Mini-chaoticisms

Fourteen and a half years ago, in the emotional aftermath of 9/11, my small, Northeastern Kansas wind band and I created an aleatoric composition and performed it.  It was titled Cataclysmos and used no musical notation¹ but rather used only verbal instructions.  The actual composition is included under the footnote at the bottom of this post.

Three students who were part of the performance, now Facebook friends, might even remember the music.  There were progressions from soft to loud, from high to low, and from “sparse/thin to frequent/heavy sounds.”  The concept was to create a sonic representation of the growing chaos that was the result of the three plane crashes that day.

I’m not sure whether we achieved what we wanted to achieve aesthetically and expressively, but I think some sense of human chaos was present.

As is the case with beauty, whether something is chaotic is somewhat a matter of opinion.  (9/11 clearly was chaotic — no reasonable person would controvert that.)  Below I’ve described a couple of mini-chaoticisms in the Christian assembly.

1.  “The Barn” Vineyard church, located near Newark, DE, just over the PA line

Seeking inspiration and newness, I visited this fledgling church group on a few occasions in the vcfbarnmid-90s.  I was attracted to certain elements but somewhat cautious, having read of the excesses of the church that became Toronto Airport Vineyard Church.  (If you’re interested, you too can read here of some of the history and particulars.)

On one occasion, someone was sharing a quietly impassioned, heartfelt, penitent confession.  It was touching, and I was “in the moment.”  And then the mini-chaos ensued.  Someone else barked out loud like a dog.  No matter whether you’re in the minority that thinks such eventualities can be works of the Spirit of God, a sound mind would have had to admit that this particular barking sound was way out of place.  It created confusion — spiritual and emotional chaos.

2.  “You are My All in All”

This good song, written by the prolific, exceptionally repentant Dennis Jernigan, is quite singable by a cappella churches — ones with the capability of handling the rhythmic element, that is.

Now, I am no proponent of instruments-gone-wild in churches, but I often long for the rhythmic solidity that can be offered by a sensitive drummer or bass guitarist.  In the case of “You Are My All in All,” the counterpoint (dueling melodies, if you will) is the issue.  Groups typically divide into men and women:  one half sings the chorus “Jesus, Lamb of God” while the other intones the verse “Taking my sin, my cross, my shame . . .” or “You are my strength when I am weak . . . .”

LambofGod

Whether one knows the terminology or not, he simply must be able to ensure that “Jesus, Lamb of God” starts on the downbeat and the other words start on beat 2.  Otherwise, sonic/rhythmic chaos will ensue.  And it has.  Many times.  Really.  In more than half the a cappella churches that attempt this song, I’d wager.

Technical recommendations (if this song is new to your church, or if chaos has been part of your experience with it):

  1. Use two leaders — one to lead the women, and one to lead the men.  (And make sure both leaders can execute the rhythmic element accurately.)
  2. Or, practice your lefty-righty coordination, using one hand for the downbeat group and the other for the beat-2 group.

– B. Casey, 4/13/15


¹ Music can be defined as “organized sound” — as opposed to random sound — and this musical performance, although not traditional, was aleatoric and not chaotic in the random sense.

Here is the composition:cataclysmos

Advertisements

Two feet in the snow (3)

It might at first blush sound odd for a teacher or conductor to say, but I don’t much like being the center of attention.  I do love actual teaching (most days) and leading ensembles (pretty much all the time), but when faced with a choice of being with a group or being with one or two, or just being alone, I’m hard-pressed to choose the group.

When leading means putting a foot forward, I often experience a sense of inertia until I’m comfortable.

snowshoe

Recently, I put a foot forward in terms of teaching from the scriptures.  It felt somewhat uncomfortable — because I’m out of practice, not exactly by choice, and because I’m new here —  but I did it, anyway.  It was, in fact, a snowy day.

My second snow-shoed foot actually followed, this time.  In the 10 years that have transpired between Missouri and Wyoming, I’ve learned a little something about how to frame things and how not to tick people off.

I enjoyed the two-week teaching experience and put a lot into it.  I would evaluate myself with an A for the first class and a B or B+ for the second.  I’m guessing my average “course evaluations”¹ (if such existed) from the students who experienced those classes would be high to very high ratings, although not everything was understandable or understood.  Since then, I’ve had another guest teaching spot and did maybe A- work there.

