Hiding weaknesses

Caveat lector:  this was written many moons ago and just dusted off for posting.  Please do not assume anything is “about” any specific person from this phase of life or that.

==> It’s uncomfortable for us humans to be vulnerable, to show to the world the holes in our armor.  So we like to hide our weaknesses.  We all do this.  We put ourselves over as though we have it all together.  It’s kind of a self-protection mechanism, but in its extreme measure, it can amount to dishonesty.  Most often, I think it is simply an unhelpful attribute of humanity.

[Aside:  for some inspiration, listen to this:  Twila Paris:  The Warrior Is a Child.]

Humans generally want to present ourselves as competent.  Moreover, when in our spheres of influence perceptions of competency take a downturn, and we begin to feel insecure, we may even want to present ourselves as experts.  We pretend.  We compensate.  We hide the fact that we have insufficiencies and downright gaps in our training, knowledge bases, and abilities.

Applied music studios

I have seen this tendency in a few music studios:  the studio teachers are at times set up as though they are beyond questioning.  They supposedly have the answers to everything about the instrument being studied.  But they do not always have the answers, and each one’s teaching can be weaker than supposed.  One may trumpet her methodologies and results, but the plain facts will almost always betray the fact that she is insufficient to meet some challenges, and she may be more run-of-the-mill than she would have you believe.

Actually, I’ve rarely perceived blatant, Machiavellian self-aggrandizement among studio teachers.  They are smarter than that.  The problems come when the students presume their teachers are near-deities.  And the problems are compounded when the system (e.g., academic, cultural, social) presumes that the students must submit to every word, every opinion, every pronouncement — whether half-baked or fully cooked.

Clergydom

I also see this syndrome in the realm of religious professionals.  As with the above group, the problem is more likely located among the so-called laity than among the clergy, though.  In other words, it’s not that the professional priests and pastors and preachers really view themselves as infallible, super-examples of all that is good and holy; it’s that their flocks don’t question them enough.

To see clergy types as the humans they are would serve everyone’s purposes — the clergyperson’s, the layperson’s, and certainly God’s.  They are as weak as the next person, although surely more literate and capable in many ways, and just as much in need of God’s grace.

Ubiquity

In all of us, there is weakness and inconsistency.  We have holes in our logic and gaps in our theology — and, most of all, hypocrisy in our lives’ ways and means.  We cannot save ourselves — not from current-time disillusionment or hopelessness, and not from the wrath to come.  We are weak, and we are insufficient, and this is the intended status quo, this side of eternity.

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Expertise

 qa

Expertise

or Using your training

Once in a while, infused into the study and practice of music from a cultivated tradition comes the practice of music more founded in the moment.  In other words, music based in popular, relatively ephemeral¹ styles may be blended with “classical” music. 

Such is the case in some public schools and universities near the Mexican border.  Mariachi music, a popular- and folk-based style, holds interest for some of these students who otherwise would not come in contact with it in an educational environment, given their studies in the “cultivated tradition.”  There are academically trained experts in the broader musical world who can teach and refine — even in a pop style such as mariachi — because of their understanding of the larger musical world.  What is the outgrowth of this merging of folk tradition and cultivated tradition?  Presumably, a more technically refined — and yet still culturally appropriate — brand of mariachi music.

 

Bear, to whom things are brought.
Bear, to whom things are brought.

Experience in the larger world of melody, harmony, and rhythm may lead to a certain amount of expertise in handling church music, too.  All other things being equal, the more decades of experience, the more likely the expertise may be helpful.  In the judicious merging styles and traditions in a local church context, technical refinement and accuracy may be brought to bear.  

Who needs refinement, you ask?  We all do.  Every church can benefit from refinement in terms of the elements of music.  A cappella churches could start with the simple, rhythmic synchronization that is frequently lacking.  All churches need help with harmony and melody; rhythm instruction is most necessary for churches that don’t use instruments.

Just stop, now.  Stop writing off what I’m saying as the useless musings of a musical purist.  I may be a purist in some respects, but the meat of what I’m is anything but esoteric or iconic; it is bound, to a significant extent, by natural, acoustical principles as well as to centuries of tradition.  Organized musical sounds are common to all of us.  One doesn’t just come in and change the basics, willy-nilly, without a loss of quality.  Speaking of which . . . merely skimming over the pages in 15 seconds, I can spot 4 musical errors in Hallal Music’s arrangement of Twila Paris’s “The Joy of the Lord,” and a dozen in Young’s original “Thomas’ Song” (and that doesn’t count the dubious punctuation in its title!).  Would that these arrangements had received review and technical help by someone with more training.

Such losses of quality come into the picture when

  • a song in the key of Eb is ignorantly, carelessly pitched in B
  • some well-meaning but unaware soprano soul sings tenor an octave higher
  • parallel octaves and fifths are used without knowledge or purpose
  • someone leads “You Are My All in All” without knowledge that the “Jesus, Lamb of God” part is supposed to start a beat before the “You are my strength when I am weak” part
  • etc.

