Thursday, April 29, 2010

This Sunday - the hymns!!!!!

Five exclamation points in today's title. That's how many appear in this week's hymn titles. If that doesn't tell you how to sing them, I don't know what does.

We haven't run out of Easter hymns yet, and this Sunday we're singing two of my favorites: "Hallelujah! Jesus Lives!" and "Alleluia! Jesus is Risen!" They're great pieces of music, of course, upbeat hymns of praise. I was also thinking, though, that it's their scarcity that adds to their value. (Somedays my economic and finance training interact with my music.)

There are no malls playing these hymns as part of their background music. No rock artists record albums with these tunes. No dogs will ever bark these tunes. Chances are you hear them only once or twice a year at church, yet I bet most people have at least the first verse memorized and instantly recognize the hymn from just the first few measures of the introduction. Don't those facts speak strongly of the power of music in general, as well as the educational power of church music?

While writing this post, I had fun imagining the new release of Bob Dylan's Easter album (just as horrific a train wreck as his Christmas album), and thinking how much I would love to hear Renee Fleming's performance of them. What singer or group would record your dream album of Easter hymns? What tune would be the first track?

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

He's baa-aack

Where has your church music blogger been?

Well, quite frankly I was burned out from Lent and Easter. I've been busy and tired with schoolwork as we near the end of the semester. And I've been wondering about the value of my blog.

I heard once that almost anyone could write a newspaper column for a few weeks. Everyone has a great story or two to tell. The daily grind can become drudgery, however, and I found myslef with less to say for a bit.

I've heard from some readers encouraging me to write, though, and I've been feeling more refreshed and inspired. In particular, it was an episode of "Glee" that reminded me of the power of music. Fans of the show might think it was the Madonna-themed episode with its production numbers. The moment of inspiration, however, was the quiet duet of Lionel Richie's "Hello." It reminded me of the intimacy, connection, and communication that takes place when music is performed superbly by musicians in perfect harmony.

Church organ music is a much less intimate experience than accompanying recitals, performances, or even musical theatre. In those settings, the performers collaborate and give back to the keyboardist so that everyone involved is providing support and encouragement for an excellent performance. I realized that among the motivations for my blog was to have another outlet for connection and conversation about church music, a chance to come out from behind the altar to talk about music.

So I'm back...hopefully without having lost or offended too many of my readers. I truly want to encourage your comments and dialogue. I'm thinking about some upcoming projects and revamps to the blog and to my music, and I hope that you will feel my renewed energy and join in wholeheartedly in the ongoing music and ministry at Bethany.

In the meantime, what tune is it that revives your spirit? Not a church hymn, but an anthem of your own. Lately, mine has been "My Life Would Suck Without You" (the Glee cast version). It has helped me push the pace when I'm out for a run; it's been getting me out of bed in the morning; and it's inspiring me to keep blogging. I'd love to hear about the music that's doing the same for you.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Spring, Easter, and a brief harangue

Easter continues! Who doesn't love the season of spring? My drive to church gets greener every day, and the sun is up when I leave home now. Plus, we get to sing Easter hymns week after week, and those are some of the greatest and most popular hymns.

But why don't we sing them at the top of our lungs? Why, in particular, do congregations always sound so timid about the high E-flat at the end of "Christ is Risen! Alleluia!"? The title has two exclamation points in it, and it was our closing hymn. On a sunny morning, it should have been a chance to sing loud and proud.

Musicians often face the question of quantity versus quality. I grew up singing Boy Scout camp songs, and I sided with quality, asking people to do their best to carry the tune properly. I still do love good music, but I've come to think of quality as people singing their personal best. In so many settings, and especially for a congregational hymn, the blending of voices creates its own beauty and quality that transcends the individual voices.

Besides, we sing an E-flat every week at the high point of the liturgy (the sanctus or "Holy, Holy, Holy"). When we sing "The Star Spangled Banner" we typically hold an even higher note for an even longer time for the text " of the free-ee-ee."

Is it a Lutheran trait? A mid-western trait? Or perhaps a Cleveland self-effacing attitude? Maybe we've all heard the lesson about not praying too loudly in church one too many times. Instead, let's focus on not hiding our light under a barrel. Let's sing joyfully, loudly, to the best of our ability. Don't be afraid of the hymns, but embrace our congregational sound - especially during the season of Easter!

Monday, April 5, 2010

Church 2.0

What is the future of the church?

I find that question to be particularly apt in the days following Easter. The disciples and followers of Christ must have asked themselves the same question two millenia ago. The faithful have asked themselves the same thing at many points - from persecution in Rome, through schisms and Reformations, to the discovery of new worlds, through multiple wars and clashes of faith, and in the face of skepticism and atheism.

One of the difficulties of answering the question is that the status quo is always so comfortable, and rabble rousers are so rarely welcome. At one point in my life, I was the executive director of a children's theatre company in which artistic criticism was not always welcome. There were volunteers and board members who simply wanted to say nothing but good things about every child and every show.

But that attitude is counter-productive. People eventually notice that the emperor isn't wearing any clothes. In the setting of a theatre or a church, they may not speak up to voice criticism, but they may simply stop volunteering, stop participating, stop attending. How can we continue to reach out?

Does the answer lie online? My little effort here is a bit of an experiment, and the Pope famously urged priests to join Facebook last year. CNN recently ran this story on a pastor whose sermons often reach the President. But the web can never supplant every aspect of church - especially the sense of community, voices raised together in song and prayer. So perhaps this is only one tool in a multi-pronged effort.

But as every theatre troupe knows, a group that is not growing is dying. So what do we do and where is our future? A good question to ponder this week, in historical context and for our own congregations.

Friday, April 2, 2010

Easter music

This Sunday marks a huge musical transition. The minor key Lenten music will be swept away for the joyous tunes of Easter. We will have a brass quartet enhancing much of our music, as well. We will be hearing and singing the music of triumph at this climax of the Passion narrative.

To write about the hymns we all know so well seems almost superfluous. We'll be singing "Jesus Christ is Risen Today" and "Christ is Alive, Let Christians Sing!" I hope that we'll have a full church with everyone singing loudly and proudly. I know most of us in the Cleveland area have been in a great mood this week thanks to the warm weather, and I hope that boisterous mood suffuses our worship as well.

I would like to draw your attention to the prelude, because our guest French horn player Jon will be playing Strauss's "Nocturno." It is a common piece in the horn repertoire, and it's loved for its beautifully flowing melody. I think it will serve as a nice transition from Holy Week to the triumphal march of our processional hymn.

I know the church will be full of beautiful flowers. (Sitting up front is even better because you can smell all of the fragrant lilies and hyacinth!) I hope everyone has a wonderful holiday - Alleluia!