But I am thinking it will be better not to put another foot forward in terms of leading worship or even just teaching songs.  My feelings are too raw, my opinions, too strongly held; my abilities and experiences, too much in the spotlight.

And so, I’m drawing the foot back again.  It’s warmer when it’s not out there in front.

Addendum, approximately three weeks after having written the above:

I’m not very bright.  I put the foot out there again.   And I was encouraged to leave it out there and put one foot in front of the other, so to speak.  So I started teaching a Wednesday evening class on Mark.  I am as convinced that I need focus on one of the gospels as I am that this study will help others.  Both the first class and the future prospects seem to have been enthusiastically received — even by one or two countenances in the room that strike me as not being on the same wavelength as I am.  The very next day, though, I was hit with a rather severe discouragement from a longtime friend.  I don’t say this with the sardonic manner of Dana Carvey in the old SNL “Church Lady” character:  Do you think it might have been Satan?

=================

¹ Student course evaluations in college courses are, at best, overrated.  At worst, they are farces.  While administrations and regents and education boards and other business people (read:  non-educators commissioned by overblown, ill-conceived structures to make educational decisions) find them to be valid means of holding educators accountable, the evaluations rarely offer enough real insight to offset the damage they can do in terms of institutional effort, to name one aspect.  Course evaluations contribute to students’ collective sense of entitlement as “paying customers,” and this paradigm spells trouble.  Course evaluations may provide a moment for the most appreciative students to pay kind compliments or to affirm something good, but they often just help students “mouth off.”  I was once told by a then-somewhat-respected administrator, “Students can ruin you.”  The wine of sour grapes flows freely during the completion of course evaluations.  Course evaluations can engender the false impression that any picayune student’s under-informed opinions about anything might actually have something to do with education, credentials, teaching, or learning.²

² Dear A.A. in S.G., whaddythink of that rant?  🙂

Two feet in the snow (2)

I’ve never been one to put a foot forward, forcing myself to be the center of attention.

snowshoe

But once, I really, really did put it forward.  It was probably a sandaled foot, not a snow-shoed one, but it was really out there.  I was living in western Missouri for a one-year contract job, and they didn’t have snow at the time. . . .

After visiting a few closer churches and not finding anything viable, we trekked 35 minutes or so away to a nearby town.  This church struck us as a little quirky, but somewhat more inviting than the rest, and possibly a home for us.  So, ignoring some inner wonderings, we continued to visit there for 3-4 more weeks.

After being subjected to a couple of other leaders and taking stock of things, including my own resources and abilities, I decided this:  if we were going to stay with this church for the year, I could offer them a lot in terms of planning and leadership and worship repertoire.  I needed to offer them a lot, because they needed it, and I needed to offer it.

So I put my foot forward by proposing that I lead most of the time (3 Sundays a month? I can’t remember, exactly).

It was really stupid of me.  The other leaders and I barely knew each other at that point; I had only led once.  I was trying desperately to be of service and to do something worthwhile with my Sundays, when my weekdays weren’t going to much good use with show choir and another silly thing or two.

This church offered a counter-proposal.  I only vaguely remember calmly rejecting their counter-proposal kindly.  Then we moved on, after I drew my foot back.

[ To be continued. . . . ]

Two feet in the snow (1)

Happy birthday, Dad.  (Yep, it’s New Year’s Day, and it’s my dad’s birthday.)  It’s a milestone year for him.  I think he will deeply understand some of the things in this post, although he won’t have felt them in exactly the same way.

~ ~ ~

I have this running battle with myself — having to do with putting a foot forward, or not.  It’s not a battle I win, lemme tell you. . . .

I suppose this goes way back to high school, when I began to be viewed by peers as musically talented.  I could play and sing stuff that others couldn’t, including the Peanuts theme song on piano, lip trills on my horn, and various things “by ear.”  Sight reading was also a particular skill.

But I was never one to put a foot forward, forcing myself to be the center of attention.

snowshoe

Lately, I was in a small group attempting to sing a couple of new songs.  I was trying not to put my foot forward or insert myself as “leader” in any way, although, if anyone had much idea of who I have been, who I am, and what I can do, the whole thing would have gone so much better.  But, as I said, I’m reluctant, for multiple reasons, to put my foot forward.

