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 BITS OF USELESS INFORMATION

I have to stand on my soap box for this blog post.  Something has bugged me for more years than I can count & I’ve never had a chance to vent.

By the time I took a church music course at university I already had quite a few notches in my belt playing in various churches.  I was exposed to music from high Anglican psalmody and standard United church hymns to gospel tunes with lots of arpeggios.    I didn’t have opportunities to hear the gorgeous music of the Renaissance or some of the lush tunes of the late English Romantics.  Saint John wasn’t exactly a mecca of great liturgical music in the final decades of the 20th century.   But I did experience choirs, many choirs with all types of abilities.

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I was eager to discover and learn about the glorious world of sacred choral music.  So I signed up for the church music course at university.  It was for an entire year. From September to December we spent our hours examining in great detail the history of early chant. Pérotin and Léonin, two composers who worked and wrote for Notre Dame Cathedral in the late 12th and 13th centuries were my diet for almost three months.  We didn’t even look at Hildegard von Bingen.  We played drop the needle on LPR.  (Long play records for those young pups who have no idea what I am talking about.) So who wrote it? the prof asked. That’s easy! (Duh. only 2 composers to choose from!) Which chant?  Not hard either once you memorized the various texts.

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Do you want to know how many times I have conducted these composers in church?  NONE!  I’ve led chant in many churches where I’ve had to read chant notation.  I’ve improvised accompaniment for all types of plainsong when choristers and congregation needed support or the pitch would descend from d minor into a key that hasn’t been discovered yet.  But NEVER did  Pérotin and Léonin make it in the church bulletin.

The second half of the course was to be devoted to music from the Renaissance to the 20th Century.  I couldn’t wait!  Finally, music I could use. Nope!  We touched briefly on music by Thomas Tallis, like one tune. I think a piece by William Byrd also made its appearance and that was one movement from one of his masses.  Classical church music?  Forget that! We talked about Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis albeit briefly & Franz Joseph Haydn’s masses got a day.  But even these pieces are not really church music that you can programme, except of course in concert. Romantic music got a nod and then 20th century music came up.  Don’t get me wrong.  The concerts that I go to most often and the music that I love is by living composers.  I am interested in what they have to say and how they say it. But the pieces that we studied were not tunes that would ever be sung in any church that I played in or attended.   Gorecki, John Tavener, Arvo Part, even Ruth Watson Henderson and Stephen  Hatfield etc didn’t make the cut in this course.doh

I’m still standing on my soap box here people,  So a course of church music which I could never use!  I was 20 years old.  What I wanted to know was repertoire that worked in the church year.  What do you do if you gig in an evangelical church?  Who are the composers that are bearable with lyrics that aren’t too trite?  If you are lucky enough to get a good organ and a choir that really has the chops, what are the pieces that work?  What do you do if you have a bass that is tone deaf? An alto that IS deaf?  A soprano that is no where near the note but loves to sing?  What are pieces that work for kids as young as 3 and as old as 16?  How do you work with soloists that are at either end of the spectrum in ability and age?  I now know the answers to many of these questions.  It was through trial and error, reading, listening, asking questions to those that know much more than I do and attending some workshops.  But let’s give our students a bit of help here.  Introduce them to good music!  Put it in a historical context but also give them tools to survive in the reality of today’s church so they can hopefully flourish and build decent music programmes.  For many students, it is their one opportunity to get inspired in a rich repertoire. Teachers, give them a kick-start into their church music journey.

I’ll step down now.  Thank you for letting me vent.

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Changing Times

Riding the subway the other morning, a woman plopped herself down next to me and proceeded to take out her make-up bag.  She then applied every conceivable potion that Revlon sells from dark circle concealer, to foundation & blush.

When the eye brow teasers were removed from her bag of magic tricks I really became squeamish.   The subway was packed with no vacant seats.  Besides, it was a 45 minute commute.  It took great will power for me not to blurt out that grooming is a personal matter but I had my self censor button firmly pressed. I proceeded to get more steamed as my station neared.  The men didn’t seem to notice or pretended not to.  She was getting a few raised eyebrows from the women who weren’t botoxed & could still grimace, but no one said a thing.  NOT ONE WORD.  Is it because the bar has fallen so low on socially accepted behaviour that no one cares anymore?  Or is it because of my age and the rules & norms that I grew up with are not applicable to a younger demographic?

