Mixed-up, messed-up

Once upon a time, on a Sunday . . .

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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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 . . . . ]

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.

Logo

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.

Epilogue

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.”

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