This is why congregations — if they use music at all — needs as much musical expertise as is available.  Technically trained people who have expertise and experience in combinations of sounds ought to have input, if not “say-so.”  Ask questions, and discuss the range of possible answers.  Explore and apply.  It is insane to expect improvement if we continue in the same footsteps that yield mediocre or poor results.

Let us use our training — and, let the non-musical church leader take heed — let us use those who can use their training!  This employment of gifting/experience will help us move toward better, and better-feeling, offerings of musical worship and edification.

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¹ For some readers, the question of time-testedness may be raised.  Despite the ubiquity of “classic rock” stations and placing “oldies” in the category of  “songs that have stood the test of time,” there are styles and musical languages that are far more lasting than Glenn Miller, the Beatles, or the Eagles.  Could it be that the musical language of, say, Grieg or Mozart is understood by more people than the language of Kiss or the Doors or AC/DC?

MWM: tentacle music (pt 3)

This is the third installment of a mini-series in which I comment on a few songs and hymns that continue to lure me.   Some songs seem to have these friendly-octopus “tentacles”—pulling us toward them, time after time, without letting up over the years.  I’m commenting on these categories:

  1. contemporary (congregational) worship songs
  2. songs from hymnals
  3. other contemporary spiritual songs
  4. secular compositions

“In Christ Alone” and probably “How Deep the Father’s Love” deserve places in the first category – contemporary worship songs.  “Jesus Is Lord,” more of a category-2 song that started in category 1, is also time-tested, with broad appeal — at least until it fell out of use in the last ten years or so.  Here, now, is some commentary on some songs from category # 3.  Since most of these were conceived more as solo songs than as congregational ones, I’ll opt for the societal convention of speaking of them in terms of the solo singer.

Twila Paris sang “I Will Listen to His Voice” . . . and I listened to hers.  It’s not that I didn’t listen to His; the point, of course, was to listen to God more attentively and obediently.  It was Twila’s heart, coming through her voice, that caused me to hear the utterly trusting, creaturely, worshipful thoughts of this song.  Along with expressions of trusting dependence, Twila sings,

I don’t know the way to go from here,
But I know that have made my choice.
And this is where I stand
Until He moves me on,
And I will listen to His voice.

“I Will Listen to His Voice.”  © Ariose Music.
Words and Music by Twila Paris.

And then there was Rich Mullins, the benevolent ghost of Christian music past.  (Rich was tragically killed several years ago in an auto accident, and his memory has appropriately lived on.)  There’s the “submarine song” called “Screen Door,” and “Step by Step,” composed by Mullins’s friend and band member David “Beaker” Strasser.  Or what about “Awesome God”?  For me, though, “If I Stand” is the tentacle song:

If I stand, let me stand on the promise that You will pull me through.
And if I can’t, let me fall on the grace that first brought me to You.
If I sing, let me sing for the joy that has born in me these songs,
But if I weep, let it be as a man who is longing for his home.

Words and Music by Rich Mullins and Steven Cudworth.
© Universal Music Publishing Group.

Fernando Ortega’s music often rises to the level of “heart music”; as with these other singer/songwriters whose material I’ve highlighted here, there is much to choose from.  I like many of Ortega’s folkish arrangements of gospel songs and hymns, but not many of those keep grabbing me through the years.  I love his original “Jesus, King of Angels”; it probably draws me as much as the song I’ll name here as the best Ortega tentacle song:  “I Will Praise Him, Still,” which touches many sensitive hearts for good reason.

Michael Card has inspired me — so many times, in so many ways — that it’s difficult to know which of his creations to highlight.  I only know he deserves a place here.  Is it the well-remembered “El Shaddai” or the also-early “I Have Decided”?  What about the beautiful blessing “Barocha” or the heart-rending “Maranatha”?  Any number of the songs based on biblical texts/books are as artistically memorable as they are compelling:  “Jubilee” and “In the Beginning” and the Job trilogy and the prophetic voice of “I Will Bring You Home”?  Or “Joy in the Journey” or “Could It Be” (that has the line about questions telling us more than answers ever do)?  When it comes down to it, I can’t choose a Michael Card song.  There are too many that draw me over the years.

I was naturally disappointed when Jennifer Knapp departed from biblical morality, but one or two of her songs are in this “tentacle” category for me, as are some of Rebecca St. James’s and Michael W. Smith’s.  Smith, at least, is a songwriter with the creative talents of a Billy Joel or Paul Simon or Jimmy Webb, but Smith’s voice quality keeps me from dwelling in his music all that much.

I suppose I’m a “groupie” for some of the above musicians, virtually following them around through the years.  I haven’t named Glad, yet this group was perhaps the first “contemporary Christian” one that seemed to tap my shoulder, inviting, “Listen to this.  Share this music with us.”  So many of the songs from the original A Cappella Project album are worthy, and the Romans album is meaty, as well.  The Symphony Project was my favorite album for a while, and then there was Floodgates; “Mary, Mary” and “Hallelujah” and “When He Comes Again” are songs I return to at least once a year.  But if there is one Glad song I might choose to possess while marooned on a desert island, I think it’d be “Gloria” from the A Cappella Worship I album.  This song not only energizes me musically, but it spurs my heart to worship the great and mighty God.  It must be said here that worship, even more than music, reaches its arms out and holds me, too.

