Monday, June 9, 2008

Teach your children well

I love to sing.

Always have, from my earliest memories. I credit my parents with a big piece of this. Neither of them has any training as a singer. They sing like most people sing: sometimes a little off-key, sometimes with an uneven tone, never with a well-developed technique. I remember a number of occasions in church when Mom would give Dad an elbow to the ribs because he was singing lustily and in a key just slightly southwest of the rest of the congregation. Dad, bless him, didn't care a bit. He sang for all he was worth.

Mom used to wander around the house, singing and whistling as she worked (sometimes simultaneously!). She'd take popular songs and make up nonsense words to them, which made my sister and me giggle when we were little...and roll our eyes as we became all-knowing adolescents. Mom sang because it was fun.

I sing for a living. I also sing for life. I truly believe that heaven will be one great big songfest...maybe even just one really great chord, in tune and multi-timbered and brilliant and originating somewhere in the deepest layer of our souls. I credit my parents with this, because they found joy in singing with abandon, and they let my sister and me see and hear that joy.

I'm reading Praying Twice: The Music and Words of Congregational Song by the cosmically wonderful hymn writer Brian Wren. In it, he discusses the "indispensable" nature of singing together in worship, as well as the fact that congregational song is in trouble. These assertions aren't new to me. In fact, my whole life as a church musician is to guard that little flame and to blow on it gently (from my diaphragm, of course).

I think he's onto something about the reasons for this situation; he lists all the standard reasons about how performance-oriented our modern culture has become, about the soloistic construction of modern music, about spectator culture. But I've never quite been able to articulate the concept of "electronic discouragement" as he does:
Studio recording demands a high level of professionalism, with retakes, multitracking, mixes and fine tunings. (It) has become normative, as it is lip-synched in videos, TV appearances, and even sometimes in "live" concerts. The result for many is "electronic discouragement," as the quality of recorded sound persuades us that our own voice has little value.

Most popular music today is delivered through high amplification. Audiences expect a thumping, throbbing, enveloping, sometimes ear-damaging sound. The knock-on effect is that, in other contexts, such as church worship, singers and instrumentalists often crank up the volume unnecessarily and diminish their personal connection with the congregation. The microphone takes over, whether or not it is needed, and whether or not there is a live musician in our midst. So the sound is bigger than life, and the person who makes it is regarded as bigger than life. If that person then tries to encourage audience participation without dropping the volume, the amplified voice overwhelms the communal voice and discourages the participation that was sought.

In other words, we unwittingly create situations that feel "normal" to the worshiping assembly which both:
  • discourage their participation in the music, and
  • say to them "you're not good enough to be part of this."
I think he's spot on, and I have serious practical and theological problems with that result. Is the message we want to send really anything like "listen to the cultural norms; they should be your guide" or "you're not good enough to be part of this?" Cripes.

Further, Wren writes:

So congregational song is in trouble, nowadays not because authority frowns on it, but because our culture undermines it. One result, as composer Alice Parker (one of Choralgirl's personal heroes) records from conversations with public-school music teachers, is that many children come to school with no musical background except music videos and TV advertisements. "They have never heard an adult they know well sing for pure pleasure; have never sung around the house." Their idea of music is shaped by electronic music (Choralgirl speculates: perhaps those toys that play little beeping tunes...the ones I'd like to run over with my car), soloistic styles, high volume, and instant gratification.

Jesus wept.

I have a giant soft spot in my heart for pastors who are willing to sing in church, no matter what their level of skill is, and despite raging self-consciousness. Because it models what we want to model, right?
  • That, in order to truly lead, you must be brave and honest, and not Take Yourself Too Seriously.
  • That some things are just more deeply real when they're sung.
  • That we're all members of the Body of Christ, and that's more important than anything.
  • That, in the end, it's not about us...about our skill, about our competence, about any label we can wear. It's about being part of something bigger than ourselves. It's about making a joyful noise (according to God's invitation), not a perfect one. It's about news so good that we must sing.
Can badly-done music be distracting? Certainly. But perhaps we could model our Christian charity in worship, encouraging one another along the way and making room for mistakes and growth and, well, color. One thing is sure: I'd rather err on the side of earnest imperfection than that of disenfranchising one singer of God's song.

And that's what I want the little ones at my church to see and experience, so that they might have access to the joy of singing like my mom and dad and I have. They're not getting that training in most of the places that previous generations have got it, and we need to find a way to help 'em out.

So please, SING. Whether you "can" or not. Sing to your kids, sing with your congregations, sing at birthday parties and family gatherings and for no reason at all.