In this small singing group, someone asked me a question– in a friendly, affirming way — whether I might help/lead the song the group was trying, vainly, to sing.  He asked this, with a smile (a smile I could hear but not see, since I was holding my head down, not inserting myself into the situation):

“Let’s see . . . how about you, Brian.  You’re a pretty good sight reader, aren’t you?”

For basically introverted me, it struck me as perhaps the most starkly uncomfortable situation of this nature that I’d experienced in a while.  There was only good intent on the part of the guy, and the group, and a door was open for me.

But my foot was stuck.

I honestly didn’t know what to say.

Now, I sight read vocal music better than anyone I’ve ever known or been around personally.  (I’m in the top 10-20% for instrumental music, which is interesting since I’m primarily an instrumentalist, but instrumental music is typically more complex, and instrumental musicians as a group are usually better sight readers.)

But what do you even say to such a pointed question that has (to me) such an obvious answer, without wanting to look a) falsely humble or b) stuck on yourself?  (Most others probably won’t even get why I fell face-down in the snow over this situation, but it was a very real thing for me, all happening in three seconds . . . and in the mental, emotional aftermath that is part-and-parcel of who I am.  Other melancholy introverts may understand.)

Possible answers to the question (about how good a sight reader I am) include these:

  1. I suppose so.
  2. Other people have told me I am.
  3. In fact, many people who stood near me in choirs hated having me around because I sight read well and could hear others’ mistakes.
  4. Aren’t most professional musicians good sight readers?
  5. Well, duh . . . yeah!

I opted for the simple answer:  “Yes.”

And then I proceeded to pull the foot back to myself.

[ To be continued . . . . ]

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

Contemporary worship music in a cappella churches (4)

Part 4:  Tessitura

I have for years been an advocate of high-quality contemporary songs.  With that said, I’ll also confess something of a “mutt” identity: I am a cross between a very late Boomer, a GenXer, and a Postmodernism sympathizer.  You’d think I would be open to most musical styles (I suppose this is true) and would be able to affirm the worth of contemporary and popular singers alongside the seasoned art-singers of the past (not so much). I think there are very few modern-era singers who have anything to offer us aesthetically.

I think the Beatles’ music is grossly overrated, and, though it is certainly not weak, I dislike Barbara Streisand’s voice.  (Now I’ve probably lost half my audience!)  And among modern worship leaders in large, famous, instrumental churches, there are equally few truly good voices.  While Linda Ronstadt in her day and Mariah Carey in hers merited praise, very few are trained to sing without amplification these days, so today’s voices are typically weak and undeveloped, compared to voices of past eras.

Don’t think I am about to build myself up.  My voice itself is mediocre; I certainly can not compete with the singers referred to above, and probably not with most of you who are reading this, either!

My suggestion here is that we be aware of tessitura when transcribing contemporary songs into a cappella settings.  Tessitura simply refers to the pitch range of a melody (or other part), and how long it stays in the same range.  High tessitura for church songs, for example, might have the sopranos staying in the D-to-F range through eight straight measures of music.  It’s not that the sopranos can’t hit the notes, but it is both a musical and a vocal strain to stay in that high range.  Sometimes pop voices have to sing very low, or sometimes they scream too high, but that does not mean we have to do the same if we use their music in our churches.  Often, male pop singers sing in high tenor ranges for a while, and we don’t even notice it, because it’s natural for them.  If their songs are imported into a cappella settings and the key is not lowered, we get that soprano tessitura problem.  Female pop singers are most often altos (or might even be tenors, if they have a history of abusing their vocal folds). And their melodies can be too low for churches, unless the key is raised.

Aside:  the same principles apply to any multi-part congregational arrangements (not only the a cappella variety).  When it’s the melody only that’s being sung, and when instruments carry all the energy, the tessitura isn’t so much of an issue.

For example, a Twila Paris song—which, incidentally, can be expected, by virtue of its authorship, to express well the genuine worship of God—might originally have been sung with a range of low “A” (low in the alto range) to “A” above middle “C.”  For congregational use, that range will not work if there is to be four-part harmony.  Sopranos will sing the song better if it is raised by a third or a fourth, and the other voice parts will not be stretched too far one way or the other, either.

Just some things to think about for arrangers of a cappella music, and for leaders who are trying to figure out why the congregation sounds either strained (high tessitura) or lifeless (low) on some songs.