This brings me to church behaviour because I spend almost as much time in churches as I do on city transit. 

I  always wore a dress to church even on the most bitter Canadian winter days except for one particularly cold morning about 25 years ago.  The wind was howling and it felt like minus 1000 when waiting for the bus to take me to my church gig.  I put on trousers thinking it was the sensible thing to do.  I figured I’d be robed & at the organ bench so who would know?  That Sunday,  the organ broke down (see previous posts on my bad luck with church organs) & I had to make my way to the piano.  I was self-conscious standing in front of everyone in my pants thinking that the congregation would assume I had a first class ticket to hell.

Fast forward a number of years.

One Sunday morning when I wasn’t playing the organ I found myself in a pew supporting a clergy friend of mine.  I was sitting in front of an elderly retired priest who always attended church in full black clericals .  During communion people were  making their way up the aisle to receive the elements.  My head was lowered and I heard an audible gasp &  the words,  “My Lord, saints preserve us!”  I looked up and there were 2 people of ample proportions dressed in lime green exercise tights that were about 3 sizes too small, left nothing to the imagination, and red sweat shirts that hadn’t seen the inside of a washing machine in quite some time.  I had to stifle a laugh.  Not because of how these people were dressed because frankly, I didn’t care.  The days of wearing dresses and gloves had long passed, but I was amused at the priest’s reaction.  For him, it clearly wasn’t what he had been accustomed to seeing when he had spent his days in the pulpit.

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Then there was the choir member whose Sunday morning ritual involved clipping his nails during the sermon.  His wife was the choir director.  Why she didn’t say anything to him, I’ll never know.   But I do know for a fact it drove the clergy crazy.

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Now it is all about Social Media.  I listened to a radio documentary fairly recently where ministers of hip churches, especially in Calgary, discussed the benefits of using Twitter in the actual church service.  Their enthusiasm for immediate connection to their congregation could only have been surpassed if they were announcing the Second Coming.     What was interesting to me, was that a few weeks before I heard this radio doc,  I witnessed an elderly woman tearing a strip of a young person for using their IPhone  during the service.    I started to think, do we need to get with the programme and expect our seniors to do the same or have we somehow lost a sense of being still and taking time to be holy?

Check out a few of these articles for various thoughts on this topic.  Please let me know what you think the role Social Media should play in an actual service.

http://www.catholiceducation.org/articles/religion/re0065.html

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/08/19/phones-in-church_n_3781132.html?utm_hp_ref=religion

http://news.cnet.com/8301-17852_3-57593128-71/one-in-five-americans-use-phones-in-church/

St. Jude or Kenny Rogers?

imagesWhat to do?  I think we all ask that question at various times in our lives, whether it be about our relationships or jobs. I know I have wrestled with that conundrum.   Is this job or friendship worth the grief?  Do I keep plugging away even though the energy required to keep it working seems lopsided?  Can this situation be turned around?  Do I keep hoping and invoking St. Jude (The Patron Saint of Loss Causes) to some how make it work?

Just Google quotes on hope and you’ll find words, lots of words from saints & presidents and leaders of major corporations, to those that are anonymous armchair philosophers.   Depending on your mood and point of view on any given day, these quotes will strike you as words of wisdom or simply platitudes that have no heft.  Where there is hope there is a chance to things to turn around.  If you don’t have a dream, you have no hope or vision.  Sow hope in despair.  With faith all things are possible.Kenny+Rogers++The+First+Edition+keeny+rogers

Then there are the words of Kenny Rogers.

“You’ve got to know when to hold ’em. Know when to fold ’em.
Know when to walk away.  Know when to run.”

I am not a card-carrying member of  the Kenny Rogers fan club.  Truth be told I have umpteen recordings of Bach and none of Kenny.  But the lyrics to ‘The Gambler’ actually did give me inspiration to leave a lucrative music gig.  I was struggling with a decision of whether or not to give up a church job that looked great on paper. Seriously, it had everything on my wish list but for reasons that will probably appear on another blog post I was unhappy and needed to fold, walk away and run.   Which I did.

