Comments on musical style & quality (2)

Having basically contradicted my own stated intention by holding forth on musical style (I guess I can’t help myself) in the last post, I might as well talk a little more.

For years I might have named “Father and Friend, Thy Light, Thy Love” as my favorite hymn, and for the first time, when I wanted to refer to it while writing this post, I could not remember its title.  I only remembered its number — 370 — in Great Songs of the Church No. 2.  This effect of the passage of time saddens me; I used to be inspired by, and wrapped up in, the singing of such great hymns.

I used to plan and host singing events in which such songs were sung.  None of that gospel song diet or Stamps-Baxter “junk food” for those in my closest circles.  We really sang to the Lord — songs of worth . . . songs of high musical and high poetic quality . . . songs that spoke from the soul of the devoted Christian to the awe-inspiring Lord God.  Many of those songs were older, and some were newer.  They were all worthwhile.

I don’t remember ever feeling that musical quality should be considered equal to spiritual quality when dealing with the “music of the church.”  But I do feel that musical quality is worth some attention—just as many of us assess quality when thinking of preaching or Bible teaching.

Quality is not, at its core, a matter of taste or preference.  Trained, cultivated musicians and a few others are able to judge fairly well the relatively quality of a song, and there is no good reason to avoid such judgments.  When there are thousands of songs available to us, there’s no reason to sing anything other than the top 40 or 50%.  Arguably, style is also a matter to be assessed more by educated personas than by dilettantes and amateurs; when considering quality, the thoughts of trained, experienced musicians ought absolutely to be attended to.

My opinions are only my opinions, but I am a trained musician who has the ability to judge music quality and composition in quite a few genres.  I’m only a C+ poet with limited linguistic training, so, please ingest my assessments of the words with a few ounces of saline solution.  But you may generally trust my music critiques and comments more implicitly and thoroughly, and I’ll try not to abuse the honor of your trust.


I had written a follow-up post in which I commented on musical quality in specific (mostly) contemporary songs of some merit.  I’m electing not to post the whole thing, because it was such a tiny sampling of songs, and because, in the end, I thought it was less than useful.

Oh, why not? . . .  Here’s an abbreviated version—less than half the text I had before:

“Above All” has some theologically questionable expressions and a musical challenge or two.  Watch out for the III chord — difficult for most singers to hear and harmonize with.  Its melody is somewhat difficult and is likely to be watered down in terms of rhythm, but it is tuneful, and the motion into and out of the chorus gives it a melodic arch.

“As the Deer” is a mixed bag.  The “apple of my eye” thing is a terribly upside-down expression and ought to be stricken permanently . . .   A sense of longing does seem to be inherent in the chorus, especially—partly a function of the jump to the octave-higher keynote on “You alone” and the similar, upward skip on “to You” a few notes later.  Again, a major III chord presents difficulties:  less than 25% of the a cappella attempts at this song attain to the harmony of the F# suspended-4th chord in the key of D.

“Father and Friend” reaches deeper into the soul of the poet . . . and has music that’s more readily singable than most contemporary songs.  Its melodic arch is subtle; its harmonies, perfectly supportive of the relatively simple, yet profound, text.

The construction of “I Love You, Lord” is of reasonable quality, and the poetry, not flowery, is . . . well matched to the musical yearning in the melody.  For churches that feel a compulsion to major in faster tempos, this song may feel like a downer, and/or people may skip beats.  Don’t do that.  Just live in the comfort of the slow tempo.

B.  Casey, 5/18/15

For perpetual consideration:
What constitutes a “good” song?  What makes a song worthwhile?

Musical outlets

poetrymusicA couple of decades ago, friends in the East would sometimes comment, in the context of Lights (an a cappella octet with which I was deeply involved for nearly a decade) that it must be great for me to have an “outlet for my music.”

Music is indeed a large part of life for me.  This prefatory sentence alone is probably sufficient to set the stage for whatever musically themed posts appear in coming days/weeks/months.

In the course of my blog’st’ry (blog history), I’ve written relatively little of depth about music, rather referring to it mostly tangentially.  (I have written here & there about worship music or other music for the Christian assembly — subtopics that represent a relatively small piece of the music pie for me.)

Maybe it’s time to delve more deeply into this thing that has played such a major part in shaping my life (thanks to the Lord who provided for it).  I’ll still regularly draw lines from musical to spiritual topics, but the musical jumping-off points might be a little more deeply musician-y at times.  After all, this is the area of my greatest formal education, so it makes sense that musical experience and insight might help to shed light on other things.  Today’s topic is fairly general:  musical creativity and outlets for it.

