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"In the experience of a musical work, our greatest joy derives from unexpected encounters with the forgotten images of eternity."

--Medtner, "The Muse and the Fashion," p. 132

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A Mysterious Stanza in 'Wondrous Love'
posted March 2, 2009

A few weeks ago during choir rehearsal a strange little thing happened. The director had chosen a setting of "What Wondrous Love Is This" out of the Augsburg Choir Book to sing during Lent. About halfway through the second verse there is a strange place where the choir sings (and realize I am trying mightily to approximate the effect in silent black letters) "That Christ should lay   a - s - i - i - i - i – de his crown, That Christ should lay as - i - i - ide his crown for my soul." That struck me as a bit tortured, so I went over to grab a hymnal and see what was the cause. It turns out, the Methodist hymnal has a different take on the matter. Its second verse reads "What wondrous love is this that caused the lord of life to lay aside his crown for my soul?" The stuff in italics was missing from the Augsburg Choirbook setting, but the notes weren’t, which was what was causing the choir to have to stretch the words out on a musical rack about 4 measures too long. I couldn’t help wondering why.

Was it because Lutherans objected to the phrase "Lord of life?" That seemed odd, but I thought I’d start there. I typed in Lutheran Theology and Wondrous Love just in case somebody had noticed this already and written a dissertation on it. No luck. But I found out how to order more Augsburg Choirbooks. Commerce always shoots to the top of a Google search.

(Actually, the phrase "Lord of Life" is in the first verse, and if I'd been paying attention the first time I heard the anthem I would have noticed that. The net effect of splitting the phrases from a single verse up this way seems to be to make sure they don't rhyme.)

So what was the original text? Did I have it? Strangely, Wikipedia could offer no help. They’ve even got an entry on hotdogs. But not on this hymn. I found several sets of lyrics in various places and started to notice a pattern.

There are either three or four verses in most sources; the odd second verse in both Augsburg and the Methodist hymnbook doesn’t appear in them. Many sources including the latter attribute the words to some fellow named American Folk Hymn, a few to a guy named Alexander Means, who did not seem to have made much of a mark, no information about him being forthcoming (though I did eventually find a reference to his being a pastor in Georgia and some dates: 1801-53) A search for him took me to hymnwiki, which had a whole bastion of additional verses from various 19th hymnbooks, but not the verse in question.

I was starting to wonder where that verse had come from. For one thing, it is quite similar to the first verse, but beyond treading very little new ground, there is no attempt at a rhyme scheme as in the first verse:


What wondrous love is this, O my soul, O my soul!
What wondrous love is this, O my soul!
What wondrous love is
this that caused the Lord of bliss
To bear the dreadful curse for my soul, for my soul,
To bear the dreadful curse for my soul.

(curse doesn’t quite rhyme but it comes close)

instead we get

What wondrous love is this, O my soul, O my soul!
What wondrous love is this, O my soul!
What wondrous love is
this that caused the Lord of life
To lay aside his crown for my soul, for my soul,
To lay aside his crown for my soul.

the only thing new here is the phrase "to lay aside his crown" the one I already mentioned as being stretched for four extra measures in the Augsburg Choirbook since the third line of text has been removed in its entirety from the second verse, being assigned instead to the first verse. Since this is the only verse in our hymnal that doesn’t preserve the rhyme scheme I've shown in bold, I was started to think it had been conceived by a committee. And my companion to the Methodist hymnal wasn’t helping. All it said was that ‘three verses have been added’ to the 1966 hymnal, which featured two. That makes five, which is one more than appear on the present page. Perhaps the last one is invisible? Or is one a replacement for another that has been thrown out?

Nope. I went running for the 1966 hymnal, a copy of which I have in my office. It has the same first two verses as appear in the current edition. So you can’t blame that verse on the present committee.

As I mentioned, the other verses all have a similar rhyme scheme, delayed though it may be by so much repetition:

When I was sinking down, sinking down, sinking down,
When I was sinking down, sinking down,
When I was sinking
down beneath God’s righteous frown,
Christ laid aside His
crown for my soul, for my soul,
Christ laid aside His crown for my soul.

That one caused me some amusement. I realize it is a serious thing, but the thought of God (the old guy with the beard, right?) frowning righteously and wagging a disapproving finger is just a bit comical. I was glad the committee left that verse out of our hymnal.

Differences in doctrine can cause catastrophes in hymnody, however. People are willing to do surgery on phrases they don’t like, and often don’t do it very well. Besides, such an ala carte approach can and does often lead to some poor results. One folk singer who doesn’t care much for the idea of sacrifice and atonement decided the first verse should read: 

What wondrous love is this, O my soul, O my soul!
What wondrous love is this, O my soul!
What wondrous love is
this that caused the Lord of bliss
To send such perfect peace to my soul, to my soul
To send such perfect peace to my soul

This doesn’t quite rhyme either (depending on her accent) but it frankly robs the verse of its power. Even if most of us are not big fans of the 19th century obsession with blood and curses and righteous frowns, it seems to me that if all this was about sending peace to my soul—well, just about anybody who knows how to softly arpeggiate a G chord can send peace to our souls. I don’t think that requires a particularly wondrous love. Any Christian artist de jeur will do. Dying on a cross for somebody else's sins is extraordinary, soothing one’s soul (even if I underestimate ‘perfect peace’) is much appreciated, but not especially wondrous. This is one of the perils of changing a hymn’s language, even if you don’t agree with some of it.

As it happens, that is probably why the second verse is so mangled. While I was meditating on the pitfalls of everybody changing whatever they don’t like and not giving it a second thought, I realized where that second verse came from. It is the back half of the ‘sinking down verse,’ with the ‘righteous frown’ part deleted, and a poor job of getting the new material to harmonize with the old. In other words, get rid of the first three lines of that righteous frown verse, keeping the last two, toss in the first two lines of the first verse, add a new line to the middle that doesn’t rhyme with either of them, and, walla! You have one crummy synthetic verse.

Maybe the guy who did the Lutheran choirbook thought he was making an improvement, by avoiding a singsongy rhyme and getting rid of righteously frowning deities.  Unfortunately, it may have solved one problem and created another. People have a habit of doing that. (By the way, I think the musical setting is very effective, so I don't want to get on the guy's case too hard!)