Sing because it's a purely human thing to do, and because all you need in order to do it is "inspiration"—all you need, literally, is breath.

I have to go call my parents now, to thank them for being brave and silly and joyful about music-making.

Because I love to sing.


FranIAm said...

Oh my - what a post. What a post!

As a Catholic, you can imagine that I have been in a lot of churches with little or no singing.

Factor in that for reasons too complicated to go into here, I was told and retold that I had a bad voice and that my singing was not welcome in certain church settings.

Which, sadly - I totally accepted.

Fast forward - my current congregation. People really sing - they SING!

At daily mass we get about 35-50 people a day and we sing (all the verses) of whatever hymn is chosen to open with. It is so great.

So I have taken to finding my voice and singing loudly.

Which I also do at Sunday liturgy, which has a choir or cantors depending plus organ/piano.

This past weekend I was sitting next to this woman I often see and know in passing. She does not sing at all.

After the opening hymn, this lady leans over and says..."You have such a nice voice!"

I am still not sure of what to make of that one, but reading this helped.

Our pastor has a gorgeous voice. Not everyone in our choir or all the cantors does.

And that seems to always be ok there.

All for the glory of God.

Choralgirl said...

Yee haaaaaa!! Go, Fran! Sing, girl! :-)

Ruth Hull Chatlien said...

Ah, this is so good. I love that insight about the electronic performance stuff inhibiting us.

I don't sing in front of other people except my husband, and it took years and years before I'd do that. And I won't sing without accompaniment. (I was humiliated once by a classmate in grade school, and I guess I never got over it.)

However, I do sing in church. The Baptist / Mennonite first half of my Christian experience taught me that singing is so much a part of worship that I can't imagine not singing. And since I'm part of a group, I feel "safe" to sing.

I wish I could get over my insecurities because I know that one of the main reasons I don't sing well in front of people is sheer anxiety. My throat tightens and my voice cracks or wobbles in ways that don't happen when I'm singing with a very loud group (or singing to my iPod in private).


Great topic. It made me think about something that niggles at me under the surface a lot.

Choralgirl said...

Ruth, I think LOTS of people are where you are. I have a cousin who hasn't sung a note since her CHURCH CHILDREN'S CHOIR DIRECTOR told her she'd be a better "listener" than a singer.

Damn and blast.

I think the best reasons to sing have nothing to do with what anyone else thinks: for the Creator's pleasure, and for yours.

Sing on, friend. :-)

Hazel Thomas said...

I followed a link to your blog from Milton's Don't Eat Alone. Milton and I go way back...

I am Baptist and there has not be a time when music was absent from my life. Both my parents have church music backgrounds and they taught us the same - sing, play, do so with all your heart. For that I am grateful.

With music and the arts taking a back seat in most of our schools nationwide, it will be up to the churches and private schools to produce the next generation of musicians and artists. I work with the children's choir at our church - and we encourage them to come, sing, clap, enjoy learning of God and song.


Choralgirl said...

Welcome, Hazel--thanks for coming by. Milton is a gorgeous soul; he was one of the reasons I got started with this blogging thing. :-)

Blessings on your work with the kids! I think you're right--we're the front line, musically, with this generation.

don't eat alone said...

Hey! I got here and saw my name. Cool.

I grew up, as Hazel noted, in a tradition that valued singing: the music minister was an ordained, full-time position, children and youth choirs mattered, and the music minister led the congregational singing and talked about our being the "service choir." And we sang singable hymns full of harmonies. (Talk about your theological implicatons.)

In my mainline church, the organist plays the hymns from behind us, we have no conductor, and we sing hymns that have wonderful lyrics and tunes that are appear to have been written without the congregation in mind and with very few harmonies.

I think our people would sing more if we gave them songs they could sing and invited them into the songs as though we meant for them to make a joyful noise.


Choralgirl said...

Milton--YES. :-)

And your name comes up a lot around here; my pastor and youth worship staffer and I read you & RLP, and talk about you regularly.

Thanks for the many ways in which you've fed us!

Catherine + said...

Choral Girl, wonderful expose' on congregational singing. As for pastors who sing, talented or otherwise. my Episcopal parish is blessed with a priest who sings her heart out with such joy. She may not have the clearest voice but oh how it moves us when she sings the liturgy and the Eucharist? I am transcended by her voice, the sound of God singing to us about His Son on the night that He took bread...

I love singing too and it transforms the Creed, the Venite and it becomes prayer from the depths of the soul.

I am thankful for your gift of music, your instrument of voice. Blessings upon you.


Cecilia said...

Amen to this. Amen.