Those folks in the DE/NJ/PA “tri-state area” were right about the significance of the Lights vocal group and the musical opportunities it provided:  although my congregational schema offered only narrow avenues, with Lights I had a place to use some additional gifts.  So, with and for that group, I wrote, I arranged, I corresponded, I collaborated with Scott and the whole group, I directed, I planned, and I sang.  The creation of music — mostly, arrangements that were tailored for those particular singers — was the most personally fulfilling of those activities, and I did a lot of creating.  There were always multiple projects and revisions in the hopper.

During that time, I was also somewhat active in conducting, and playing horn with, community music ensembles — namely, the First State Symphonic Band, the Newark Symphony Orchestra, the Newark Community Band, and the Cecil County Choral Society.  Other outlets included compiling and editing three different songbook supplements for my congregation.  With some committee buy-in, I inserted a few of my original songs into those supplements — a decision some might have viewed askance, but I never heard any negative comments first-hand, and it was, regardless, an “outlet.”

A particularly exciting time period saw me composing and arranging for the teenage group I worked with closely.  Several teenagers’ poems became songs that their own group later sang, and that whole experience was nigh unto spiritually enthralling.  I was being used for good.

One of the discouragements I face these days is the lack of such meaningful outlets.  Frankly, I’ve tired of singing and of vocal groups.  (I don’t watch any of the singing competition shows, and “Glee” makes me retch for more than one reason.)  But there is a part of me that harks¹ back wistfully to those days of pouring so much spiritual, mental, and technological energy into creating Christian music.

During our New York sojourn, I had significant outlets, and even some new ones as part of my work life.  These opportunities led to hours upon hours spent in service of an institution and its programs.  I arranged, I composed, I re-composed, and I transcribed.  Transcribing is, at its core, moving music from one medium to another, and I did that according to the strong mix of student talents available then.  One student performed a piano piece, various small instrumental groups performed chamber works, horn students worked through my etude book, and my large ensembles performed a couple of compositions (including Faces of Foster and Bounce) and several transcriptions (including chorales from Harding’s Chi Sigma Alpha, Schubert, Great Songs of the Church No. 2 with Supplement, and Beethoven) and a re-transcription of three well-known movements of the Mussorgsky/Ravel Pictures at an Exhibition.  Flute and cello, by the way, make gloriously sonorous, supportive sounds to accompany “Instruments of Your Peace.”  Most of those transcription activities were very fulfilling; I felt energized by the creation, rehearsal, and performance aspects, to varying degrees.

In the church-congregation sphere in western NY — for reasons of distance, philosophy, and opinions — musical outlets were not really open, so I eventually redirected energies toward our small group/house church, but there wasn’t all that much place for creativity in the worship/music area there, either.  Looking back, my composition of Christian songs has virtually dried up since living moving from Kansas in 2004, and I find little use anywhere for arrangements or songs that I’ve written, although I make an average of maybe $50 a year in CCLI income.

It is with some of this history in mind that I share the following song, which, I’m somewhat embarrassed to say, is probably the best original music (given its topic and genre) that I’ve produced in 4-5 years.  Thinking back to my teen years, I wrote songs for at least four girlfriends.  The song below, in clear contrast, was written in tribute to a very neurotic, tiny dog owned by our dear, generous friend, Martha P.  The dog really appeared to go into a depression every time Martha left the room.  Katie, by the way, had no middle name.  I tried to bolster her self-confidence by providing her with three.

Enjoy the song.  I have zero concerns over copyright with this!  Maybe the last line will help you a little, as it helps me, in a light-hearted way.

Katie's Song


¹ Yup, it’s “harks back,” not “hearkens back.”  “Hearken” means “listen.”


Voices: Zschech (congregational dynamic)

Work at ensuring the keys you lead in are suitable for both men and women.  It is not impossible; it just takes time to work these things through.  You are a servant leader; the church does not exist to put songs in a key to suit you and show off your best vocal performance.  Our role is to enable others:  to assist every man, woman, and child in expressing the almost inexpressible, to release the song in their hearts to Jesus.