While I was surfing around I came across an alternate version. Apparently the tune was set to some secular verses at one point. They’re not Dante, to say the least, and they aren’t rated G. But here they are:

Oh my name was Robert Kidd as I sailed, as I sailed,
My name was Robert Kidd as I sailed.
My name was Robert Kidd, all God's laws I did forbid,
So wickedly I did, as I sailed, as I sailed,
So wickedly I did as I sailed.

And another one:

Oh my name it is Sam Hall, it is Sam Hall
Oh my name it is Sam Hall, it is Sam Hall
Oh my name it is Sam Hall, you're a bunch of muckers all
And I hate you one and all God Damn your eyes.

You know, that last one makes the second verse of our hymn seem like one of Keat’s odes. A strong reminder: bad is relative. That last part, beside being a ridiculous non-sequitor, can't even be bothered to rhyme, but then again, if you're going to curse you don't want to sound like Dr. Suess doing it.

Anyhow, I'm still curious. Any idea where that verse came from? And, if we've got any hymn writers out there, would you like to take a try at improving that second verse a little?


An Interesting Conversation
posted July 16, 2009

Perhaps it will only become evident after long years of profitable study of the texts and tunes available on Pianonoise, but there are few assumptions that, if I am not in the business of imploding, I do not at least feel my duty to question. Someone has to. Since it appears that staunch opinions are the principle export of mankind, there is plenty of raw material. As it happens, a little while back I came across a page on the web which contained all kinds of such assessments. It was a conversation, a chat page. Since the conversation took place in 2005, I was not able to contribute to it then, and I doubt I could have added much, since most of the principle positions were covered. But in retrospect, and since internet conversations which are sometimes the product of only a moment’s reflection often wind up on servers for years, we have the chance to go over it, consider all the dramatis personae and their prejudices, and see if any stunning insights come to us. Perhaps the original participants were missing a few after all.

There is a fellow named Bernhard. He seems amiable enough--sometimes, but he has a problem. He has a piano student, and—but let him tell it:

"I have a student who is a committed Christian, and she has decided that she is now only interested in religious music. She brought me a CD to listen to, with some ghastly pop Christian music saying this is what she wants to play from now on. I was horrified at the prospect of having to listen to this drivel, so I suggested to her instead that she should dedicate her musical studies to some of the greatest sacred music ever written – and gave her a number of CDs to listen to by Bach (St Matthew Passion, Mass in B-minor, cantatas, etc.) Mozart (Requiem), Beethoven (Mass in B minor) and Arvo Part, plus Gregorian chant and the like. She was suitably impressed and wants to have a go.

So here is the problem: Does anyone have any suggestions for "sacred" pieces? Preferably originally written for piano solo, that are not too forbidding (around grade 5 – 8 )? Although there seems to be plenty of "sacred" pieces for voice or choir, the only ones I could come up with for piano solo were [the following]:"

There follows a short list of pieces that Bernhard thinks might be appropriate. Now, as it happens, I generally share in ‘Mr. Bernhard’s’ low opinion of much of our contemporary pop Christian music. I hope you don’t think I’m a snob for saying so. I would however suggest the following modifications: 1) some contemporary pop Christian music is better than the rest; there is the awful, the merely bad, and the mostly harmless, and in a few cases, some that may not be all that bad, from a musical angle. 2) there are a lot of other issues involved in this sort of music which have nothing to do with the quality of the music. Among them the fact that if the church wants to attract lots of ‘regular’ people, most of whom wouldn’t touch Bach with a 10 foot pole, who have virtually no musical training and often little or no desire to make an effort to learn, you have to give them something they can learn instantly and sing every few weeks without having to even give it a thought in between services. Lots of repetition and a limited melodic range would naturally suit this sort of thing, as well as songs that sound like a lot of the other songs. That is the truth, but push it too hard and you sound contemptuous of your fellow man, who has his own opinion and is not really interested in what you think of as good music. A little farther on, and we sound not simply snobby and narrow minded but just plain phobic. Was he really ‘horrified at having to listen to this drivel’? There are plenty of people who seem unable to bear to be in the same room with people with cultural or ideological differences (including an atheist some years ago who started out suing over the pledge of allegiance so that his daughter didn’t have to say ‘under God’ if she didn’t want to—this was free speech--but apparently didn’t want his daughter’s ears soiled having to listen to anybody else say those words either, which is where ‘free speech’ tries to become tyranny).

I suppose the Bernhards of the world think they are doing their level best to uphold the highest standards in music in the face of all that depressing Philistinism, but perhaps they could do us a favor and be less ‘horrified’ by their encounters with mediocrity. Someone has said (before I got there) that God loves mediocrity because he created so much of it. It is probably pushing too far to suggest that persons like Bernhard would actually find a way to get along with music that does not seem ‘up to code’ but being ‘horrified’ seems rather comic, and is certainly not a good way to get other people to reconsider their own positions. It is like being a judgmental hypocrite—many people are convinced that Christian churches are full of them, and actually being one is all the evidence needed for a person who was looking for an excuse not to get involved anyway. There are better ways to uphold musical standards—and to encourage others to raise theirs—than to consider yourself polluted by having some of that ‘awful’ music fall on your ears once in a while.

Here is the twist, though. The student, given an encounter with ‘the classics’ decided that maybe she would consider what her teacher had in mind. In other words, she is being more open-minded than her teacher is. It’s a good thing somebody didn’t draw a line in the sand.

