Delights in variety

I tend to like variety in many aspects of life.  In daily travel patterns, in church gatherings, in food menus, and in music choices, etc., variety and change are both welcome and important to me.

In instrumental music
My large-ensemble preference for the wind band over the orchestra in many cases has at times been met with curiosity by orchestral and choral musicians.  The presumption is that orchestral and choral music is more substantive and significant — and this was largely true through half of the 20th century — but the sonic variety is greater with the wind band.  Its seemingly unlimited woodwind and brasswind timbral varieties, its percussive colorings, and the burgeoning, many-faceted, energetic compositional scenario that exists today all combine to make the wind band an instrumental medium of greater variety.

As an experienced instrumental conductor, I can hardly resist the mystery of the combination of bass clarinet and piccolo.  Or the suffused sounds of muted brass, later openly blossoming into full-out fanfare figures.  What about a rapturous flute and horn duet, perhaps accompanied by sustained clarinets and saxophones?  Marimba chords and bowed vibraphone to set up a euphonium line, joined by oboe or English horn?  You can get some of this variety with an orchestra, but not all.  (The only way you get it with a choir is if the winds and percussion join in!)  The full band tutti sounds are at least as impressive as the full orchestral ones.  Older band compositions may justifiably be criticized for their predictability and lack of compositional variety, but the last two or three decades have seen the rise of some resplendently colorful varieties in the wind band sound medium.

In popular music
On the other hand, one of the criticisms of music based in popular styles¹ is its sameness.  Monotonous sameness is to be seen and heard in tempos, volume, instrumentation/timbres, and melodic range, for example.  While some might find comfort and pleasure in the lulling effects of sameness, I am likely to be quickly bored with it or repelled by it.

In church music
Let’s take tempo² as an example.  In some churches, the same tempo (say, ca. 80-88 beats per minute) might be used for

Amazing Grace
Shout to the Lord
O Happy Day
Joyful, Joyful, We Adore Thee
How Great Thou Art

Which of the above ought to employ the quickest tempo?  Not “Shout to the Lord,” surprisingly.  Rather, assuming that a quarter note is the beat unit, “Joyful, Joyful” should move along the most quickly among those.

And who am I to say how fast a group should sing a song?  It’s not that I would presume to dictate precise tempos to anyone else, yet there does exist a range of acceptability—a tempo “window,” if you will.  If it’s too fast, people are out of breath, and the song seems frantic.  On the other hand, less “contemporary” leaders more commonly choose tempos that are too slow.  The main point here is this:  when all the music is sung or performed at the same  tempo, it’s boring.  People may be lulled into a soporific state of nothingness.

In churches that use a full band, attention ought to be given to sameness, as well.  Vary the volume, for example.  And don’t let every song be guitar-driven or controlled by an uncontrolled drum set player.

There are times in which “same” is desirable, but my general exhortation here is for music-makers and listeners alike — and Bible readers and preachers and cooks and bosses and parents and husbands and teachers and pretty much everyone! — to explore more variety.

~ ~ ~

In chamber music
Right now, I’m listening to a piano trio.  Now, a piano trio is not performed by three pianists.  Historically and in common experience, a piano trio is composed for and performed by violin, cello, and piano.  These three instruments are different from one another.  They blend, but they differ in timbre and in range.  The violin carries the melody much of the time, but one of the great delights in this genre of chamber music is when the cello takes the melody and the violin rests, or when the piano takes the melody and the two strings play accompaniment.  Variety is a delight.

Last week, I had the pleasure of auditing a Land’s End Ensemble rehearsal.  I heard not only a piano trio but also three strings (2 violins, cello) accompanying an oboe.  More variety!  These players were not only gracious as people but provided me the finest listening experience I’ve had in more than a year.

Quite the rutabaga (unexpected delight), actually.

