Friday, September 30, 2011

A Hymn Singing Tradition

There are very few places where people get together and sing anymore. Church is perhaps the only place left in America where this still happens consistently.
When I first came to the States, I was struck by the silence at sporting events. In the UK, crowds sing and chant together--often unrepeatable versions of popular songs--but over here, there are cheerleaders who do most of the cheering on behalf of the crowd. Even during the national anthem most folk stand silently clutching their ball caps.  When did Americans stop singing their own national anthem at public events? Is it a misplaced mark of respect? Is it because it has become a performance by the diva on the field rather than a community coming together in song?
All I know is it wouldn't happen in Wales!
In Wales they sing their national anthem. Here is a fine example of congregational singing outside of a church context:
A Welsh Apostolic Pentecostal Missionary once complained to me that if you get a welshman drunk, he starts singing hymns but you'll never get him to go to chapel. They will sing hymns when led by Tom Jones:

They will also break into CWM RHONDDA spontaneously when they get excited:

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Congregational singing by any means necessary

In my response to comments on my last blog post I wrote: I am neither a luddite nor a purist -- I am not arguing against technology nor for a certain repertoire. I am the Malcolm X of worship music: congregational singing by any means necessary!
In my work on congregational singing (both academic and practical) I want to avoid the sad and absurd situation that afflicts so many churches: internal division over musical tastes. The idea that folks fight pitched battles over music genres and traditions, choice of instruments and equipment etc. would be farcical if it were not so tragic.

A horn section and a medieval church.
I believe that many of these problems result from people loosing sight of the simple fact that the purpose is to enable a group of people to sing together. This is not to trivialize this act of worship. I believe this simple act of singing together is actually a profound spiritual activity. I argue elsewhere that singing together is a constitutive practice and discipline of the Church, by which I mean the act of singing together is one of the things we do which makes us who we are and that we should do it. Lets start all our discussions and worship planning, all our song writing and hymn choosing with this simple question: how can we get people to sing together?

This is why I don't care what means you use. You can use a pipe organ, an electric guitar, digereedoo or a symphony orchestra--it doesn't matter to me. You can sing Palestrina or Chris Tomlin, Handel or Kirk Franklin-- I don't care a hoot. I have been involved in all kinds of church music over the course of my life and to suggest there is "a right way" to do it goes against all of my experience (I have included a couple of examples for your amusement).

If we ask, "how can we get people to sing together?" The answer will not be monolithic. The answer will change with the skills of the musicians and the availability of instruments (or no instruments). The solution will be different as you move from one congregation to another; one worship space to another; one service to another.

It is important to realize I am not talking about all the music that happens in and around church. We have choral anthems and solos, instrumental pieces for meditation and prayer, concerts of sacred music and CCM artists. All of these bring glory to God and have their own internal logic that governs the performance aesthetic. I am not talking about all music -- I am only talking about congregational singing.

In this blog I am reporting on one experiment in leading congregational singing. I do not mean for  Red Team  (currently playing acoustic music in a white mid-western Methodist church) to be in anyway normative for other church musicians. I doubt there will be many other groups and congregations that will lead singing with a tuba, accordion and guitar combo! This is what happened last Sunday (with random percussion from my 5-year old).
Red Team - I Hunger and I Thirst  (Click to listen)
But I think the question we are asking--how do we unite a community of dissimilar people in singing God's praise?-- is (or should be) normative for congregational singing.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

St. Augustine and Sound Reinforcement

It has been a few weeks since my last post and Red Team has continued with the mic-less experiment. The new semester is also well under way and I am teaching a course on the history of christian worship. Inevitably, I am drawing comparisons between contemporary worship practices and the description of older practices.

Something I will be researching and writing much more about is the movement in American Protestant churches to model (or re-model) their sanctuaries as concert venues. Consider this example of a church in Alabama.
The worship center was originally part of the First Baptist Church's campus in the heart of Bessemer, Alabama. The room was a stylistically traditional facility with a typical stage, choir loft, organ and bacony [sic]. Ricky Todd, worship pastor, expressed concerns early into the project about the traditional nature of both the acoustics and the unusually high ambient light levels due to the 20-foot tall windows running down either side of the facility. . . In late 2006 The Foundry pressed forward with the complete renovation of the facility's interior.
The renovation included the instillation of theater lighting, a complex sound system and state of the art video and projection equipment (hence the concern over the "unusually high ambient light levels"). It also included "acoustical materials that were installed on the side walls and the balcony face, as well as the materials that would be suspended overhead" to remove those troublesome "traditional acoustics" (acoustics which were designed to naturally enhance a congregation's singing but which prove too live and unruly for an amplified rock band).

"Their desire," the article explains "was to transform the space into a uniquely modern, multi-functional venue." Now, since remodeling, the building "has successfully hosted a number of concerts and community events, as well as their regularly scheduled Thursday and Sunday night worship services." What I want to draw attention to is the implicit assumption that the physical and technical properties of a concert venue is the same as a sanctuary. The two are now interchangeable.

While most small to mid-sized churches cannot afford this sort of renovation, many aspire to it. My guess is that this concert venue aesthetic only really started making inroads into regular sanctuaries in the last 15 years. What this means is that there is a new generation of Christians who have very different expectations for Sunday morning worship than their parents. Just consider the change in congregational singing. Most people focus on the change in repertoire, but in this post I want to think about volume.