– Darlene Zschech, “Servant Leaders as Agents of Welcome,” in Worship Leader magazine, September 2012


First of all, for identifying an important “worship ethos” subtopic, kudos to Darlene Z — whose last name my fingers never want to type, even if my left hemisphere could be certain of the order of the letters.  Whew, lady, where did you get that malphonic burst of letters?  🙂  Her contributions to WL magazine during a recent year or two (2010 and 2012 are roughly the recent volumes I’ve scanned) are unique, generally insightful in some way, and kissed with her personal touch.  I don’t relate to her “complimentary close” sign-off style in her articles and blogposts, but I absolutely believe it’s genuine for her.  Find her blog here.DZ-slider-3

For the uninitiated who either like to know such celeb-bits or have forgotten, Darlene was first catapulted into fame through her song “Shout to the Lord,” which I still consider nearly universally singable and worthwhile, and she has written many more songs and mentored many burgeoning worship leaders.  (Is that even a thing?)  Her home base is in Australia, and “Hillsong Music” was for many years her baby, so to speak, although she and her husband are now working with a different church.  Darlene has also authored books on worship and appears to be a pure, trustworthy, scandal-free heart, although often and long in the public eye.  She received a breast cancer diagnosis just last month; I look for some worship songs with an enhanced perspective within the next couple of years.  Darlene is just the kind of person to be transparent in such a situation, for the good of humankind.

Back to the topic addressed in the quotation above . . . I would summarize it by saying that Darlene is seeking to bolster a strong congregational dynamic.  Says she:  it is not about individual performance; it is about gathered groups worshipping the Lord.  And she’s right.  We can all get that question correct on a multi-choice test, but we don’t necessarily know what to do in order to enhance the congregational dynamic.

Musical technicalities are of course just one aspect of “dynamic.”  But indulge me for a couple minutes. . . .

The thing is, Darlene’s statement seems somewhat limited to pop-style, guitar-driven songs.  This suspicion of mine is based, yes, on having heard quite a few of her songs — but also on her having addressed congregational vocals in terms of key instead of vocal range and tessitura.  You see, the key is not the thing.  The intersection of contemporary “melodic” construction and key — maybe.

This may not make as much sense to non-guitar-y readers, but the melodies of songs can actually take shape around guitar chords in the amiable keys of D and G.  Contemporary songs written in D may hover around the tonic note and peak at the fifth (A), which is a nice, high-ish alto note, but only in the middle of the typical soprano range.  Songs in G may actually do the same — start on a low-alto G, and ascend to D, or go up to the high “do” (G).  Anyway, the main thing is not whether the song is in D or G or Bb; what matters most is how high and how low the vocal parts go.

If the song is too high, many church people chicken out.  But it’s rare that songs are pitched too high, in my experience.  Getting them too low  is the main issue.

While a) female smoker voices and b) true altos may be able to sing a 5th or more below middle C, most women cannot do that with any power.  Even if they could, in any part-singing situations that have an alto part below the melody, or a bass/baritone part, the simple fact is this:  maintaining a vocal range that encircles middle C, or thereabouts, is a problem.  There’s no place for the lower-pitched parts to go while remaining a viable part of the harmony!  Congregational melodies ought to major in the range that starts around middle C and continues up for an octave+.  That way, there’s room for all, and men can sing the melody with some volume in the octave below.

So, Darlene, thank you so much for identifying a regular problem in today’s contemporary-worship churches — songs that show off “leader” voices.  We absolutely need to do everything possible to provide for, and enhance, congregational participation.  Here, I’m seeking to expand the topic a bit:  vocal range should be analyzed when determining a good key for a song.  Examples:

If a song is in D and the melody ranges from sol to sol (A to A), raise it a step or two for congregational use.  (Limited guitarists who can’t play well in keys other than D and G can at least put a capo up on the neck of the instrument!)

If a song is in C and ranges an octave+ from mi to sol (E to G), raise it a 5th!

Not every congregational singer will be able to identify the difference if the song is pitched well, but the overall sound — and psychological dynamic or feel — will be better.

Please read this post for more on vocal range in congregational worship music — especially the last half of it.


Having had the opportunity to be on the campus of Harding University recently, we wandered through the American Heritage Building.  In the hallway that funnels visitors in from Market Street, some pictures display life at Harding through the decades.  The pictures are great!  Who wouldn’t  want to go to Harding if life is like that?

Among the shots are a few from more distant past, including this one:


This is what it looked like back in the late 40s and 50s when college students at Harding worshipped together in “chapel.”  The leader happens to be my granddaddy, who influenced a lot of people in ways of worship in those days.  Look at the eyes of the people.  If you scanned closely enough, you might detect that a few were looking at the photographer and trying to appear more engaged than they were, but by and large, they are participating, being led, worshipping. . . .

When was the last time you knew of that much engagement and involvement in a single church assembly where you are?