This brings me to bishops, clergy and congregations asking the same question.  What to do?  They are dealing with the hard realities of diminishing congregations .   628x471I played the organ for one church’s deconsecration service and have attended others.  It doesn’t matter the denomination, Baptist, United or Anglican.  In one month I played for congregations of 8, 40 and 200.     It has been a very long time since I have seen a packed church, other than for a choir concert or funeral.  Many people simply don’t go any more. There are other things to do on a Sunday morning from going for walks in the park to updating Facebook statuses.  For some people, the doctrine that one grew up with seems outdated like Mr. Roger’s sweater. 

 

I admire clergy that continue to preach to their congregations with enthusiasm, regardless of the size.  I admire the parishioners that attend Sunday worship and feel that church is important and has a place in their spiritual journey.   For many that attend it is because they want to be part of  a loving, supportive community.   I believe that Christianity still has relevance in this contemporary world.  The question is – How do we re-imagine our churches so that they can be relevant in people’s lives?  Churches may never pack them in like they did 50 years ago, or like you see in episodes of The Simpsons.  But I think that the church is people, not buildings.   That for St. Jude, people are not a lost cause.  Buildings sometimes are and that’s when Kenny Rogers comes in.

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Gory, Gross & Grim

horse-yuck-copy I am a vegetarian and someone who hurls at the first sign of blood so I would not be on your speed dial in a health emergency. My aversion to any and all bloody images is visceral.  As I student I worked for several  years in a fast food  joint. My compadres would rush me out of the kitchen if someone cut their fingers while cleaning chicken guts.  They didn’t want to have to clean up two messes.   This phobia of mine poses a problem as a supply organist as it isn’t my place to make editorial asides on the clergy’s bad hymn choices.  I can and do hold my nose and pound out the ‘insipid ‘In the Garden’ , which I refer to as the Andy song. (And he walks with me.  And he talks with me).  I’ll think of my cheque as I plow through the down right comical ‘A Little Less of Me’(The word ‘me’ occurs 16 times not counting all of the repeats and the ‘I’s’.  Score zilch for God or Jesus.)

Let me be a little kinder let me be a little blinder
To the faults of those about me let me praise a little more
Let me be when I am weary just a little bit more cheery
Think a little more of others and a little less of me

Let me be a little braver when temptation bits me waver
Let me strive a little harder to be all that I should be
Let me be a little meeker with the brother that is weaker
Let me think more of my neighbors and a little less of me
Let me be when I am weary just a little bit more cheery
Let me serve a little better those that I am striving for
Let me be a little meeker with the brother that is weaker
Think a little more of others and a little less of me.

The church hymnal supplement ‘Songs for a Gospel People’  has some truly horrible tunes and lyrics.  The popular41T3vceHAcL  ‘Family of God’ is one such gross out hymn.  “I’m so glad I’m a part of the Family of God,
I’ve been washed in the fountain, cleansed by His blood!”
There it is – ‘washed in the fountain, cleansed by his blood.’  Yes, I know why hymn writers pen these lyrics, atonement and all of that stuff, but it doesn’t  mean I have to like them! I’ve played both of these gory hymns in 3 denominations, ‘There is a Fountain Filled with Blood’  and ‘Are you Washed in the Blood’.  Proving yet again that bad taste crosses all theological chasms. 

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So clergy friends, if I happen to supply for you one Sunday in the future, please, I beg of you. keep the bloody references for another day.  I need  all of my intestinal fortitude to get through the communion images.

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Thank you to my Facebook friends who have offered some of their suggestions!  Let’s get a list going people!  Hymns that should be banned.

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http://www.puritanboard.com/f67/questionable-hymns-54739/

http://www.catholic.com/magazine/articles/bad-poetry-bad-theology

http://www.christianforums.com/t3120506/

Yes, shorter is often better!

I have listened to well over a 1000 sermons in my day, delivered by at least 100 clergy from all denominations.  Many of these sermons have one thing in common. They are too long!  This cliché is true.  A sermon should be like a hem, long enough to cover the topic and short enough to keep it interesting.

When I was a little girl, if I wasn’t singing in the choir, I would sit with my grandfather in the last pew on the aisle, for a quick get away after the service.    The service would start at 11 am, with the expectation that by noon you would be on your way.  Sometimes, the sermon would go on for so long, that my grandfather would tap his watch to make sure it was working or hold it up to his ear.  On the walk home he would say to me, “He certainly  likes to hear the sound of his own voice.”