Contemporary worship music in a cappella churches (3)

Part 3 — Arrangements that Assume an (absent) Bass Guitar

Sometimes arrangers of contemporary songs seem to assume that there will always be a bass guitar present.  They may simply not be able to fathom that there are purely a cappella churches that will sing the music; they perhaps have not conceived of the possibility that they should account for the entire, essential harmonic structure in the voice parts.  Contemporary arrangers tend to think much more vertically (bass on the bottom, chord in the middle, and melody on top), and if the bass guitar handles the bass part and the guitar and/or keyboard handles the chord, there’s no reason to give much thought to any vocal writing besides the melody.

[For musically notated examples to support the above, please click here and scroll down to “Contemporary Music 3: Syncopated and Delayed Rhythms” on the bottom of p. 55.]

In the example “He Is Exalted,” in the second measure, the bass part is not truly the bass part, if you will.  An octave higher, the alto line approximates the implied bass on the F-natural in the first half of the measure, but no voice part sings the implied “D” on the syllables “alt-ed on,” and the lack of the dominant “D” renders this section of an otherwise acceptable arrangement rather directionless.  In the version below, the implied harmony is accounted for.  (Note that the key is one step lower, and the notation, in doubled rhythmic values, in the example below.  The Eb and C in the bass in the example below would have been an F-natural and a D in the example above.)

I think it is interesting that the arranger of the first example is from an a cappella church, while the arranger of the second is not.  This may seem to be a minor issue, but if we want good a cappella music in our churches, we should not assume that all arrangers know how to produce effective music for singing without instrumental accompaniment.

Another intermittent issue that stems, at least in part, from the vertical or chordish orientation of most contemporary music is inappropriate voice leading.  “Smooth” writing may come across as somewhat boring sometimes (think of the seemingly droning monotones of some alto and tenor parts), but the lack of attention to linear skips can make part-singing downright impossible.  Imagine this:  you’re a tenor, and the song is in the key of D.  You sing a fourth-line F#, and are then asked to jump up, without intervening notes, to a high F-natural.  The chord progression from D major to F major will likely create to some parallel motion, which is ill-advised except in contemporary music, but proper linear writing does not skip a major seventh.  There are better ways to handle such musical moments!

Contemporary worship music in a cappella churches (2)

[For musically notated examples to support the above, please click here and scroll down to “Contemporary Music 3: Syncopated and Delayed Rhythms” on the bottom of p. 55.]

We have taken a brief look at songs that require rhythmic awareness.  There is at least one other category of songs that deserves similarly discriminating consideration by leaders in a cappella churches:  songs with slow harmonic rhythm.  This type of song does not change chords very often—maybe once every two, or even every four, measures.  Bart Millard’s “Word of God, Speak” is an example of a song in this category that a cappella churches might do well to avoid. [Ex.]

Why avoid songs of this type?  Because they are, relatively speaking, boring without the supporting rhythmic patterns or guitar strumming/picking patterns that undergirded the original renditions.  Notice the chord symbols above the musical staff—all the chords are some type of “C” major chord.  The variations are possible only by the best singers, with rehearsal, or when instruments accompany.  Less discriminating worshippers may hear songs in this category and think “that would be easy to sing in my church,” and some of them are easy, in one way of thinking.  Yet they are not generally the best choices.

Twila Paris’s “The Joy of the Lord” may strike one as simple and effervescent, and its melody and text are worthwhile.  Its harmonies, however, make it a bit difficult to carry off in an a cappella setting, not unlike Bart Millard’s “I Can Only Imagine.”  [Ex.]

This beautiful expression of eternal worship lends itself to uninteresting harmonizing by those unfamiliar with the original.  Some churches ignore the chord change on the word “walk,” since the melody can also be accompanied by the same E2 chord through the entire eight measures (and the phrase to follow).  The extension of tonic harmony through eight or even sixteen measures does not do this song justice.  Yet “The Joy of the Lord” and “I Can Only Imagine” may well be deemed worthy of a cappella use because of their surpassing textual contributions and strong emotional undertones.

It is worthy of mention here that many of yesteryear’s gospel songs so popular in some sectors also tend to change chords less frequently than songs written in a more hymnic style.  Songs such as “I Was Sinking Deep in Sin,” “When the Trumpet of the Lord Shall Sound,” and “A Wonderful Savior Is Jesus My Lord” have relatively slow harmonic rhythms, yet they have been sung with good congregational response for decades.  One of the distinctions between songs that don’t work and songs that do is, simply, legacy.  Combine the years of usage with the previously higher level of musical literacy of the congregation’s altos, tenors, and basses, and you achieve at least a modicum of success.  Also, when the melody is more active and “tuneful,” the fact that the underlying harmony continues unchanged for a full measure or more is not as significant as when the melody hovers within a small pitch range and is not well conceived for a cappella use.