The contemporary church creates spectators, and the traditional liturgical churches, bystanders.

– John Throop, The Clergy Journal, 1996

Nevermind, for the moment, that the above scene doesn’t neatly fit in either of Stroop’s categories.  The generalities stand:  we see an awful lot of un-involved gazing and gawking in contemporary churches; and in most “high church” groups, a different type kind of un-involvement.

You can say it’s the responsibility of the individual to “give,” to “be involved,” to worship . . . no matter what.  And you’ll be right.

You can also say it’s the responsibility of the church leaders to make the assemblies more like the one above.  And you’ll still be right.

6/8 and literacy

68timeThe more musically literate a person is, the more likely he is to understand the nature of most 6/8 church music –that it is customarily conceived with two beats per measure, not six.  There are two groups of three eighth notes per measure.

Below are some examples.  Comparatively speaking, only a few popular modern songs are written in 6/8; most of these songs are older, “hymnal” types:

  • Anywhere with Jesus
  • Encamped Along the Hills of Light (Faith Is the Victory)
  • Great Is the Lord
  • I Heard the Voice of Jesus Say
  • It Came upon a Midnight Clear
  • Master, the Tempest Is Raging
  • Prince of Peace, Control My Will (actually in 3/8, but the principle is the same)
  • Sweet Hour of Prayer
  • The Gospel Is for All
  • The Old Rugged Cross (possibly an exception — this can be led with flowing, 8th-note pulses, although a strong case can be made that it, too, is better led at approximately dotted quarter = 52; either way, this song requires attention to motion in the tempo)
  • There’s a Stirring
  • Into the Heart of Jesus (notated in 6/4, not 6/8 — but the principle is the same — it is better led in two groups of three quarter notes per measure, not pulsing on each of six quarter notes)
  • Wonderful, Merciful Savior (ditto)

The rule of thumb is this:  songs written in 6/8 meter should generally be led with two beats per measure.  This execution leads to more appropriate tempos — tempos that don’t drag.  The sonic, affective result of leading such songs as though they have six pulses in a measure is like a barbiturate administered to a church assembly.  (I suppose I could have equally aptly spoken of drug-induced lethargy in individuals here, but I wanted to speak more pointedly to the resulting, sluggish affect of the assembly event.)

Leaders should be educated — made aware of this musical reality — and should direct accordingly, for the betterment of church assemblies.

Note: this post was not written in response to anything that occurred today. It was written a few weeks ago and has much broader application.

For more on tempo in church music: (Matt Redman, a cappella church singing, and tempo)

Struggles of the a cappella kingdom

Let me just start with an arithmetic sum.





You can check my math, and you might find I entered something incorrectly, but at the end of this relatively short post-day, the point will remain.

You see, no other church types deal with this.  (The others have their own problems.)  But they don’t deal with singing songs 4 scalar steps too high or a step too low.  We do.  We do deal with this.  We deal with it because we have many leaders who don’t have the requisite skills and/or tools and/or understanding.

Stop right now, ye criticizers of those who critique.  While you may be justified in personal annoyance at something you’re not interested in, you are not justified in sitting in your own judgment chair, judging this or other critiques as unwarranted simply because they are critiques.  So, cease thou thy dismissive hand-waves.  Cease thinking I shouldst spend my time on something more important (read:  some issue you’re more interested in).  And by all means, cease thinking that this is just a musician talking about something that’s not really of concern to the a cappella church.

This is real stuff.  It deals with physical and acoustical realities (not mere opinions).

The math above?  Have you figured it out?  It represents pitch levels in the songs sung in a recent assembly.  With 0 as the theoretical “ground zero” of pitch, +4 means 4 steps too high; -1 means one step too low, etc.  The net grand average in this particular assembly turned out to be about 1/2 step low, but some of the individual songs’ pitch levels were not OK.  2 or  4 steps low is untenable, in most cases.

The numbers are only estimates; moreover, it captures theoretical points in time per song, in essence averaging the pitch levels that changed throughout the given song.

Is the precise pitch for each song important?  Well, no, not in most cases.  A half-step doesn’t often make too much difference.  But the general pitch level is important, and even one step can have a notable effect on the atmosphere.

Aside:  much of the contemporary repertoire associated with solo “artist” voices is written and sung at pitch levels not conducive to congregational singing.  Leaving other issues aside for the moment, a transcriber/arranger must consider the pitch level of all the voice parts to be singing.  If singing the melody in unison, roughly Bb/C to C/D (an octave above) is generally OK.  But if SATB parts are part of the conception, as in most a cappella churches, the melody generally needs to range a bit higher — from D, up an octave to E/F.  When a melody is too low or too high or too broad in its range, human vocal ranges are strained, and/or harmonies don’t work (remember, we’re talking about acoustical realities and mathematical relationships between frequencies here, not simple tastes in voice quality or harmony.