B. Casey, 4/6/15

¹ The purpose here isn’t to segregate and judge styles . . . but, in order to clarify, “popular” music would include most rock, country, contemporary Christian, some jazz, “standards,” rap . . . and, yes, anything that anyone calls “pop.”  All of those and more may aptly be judged to stylistically “popular” — as opposed to “art music” or “music from the cultivated tradition.”

² For more on tempo in church music: (Matt Redman, a cappella church singing, and tempo)

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)

Roadblocks (3 – speed)

I. Tempus Crawlus
II. Beatus Leapfrogus

I.  Tempus Crawlus.  speedIn the movie Speed, the bus went through blockages.  In the typical a cappella church assembly, the congregation doesn’t make it through the speed roadblocks very effectively.  Speed of music — known by the Italian word tempo — is significant in the human musical experience, and bad tempos can block worship.

This much is presumed obvious:  a tempo can be 1) too quick or 2) too slow.  It can also be “just right,” within a window of acceptability.  On the one hand, if a song is too quick, people can hardly catch their breath.  They may temporarily feel a sense of excitement, but the excitement turns out to be fleeting and shallow.  Whatever the main goal in church music is, it is not to rush things to the point that no one can breathe or think.  (Remember, here, that “upbeat” is a reasonable goal for some assembly activities, but that word describes a mood, not a tempo.)

More commonly in a cappella churches, though, song tempos are too slow.  “O Happy Day,” which happens to have been #162 in the hymnal I grew up with, was the epitome of songs mocked because of slow tempo.  Leaving alone for a moment the truth that one can be happy or joyful without being lickety-split fast, we can also acknowledge that gospel songs like “O Happy Day” and “Blessed Assurance” and “Anywhere with Jesus,” when sung too slowly, can cast a death-pall over a church hall.  Besides a lifeless mood, another result of slow tempos is otherwise unnecessary breathing in the middle of phrases and clauses.  When it takes too long to get through a sentence, we need extra air!  Textually extraneous breaths, in turn, can go hand in hand with a lack of understanding on the part of those singing.

Using the same tempo for everything is plain and boring.  Singing too fast is as unwise as singing too slowly.  Leaders should take care to aim for a variety of appropriate tempos in church music.


II.  Beatus Leapfrogus.  Beat-skipping continues to be the main bane of vain Church of Christ attempts to sing without instruments.  (This is a syndrome essentially unique to a cappella group singing, since in instrumental accompaniments there is almost always a regular, impossible-to-ignore beat.)  Although the problem of leap-frogging over beats is most often experienced in contemporary songs conceived with instrumental accompaniment, this roadblock can be experienced in virtually any song that contains a sustained note.

Take just about any song that has a melodic note that lasts for more than a couple of beats.  “I Love You, Lord” and “Breathe” and “Refiner’s Fire” come to mind.  Shoot — even “10,000 Reasons,” which is popular for several good reasons, has a 7-beat melodic rest for instrumentals.  When the time for sustaining comes, the duration is nearly impossible for impatient a cappellists to endure!  In more “hymnic” styles, the problem is less pronounced, but still present.  Think these words in an appropriately moderate tempo:  “A -bide with me. Fast falls the e-ven-tide.”  The syllable “tide” should last for 4 beats, yet many leaders will be heard to leap over 1-1.5 beats.

In a real sense, beat-skipping and too-fast tempos are symptom of the same malady:  nervous impatience.  For more on tempo in congregational music, see here and here and here and here.  (Really.  This stuff is important enough that I keep writing about it.)

Tempus crawlus (and its more rare cousin, tempus fugit) and beatus leapfrogus constitute rhythmic roadblocks to congregational worship.

MWM: Adolphe’s discovery

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

Some discoveries are more significant than others.  Three years ago, I wrote about a more important one — Jim Woodroof’s, actually — that philosophically and practically places the gospels at the center of Christian understanding and practice.  But other discoveries merit a bit of attention now and then, too.

Again and again this simply poetic truth comes to my consciousness, from author/musician Bruce Adolphe:

A good tempo is a discovery.