Another, similar category is songs whose melodies have long notes that depend, again, on underlying bass, harmonic, or rhythmic patterns for their sense of forward motion.  The extraordinarily inspiring prayer-song “Draw Me Close” serves as a wonderful example of this type:  [Ex]

In this song, each four-measure sub-phrase begins with a measure of rest.  The chord changes are subtle, using very little root movement, and the rhythmic activity essentially carries the song, although the melody is also fairly well conceived.  Without voices that can solidly realize the chord changes—independent of the melody—this song, unfortunately, falls flat on its face.

In some cases, the newer songs in these categories can be arranged effectively for a cappella churches, but they depend on strong singers among the altos, tenors, and basses … and on the leader’s having a solid sense of rhythm.

Contemporary worship music in a cappella churches (1)

From time to time, I have some pretty distinct opinions on the use of contemporary Christian songs in a cappella churches.  Essentially, there are three categories:  1) those that work, 2) those that work with praise teams filled with musically ept folk who use intricate arrangements, and 3) those that don’t work.  In some cases, I mark my opinions with expressions such as “this appears to be the case” or “it seems to me that …,” but in this case, I’ll mince no words and attempt no humility.  Rhythm is a primary issue with introducing some contemporary songs into a cappella churches.

Part of the problem in the “rhythm of the saints”[1] is the longer melody notes that are, in the original versions, supported by non-vocal musical material—i.e., strums of a guitar and rhythmic patterns played on the drum set.  In a non-instrumental setting, it feels like forever to hold a whole note tied to a half note in the next measure!  But in the original, because of the underlying musical activity, the time that elapses during six beats does not feel like an eternity.  Face it:  It is just plain difficult to use some contemporary music in a cappella settings.

Add to this difficulty the apparent shyness of some modern worship leaders about using their hands to help keep the beat and keep the congregation together—I know, it seems old-school to “beat time.”  But the problem is made worse when beats are skipped and no one can predict when the leader is going to sing the next note because he is not rhythmically governed, and there are no visual cues, either.

Maybe we shouldn’t throw out the baby with the bath water.  Yes, there are some unhelpful aspects of how we used to do song leading.  But leading rhythmically with the hand may be a method worth saving—especially if it helps keep people together.[2]

Some judgment should be applied when selecting contemporary songs for use in a cappella churches.  In succeeding musings, I will try to provide a couple of examples of modern songs that work, and some that do not work, in a cappella settings—and why.

What makes a good “crossover” song?  Which modern songs work well in both instrumentally accompanied and a cappella settings?

First, I would like to look at syncopations,[3] which were only rarely used in church singing until the last few decades.  Even some “camp songs” of my youth—including such songs as “Jesus Is Lord,” “Have You Seen Jesus My Lord?” and “May I Call You Father?” used no syncopations whatsoever.  On the other hand, “Blue Skies and Rainbows,” for which I have gained a modicum of appreciation in more recent years, has plenty of syncopations, but they are rarely sung well.  But I always liked that song, you say?  Well, sure—it’s musically engaging and says something worthwhile about the Creator.  But if you’ve never heard a really tight musical ensemble sing or play syncopated music, you have little idea of what’s missing in terms of rhythmic spark.

Songs conceived with any considerable degree of rhythmic complexity should not be sung by the typical church . . . not without some teaching, at least.  Put bluntly and frankly, a cappella churches just can not sing successive syncopations.  One syncopation every few lines … maybe.  But more than one in a measure, and we die!  The feeling is lost, and those that loved the song when they heard it on the radio are either disappointed with the effort or deaf to rhythm.

I might have lost some of you here.  Not that you don’t understand, but you might prefer that I not get all “musician-y” on you.  Please stay with me.  I’m trying to use what I’ve learned and experienced in music in the past 25 years or so to recommend a course of action for the church heritage I love.

