February 2019 Issue
We had a wonderful time at St. Mary’s Seminary on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day as we sang through anthems with Philip Stopford. What a treat to sing through a work with the composer present and hear his thoughts and insights as to why he used certain compositional techniques. Much was learned about how to run efficient rehearsals and get the most from your choristers, and I’m sure a few of us found one or two new anthems we’ll add to our choral library. It was a great day and I am so thankful to everyone who made it possible – Sean O’Connor, who had the idea for the event and coordinated all of the details; Paul Binko for hosting us in the beautiful and reverberant space at St. Mary’s; Michael Britt and Jordan Prescott for serving as accompanists; and all of the chapter members and their choristers and friends who made up the fantastic (and surprisingly balanced) choir.
Unfortunately, it is rare to attend a choral reading session these days and hear quality anthems for organ and choir. It’s even hard to find good a cappella music being written. Many publishers these days are looking for what will sell or has the “right sound” for today’s market. Not concerned with raising the intellectual or artistic standard, they are often influenced by culture’s demand for being entertained.
I’ve recently been re-reading portions of Marva Dawn’s Reaching Out without Dumbing Down. It’s a classic from a while ago that still speaks truth in today’s culture. In her chapter on music she references Exit Interviews by William Hendricks. He asks the question, “Why is it that so many churches – which once were a fountainhead of the arts and culture – now seem to many artists like cultural wastelands?” He also strikingly comments: It has been said that in ancient Greece, art killed religion; later in Christian Europe, religion killed art. That alone is worth some reflection. But we can add that in modern America, entertainment is killing both art and religion – a situation that leaves very little space for the Christian artist.
As church musicians, what is our role in this debate? As a guild that is devoted to excellence in organ and choral music, a part of our job is to search out the highest quality repertoire. It does exist for all sizes of choirs and voice distribution. It is harder to find, but worth the search. We can’t rely solely on whatever the publishers mail us, because for many their concern is selling quantity rather than quality. It’s our role to question the motivation of only considering attendance numbers as quantification for meaningful worship, to contest aspects of consumerism and entertainment in our liturgies, and it’s our role to educate our congregations on what is required of music proper for worship.
As well, we shouldn’t underestimate our congregations and their ability to appreciate art. It is our calling to offer the very best that we can in worship and to create an “other” space that transforms the world rather than conforms to it. As church musicians in today’s culture, that can mean challenging the norms and raising the standards. When we do, our congregations often appreciate it and their faith is enriched by the “new dimension in the world of sound.”
Blessings as you lead your church’s song, and as we elevate art above entertainment.
The February 2019 issue of the Pipe and Pedal is now available.