Although opinion is involved, this is not primarily a matter of preference or opinion.  It is a matter of empirically observable reality.  The human voice operates within God-designed parameters, and harmonies exist within a natural order which is also, of course, God-originated.

A cappella leaders, really . . . this is important.  Get the pitch right (or at least within a half-step), and keep it there.  (Don’t let the pitch plummet or soar with the whims of the loudest, out-of-tune voices in the hall.)

And (hiccup) now, arrhythmia

The prayer song “Savior, Breathe an Evening Blessing” offers a common rhythm mistake — one that was a regular part of my growing-up church experience.  This song was probably led a half-dozen times a year at the evening gathering, and it deserved such regular use.  Remember it?  The last line of the 1st stanza is “Thou canst save and Thou canst heal.”  The tenor and alto move in quarter-8th-8th rhythm, but wait . . . no, they don’t . . . everyone seemed to want to sing this as 8th-8th-quarter instead.

Since this song is way out of copyright protection, and since other, less authorized or defensible changes have been made in hymnals such as Great Songs or Songs of Faith and Praise, I’m not sure why the rhythmic error hasn’t been “fixed” by changing the notation.  (It was fixed in Praise for the Lord.)  It’s difficult and unnatural to sing it as it’s written, and no one does.

But that’s just one mistake.  They happen much more frequently with “today’s” musical repertoire in churches.

Take “On Bended Knee,” for example.  There are rhythmic mistakes with the syncopations in every other measure!  It’s really just another evidence that singers can’t do rhythm.  (Get a bunch of jazzers or wind instrumentalists together, and you wouldn’t have this problem!)  This “fix,” if attempted today, wouldn’t be nearly as easy.

Time was that the school-age children (and beyond) of the CofC were known for their ability to read music and to sing.  Yet rhythms tend to be much more complicated these days.  Do you ever wonder what’s going to happen to congregational singing if Jesus doesn’t return in the next handful of years?

MWM: special songs

[This is an installment in the Monday Worship Music series.  Find other, related posts through this link.]

A couple nights ago, we sang a few special songs with a group of friends:

  • Jesus, Wonderful Thou Art (in which we worshipped the eternal Son)
  • Into My Heart (in which we invited Him within)
  • Be Still, My Soul (in which we expressed our trust)
  • It May Be at Morn (in which we longed for the parousia)
  • Lord, Speak To Me (in which we prayed for the Lord Jesus to fill us until we overflow, so that we tell his love)

And I ask you:  aren’t these all special songs?  In a real sense, every song in a Christian gathering should be special music.  Why sing a song unless it is special?

Many churches have developed a lingo that separates the solo song from the rest of the musical worship material.  Bulletins may list “Special Music” during or just after the offering.   “Who’s singing the special today?” is heard by many involved officially in musical leadership/offering.  If one isn’t careful, she could begin to think that “special music” should be more attended to than congregational music.

The “special music” lingo does indicate a good thing — congregationally oriented music as the norm.  Even as musical literacy in churches declines rapidly, it is good for churches small and large to continue to “major” in the large-group mode of worship.  It is engaging, fulfilling, and God-intended.

And wherever professional musicians call the shots, it would be good for a greater number of believers to show how energized they can be in lifting up voices from the pews (or theater seats, or whatever), as we did again yesterday morning:

This the pow’r of the cross
Christ became sin for us
Took the blame bore the wrath
We stand forgiven at the cross

W&M by Keith Getty and Stuart Townend
© 2005 ThankYou Music

Long live the singing of Christians.  Whenever two or three are gathered. . . .

Leading singing in Searcy (3 of 3: College Church)

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III.       At the College Church

The College Church of Christ is an iconic CofC that isn’t necessarily the oldest in town but is the largest and has been the most influential over the long haul.  Since I didn’t jump on the College Church bandwagon while a student and take the convenient route to the church that was closest to campus, I was never a privileged student leader there.