An example of a great song that works fairly well in an a cappella setting is Twila Paris’s “We Shall Assemble on the Mountain.”  This song works pretty well, despite the syncopations.  (I have notated it above the way it is commonly sung, which reflects neither Twila Paris’s original nor the way it is notated in popular arrangements.)

The song “Listen To Our Hearts” presents multiple issues (see above under Common Rhythmic, Melodic, and Harmonic Mistakes).  While it is certainly a worthy, unique song, lyrically speaking, the long notes that occur at regular intervals during the verse (on the words “ex-plain and “des-cribe, for instance) invite infractions of the “agitated style” genus.  In other words, it is difficult not to rush through those measures, if you are singing the melody while the altos and tenors are supposed to be supplying the rhythmic interest through syncopations:

In addition, please notice the end of the song:  “Words we know” goes fine, because the syncopation is interrupted by the strong-beat rhythm of the word “tell.”  But it is then inescapable that the subsequent rhythms on “tell you what an awesome God You are” will be rushed through, since seven successive syllables are syncopated.

Is it important that congregational singing be as rhythmically tight as a top-flight jazz combo or a professional vocal quartet?  Of course not.  “Listen To Our Hearts” may certainly be sung by most churches with some musical—and a lot of spiritual—success.  When leaders pay attention to these syncopation issues, though, it may help to solidify the feeling of rhythmic togetherness, as well as aiding in the choice of songs.

A song no a cappella church should ever use is “I Will Sing of Your Love Forever.”  Singing syncopated rhythms accurately is essential to the nature of this song, and since (sorry to be so dogmatically insistent on this, but please do notice that I say “since” and not “if”) we cannot sing them well without instruments, we simply should not sing them in a cappella churches.  This song, and others, sung poorly, i.e., without an underlying sense of rhythmic pulse over which the syncopated melody can float, just sounds stupid.[4]

The main difference between the two—that causes the former selection to be workable in a cappella churches and the latter not to be—is the extent of syncopations.  In “We Shall Assemble,” there are one or two syncopations (syllables sung off the beat) per two-measure section, while in “I Could Sing of Your Love Forever,” there is not a single syllable sung on the beat in the entire reproduced passage.  It is simply not possible to sing this song without the support of underlying rhythmic activity provided by bass guitar, drums, and/or other instruments.  Not even clapping will take care of the problem.

You may be asking what the big deal is.  So what if we don’t sing the rhythms right?  The thoughts contained in the song lyrics are great, so surely we can gain something, whether the rhythm has the right “feel” or not.  I’ll grant you that there can be some benefit for someone in virtually any assembly activity, but when there are so many good alternatives when choosing congregational music, it’s incumbent on us to choose songs that can retain their essential nature when sung a cappella. Some songs fail miserably without the under-girding of instrumental parts, and they’re better heard on the radio than sung in the assembly.

[For musically notated examples to support the above, please click here and scroll down to “Contemporary Music 2: Syncopated and Delayed Rhythms” on the bottom of p. 53.]


[1] This phrase is used with a nod to Paul Simon, who recorded an album by the same title.

[2] Please see previous post on “Hand and Arm Gestures.”

[3] “Syncopation” is a term used to describe musical accents that occur off the beat, or steady pulse, of the music.  Some jazz styles tend to involve syncopation.  Very little traditional church music is syncopated.

[4] More than once, I have been understandably censured for my word choice here.  I know it sounds childish, but consultations with other people and with the thesaurus provide no better options.  It’s not that the lyrical concepts are boring, vapid, tedious, pointless, or humdrum; or that the musical effect of singing such songs with persistent syncopation is ridiculous, absurd, horrificly daft, ludicrous, or preposterous.  I’ll just stay with the crassly offensive word stupid to describe the result when a cappella churches sing songs whose melodies depend on underlying rhythmic activity in order to make any sense—when no such underlying rhythmic “feel” exists.


Tempo variation

Beat-skipping continues to be the main bane of vain Church of Christ attempts to sing contemporary songs.  But tempos are also a problem.  Tempos can be

  • Too quick, resulting in
    • being out of breath
    • feeling like the main goal is to be “upbeat” (remember that “upbeat” was, first, a mood or attitude, not a tempo)
  • Too slow, resulting in
    • a lot of otherwise unnecessary breathing in the middle of phrases and clauses (this contributes to lack of understanding on the part of those singing)
    • a lifeless mood

Whatever the preferences of the leader or the church, we should take care to aim for a variety of tempos in our church music.

