communicates through song who thoroughly and earnestly believes that God will come, will enter one’s pain.  God chose to enter the world’s distress as a human; His messages may yet be most powerfully expressed through His human servants.  “God will make a way,” “do not lose your faith,” “no eye has seen what God has prepared,” “forget not all His benefits,” . . . when believers extend these powerful, Godly exhortations to me, I am strengthened.

Though the lyrical content is no more robust, the slightly less conventional music of Vineyard’s “Healing” is more immediately heartening, with no talk between songs.  The yearning vocals on Terry Butler’s “Simple Prayer” are genuinely beautiful, but the range/tessitura might hinder congregational participation.  “Faithful Love” and “Father, I Want You To Hold Me” are high points.  Also noteworthy are the artistic contributions of Rita Springer—besides her writing, her vocals are expressive and believable, sometimes with a finessed, breathy edge.  I found Michael Hansen’s compositions musically (not lyrically) monotonous.

It might be considered inappropriate to attempt to minister healing to individuals in dire situations (e.g., in “Mend a Broken Heart,” abused children) through congregational, publicly marketed music.  Some matters seem more aptly dealt with in private.

Each recording incorporates ample, worthwhile congregational and solo music—to be used therapeutically in ministering to real individuals with real needs.

– Brian Casey, March 1999

 

MWM: A Past-Blast Worship Music Review (7)

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.  Here, I’m offering another of my published reviews of worship music—music that was then being released and is still “contemporary” in broad perspective.  Here is the last post of this specific type, in case you want to see another.  There will be one more.

This review treats three separate albums that attempted to focus on young people.  At the time, I was working regularly with teenagers and enjoyed a close relationship with several of them.  I don’t know that I had a good finger on the pulse of their tastes even then, and whatever I had then is mostly lost now, but I still think it’s worthwhile to aim for “Real and Natural.”

Magazine
Magazine

Published 1998
by Brian Casey

Youth-Oriented Recordings

WorshipTogether’s Revival Generation
Matt Redman’s Intimacy
Hillsongs Australia’s The Plan

I was recently surprised when three spiritually minded teenagers, in unison, disparaged Rebecca St. James’s “God” album. “I just don’t like that kind of music,” one said, neglecting to define “type.”

What makes a young person gravitate toward a certain type of music?  The instrumentation?  The beat?  What attracts a teenager to an artist?  Popularity?  Something even less tangible?

Many are drawn to the ministry of connecting teenagers with God:

  • A shepherd becomes emotional when the topic of conversation turns to the number of teenagers that just aren’t “connecting” at church.
  • When churches consider hiring a second staff minister, they often seek someone to work closely with youth.
  • Nearly as many adults as teenagers turn out for an annual youth retreat at our church. They are impelled by the love of teenage hearts and are thrilled to be used by God in bringing high-impact worship experiences to the young.

Teens are predisposed to accept practically anything if it’s written and/or performed by someone near their age. Capitalizing on this phenomenon, Hillsongs Australia’s The Plan (Integrity) comprises songs “by young people for young people,” so its appeal is virtually guaranteed though some of the lyrical/musical material is immature.  This album is a somewhat forced amalgam of styles and represents more of an evangelistic plea than a worship thrust.  However, “Anything (for You),” “U.R.Y.” and “Fill My Heart” indeed are brimming with impassioned devotion.  While I could tap into the youngish, rap energy of “Serve the Man” and the grunge praise of “God Made the World,” some of the techno-dabble found here left me wondering if a preteen was manning the effects board without guidance.  But will this music attract teenagers?  At least on one level, yes.    But let’s go deeper….

Matt Redman, a patently gifted British worship leader in his early twenties, is a wellspring of songs that are real, well crafted, and undeniably God-focused.  His latest album, Intimacy, is a worthy successor to The Friendship and the Fear. Singular pronouns—indicating intensely personal, relational worship—abound in Redman’s lyrics; “What I Have Vowed,” “Hear the Music of My Heart,” “I Am Yours,” and others are eminently believable expressions of surrendered worship … giving it all up for God.  Stylistically, Intimacy incorporates everything from retro rock organ to unplugged, contemplative love song, but Redman does it all more convincingly.  Frankly, I would much prefer that teens spend time with anything of Redman’s than with Hillsongs’ The Plan.