Unfortunately for Bernhard, though, she wasn’t much given to his ideas about what constituted ‘good’ church music. This is partially because she tends to assume that Christian music is whatever the Christians around her happen to know and like, and the rest is somehow ‘unChristian,’ regardless of how other Christians think of it. I don’t know whether she got her intolerance second-hand or came by it honestly, right out of the factory. But the narrow view of what is sacred, or appropriate for church, is shared by both those within various sects and those who have never set foot in a church, and don’t want to. Both sides assume that there is only a sliver of music that can be or should be played during an encounter with the divine. His music must be special--and not always in a way that would make it attractive for his children--quite the opposite, frequently. Perhaps it is thought that it would offend His ears if he should have to listen to the things that his children like to listen to on a regular basis. Apparently when it comes to traditional church music many of God’s children are teenagers. We each have ‘our music’ but we don’t think Dad will like it, so we make sure we are listening to something else (which we don’t like half as well) whenever Dad is around. We wouldn’t want to get him mad at us—not this Dad, anyway. When we’re off with our friends we like music we can dance to, loud, beat-ridden, exciting. But we know Dad is an old codger who thinks he knows better than we do so, grudgingly, we give in on Sundays for about an hour. We make sure the music is boring and doesn’t make us want to have a good time, which writers from Augustine onward have been convinced is by definition against the wishes of our Father. It is very nice of us to save our ‘noise’ for when Dad can’t hear us. With our earthly fathers it is a different story. There is another impetus for this course, however. If we don’t ‘brand’ certain music for church, and distinguish it from the rest, it will not be clear to people when they are in the House of God, and when they are merely out frolicking in the rest of God’s universe, the part he rarely visits. Of course, when 'having a good time', human beings are often at their most selfish and irresponsible. Perhaps dignified, funereal music is a sort of compromise. We are bored, but at least we are aren't being morons. If that is the case, the recent trend in Christian pop music is an experiment in whether we can live without this compromise or not.

Here is that sliver of music listed by our good piano teacher:

1. The Bach Chorales (not exactly for piano solo, but feasible)

2. Myra Hess’s transcription of "Jesus, Joy of men"

3. Schumann’s "Ein Chorale" from the album for the young.

4. Sgambatti transcription of Gluck - Dance of the blessed spirits

5. Tchaikovsky "In Church" from the album for the young

6. Alan Hovhaness – "The mystic Flute" (this one may be pushing it a bit…)

7. Liszt – The shepherds at the manger; Sancta Dorothea and Ave Maris Stella are the three easiest ones – everything else is more difficult. Transcription of Schubert’s Ave Maria.

8. Bach – Gounod – Ave Maria.

9. Granados – "The Evening Bell" (from Bocetos).

  1. Messiaen – Vingt regards (but this is far too difficult for her level – and I doubt she will like it)


You’ll note that it has a healthy supply of Bach (items 1, 2, and 8). There are many (and there will be several participants in this conversation) who think that Bach is the first and last word in sacred music (and music in general). I personally have a deep regard for Bach’s music, but I think making him the alpha and omega is going too far. Among the problems this attitude creates is that it promotes a museum atmosphere, as if your church thinks nothing good has come into the world in the last 300 years, as if you worship a God of the past who stopped inspiring musicians some time ago. Bach worshippers frequently have an abiding scorn for anything ‘modern’. But I’ve noticed for every snob out there there is an equal and vehement reaction among the lazy. One lady commented on a message board recently that she was glad to know (her opinion being buttressed) that you didn’t have to like Bach to be a good musician. I imagine she was relieved of the responsibility of having to cultivate an appreciation of Bach. Bach’s music doesn’t always charm right away. In this respect I think it uncomfortably resembles a spiritual discipline, which means it requires some time and effort to discover what makes it so wonderful. There are a lot of things like that. Narrow is the road…and not so well traveled.

So much for the Bach wars. Pleasantly, Bernhard offered a little variety, and seems determined to find something from each era, even up to relatively recent. Unfortunately one of the most recent is certainly too difficult for anyone who is not a very advanced pianist (the Messiaen) and some of the others seem chosen based entirely on their titles, and do not sound very inventive (‘at church?’ How many of us play on our concerts pieces with the title ‘in the concert hall?’) or particularly orthodox (‘dance of the blessed spirits’? probably we’re talking about a more pagan concept of ‘spirits’ here, and I think he may have realized ‘mystic flute’ was grabbing at straws) Then we have occasional pieces (for Christmas) or Catholic pieces (which his pupil is evidently not) or pieces that probably have nothing to do with church but do have ‘bells’ in the title. All in all, it was a nice effort, but our valiant teacher knows this is a bit thin. Hence his question: is there any good sacred music for piano?

One reason I kept reading is because I’ve been asking that question myself for many years. Being a church pianist is not a glamour position; it is often assumed you are an amateur with a day job or a conservatory student who doesn’t place much importance on your ‘church job.’ Our most gifted composers generally do not spend their efforts for the church, and the piano is only a small and often marginalized instrument in many churches, providing traveling music for before and after but not during worship. The organ has a long history and a pedigree of professionals who have written challenging and effective works for it for those who have the ability and wish to make the effort, but the piano has only recently been invited into the church (it was actually banned by the Pope in 1903, a ban which some people still think is in effect, although I’ve been in many catholic churches and most of them do not seem to have noticed since they have grand pianos in them). There is now, however, a market for church piano music, most of which consists of well-behaved arrangements of familiar hymns, and would no doubt fail to impress Bernhard and company (with good reason in too many cases). However, since the participants in this forum were not churchgoers, they seemed to be completely unaware of this fact. If you allow for music written and marketed specifically for church pianists to play by publishing houses that send out catalogs twice a year to announce their products, the quantity of available repertoire is actually very large, whatever you think of it. If you are looking for ‘classical’ literature, or music that would pass muster to a musical mind that tries to sort out the best available from the basically serviceable, the mostly harmless, the trite, or the just plain inept, the size of the literature shrinks considerably.

I realize at this point that I sound like as much an elitist as Bernhard, with the difference that I am friendlier about it. There is, however, a reason that some music is held in higher estimation by some of us ‘snobs’ and this is not the time to get into why, but I’ll do my best at another time. Bernhard’s compatriots, meanwhile, did their best, too, and did not manage to come up with very much in most cases, but there was one exception. This fellow listed about 100 items that he had culled from various books of piano literature, and listed the pieces he found, though he admitted to no familiarity with most of them.

I found this list to be the most personally useful thing about this page, and filed a few of the suggestions away in my personal list of items to play in church sometime. Mine is an involved list, sorted by topic, possible scripture connection, or season of the year, hymns which seem to be cousins with the pieces involved, composer, style, and so on. I spent an hour trying to track down one of the rarer items on the posted list, and it is not the first time I have spent a lot of time trying to find a piece that might be useful some time in the future. Building such a list has cost me a lot of labor, which is why it is so valuable to find any resource that has already done some of the work for you.