Adolphe writes rather inclusively of music and life, but I suppose he is read and quoted more by musicians than by philosophers or sociologists.  For my part, in re-appropriating the above quotation, I would like merely to suggest that music in Christian gatherings should be considered in the light of tempo.  There is no one perfect tempo for a song; tempi for each scenario and venue should be discovered individually.  As an example, let me take the relatively contemporary song “10,000 Reasons” by Jonas Myrin and Matt Redman.  metronome

The metronome markings below, semi-paradoxically offered as predetermined, acceptable ranges, are by no means to be taken as absolutes.

  1. on original Redman recording:  70-74 bpm
  2. in an average, medium sized contemporary church with worship band:  74-78 bpm
  3. in small group in a home:  76-84 bpm
  4. in an a cappella congregation:  76-96 bpm

Brief explanations of the above:

  1. The original “is what it is” (In this case, I’d say it’s a bit on the slow side, but it works fine for Redman, with all the originally planned sonic trappings.)  Unless all the tracks are recorded in the studio with a click track, you can expect some human tempo variation; here, there is just a small range.
  2. Given relatively slow originally performed tempos — i.e., slower than average walking pace, for sake of discussion — I would  typically recommend a slight tempo increase for non-professionals.  If any big-name “artists” ever read this, don’t get all high and mighty and say your specific tempo should absolutely be used.  Remember, “a good tempo is a discovery.”
  3. In a living room or family room with a small group of less practiced singers, the pacing will generally be better, for these types of songs, if it’s yet a bit faster than in a #2-type group.  (In a larger hall, the tones have time and space to dissipate, but in a small room, music that’s too slow can seem dry, if not dead.)
  4. When the slower, contemporary songs originally had a good number of rests and/or sustained tone in the vocal line, as a rule, the tempo should be boosted fairly substantially, in order to avoid too much discomfort with the waiting.

It’s not important that our sensitivities to tempo grow a) because of musical accuracy or even because of aesthetics.  It’s not b) because this or that tempo is right or wrong.  It’s c) because pacing matters in the human experience of so many things — including, but not limited to, automobile travel, conversation, reading, life in general, and music in church gatherings.  Sometimes, giving thought to discovering the right tempo for your group, in your setting, may just enhance worship.

Speaking of worship, I’ve shared the song “10,000 Reasons” with friends on several occasions recently, and it is clear to me that it touches many hearts.  In fact, it is currently #1 on CCLI’s most requested list.  I’ll close with a few of the lyrics.

Verse 2:

You’re rich in love, and You’re slow to anger.
Your name is great, and Your heart is kind.
For all Your goodness I will keep on singing — 
Ten thousand reasons for my heart to find.

Excerpt from chorus:

Sing like never before, O my soul
I’ll worship Your holy name

Words and Music by Jonas Myrin and Matt Redman

© 2011 Thankyou Music (Admin. by EMI Christian Music Publishing).

Speed, sound, and light bulbs

“A light bulb went on for me.” 

– Amy

Amy is a saxophone player at an Arkansas high school where I guest-conducted  recently.  (A fulfilling experience — thanks to RHR, Jr. and his great band!)  Amy had not yet thought about the mathematical relationships among tempo markings in wind band music.  Her “light bulb moment” — in this case, related to the speed of sound — made me feel somewhat more effective in teaching and leading than I would have otherwise, but it did even more for her, I think.

When was the last time a light went on for you in Bible study, in prayer, in worship, in thought?

Tempus non fugit (2)

I am fond of telling my instrumental ensembles — quoting from Bruce Adolphe’s What To Listen For in the World — that “a good tempo is a discovery.”  Well, I discovered something recently, and it was not good tempos that I discovered.