WorshipTogether’s Revival Generation, featuring large-group worship content, is a compilation of works of Redman, Deliriou5?, and others whose songs play roles in the current worship revival in England.  Here is a wealth of indirect praise; leader-congregation interplay and responsorial structures are plentiful.  Redman’s “There is a Louder Shout to Come” provides an anticipatory glimpse into the praise of eternity, and the Beatle-esque “Oh Our Lord and King” centers on God because of who He is. Southern rock surfaces in Stuart Townend’s“There’s a Place.”  Revival Generation has almost as many high points as Redman’s Intimacy.  It is even more packed with church-friendly tunes and will also appeal to both teens and young adults.

Musical style does matter—perhaps more for teens than for other age groups. But more significant in connecting with the younger generation is the R&N (Real & Natural) Quotient.  If the expressions of worship are heard as “real” and are poured out in spontaneous overflow of the heart—as so many of these songs are—they are destined to connect with entire congregations as well as with youth.

– Brian Casey, November 1998

MWM: Grechaninov for tenor and brass (1 of 2)

Some choral musicians may be particularly interested in this post, having become as captivated as I have been through the years by Alexander Grechaninov’s Holy Radiant Light.¹  What a rich work of wonder that is, with its luxuriant harmonies, wide dynamic range, and varied worship-moods wedded to a translation of a 3rd-century Greek text.

More than a year ago, I began looking for material occupy to my musical self, having little to no challenge or stimulation at the time.  I turned up several freely available works by Russian choral composers and began sifting through them in my spare time, which was then relatively plentiful.  I was thinking I’d transcribe a four-, six-, or eight-part choral piece for a brass ensemble or a large wind band, but I ended up enhancing that half-plan considerably.

I came upon Grechaninov’s Nunc Dimittis, a choral work for 4-8 (depending on the measure) voice parts.  The Latin words “nunc dimittis” are translated “Now Dismiss” or “Now Send Away”; this expression stands as the title for a plethora of choral works through the centuries.  The words refer to what is known as “The Song of Simeon” from Luke 2—that poignant account in which one of God’s faithful ones, upon holding Mary’s baby, essentially prays this:

Now, Lord, send me away (i.e., from this life) in peace, because I have seen your Salvation — the light of the gentiles and the glory of your people Israel.

I got a spine-tingle as I typed those words.  They have for years given me that kind of rush, perhaps first because of “Michael Card’s “Simeon’s Song,” which I wrote about two years ago.  Even a sensitive agnostic or atheist can appreciate this moving scene.

In beginning work with Grechaninov’s Nunc Dimittis, I had at my disposal a presumably 2nd- or 3rd-generation edition of the composer’s choral score.  While I could have paid good money to attempt to retrieve some undiscovered pen-and-ink version from Russia or the composer’s estate, it was not a scholarly edition of this original I was after, so, after a couple of quick checks, I was satisfied with a readily available, unattested version.

The music, conceived originally for a cappella choir, demands sonorous, “familial” blends:  after all, a choral sound is made up of a family of varieties of the same basic thing—the human voice—with different pitch ranges.  For an instrumental sonic medium, I suppose I could have gone with one of the following:

  • a bassoon/English horn/oboe ensemble—all double reeds, from the same “family,” that can collectively span about four octaves
  • cellos, violas, and violins—all strings that can do the same
  • a clarinet choir—also possible in terms of range, but the extended clarinet family seems a bit understated for the expression of this music

Actually, none of the above instrument families seemed dynamic enough, so . . . none of the above for this piece.  Brass instruments are cooler, anyway.  I would adapt it and arrange the Grechaninov work for a brass choir.  It didn’t hurt that I had the live brass players available for a performance.

However (αλλα) . . . it quickly became clear to me that this new musical work of mine would not be an instrumental-only one.  Although I almost always prefer instrumental sounds to vocal ones,² I was impelled in this case to work with the literary text (to honor the ancient ῥῆμα) as well as the much later musical text.

The melody in the choral original was entirely in the soprano part, but I thought, Why use a soprano for a text spoken originally by a manPlus, I only like about one out of every 84 sopranos I hear, whereas the odds are better with tenors and baritones.  So I decided to set the music for tenor vocal solo with brass accompaniment.

The work was daunting.  And equally rewarding.