[Note — this post was originally an unintentional duplicate of an earlier post.  I have changed it after the fact, just for posterity.]

Arrhythmia (rhythm and the agitated style)

Rhythmic togetherness is really the only positive attribute of congregational singing that we have hope of continuing to attain, given the general decline in musical literacy, the lessened ability to harmonize, and the decreased focus on singing.  Togetherness can be accomplished without any technical training per se.

I would like to discuss a rhythmic pitfall in some of today’s churches—something I will label the “agitated style” of musical worship leading.  Typically, this problem shows up most dramatically in a cappella churches that have suffered in the past from funereal tempos that pervaded all songs and styles.  You know the church, don’t you?  “O Happy Day” and “Christ the Lord Is Ris’n Today” were sung at the same tempo as “Abide with Me” and “When My Love To Christ Grows Weak”—all at about 60 beats per minute.

Some churches seem to live in comatose states for years, and then some fresh blood comes in to try to save the day.  Now, with the new guy, many songs are not only too fast, but beats are skipped at the end of each phrase in a sort of perpetual effort to breathe some life into things.  I have experienced shortness and shallowness of breath because of this syndrome; when it is in operation, there can be little feeling of congregational unity.  What results is often an annoying lack of rhythm—all in the name of enthusiastic excitement that is well intentioned but agitated . . . and out of balance with other values, such as aesthetics, musical excellence, and simple, congregational togetherness.

This “agitated style” is also experienced in churches that had not for many years been singing things too slowly.  In fact, contemporary songs are susceptible to this syndrome just as frequently as older songs.[1] It’s ironic:  If this generation’s music is anything, it’s rhythmic, but when contemporary songs are imported into an a cappella setting, the rhythmic pulse is often brushed aside for the sake of a perceived energizing of the whole experience.  But when no one can sense the beat, it all feels like a disordered mass of sound instead of a song.

An aside:  vocal/choral musicians are frequently more rhythmically challenged than their instrumentally trained counterparts, but I don’t find this syndrome particularly germane here.  It’s not that vocal/choral people are having trouble reading the music.  In most cases, it’s not a question of music literacy.  It’s just that those who are leading are not relaxing enough to let the steady pulse of the music govern them.

But the simple truth is that most of the less musically trained population feels the beat naturally, so why not get on board the rhythmic train without trying to push through beats in the name of energizing folks?

Here’s an example of a song led in the agitated style.  As you read the words below, try to read or sing them to yourself in rhythm, as you are noting the parenthetical representations of elapsed time on the right:

My Jesus, my Savior, Lord, there is none like You.
All of my days, I want to praise the wonders of Your mighty love.

(2, 3 / beats 4 and 1 skipped)

My Comfort, my Shelter, Tower of refuge and strength;
Let ev’ry breath, all that I am,
Never cease to worship You

(2, 3 / half of beat 4 skipped, leaving no room to breathe, let alone
to feel the resolution from the suspension in the alto part)

(Chorus)

(then at the end of the chorus . . .)

Nothing compares to the promise I have in You.

(should be 8 beats on “You”; 4 full beats would be fine in an a cappella setting,
but most churches end up holding “You” for only 2 or 3 beats and jumping back
into the repeat of the verse)

Once in a great while, it may be beneficial to jump over a beat or two in an effort to energize the worshippers—two, maybe three times a year—but this practice is distracting to many, so its use should be sparing.  Never skip beats while singing in a meditative mood (as in “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross” or “Jesus, Keep Me Near the Cross”) and/or in a slow tempo; your feeling of worry over lifeless singing is better addressed by means that will actually aid the worshippers instead of merely establishing that you are vocally in charge.

When songs are not kept within the boundaries of steady rhythmic pulse, the result is similar to the feeling of listening to a stammerer speak.  We feel discomfort and perhaps sympathy instead of security.  We long for the experience to be over rather than feeling a sense of stability as we receive the message.

Leaders, make a study of the difference between energy and rhythmic agitation, and resolve to help worshippers instead of hindering them by lurching here and there, skipping beats and half-beats, and galloping pell-mell from phrase to phrase, from stanza to chorus, and from chorus back to the next stanza/verse.

Granted, most non-musicians who are accustomed to this type of arrhythmia will become desensitized, after a while, to the resultant confused effect.  On the other hand, if the congregation is unexpectedly treated to the other world—a singing experience governed by a regular pulse—they might not know what hit them, but they will, without a doubt, leave with the distinct impression that the singing was better, and more together that day.