Most of the remainder of the chat consisted of the same assumptions that people in and out of the church make about what is appropriate for worship. Some of these things narrow the possibilities, and a few broaden it. Some people observed that anything by Bach is ok for church. This is an interesting proposition. I’m almost certain Bach would have disagreed with it. He lived in a time when the leadership drew a very thick line between the language of the sacred service and the rest of life. He was accused occasionally of importing secular influences into his sacred music, and one cannot help but notice that many of the same principles govern his sacred and secular compositions. The two do not seem to be completely at odds. However, there are what we might now think of as subtle differences.

Someone else suggested that certain titles, or genres, were always appropriate. Elegy was one. This is a piece written to mourn someone who has died. If we think we gather every Sunday for God’s funeral, I think that is an excellent idea. Otherwise, it seems misguided to assume that this is one of the ‘golden’ (ie, always appropriate) genres. The idea, I suppose, is that churches are looking for anything somber (which must be why the Liszt ‘Funerailles’ made the list! I can only recommend that if your church is suffering from a funereal disease).

There were a lot of interesting contributions to the ‘title’ game. Pieces called ‘prayer’ seemed the most harmless and might be worth checking into, though I don’t necessarily expect to find much great music there. I also subscribe to the crazy notion that not all church music needs to be slow and quiet, which was, predictably, a major theme in the comments of several contributors, when they were not discussing the student’s ‘peculiar psychology’ or showing contempt for religious music in general. Bernhard did suggest that perhaps instrumental music doesn’t work so well in a religious context because music is too abstract and the church wants a more fixed meaning to its music, which is why most of it has words. This too is a pretty widely held idea about music.

Among the resources that a ‘peter in G minor’ posted were some collections by Maurice Hinson. Hinson is a professor of religious music at a university, and has published some collections of music ‘appropriate for church.’ I ordered one because it was only $4 used; now I am sorry I did. It is the usual unimaginative mishmash of ‘quiet and dignified’ pieces. Hinson sets out his thoughts on what qualifies classical music to be played in church, and among other criterion it includes music with titles like prayer, reconciliation, and andante religioso (there are not a lot of these) but when it comes to the selections chosen for his book the titles are a little more interesting. The first in the book is a barcarolle (boat song) which I assume was chosen because it is soft and somber, not because some of our Methodist churches resemble in their construction upside down arks. Others include ‘dances of naked boys and men’ –the subtitle, actually, which is not mentioned, but that is in fact the programmatic inspiration for the ‘gymnopedie no.1’ of Erik Satie, which is slow and somber, after all, but deals with an athletic ceremony in ancient Greece by the composer’s own reckoning. Then there is ‘solitude’ by Jean Sibelius, a quaint idea, but although many of us associate religion with solitude (private prayer, bible reading and the like) this is music to be played in the midst of a community, after all, which is perhaps its own strange commentary. The music is probably not so bad; perhaps I will like it when I’ve gotten acquainted with it, but I could probably find better pieces which are just as quiet and morose.

Which is just the tack one person suggested, clinging to something Rachmaninoff supposedly said about giving credit for his talent to God, which meant, the blogger said slyly, that anything by Rachmaninoff was fair game. This is liberating; I have played Rachmaninoff in church before, when a particular piece seemed to elaborate on the mood of the service or the tone of the message. The titles are usually generic, and require one’s own imagination to form the connection between the piece and the occasion for playing it. But I am a strange bird. I swim upstream in all kinds of directions.

Evidently one has to if one is to make church music for piano something that can engage one’s whole mind and soul and talent—at least if you are a person who gets bored by sticking to the most common assumptions above. I have at one time or another played things by Bach that were not written for church, I’ve played something for communion that was slow and quiet because it was slow and quiet, and I think I’ve even had a go at the Gymnopedie once for some reason (don’t tell anybody!). At one time or another I’ve probably shared in every assumption on this page. But I would caution against our being trapped by our assumptions. They form ways of seeing the world, but they also narrow our focus. Does church music have to be slow and quiet? 300 years old? Written by composers with lasting reputations? Written by someone who ‘gives God the glory?’ or is even a believer? I invite you to join the conversation that was continued (hardly begun) on that page (not literally--this one was over three years ago, but you can participate in others, no doubt), and to think about the attitudes and ideas expressed and to consider how opinions form our impressions and vice versa. Many of the participants seemed to think of church music as dry and lifeless, and believed that justified their lack of involvement. Others wanted to regulate what church music was based on their own familiarity and comfort level. One fellow even tries to make peace between the pop and art music camps. It is too bad that many of the participants did not seem to share his openness, though on the whole, especially for an internet conversation, it did seem like the participants respected each other reasonably well, if not their topic.

Which reminds me of another assumption. Are classical musicians all temperamental snobs? Last year a nervous bride admitted to the pastor that she did not want to talk to her organist (me) because ‘you know how musicians are.’ She’d never met me, but she assumed I’d be a handful. I eventually called her and we had what I hope was a very friendly, pleasant conversation. I’d like to think that, on some level, Bernhard and I would also get along.


How I Survive: Four solutions to the problem of the constant need for church music (part one)
September 2, 2011

Persons whose vocation involves providing music for the church quickly become aware of what an enormous demand there is for music. Sundays come around regularly, 52 times a year, never stopping to take a breath, and, if you are an organist, that typically means three new pieces every seven days. And this doesn’t take into account any weddings or funerals that may have sprung up during the week, or, particularly if you are Catholic, masses on Saturdays, masses on Wednesdays, masses on special holy days, and so forth. If you are concerned about quality, the demand is more stringent; quality and quantity are not fast friends with each other. To be able to play well, and especially to be able to play quality pieces well, means time and effort. Compounding the problem: If you are an amateur musician who works at a bank 8 to 5 Monday through Friday, has to drive the kids to soccer practice and keep the house clean besides (company’s coming!), or your spouse fell ill this week or you just took the family on vacation or you had to go to your niece’s wedding in upstate Andromeda, you might have had almost no time to practice at all. But Sunday comes anyway.

