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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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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/