The above are “tentacle” songs that keep reaching out from the annals of “CCM” to grab me.  There will be one more list—presumably, in a week or two.

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

Twila over Paul

She’s still meaningful and trustworthy — and I doubt she was ever “crazy” — after all these years.

Funny story:  I know a couple of guys who were in a singing group, at an Arkansas Christian university, when Twila Paris, then unknown, presented a few of her songs to them.  As I heard it, the group laughed behind her back when she left, thinking she would come to nothing.  Later, many of her songs, such as “We Shall Assemble” and “How Beautiful” and “He Is Exalted” and “We Will Glorify,” became widely known and loved by believers of many stripes.  Twila isn’t the kind to enjoy a last laugh, but she deserves to have had it!

Like way too many other Christian believers, Twila Paris recently expressed overwrought, ramped-up concerns over temporal politics, but she is as sincere as the day is long, her character is un-impugned to my knowledege, and her songs point us Godward.

I happened on an old cassette a couple weeks ago — Twila’s Sanctuary album.  I put it on.  Now, call me a trained musician, and you’ll be right.  I was still bothered by her huffy-puffy, gasping, uninflected, monotonous vocal non-style … but I was just as impressed as ever by her sincerity and trustworthiness.  Would that more Christian “artists” today could write and sing such things, remaining with us for decades.

I wish we all and could live lives consistent with our worship yearnings.  “After all these years,” some may be “still crazy,” but it’s far better to be still worthy.

Contemporary worship music in a cappella churches (3)

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

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

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

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

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

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

MM: I Will Listen To His Voice

Twila Paris remains one of my favorites among “contemporary Christian artists” (oh, no … each of those words demands definition, but that’s not my point here). Few today would call her “contemporary,” but she has been a constant voice , with no scandal associated with her name, for many years. Here are some thoughts of hers that I return to every so often in my life:

I don’t know the way to go from here,
But I know that have made my choice.
And this is where I stand
Until He moves me on,
And I will listen to His voice.

I am impelled by that. It is at once human and divine to acknowledge lack of sight and knowledge, and to be resolved to stand, trust-filled, listening to God.

When there is nothing clear,
Nothing to see,
Still we believe
Jesus is very near.

Recently I nearly broke down, not being able to see, and not understanding. I must, in these times, “believe Jesus is very near.”

Could it be that He is only waiting there to see
If I will learn to love the dreams that He has dreamed for me?

That sounds a little fluffy, doesn’t it? But if we remove the soft connotation of the word “dreams,” isn’t this also an expression of trust . . . that I would imagine Jesus watching my life, my decisions, hoping, waiting for me to see things His way?

The tenor of this song is an expression of worship, in a way–saying, in faith, that we will stand and listen to Him because He is deity and we are not.

Consistent voices

Christendom has its share of struggles and scourges. There’s truly a lot to criticize (although not as much as the news media appears to believe).

But I find in contemporary Christian culture that there have been some consistent voices … voices that have spoken for more than a decade and have not succumbed to scandal. Voices whose messages have been sound and inspirational. No person should be idolized, and I’m no groupie, but I have retained a certain admiration for some of these folks and thought it would be worthwhile to mention them. Honor to whom honor is due. . . .

  • Twila Paris, worship songwriter (and, to a lesser extent, a singer) whose contemporary anthems and God-oriented songs have moved many for more than two decades
  • Michael Card, songwriter (and, again, to a lesser extent, a singer) who has a particular gift with reducing large-scope biblical messages into coherent, poignant song lyrics
  • Michael W. Smith, the now-legendary Christian songwriter who has an absolutely horrible voice but whom I find to have both a creative gift and a humble heart
  • Fernando Ortega, singer-songwriter whose earthy lyrics are as beautiful as they are Godly
  • Bob Kauflin, known primarily a songwriter for Glad and other groups, but who also does steady, local church work in Maryland (his “I Stand In Awe,” by the way, has been corruptly dumbed-down by many a cappella churches)
  • Rich Mullins, who perished while driving in the Heartland some 10-or-so years ago, whose songs and mission with Native Americans were equally well-conceived
  • Graham Kendrick, a British songwriter who’s been “around,” having been part of the British worship renewal that began more than 20 years ago
  • Max Lucado, whose writings have probably touched millions … I haven’t kept up with the last 5 or 6 books but have been inspired many times in the past
  • and I should surely name Billy Graham, despite my disagreements with his soteriology … the man had/has character

I claim no personal knowledge of these people’s lives but have never heard them ill spoken of, and have a fair amount of experience with many of their works through the years. They seem sincerely enagaged in Kingdom work to me.

Would anyone care to add to the list?