This article is about the four solutions to this ‘problem’ as I’ve come to know them. I’m going to discuss my ‘solutions’ in the order in which they developed in my own practice, which, curiously, may seem like descending order of difficultly, or ascending order of practicality—or familiarity—for many of you. They are as follows: improvisation, composition, use of the so-called ‘classical’ repertoire, and expediency.

For me, the ‘problem’ is more acute due to the fact that I have spent most of my career trying to avoid the last of these solutions. I grew up in a small town and was soon introduced to the kind of music one is generally expected to play in church—at least in small town, middle America (white, anglo-saxon, Protestant, northern, non-Baptist, and so forth). It is music meant for busy amateurs, so it is simply put together, like music you can buy at IKEA, but it also tends to seem clumsy and unimaginative to my ears. From a technical point of view this is generally not the work of the most talented composers (they probably aren’t getting paid much, either, and have to churn out lots of pieces in a hurry, which is also likely to affect quality)—the musical equivalent of bad grammar may be complimented by a general sameness to everything, either in layout, or mood. At any rate, I decided early on that I could do just as well myself, and could save practice time in the process, if I made up the pieces on the spot.

I was a young man and full of bravado, and the prospect of improvising in public was risky, which gave it some allure. What I didn’t know then was what a time-honored solution this is among gifted organists in most of the larger churches in Europe and North America. Some organists make it their bread and butter. For a while I did, too. In those days I was mainly playing the piano. At first my models were the hymn arrangements I had been taught to buy—take a simple accompaniment pattern, play the hymn against it, short interlude, change the pattern, next verse, jerk the thing up a half-step, do it again louder with crashing chords, big finish.

At one church I served there were two of us, an organist/choir director, and a pianist/accompanist (myself): I egged on the organist to improvise duets with me, and we would make up the morning prelude by choosing a hymn and bouncing our extemporaneous efforts off of each other. A couple of years later, at another church, my improvisations evolved. I gradually stopped using hymn tunes some of the time, and allowed myself a much more flexible format. For some time during graduate school I improvised everything for every service. It got me through some very demanding years when school was taking all of my time. It was also the best way to learn how to improvise: do it constantly. My style changed, broadened, new influences were added, I gained fluency and a bit more confidence. Also I didn’t run the risk of choosing music ill-suited to the service because I was creating music to match the mood of the day with as much knowledge about what the pastor was doing as possible. It was music in the moment, for the moment.

Of course, the whole idea of simply making something up is about as alien to many musicians as vacationing on Pluto. I’m convinced that every church musician ought to learn how, though, because whether or not you make up the offertory each week, you are still bound to have these situations arise:

The pastor suddenly turns to you during an unexpected lull in the service (I remember once when the children were passing out roses to their mothers for mother’s day) and says “Michael, some traveling music!” (to which you might reply, “My name’s not Michael!”)

Or, you need to provide about 15 seconds of music for the children to come forward for the children’s sermon. And then, one kid that wasn’t coming forward suddenly darts up the center aisle and you now need 8 seconds more.

Or communion took slightly longer than the piece you had prepared. Or you finished the prelude and the acolytes still haven’t shown up, or better yet, they’ve just now started down the aisle.

Or you left your book at home—the one with the morning offertory in it!

Or the air-conditioner blew all your music off the rack!

Or the pastor likes background music during the prayer and you never know from week to week how long the prayer is going to be or what kind of prayer it will be.

(after I wrote this, I came up with one more. Suppose you suddenly remembered you forgot to turn your cellphone off. If you are, say, improvising quiet background music to prayers, you can continue improvising with one hand while you turn off your phone with the other. It takes all my skill to manage this. Still, I had to go straight to the anthem afterward, and I didn’t want to take the chance that my phone would go off during the piece. Bad form, you know?)

The downside to improvisation is that if you are not in top shape on a given morning, the music is going to suffer from your current state. The upside is that it does not have to be any more technically difficult than you wish to make it, and if the service is running long and you need to get to the next service across the hall in a few minutes, you can make the offertory shorter than it was going to be and you don’t violate any composer’s integrity.

If you don’t know how to improvise, there are ways around this, of course. In an unexpected situation you grab something off of the top of your stack and sight-read like mad. When the occasion that gave rise to the music is over, you try to find a stopping place. Or you go on to the next piece. There are plenty of resources available for musicians in an emergency, because there are plenty of musicians in plenty of emergencies and publishers aren’t stupid. But improvisation, once you can do it, really makes life easier. Besides, in a place as unpredictable and multifarious as a church service, it helps to have as many tools as possible. Eventually, if your job is at all complicated, no matter how prepared you think you are for everything, you will be caught with no time to do anything but make it up.

Starting this week, I’m placing a little box at the bottom of the Godmusic page. (As I archive them, you'll can access them here) I’ll add a little improvisation exercise you can do to gradually get used to the idea and gain confidence if you are one of those persons who would like to learn but doesn’t think such musical magic is possible. You’ll be surprised—eventually. But it will take time. Not nine hours a day. I mean a year or two of gradual growth, a little bit at a time. Still, I think you’ll be able to gain some results pretty quickly, particularly if you focus on parts of the service that only require short musical interludes rather than a full fledged voluntary.

Part two: composition  
posted Dec. 28, 2011

As if to correct for the speed and ease of my first method, improvisation--making it up on the spot, composition is for me just the opposite. It takes time--gobs of it, and is for that reason, a luxury I can't afford very often.

Improvisation is a tool used to get by in emergencies, though it can also be elevated to a high art. Or it can be used merely to kill empty space during a service when silence is seen as an enemy or to drown out the noise of the traffic outside while the pastor is praying. It is simply the art of musical conversation and for this reason alone I am convinced that any one of you reading this could do it at some level, though I realize many of you find the thought impossible. On a page, in short lessons in boxes, it is not easy to interact with a student's psychology and provide feedback, but in person every one of my students has done some improvisation; often reluctantly at first. Generally the first part of the lesson is spent in trying to overcome the standard obstacles to thinking musically, among which are that the student doesn't think they are creative, that what they are doing isn't very good, or general discomfort with not having a map to tell them what to do. Then there is a breakthrough and the excitement of finding out it can be done after all. Often in life the first obstacles are the hardest to overcome; once some results are in the incentive to keep going is increased. But at first, it is not easy. This is why there are so many people who were gonna or used to.