Next: 

  • a few details about the process
  • a link to score excerpts and edition notes for those interested in more detail about the music, the text, or both
  • article that describes the work’s April 2015 premiere

¹Incidentally, a hymn by the title “Hail, Gladdening Light” (“Phōs Hilaron”), published in Great Songs of the Church No. 2 and Great Songs of the Church, Revised, translates the same ancient Greek poem as “Holy Radiant Light.”

² Choral music is mostly in the background for me at this point—for practical, philosophical, and psychological reasons.  It doesn’t help that I have a really mediocre voice that gets tired easily—and that may be, in large part, because I didn’t devote myself enough to voice lessons as a younger person!  The fact that I regularly turn away from vocalists and vocal or choral sounds is but one of the many ways I am not like most people around me.

MWM: A Past-Blast Worship Music Review (6)

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.  Other, related posts are here.  Today, I’m offering another of my past reviews of worship music.  

For the first time, I’m actually a little embarrassed at some of the writing below.  For one thing, I would now completely disavow any support of the Toronto Airport Christian Fellowship.  

Very recently, a group worship experience reminded me, somewhat painfully, of the disconnect I now perpetually feel in large worship gatherings.  Those who lead people in worship say (sometimes, better and more smoothly) the things I used to say, so I can recall and rehearse the wordings . . . but there is little resonance in me.  I try to sing to the God in Whom I believe, but I am distracted by amplification issues, by incoherence in the PowerPoint lyrics, and by the lack of music notation that renders me mute [unless I happen to know the song and there are no real variances in the way this church sings it]. 

Much more significant than the above:  I feel the weight of inertia in my soul—weight that keeps me from being glad or celebratory, and from singing with any gusto, although I remain convicted that God is, and that God loves.  A portion of this feeling could be resolved if group worship leaders weren’t all given to upbeat moods and positive affirmations—an affect or mode that seems to be so very natural and fluent for them, but not for me.  I don’t fault them, really, because I was one of them.  Back then, I also felt it incumbent on me to be gregarious, positive, and upbeat.  Now, I feel like the “bad” side of a disjunction that’s been written in order to point up the gaps between the temporal, ultimately lacking aspects of this life and the wonders of the next.

These days, instead of kowtowing to the blithely happy celebration breezes that prevail, I’d rather be one who identifies with the struggling, the tenuous, and the downcast.  I am not one of those all the time, but I have been, and I think that connecting with them is just as important as connecting with, and further encouraging, the upbeat ones among us.

While I often long for the way I used to be, I don’t feel that, exactly, when I read this review I wrote more than 17 years ago.  I might’ve been striving to say something I thought was cool at the time, and I’m a little embarrassed now at a few lines.


 

Catch the Fire 4
Toronto Airport Christian Fellowship
Rejoice Publishing & Productions (KLE TOI Records)

Magazine
Magazine

Published Jan. 1998
by Brian Casey

This live album is full of rambunctious revelry and unrestrained expressions, so get ready to strip off your inhibitions and stretch (both literally and figuratively) for the Lord.

Even the titles “There’s Joy,” “Great Big God,” and “I Will Dance, I Will Sing” reveal  the ecstatic rejoicing found here in abundance.  We don’t hear enough of the congregation’s jubilant, responsive enthusiasm on “Who Paints the Skies,” but it is nevertheless energetic, extravagant praise.  A gritty rendition of Darrell Evans’s “New Song Arisin’” contains hints of fusion jazz-rock.

You’ll be caught up in the lyrical drive of “The Son of Man Appears.”  During an interlude, worship leader Jeremy Sinnott prophesies dramatically of the moment at which Jesus’ awestruck saints will thrill at His appearing.  It makes one want to call out, “Marana tha!”

Noel and Tricia Richards’s tender “You Are My Passion,” my favorite, will subdue even the most ecstatic worshipper into devoted desire for intimacy with God and His surpassing love:

Now will You draw me close to You?
Gather me in Your arms.
Let me hear the beating of Your heart.

I could hardly resist opening my hands to God while alone with “In the Blessing,” a sweet song of surrender.  Its gorgeous, glassy-still musical landscape complements the lyrics exquisitely — depicting a life of worshipful repose in the Redeemer.  This is singable worship.

If you’re looking for solemn reflection and rational, meditative reverence, you may not find enough, though the soft-rock “Your Ways Are Much Higher” fits that bill.  There’s a bit more of the uproarious, gleeful variety here.  The Body of Christ doesn’t always need the utmost in profundity, though; sometimes we should splurge a little—thankfully and victoriously basking in the fiery glow of God.