An a cappella congregation needs every advantage these days, and one of those advantages is pulse-sensitive leaders. Leaders should understand and realize the distinction between energized and exuberant, on one hand, and agitated and irregular, on the other.  As a person in the pew (or cushy chair, as the case may be), I do need to be spiritually charged, but I don’t need to be gasping for breath and having my intoned words lopped off at the end of each phrase.


[1] Please refer also to the last post, titled “Hand and Arm Gestures.”

Hand and Arm Gestures

A few thoughts on song leading in a cappella churches:

I know how to “lead singing” in what is now seen by some churches as an old style.  And I am not generally an advocate of mere maintenance when we are speaking of style and form, but I do believe that in a cappella churches, apt use of the song director’s hand can help to lead the worshippers in the pews.

It does take some training and experience, and there are some who are better at “beating time” than others.  Now that I have used the term “beating time,” I would suggest that effective use of the hand(s) in worship leadership involves more than beat patterns.  However, the beat patterns themselves are standardized in Western culture, and should be learned by all song/worship leaders—if for no other reason, for the segment of the congregation that will have been trained musically through our public and private education systems.

One common error is the reversal of the standard pattern for 3/4 time.  We wouldn’t say “black” when we mean “white” or “go” when we mean “stop”; neither should we change the common language of time signatures and their associated patterns.  Beat patterns are a part of the language of music, and the “term” for the next-to-last beat of a measure goes out, not in.  (I say “out” instead of “right” to account for left-handed leaders.)  So, in 3/4, song leaders should gesture down for the downbeat, out for the 2nd beat, and up for the upbeat.  In 4/4, the pattern is down, in, out, up.

Another common error is beating each of the eighth notes in what should be relatively fast 3/8 or 6/8 time (or the quarter notes in fast 3/4 time).  Very rarely should this be done; and when it is done, the result can be an exceptionally funereal offering in song.  “Prince of Peace, Control My Will” may effectively be beat in three, but “Into My Heart” and “Take Time To Be Holy” are probably better felt without so many beats shown by the leader.  In the former case, every 3/4 measure could receive one slow beat, and in the latter, every 6/8 measure could include two beats (each comprising three eighth notes).

Beyond these types of “brass tacks”—and these fundamentals should not be passed over apathetically but should be learned and practiced by every leader—gesture may help to communicate a range of emotions and expressions.  For instance, the four-beat pattern used with “Christ, We Do All Adore Thee” should be stylistically different from the one used with “Christ the Lord Is Ris’n Today.”  With the former song, the basic gestures should be smooth and connected, while with the latter, the rebound from each beat should be more pronounced.  Each song has its own type of energy, and the two should feel and look different from each other.  Similarly, “Jesus is Coming Soon” should look different from “Jesus, Let Us Come To Know You,” which should in turn look different from “Jesus, You’re My Firm Foundation.”

At times, dynamics (louds and softs, and everything between) may be indicated by the song leader’s right hand.  The left hand may also be pressed into service periodically to indicate such musical effects that enhance the overall expression.  Even if you do not feel comfortable using the standard beat patterns, I encourage you to use your hand at least at the beginnings of phrases and stanzas, particularly when leading slower and/or more rhythmically complex contemporary songs.  It might feel awkward at first, but you will grow more comfortable with it, and in a very short time, the whole church will be able to express things more dynamically and more “together.”

Aside:  Physical gestures may include the signaling of stanza numbers, when stanzas are omitted.  Because so many seem to miss these signals, in most settings, I recommend both announcing the numbers (e.g., “We’ll omit the 2nd stanza” or “We’ll be singing stanzas three and four only”) as well as holding up the appropriate number of fingers at the right time—which is before attentive singers take a breath to begin singing the wrong stanza.

A final word on the topic of leading with the hand and arm—perhaps especially for those who lead primarily contemporary songs:  please consider not discarding every aspect of the older ways and means of leading.  We still need rhythmic togetherness, and hand gestures help to achieve it.  As a person in the pew, I want to sing with you as you lead, but I have little chance of doing so a) if you are not using gestures to indicate the beat of the music, and b) if you are constantly skipping beats.  (rev. 4/15/17)

Next:  Arrhythmia