Improvisation is still a bit of a high-wire skill because you have to make a quick decision about where to go next and trust it; there is no time for reflection or regret. Composition, by contrast, offers a chance to think about what you want to say, and to rephrase it or throw it out altogether if it doesn't satisfy. Since I spent many hours goofing off at the piano as a child when I should have been practicing, honing my skills at playing things which were not on the page, and later on, choosing to improvise every week as a defense against the kind of music I would have had to play otherwise, I was eventually able to competently make up enough music to get through entire services, an invaluable strategy for surviving graduate school with no time to practice for church. As a side effect, though, I developed a reluctance to actually write anything down. For a start, that takes time. And then, from a philosophical point of view, composing to me seems like a completely different animal.

Given time to consider what you are writing, and given the 'permanence' of a written score, it seems natural to conclude that one ought to do more than simply spill musical thoughts of differing quality onto a page in no particular hierarchy, order, or progression. At least, not generally. As a result of this basic assumption, I try to determine the best possible continuations of my musical thoughts, ordered so that no needless digressions or useless transitions are present, and so that the whole composition flows on in the most efficient manner possible. I want the ideas to be strong, and not reflect whatever I happened to think of at the time. You don't expect the same grace from someone jawing about the weather whom you meet on the bus as you do from the President's State of the Union address. And in any case, I expect quality from my own efforts whether the person in the eighth pew can tell the difference or not.

I often do compose by improvising at the piano, but find myself trying several ideas before settling on the one I like--or on combining two weaker ones to get a good result. Technically, the pieces are more complicated than I would normally be able to improvise, not that I can't rush up and down the piano on a whim; it isn't simply a fire sale of notes that distinguishes these written pieces, but a denser amount of real information, as opposed to titillating notes that don't serve any function beyond tickling the ear (there is way too much of that in a lot of Christian piano music, unfortunately).

What this adds up to is that this second route is no way to survive if by survive we mean keep up with the endless round of Sundays. Usually I have my pieces finished months or years before I play them. I don't write them for any particular service in mind. I finish them, put them away for a while, get them out, learn them as a pianist, as if it were somebody else's piece, put them away again once I have it under my fingers, and wait for a spot in the upcoming schedule when it would be particularly appropriate to play that piece. There is nothing expedient about this at all. No, by survival in this case I mean having found an answer to the problem of how to actually be able to use all of my ability in the service of spiritual ends, and to have found an answer to the music that I was expected to play, that 'official' Christian piano music which I generally found vacant on several levels: technically, imaginatively, spiritually, and so on. It may be an answer that no one else is seeking, in which case it is unique, though it may also be judged unnecessary (interestingly though, one of these pieces on this site is getting about 10,000 hits a month  as I write this, so somebody is listening to it anyhow, though I have no idea what they are thinking as they do). And while for me it is a very personal answer, it is also an important part of the creative process, something I think more people ought to engage in. Although it might be some time before I post much on the subject of composition, it is quite connected to improvisation, and some thoughts on it will appear in various sessions of Improvisation Corner. I invite you to try a little composition. It will make you see things differently if you've never created but always consumed the music of others. It will also help you out of many a jam on Sunday morning when you have to paraphrase what is on the next page that you couldn't get turned.

I recall a teacher at the music conservatory complain that when students read some notes incorrectly that they were trying to be composers. Composition need not be such a dirty word. It is, after all, where the music comes from in the first place.


Part Three: Use of "Classical literature"   posted April 9, 2012

People come from all kinds of backgrounds: I grew up in a sleepy little suburb with nice yards, generally responsible citizens, schools that were good enough, and no pretensions to excellence, although we would talk about it occasionally (for pride). I don’t mean to hang anyone, I mean that we were fairly average, and it didn’t bother us. Some of us had pictures on our walls of Norman Rockwell covers for the Saturday Evening Post or dogs playing poker.

As I got into my teen years, I discovered another world. It was like finding out that there were people like Rembrandt and Picasso out there, doing things with a paint brush that were fascinating, disturbing, and innovative, and required a new kind of attentiveness to what art could be. After that, you don’t want to hang dogs playing poker on your wall.

Of course, a lot of people like having dogs playing poker on their walls. That’s why there are so many of them. There aren’t a lot of Rembrandts in the average household. There aren’t a lot of “Rembrandt” lovers in the average church, either, we would do well to note. Still, I’ve been playing a lot of challenging “art” music for a couple of decades in Methodist churches, and I haven’t gotten many complaints.

It happens occasionally. One Sunday, about six weeks into my tenure at a previous church, a woman saw me in the hall after the service and delivered this backhanded gem: “It finally sounded like church this morning.” The reason? I would suppose it was because that morning I had chosen to play a couple of Virgil Thompson’s "Variations on Sunday School Tunes." Previously I had played a lot of pieces that were not based on the ‘good-old’ hymns that this perhaps octogenarian churchgoing lady liked, and she wanted me to know both that I should keep it up and that she hadn’t approved of my previous straying. “sounds like church” is code for a particular repertoire of tunes that the folks in a particular cultural manifestation of the universal church happen to like. It isn’t a bad idea to include those things in your offerings, but I think choosing exclusively from that pool limits one considerably, and gives your congregation the wrong idea about church.

For one thing, it isn’t a good thing spiritually to think of yourself as a living jukebox or a request line, giving people what they know and like every week. This is kind of like Jesus On Demand, in which the ‘customer’ is king, not…well, you know. So-called art music stretches me, too, much of the time, but it also helps my congregation to try to come to terms with something they don’t already know. And that promotes growth rather than stagnation.

Among those things are other cultures, different ideas, different eras, different musical styles and instruments, and so on. For me, this ‘classical’ music is not a limiting definition. It doesn’t just mean the composers have to have been dead 200 years. Or European. Or white men with beards. I don’t exclude anyone on that basis, though!