Once, many years later, a couple months before a visit to Searcy, I wrote to an old college friend, who was then involved in worship planning, to see if there might be a Sunday night I could lead at the College Church.  I didn’t hear from him at all; instead, I got a “blind” note from … wait for it … the preacher (aarrgghh).  I hadn’t addressed the preacher (whose name I didn’t know at the time), he had no relationship with me, and he didn’t even tell me what his official capacity was when he wrote me tersely to say “thanks, but no thanks.”  As I discovered later, the College Church’s refusal to admit me (on a one-time basis) to their sacred ranks all went to a relational issue that was obsolete and mostly, if not completely, in the minds of a few.  I get a little upset when I think about this still, even though it occurred more than two years ago.  I wish, frankly, that I hadn’t cared, but there was something about the experience of leading at this church, and the history of relationships there, that made me care.

Now, back to our unscheduled program.  Back in the day, the College Church was famous for having only-professional-quality song leaders.  Not a first-string and second-string group, but an only-string group.  High levels of proficiency and “professionalism” (although that term wasn’t as common back in the day) were expected.  Only two or three music professors — and two or three others who could have been music professors — were “allowed” to lead.  I don’t believe this amounted to a draconian ousting of the inept.  Back then, people weren’t as likely to be offended at not being included; it was simply the way it was.  Quality was expected, and the regular rotation selected quality material for worship and led in a generally well-above-average way.  All but one of these men I remember as the “A” list have moved into the land of the eternally living now.


Don’t let the modern logo fool you; the College Church strikes one as relatively conservative in structure and practice.  It possesses a powerful legacy — and perches high atop a pedestal in the eyes of many, including a fair number of its own congregants.  I don’t think I ever personally idolized the College Church; yet, deep within, there was for a long time a faint, but persistent, yearning to be included as a leader there.  Even one appointment would be sufficient.  I wanted to be able to say that, once in my life, that I was one of the few, the gifted, the chosen … that I had been presented with the opportunity to do what only a relatively small number of leaders had done:  leading singing at the College Church in Searcy, Arkansas.  This was the town that produced, through its College-turned-University, what were considered by many to be the finest a cappella choruses known in our fellowship of churches.  This was the small town that had four fairly large churches of our stripe, and lots of capable student and faculty leaders (all “laity,” mind you).  And in this town, College Church was king of kings.

One time, a couple of years ago, I sort of slipped in and led at the College Church — by quasi-approval, during a free-for-all singfest in which multiple leaders were leading two songs each.  The opportunity presented itself, and I took it, and now, I don’t ever need to lead at College again.  I’m persuaded now that I do more effective work in other scenaria, and I’m happy to do things I think are more important in the Kingdom than to lead singing at a place where there is such an auspicious history of song leaders, and where the congregation is so large that actual leading and following are not options, in any real sense.


Leading singing in Searcy was an important part of my earlier Christ-ian history, and the experiences were positively formative for me.  These days, I continue to treasure opportunities to do such leading; this particular species of opportunity now comes every few weeks in Rochester, New York.  There, our Lawson Road Church is a rare one in which depth of content is valued above style, speed, and glitz — and in which a nicely disproportionately large number of mature believers have leadership qualities and inclinations that are well suited to worship in the assembly.  Yet I am convinced that with current developments in Christian music and church-growth thinking, congregational singing is deteriorating.

Never will congregational singing be the same, yet other aspects of church are being bolstered.  It’s no case of “easy come, easy go” for me:  worship and a mutual sense of what we’re gathered for are a high priority.  Although I was for years a champion of “contemporary music” in my congregation–using overhead transparencies before PowerPoint and projectors were affordable, editing and compiling two hymnal supplements, and leading with the teenagers — I am no longer as concerned with contemporaneity in worship content.  It is, in the final analysis, all about content.  Who are we to say that Matt Redman and Casting Crowns and the erstwhile favorite Twila Paris are more soul-enriched than Charles Wesley, L.O. Sanderson, William Cowper, Clement of Alexandria, and even Fanny Crosby?  Content is content, and style is style.

As strong congregational singing declines, I am wistful and more than a trifle sad.  But I am saddened less now than I was when I first began to perceive and comment on this decline.  Maybe it’s creeping apathy in that causes my sadness to be less painful.  Or maybe it’s that I am finding other ways to serve in the Kingdom.  May God keep me from apathy and move me more into valuable service, wherever I am.  No matter whether worship and congregational song leading in a decade looks anything like it did in the 50s, 80s, or 90s, the Kingdom of God is forever.

Leading singing in Searcy (2 of 3: West Side)

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II.        At West Side

Again, as with my Harding University-related leading opportunities, my family reputation preceded me:  as a 17-to-20-year-old, I was pleased to be entrusted with regular leading responsibilities at the church I attended — the West Side Church.  I rode a bus there, since it was about two miles away.  One of the elders—a dear professor named Baggett, for whom my parents had sung when he directed the Christian academy chorus, and a man my other grandparents counted as a friend—put me in front of the church about once a month for the three and a half years I was in college.

