Printed programs and spontaneity (3)

The classic/progressive rock band KANSAS will soon be on my college’s stage with my orchestra.  A set list was sent to me a couple weeks ago; the program is pre-planned to the Nth degree.  Yet some room is left for spontaneity (“rap, applause, etc.”).  This kind of programming, I think, represents the best of both worlds:  detailed structure and forethought born of experience on the one hand, and also, room for things to occur in the moment.  KANSAS knows something.  After all, they’re like 55 years old, and three of them have been doing this together for more than 30 years!  They know how to plan a successful show.

In planning worship times, assembly sequences, and other events, I often arrive at a similar conclusion — and for this I have my father to thank:  a balance of a) planned-ness and b) “room to breathe” is best.

[Please see here and here for background for this post.]

Sometimes, planning and programming can get in the way of the goal(s).  Too much polish and too many detailed, strict requirements … these approaches lead to a bothersome, stifling scenario.  Besides the quietus that may be put on authentic needs and God’s moving in a situation, the need to “get the order ‘down'” can lead to anxiety around rehearsing and reviewing a sequence.  In my particular current, more traditional church setting, this situation is manifest in, e.g.,

  • the call for the order to be printed in the bulletin
  • once every few weeks, the accompanying, gracious looking-down-the-nose at someone who just couldn’t get it together enough to get his set list in to the office in time for printing in the bulletin
  • the absolute waste of time perpetrated in reviewing, three minutes before things officially begin, all the names and responsibilities (“serving at the table, we have Brother Larry, Brother Peter, Brother Lou, Brother Rick, … and the opening prayer is by Brother John, and leading songs is Brother Brian,” etc., etc., ad nauseam . . . all with good intention, but about 92% unnecessary)

For me, all this emphasis on sequence can end up as an analogue of the down side of marching bands and show choirs:  too much focus on the presentation, the glitz, the strict sequence and performance of it all … all this tends to cheapen the program, downplay the content and decrease the educational value, in my opinion.  Of course, if the content is lacking, glitz and showiness may be the program’s only salvation!  [Aside:  I once taught at a place where my predecessor was actually in the process of considering having the show choir lip-sync instead of singing at all (much less singing in harmony).  That, friends, was WAY too much emphasis on glitz, sequence, costuming, and the visual aspects, considering it was supposed to be a music program!]

Here’s a special challenge to those church leaders who think we really need to spend all this time, and more, in getting the sequence and set list “down”:  get a critic (like me!) to make notes of every time there’s a foul-up or glitch in your little sequence.  This will be a humbling experience, because you will find that there’s something that goes wrong pretty much every week.  Someone forgets this aspect or that.  Someone forgot to let someone know he’s out of town.  Someone shows up late and messes things up because he wasn’t available for conferring.  I do know that things have to be planned, and someone has to take charge to make sure things go reasonably orderly.  I do this very thing!  But we do obsess over details sometimes, letting the more important content go without as much attention as it needs.

Those recognized as “entertainers” (I think here of Carol Burnett and the guys on the Drew Carey show “Whose Line Is It Anyway?” and late-night talk show hosts and such) can keep people’s attention with spontaneous reactions and witty repartee.  Many popular “artists” depend on canned accompaniments and tracks played in their “live” shows, and this indicates some rigidity in the planning and sequencing.   It’s also true that most art/cultivated music (a/k/a “classical”) concerts are rigidly programmed, not only with printed orders, but with supra-structures that govern programming from a macro level, as well:  three or maybe four works make up most classical orchestral concerts:  an overture, a concerto, and a symphony–often performed in that very order.  (Rarely is an overture played last, for instance.)

There are certain conventions in Christian gatherings for worship and study, too, that deserve to be followed–at least most of the time.   The problem, siblings, is when we overemphasize the sequence without enough emphasis on the content.