For me, ‘classical’ music includes composers still living, still writing, still pushing the envelope and developing new ideas and new styles. I don’t go too far in that direction: the church is still a very conservative institution. But I’ll bet I play a lot more a-tonal music than most church musicians (who don’t play any)—I’ve tried a little minimalism, impressionism, aleatoric composition—and I carefully prepare notes in the bulletin so people know what on earth I was thinking and just how far off my rocker I am.

This is because I carefully choose particular pieces of music for each Sunday’s service. There are several reasons for that. One is because the church is not a concert hall. I’m very aware of the charge made by some Christians to anyone who strays outside the ‘official’ repertoire (broadly defined as music specifically intended to be used for the services of a particular religious culture). And anything loud, fast, exciting, not directly based on a familiar hymn—the list, or the restraining criteria, goes on—can be interpreted as a musician simply trying to draw attention to him or herself, showing off their superior digits and musical taste and so forth. Given the freedom to choose a range of music much wider than the standard ‘church repertoire’ I counter this by exercising a great deal of discipline: I don’t play Chopin this week because I feel like it, although I have been known to play Chopin occasionally. Instead, much as the Revised Common Lectionary disciplines pastors by parceling out a broad cross-section of scripture readings over a three-year period, thus causing them to preach on topics they might otherwise avoid and disallowing them to keep returning to their favorite scriptural themes all the time, I also try to find music that is in keeping with the spirit of the service for a particular Sunday. Many of my selections simply wouldn’t work the following week.

Before I explain how this works, a few more reasons for using this repertoire: Since I find much of it fully engaging, I myself am fully engaged. I don’t have limited myself to what is ‘expected’ or what will go down without controversy, or the simplest possible way to do my job, and then give my best efforts to everything else. I can actually be myself, offer myself, and offer my best and the world’s best to the effort. Now I expect that to make some preachers jealous. Imagine not being expected to write your own sermon each week and instead having the opportunity to share with your congregation the most stimulating sermons you could find from the last several centuries of sermons, from all over the world. One week you might choose something from 14th century Spain, the next a sermon from Russia, given last week. No wonder I sometimes feel like a pig in slop.

Persons who disagree with the kind of openness this encourages, whose role is to minimize the size of the spiritual repertoire, have probably been no fans of my first two approaches outlined in the articles above. And perhaps this one is even worse. But I am glad I am able to get away with it: if it helps your parochialism any, I have spent most of my church career waiting for the other shoe to drop.

Playing music already written allows you to be in conversation with the best musical minds of many times and places. It is much easier playing someone else’s notes that inventing your own, but the way I go about choosing whose notes I will play when (including some of the least audience-friendly music of the 20th century) makes this quite time-intensive as well. And then there is the practice time!

As a doctoral student in piano I was required to be thoroughly acquainted with the piano literature—vast amounts of it. This knowledge is put to use when I combine my imaginative connections with the literature I know or would like to explore. It is a bit like having a resident musical theologian, I suppose. However, most of the music was not written for obviously theological purposes, so I have to consider other factors when deciding what to play. Among them:


The mood of the day: this is the most general factor, and the one with which I suspect most organists and pianist would already be familiar. If the service is celebratory, the music is chosen to suit. A more reflective service will have similar music. Since placement matters a great deal to me, I am aware of the character of the opening hymn (next to the prelude) or the closing hymn (by the offertory), or if the service is travelling in one direction or another—from darkness to light, for example.


Scripture: This is one of the more specific ways to approach instrumental music. There are some pieces that have been written under the inspiration of particular scripture passages, but these are rare. Instead, I try to make broader, or subtler, connections. The week the scripture was the parable of the man who built bigger barns for himself, and the sermon was called “Talking to yourself” I found a “monologue” for organ by googling the words ‘monologue’ and ‘organ.’ (I can’t remember who wrote it now!) I also found a “soliloquy.” This extra-musical approach (or choosing music based largely on its title) does not always yield great music. There are, however, some pieces of purely piano music specifically written with certain scripture texts mind, and when I find them, I store them in a file that I keep on my computer, indexed by scripture, for the week that the occasion arises to play them.  One such group of pieces I heard on the radio driving home from choir practice one night many years ago. Besides the radio, I may stumble across something online—usually when I am looking for something else—or at the library, where occasionally something will literally fall off the shelves in front of me! Or it will turn up in the online catalogue (again, while I am looking for something else). Some pieces came to my knowledge from an online discussion of where to find good church music for piano. There have been those afternoons when I have spent a couple of hours trying to track something down that I’ve heard about somewhere but can’t find the music for—it may be out of print, or otherwise hard to find (not at the library, or interlibrary loan, or at amazon.com, etc.). One year the pastor set me a challenge by asking about something he’d recorded from the radio 20 years ago. He didn’t know the composer, the piece’s title, or anything. But two weeks later I had the music from a publisher in England slid under my door. Success!

I’ve grown to enjoy that kind of musical sleuthing, but there are many other pieces that are standard repertoire and that are just waiting for an opportunity to play them. The sermon is based on the scripture, and my selections are often based on that as well. Unlike the scripture reading itself, the sermon allows for a more conceptual approach. What is the idea being presented here? Unfortunately that can also be more dangerous if the pastor changes his mind at the last minute! But a concept can also be a wonderful chance at a ‘creative reading’ of a piece, or a chance to educate the congregation in music. Not only is education not a dirty word here at Faith, I’ve had several members say some variant of ‘thank you for educating us!’ We are a university town; the idea that a specialist knows more about their specialty than you is not threatening. We all have our specialties, and respect the limits of our own knowledge, especially outside of our own fields.

One week, the parable of the sower yielded a sermon about growth and the behavior of seeds. I used Schumann’s Arabesque to discuss (in the bulletin) the way a composer takes a short musical motive (group of notes) and grows an entire composition out of it. Another sermon on moments of sudden transformation (for transfiguration Sunday) had me playing Debussy, because in the first movement of “Pour le piano” there is a sudden shift from the low range, growling minor key them to a sudden outburst of the same them in a glorious full-chorded major. Musical transformation is a major tool of the classical composer and few people notice it (they are like the travelers at Emmaus before Jesus broke the bread).

Some other ways to connect musical events together are by style or composer. If I can’t find any other way to link pieces, the choir anthem, or the solo anthem, or one of the hymns may provide a way to play another piece in the same vein.