It borders on “keeping a record of wrongs,” I guess, but since it was with a view toward helping some of the wrongs to turn toward the right, may I be exonerated, please?    Here’s my sin:  one Sunday morning, I used my smartphone’s metronome app during church to tap out the slow tempos being used so I could report them later.  Here’s what I found, in sum:  the range of tempos was from 40 beats per minute (lentissimo, slower than a funeral march) to 90 beats per minute (andante, barely moderato).  This window or range of tempos was way out of kilter.  It should have been from about 60 to about 132 or 140.  The musical dilettante or musical illiterate may not comprehend the affective damage done by a tempo that is 40% too slow, but when these offending lethargies are perpetrated, everyone suffers—certainly not just the musicians in the church gathering.

I want to share the details, with apologies to an old friend who was the leader on this soporific morning and who might perchance end up seeing this post.  It’s really not his fault—it’s the fault of the size (think Behemoth or Leviathan) and nature (tradition-based) of the congregation he was in front of!  Below are the titles of the songs, followed by a) the actual tempos tapped out on my metronome, and then b) a tempo I would recommend.

  • Tell Me the Story of Jesus:  was 48-52, should be 120
  • Come, All Ye Faithful:  was 80, should be 104
  • Silent Night:  8th note was 66, should be 88
  • Little Town of Bethlehem:  was 84, should be 100
  • Away in a Manger:  was 69-84, should be 92 (this one wasn’t far off the mark at times)
  • To Us a Child of Hope Is Born:  was 72, should be 96)
  • O Come, O Come, Emmanuel:  was 68, should be 104)
  • Jesus, Name Above All Names:  was 40, should be 60)
  • Why Did My Savior Come To Earth:  was 60, should be 90
  • My Lord Has Garments So Wondrous Fine:  quarter note was 80, should be 100
  • Hark!  the Herald Angels Sing:  was 90, should be 116
  • One Day:  dotted half was 52, should be 76
  • I Will Sing the Wondrous Story:  was 66, should be 88
  • Joy to the World:  was 69, should be 96

Tempo is, to a great extent, a subjective matter; to be sure, not all who were present that morning will have felt as though they were sleep-singing.  Yet I submit that pretty much everyone could have experienced more of the messages of those songs if the tempos had not crawled.  We can all learn from others’ perspectives, and I add mine on tempo in church singing here:  there are some guidelines and “windows of acceptability” that demand the attention of leaders. 

(To be continued)

Quality and tempo

In in listening to a recording of hymns by my extended family, I am struck by two things. As usual, I’ll focus on an aspect of something that calls for corrective action, but not before commenting on something of more substance.

First, the quality of these songs is very high. We’re talking about 14 songs that would be called “hymns” by most (and maybe half of them are hymns … a much higher percentage than that found in most other assemblies). I miss this kind of quality. Expressions such as these jump off the audio track:

  • Jesus, Your name I love–All other names above
  • God of grace and God of glory
  • in silence comes all loveliness … in silence I’d find God
  • Lord, God of ev’rything that breathes, Your name is to be praised
  • morning known among the blest–morning of hope and joy and love
  • Silently now I wait for You … open my eyes; illumine
  • … shall rise the glorious thought: I am with You
  • alone with You in breathless adoration
  • with You there is no darkness, Lord
  • grant us wisdom, grant us courage for the facing of this hour
  • when day’s shadows lengthen, Jesus, be near

In the above expressions, the Deity pronouns have been changed to keep minds from closing based on archaisms. 🙂

Don’t those do something for your soul? I wish we could sing those kinds of thoughts these days. I miss them.

Now, about tempo. It seems to me … and this comment is almost exclusively for readers in a cappella churches … that we too often gravitate to the “slowest common denominator.” While there is often one leader in every church who feels it incumbent on himself to be a cheerleader and sing everything fast, most leaders end up letting large groups of people drag them down. By the end of the song, “morning of hope and joy and love” sounds like “dark night of death and degradation” and “grant us courage” comes out, “may I somehow get by, because I have no energy left.”

It’s really not impolite for leaders to push churches to sing at good tempos. Sure, it may be a little uncomfortable for a time or two, when the leader asserts a better tempo. But things will be better, ultimately.