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Aural memory is the shortest type of memory.  Clergy, if you have too many points, or take to long to cover your topic, you have lost the congregation. People will tune out and think about supper plans, or other activities they would rather do on a Sunday morning that might be a little more fun!  Intro, 3 points, and extro usually does the trick.

During one service, I actually fell asleep.  The sun was streaming in the stain glass window and I was wrapped in a comfy down coat.  The cadence of the preacher’s voice was like white noise.  It was the shuffling of feet getting ready to sing the closing hymn that brought me around.  I only hoped I wasn’t talking in my sleep or snoring.

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One minister told me, and he is one of the best homilist that I know, the following true story.   He was walking back from the parish hall after the ‘meet and greet’ that follows the service, to pick up his coat in the office.  He peeked into the sanctuary and saw *Jack  (not his real name) on his knees.  Concerned, he approached after a bit when he realized that Jack wasn’t praying.  “Is everything ok?” he asked.  “Well Father,  I am looking for my hearing aid.  I always take it out during the sermon.”  A humbling moment to be sure!

I frequently practice at a church in the neighborhood where I run into the parishioners that poke their head in to see what I am up to.  After pleasantries, they always tell me their priest goes on for 40 minutes.  They are old, tired, they have to go to the toilet and their bums hurt from sitting too long.  They have asked him to keep it short, but alas, he says, I can preach as long as I want to.   I have even heard two clergy wives complain about the length of their husbands sermons, with their partners in the room.   So it isn’t just me, an organist for hire that has these observations.

One more thing.  Don’t end your sermon with a salad.   ‘Let us pray … Let us go forth….

Clergy, keep them wanting more so they will comeback next week.

Do you have stories where you wanted to edit the sermon?  Please share.

The perils of a wireless mic!

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Having spent over 20 years as a radio music producer, I am very aware of the golden rule.  NEVER say anything in front of a mic that you wouldn’t want your grandmother to hear.  ALWAYS assume the mic is on, even if you are in the studio by yourself.    Every faux pas is embellished in the retelling and echoes in the halls of a broadcasting building for decades.

Most churches built from the 1950s to the present day resemble God’s living room.  Flying buttresses and domed apses have given way to auditoriums or less grand buildings where the floors are carpeted and the pews cushioned.  A large video screen is given more prominence than a cross or altar.  Because the acoustics are so poor in many contemporary churches, and the aging congregations are suffering hearing loss, clergy have to equip themselves with wireless mics like the type that pop stars wear.

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Most clergy have never been trained in mic usage.  They don’t have a producer on the other side of the glass to double-check their mic to see if it is on or off at the appropriate moment.

One particular Sunday, I was supplying for a congregation that was larger than usual because of confirmation.  There were friends and family members of the confirmation candidates and of course, the bishop was presiding.  During the playing of my fancy pants prelude, I heard voices.  Not the normal din of a congregation that chats away instead of praying or listening, but a full-fledged animated conversation.  My attention was diverted from my Bach to the details of a cocktail party that was being held later in the day.  My heart stopped when I realized it was the bishop and the rector.  Knowing both of them rather well, and their sense of humour and enjoyment of fine scotch, I stopped playing midstream, started a coughing fit so I could run out and boot it down the back stairs with my gown flying behind me.  I think it took all of 15 seconds before I made it to the rector’s study.  As I continued to cough to cover their conversation, I ran up, frisked them, and turned their mics off.     During the procession, I think both the clergy and rector matched their red vestments.

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Another Sunday, at yet another church, after the opening hymn, and lighting of the Christ candle, the Youth Pastor started in on his children’s talk.  You know the one, where the conversation is tailored more for the adults and the children are just anxious to escape and work on their crafts.  The Senior Pastor got up from his chair and went out the side door.  About a minute later I heard, and so did everyone else in the sanctuary, the unmistakable sounds of someone taking a whiz and then the toilet flushing.  I have a very loud laugh as anyone who knows me can attest to.  I think I broke something inside trying to hold it together as I was hoping I’d also hear his hands being washed.

So my clergy friends, unless you would rather your organist didn’t launch into Handel’s Water music as the Postlude, ALWAYS check your mics.

Do you have some mic stories you’d like to share.  Feel free to change the name!