In March, I had a chance to attend a conference about singing in the church. I wrote my personal impressions while I was still there, but now I’d like to talk about a few of the things I learned. The following is not just for those who work as musicians in the church. If you go to church, if you have ever gone to church, if you have ever faced a moment when you had to sing in a group and were uncomfortable, if anywhere in your life someone made you feel like you couldn’t take part in something just because you weren’t “trained”, please keep reading. I think you will relate to some of the things I had a chance to learn…things I learned about the ways in which we as classical musicians let our assumptions about making music get in the way of being the kind of inclusive group that the music we make begs us to be.
One of the highlights of the conference was a Big Sing with John Bell . A big sing is kind of like a hymn sing interspersed with sermon and commentary, not a concert, not a rehearsal, but, as we would have said back in the ’70’s — a happening. He said many memorable things as always. But this is the one that really stuck in my mind:
Personally, I consider music reading a kind of a fetish. 70% of the world just doesn’t do it. But for those of you whose mothers slaved to give you music lessons, the song we are about to sing is on page 3 of the handout.
There was a lot of talk about world music and how music is made in cultures other than our own, Western European-based musical culture, especially in the break-out session with composer and musician Tony Alonso …a session where we talked specifically about having an inclusive music program in a church where different cultural groups worship together and separately. We talked about the mistakes we make as classically trained musicians, and in general the mistakes we make (and how we fail at being inclusive) when we represent that larger or more dominant group in a congregation.
I am very ashamed to admit that, at my church, we make all these mistakes, despite our good intentions. And that was the point of the seminar, after all — to give us a chance to see and understand the limitations in our perspective created by our training. Because these mistaken assumptions on our part not only exclude people for whom Western musical tradition is not the primary tradition, they also exclude any one who does not already consider themselves a trained musician according to the standards of our culture.
Let’s take a moment and look at the kind of beliefs I’m talking about.
The first one relates directly to the quote from John Bell above. As a classical musician, I am trained to believe that the musical score contains the composer’s intent and MUST be adhered to, if you are to bring music to life in the room. But this is simply not the only truth of music and actually not the dominant truth of music. Many other musical traditions prize improvisation; if there is a score at all, it is a blue print not the final word. And in even more musical traditions, in fact in most traditions, music is passed from person to person, from generation to generation, and is NEVER WRITTEN DOWN. Music, in those cultures is personal, not intellectual. It seems obvious, but as a classically trained musician, I know that I often forget this reality. In South Africa, a composer stands up to create…the music comes from the body and the soul, not through harmony and counterpoint and intellect to the page. In many churches, we are bound by the hymnal in the pew — we do not deviate from it, we do not include other music…sometimes in our laziness we even use it for moments with the choir. And yet, the first fully interlinear hymnal (a hymnal in which words and music were printed as we see them today, inserted beneath the line of music you sing, and the music contained standard four-part harmonic notation) was only printed in 1956 — that’s right, 1956– the Baptist Hymnal of 1956. See, it isn’t really so radical to print the text in the bulletin without the score and then teach the tune to the congregation.
Another mistake, or assumption, that we make as classically trained musicians is the belief that harmony and melody are the dominant features of music. Again, this is not true in many cultures where rhythm dominates. This leads into another assumption: that vocal timbre should be pure and choral sound should be well-blended. I’m not suggesting that we sing the Bach Mass in B minor in pure chest voice, but we should not carry our vocal assumptions to music from other cultures. In many cultures, raspiness and distinctive sound are highly valued and considered moving. If I’m singing Siyahamba, I’m not going to spare the chest voice and I’m not going to worry about the scoop to the high note. Some people around me might be offended, but that is what I’m going to do because it is IN the music, if not on the page.
The next assumption is so rooted in the Western philosophical system that it almost made me laugh when I first heard it: we assume that the superior musical form is linear. Let’s go back to the example of Siyahamba: if you choose that item from your hymnal for inclusion in worship on a given Sunday, what is the first question you are likely to hear? “How many times will we sing it?” And, if you have people in your midst that don’t see the purpose of world music in worship, the next criticism or complaint you will hear is “but it is so repetitive”. Again, in our culture, we prefer the linear; but in many places in this world, places where they also worship and sing, the cyclical form is superior to the linear. The repetitive chorus that can be carried away in your heart and your soul can heal, it can cheer, it can work its simple magic in a way that a 6-stanza didactic hymn cannot. A so-called repetitive song allows us to make what is new to us old and familiar because the repetition is immediate, so that singing “Come Bring Your Burdens to God” can quickly become as meaningful and familiar as singing an old, more complicated song, like “It is Well with My Soul”, a song worn into our being by years of repetition.
Finally, and maybe the biggest mistake on this list is the most exclusive of all: the belief, in our culture, that the “musicians” are the ones with a particular talent and that they are better at it because they have training to use that talent. This belief is an extension of the modern belief that there are “performers” and there are “listeners”; regrettably this model has extended to our churches and our worship services. In so many cultures of this earth, the assumption is that EVERYONE SINGS; that singing is like breathing. If a song starts up, everyone is invited; everyone belongs when the music plays, no one stands back and judges the quality of an individual’s contribution.
This is not the truth of my church, I am sorry to say. I have watched for years now as the music program has failed to include more people; I have watched people come for a while and then leave; I have puzzled and wondered what to do to change this fact. In our sadness, we say to ourselves that people just don’t want to make the committment. It is not that we have not tried, but we are always busy inviting people to join us in “our way” of making music. And there lies the big mistake: “our way”.
I personally (and my fellow section leaders) can be as humanly welcoming and encouraging as I can possibly be, but it will not change anything if the program is not itself welcoming and inclusive, if we don’t spend time listening and learning more about how others relate to music.
Don’t misunderstand: I believe in excellence, I believe in providing beautiful, soul-filled music for public worship. I believe in making music as an expression of my faith, using all my musical skills and training. But I also believe that it is not enough to have a music program that satisfies the performers and those already dedicated to the belief that it is their job to listen while the professionals work.
In our programming and our daily working, in my musical church world, we are guilty of each and every one of these assumptions. And, when we fail to move past these assumptions, we fail to use the power of music to convey its most powerful message: that music is the very best language with which to convey the message and the meaning that we are all One Body in Christ. When you sing something from another land, from another tradition, or when you fully sing anything, you have the opportunity to feel your participation in the Body of Christ at a wholly different level of comprehension, you physically feel part of the Body.
I am not suggesting that we start a praise band or that we even drastically change the format of what we do. I am suggesting that we open our arms and our ears and invite the world in to teach us a few things…that we find ways to let everyone’s song be heard and experienced. Our way is not the only way and it may not be the most worshipful way, at least not every single day.
As a music staff, we made beautiful and moving music during Holy Week. I know that because I felt it, and because so many people who often have nothing to say about the music on a weekly basis went out of their way to tell me that the music was wonderful. But it was all music that we made for others to listen to…oh yes, there were familiar hymns for all to sing, but we were definitely performers and listeners on that day.
As we move into the Easter season and walk towards Pentecost, I’m going to hold in my heart the hope that we can begin to figure out how to step away from these assumptions and begin to offer something to those who simply want to make a joyful noise unto the Lord…because I love it when I hear the congregation sing. It is a more beautiful sound that any person can ever make by themselves…that sound of hundreds with their voices lifted up in worship to God, in the full knowledge that they too are part of the One Body and the One Song.