I don’t remember the weekly planning process, but I don’t think there was anything submitted in advance for a bulletin or “worship program.”  I don’t believe anything was coordinated with the preacher or other leaders.  I would simply choose songs from the hymnal, a copy of which I owned, and then I showed up to lead.  There were no “contemporary music” options available at that time, but I would have led a balance of songs that ranged mostly from 50-250 years old (plus one from the 3rd century) from the hymnal, and would have chosen appropriate songs and stanzas well in advance.  Thinking things through is always good.

Although I have few specific memories, I can guarantee you that there was bona fide worship content when I led.  I had been taught well by my grandfather, father, and others.  Songs like “Lord of All Being, Throned Afar” and “Day Is Dying in the West” and “Father and Friend, Thy Light, Thy Love” would have been likely choices for me during this period (and beyond!).  I believe that much worship occurred during such times, no matter whether I was leading or someone else, as in certain churches today that think they’re worshipping more, and better.

Despite my youth, I put relatively mature thought into leading and did some good things.  Since I had some prior experience leading in my home church, at youth events, and at camp before coming to college in Searcy, I was accustomed to conventions such as writing out lists of song numbers, inserting prayers and readings at the “right” spots with other men’s names filled in (often, at the last minute when brother so-and-so didn’t show up to fill his assignment), announcing song numbers twice in two forms (“four hundred fifty six . . . four-five-six” [to make sure someone didn’t accidentally turn to 466), and holding up fingers to indicate stanza numbers.

Since leading at the West Side Church was a regular thing for me throughout my undergraduate college “career,” I probably owe Eddie Baggett (the elder, professor, and family friend) a lot more than I’ve realized for giving me the opportunity to develop as a leader at this important time of life.  He and his wife are now in their upper 80s, and we had a nice visit with them a few weeks ago in their home.

To be continued . . . 

Leading singing in Searcy (1 of 3: Harding)

This mini-memoir is about my song leading experiences in Searcy, Arkansas—a little town in which I’ve spent, in toto, about 4.5 years of my life.  Searcy (pronounced “SUR-see”) is one of the beloved homes of colleges affiliated with my church “fellowship.”[1]  Although Searcy is just one college town, and although it is probably no more representative of Church of Christ experience than others, it is the town I know, and I figure it’s beneficial to think about where I’ve come from.

Searcy has pretty much always been a town where it’s not only safe, but quite comfortable, to be a Christ-ian.  A quick glance at its daily newspaper’s website shows not only the Christian influence, but something of the place of Harding University in the community.

Aside:  and what about other CofC college towns?  I’ve only spent about 8-10 waking hours of my life in Abilene (ACU)–an ugly town with a more open breed of university and a somewhat more progressive church climate–and no more in Henderson, TN (FHU).  Have been in Oklahoma City (OU) and Vienna, WV (OVU) a bit longer but still have no real basis for comment there.  Absolutely no sense at all of Lubbock (LCU) or Kissimmee (FCC).  I have a fairly decent handle on Nashville (DLU), but that city is in a class all its own, since it is Jerusalem for CofCers and spawned such relatively avant garde efforts as are found within Woodmont Hills and Brentwood and Otter Creek and Zoe.  In Searcy, a true CCCCS (Church of Christ College City-State) — for me, at least — stuff including the leading of congregational singing is more analyzable, memorable … and, well … iconic.

It bears mention here that my maternal grandfather, Andy T. Ritchie Jr., was for years a well-known, much-loved-and-respected leader of worship in congregational singing.  He sometimes traveled far by train and car to lead worship as others preached, and to preach himself.  He was a cross between George Beverly Shea and Billy Graham — in our milieu, which is of a much smaller scale.  I genuinely feel blessed to have experienced Granddaddy’s leading on several occasions — both in my home church in Delaware and in Searcy.  He was known for his strong voice, his eventual blindness due to detached retinas, his expressive leading well into his 60s, and his personal, persistent communion with God.  If I have one-quarter of the relationship with God that Granddaddy seems to have had, I’ll be well off.

Whatever your precise background, your connection with Church of Christ college towns, and your inclination or disinclination toward the CofC or congregational worship of times past, my hope is that a few dozen of you will find this more interesting and constructive than old “home movies.”

I.          In Harding University’s Chapel Assembly

During my college years, I was privileged to lead congregational singing about once a semester in Harding University’s chapel.  The first time I led there was during my freshman year.  Know first that all congregational singing was sans instruments (which, incidentally, isn’t exactly the meaning of “a cappella”).  No special choir was involved.  Yet University choral director Uncle Bud (Dr. Kenneth Davis, Jr.) was responsible for lining up the song leaders, and he knew my strong family background in congregational singing, so he put me up there in chapel fairly early—during my first fall semester, I’m pretty sure.  Although one faculty member had been ridonculously spacey in front of the chapel audience of 2,800—actually forgetting which hymnal was used in chapel and calling out song numbers from a different hymnal—I made no such mistakes and was “successful.”  I remember overhearing, after I had led, that some upperclassman music folks were envious that I hadn’t made a mistake in chapel.

Big deal.  No mistakes of the technical variety.  I’m afraid that that’s kinda how I’m remembered as a Harding student.  I was so associated with technical correctitude — perhaps extended to a perceived lack of ability to relate to the common person? — that I wasn’t elected president of a music ensemble.  I understand now:  no one wants to have correctness inflicted on him at every turn, and although I was respected, I wasn’t loved by the masses.

I have no memory of what specific songs I led that day in chapel, or whether I was really leading or just beating time and getting the right pitch and not fouling up the words.  This memory of chapel song leading is not all that strong, I’m afraid.  It was just a given — a male with musical proficiency and the spiritual desire to lead the student body and faculty could do so, about once a semester.

Coda:  On Tour

A brief tag-on to the above:  I remember that Uncle Bud would have opportunity on a few occasions to select a student or two to lead singing wherever the chorus found itself on Sunday mornings while we were on tour.  I was honored to be one of these guys on a few occasions.  Again, no specific memories, but I’m glad to have had such opportunities to lead and to observe as the chorus traveled parts of the country.  This kind of experience could only have strengthened and broadened me as a person and as a leader.

To be continued …

[1] In the CofC, “fellowship” is the inoffensive way to say “denomination.”

Tempus non fugit (3)

Tempo in music is, to a great extent, a subjective matter.  Yet there are some guidelines and “windows of acceptability” that demand the attention of leaders.  Some of these conventions appear to be inherent to human nature and our perception, but they also may change with time.  In this third of a three-part series, I’d like to state and comment on some of these principles and guidelines.

Only a few readers took 15 seconds to respond to the poll in the first post, three days ago, so those results are inconclusive.  I’ll mention that only one respondent thought church singing was too fast, in the overall analysis.  My personal observation in a cappella churches — which, remember, do not, as a rule, use professional musicians or choirs — is that there may be one leader in each church who feels it incumbent on him to use very fast tempos for virtually every song.  He feels this way, I have surmised, because most everyone else in his church leads things too slowly — which would be one scenario that led to inconclusive poll results — or he just feels he must be the life of the party.  I think I was this guy, to some minor extent, for a few years, but now, I simply try my best to choose good tempos, which means a variety. 

In my last post, I listed song titles from one particular Sunday morning assembly, along with the (invariably too slow!) tempos used, followed by my own recommended tempos.   I’m relatively un-apologetically opinionated in this area of church life — and periodically, admittedly arrogant — but in no way do I suggest that my tempos are absolutes.  I only specified numbers in order to put things clearly.

Some factors to be considered when specifying a tempo include

  • rhythmic configuration in the song
  • traditional mood/affect
  • any intended alteration of traditional mood/affect
  • previous song
  • succeeding song
  • the congregation:  average age, average musical ability, history, current situations
  • the worship and edification hall
  • instrumentation, if any
    • if no instruments, tempos generally need to be faster (witness the abridgment of Michael Card’s simply beautiful “Jesus, Let Us Come To Know You” — this song has had a beat dropped out of every measure in a cappella churches because we are uncomfortable with holding notes too long in slow tempos)
    • “fill” instruments can help to “fill the gaps,” therefore, slower tempos can be effective with less mental effort, and with less damage to the overall mood

Tempo is not completely a matter of taste.  It’s not just “to each his own” when deciding one can (il)legitimately sing “Joy to the World” at the same tempo as “Amazing Grace”  or “Abide with Me.”  Besides generally accepted principles (we use ‘em in accounting; why not in congregational singing?), it has long been held that tempo in music is directly related to the human gait.  If one can’t have a little spring in his step when singing or hearing “Joy to the World,” I think the tempo is too slow, and I’m sure you’ll agree!