Is this outlandish? It always is as long as most people are not doing it. But I haven’t been fired from a church yet, risk-taking ministry and all. And I hope a few of us, the ones paying attention, have had a chance to grow. It is an enormous, amazing world beyond the church doors, and I keep hearing that the One we are worshipping had something to do with it.


part four: Keeping it Simple   posted May 12, 2012

I think it is fair to say that I have spent the larger part of my efforts as a church musician trying to avoid what I am going to propose as the fourth solution. Part of it rests in my feelings about music, which many of you will no doubt find elitist and snobbish. Let me just say that it is completely natural that persons educated for years in a particular specialty are probably going to see things very differently than a person who knows relatively little about something but likes to engage in that activity for fun. As an advocate for so-called classical music (as broadly defined in the last article) I am a distinct minority in the church or anywhere else. I would like to inspire people to explore and enjoy such music and find that returning to the same congregation every week is a good opportunity to do that. If educating people in music seems like an unholy proposition to you, keep in mind that if we didn't assemble every week to worship, most people would probably get very little exposure to the scriptures, either.

But my desire to play what I play, whether it is from the 'art' literature, or whether it is a product of my own creativity, whether improvisation or composition, also has an important component for my outlook. It fully engages me. If I have to practice hard, if I have to grapple with something, I have to give it my very best. And where your treasure is....

I have spent a lot of time avoiding what most pianists and organists play in church for several reasons, but one of them is practicality. See if you don't notice the next time a catalogue from a church publishing house arrives in your mailbox at church how often the words "easy" and "effective" are used in the write ups to describe the music. They are trying to get you to buy it, of course, and they are appealing to your natural tendency to want to get the biggest bang for the least effort. Or at least they are appealing to your sense of emergency.

Church comes every week, ready or not. Since I am a professional, I spend several hours a day engaged in musical activity. I probably have a lot more time to practice than many of you. I will grant the world looks very different when you have only an hour or so a week to prepare for a Sunday service. I will spend an hour just beginning to work on a piece and not even blink. In college I would spend six to eight hours a day practicing. But back then, we also spent several months preparing a recital. These days, I have the same problem as anyone--lack of time, even if the proportions are different.

Basically, there is no way I'm going to be able to play a new Bach Fugue every week, particularly on the organ. Not that I'd want to. But I couldn't anyway.

I couldn't tell you how many times I've heard that we should do our best for God. But then I'm reminded of that woman that poured ointment on Jesus' feet. It cost her a life savings, and Jesus lauded her for it. But I'll bet she couldn't do that again next week. And there's the problem. Repetition almost demands mediocrity. I've fought it. Words like "easy" and "keep it simple" and "nobody cares anyway" are often code for don't try all that hard, and I struggle against them (and my own laziness). But eventually you have to be practical. You can't keep up otherwise.

One of my solutions to this has been to improvise, as I pointed out in article one, above. This, theoretically, takes no time at all, although doing it well is a skill that needs to be cultivated. Most weeks, I improvise the Postlude, which serves as travelling music anyhow, as the congregation makes a hasty exit. It used to be if you weren't done in 45 seconds at the 8 o'clock service, the usher would turn out the lights on you whether you were still playing or not.

But, while improvisation of pretty much the entire service was my staple during graduate school, I've been finding lately that I'm less drawn to it. Partly, I think, because my job has gotten so complicated that by the 10:30 service I can't really get my head clear enough to concentrate. I can still get through a musical sentence, but the ideas tend to be stale and uninteresting, the development trite and awkward. I've grown tired of the same musical clichés, and besides, I've heard myself do this so many times that the bloom is off the rose. If I can't find something new and interesting to say musically, I'd rather find somebody else who can. Or take the time during the week to plan what I have to say to make sure it's worth saying.

So as I said, there are still times when I will improvise, but the prelude and offertory slots are not one of them, except for those weeks when I really need a break, or nobody told me what was going on in advance.

If this is the case with you, that you feel you can't, or don't want to, improvise, compose, or try to prepare some difficult artistic rendering each week, then you may feel you are driven to the standard literature of the church publishing house.

I've never really been a fan of the typical offerings of these publications. I don't want to unilaterally condemn them, but usually I find the pieces to either be compositionally awkward or uninteresting musically. Technically they are usually well below my difficulty level, though that is not an overriding concern. I do feel that it is important to use all of one's technical abilities without holding back--some of the time--but I don't think that a piece of music that is technically simple is necessarily bad. It may well be an excellent piece, musically. There is, in my mind, no direct correlation between difficultly and quality. Although it is possible that a piece that is simple to play may have a better chance of being a bad piece than one that isn't, merely because an easy piece may have been written by someone who didn't take the time and trouble to learn much about music, or who had little talent in the first place. But even blind squirrels find acorns some of the time (so they say). And there are plenty of pieces with lots of notes that aren't worth the paper they are printed on. If you aren't a pianistic virtuoso you may find yourself agreeing with that last part all too easily. But it is still true.

Building on the insight about simplicity, however, can we not find pieces that can be quickly learned that are also fine pieces to play? At the risk of sounding like a snob, I will call these pieces 'art.' Keep in mind my discomfort with the idea of the quick and easy--it extends, I think, not merely to what takes little time to get under the fingers, but it can also manifest itself in the way composers approach their craft. If the music is made up of trite formulas, or if every piece sounds like every other piece, if little care was spent trying to say something worth saying, possibly due to the economic forces wherein the publisher wished to keep costs down by purchasing the pieces in sets for little money, and the composer had to crank several out before breakfast in order to make a living, then I have little interesting in supporting it. This dynamic, in a strange way, echoes all sorts of products made by paying workers little money for their efforts. It reflects little care, little concern for an individual--piece or person--and I suppose that is part of the philosophy here.

It isn't as though this can be located entirely in any genre, time, or place. It just happens to occur to a large extent in the hymn arrangements that are so popular in 20/21st century Protestantism. The list of musical 'evils' can be briefly enumerated here: They are formulaic, they try to sound pretty regardless of what hymn they are setting, they try to sound flashy regardless of what hymn they are setting, they employ titillating runs and skips that have nothing to do with the rest of the music and are thus vain show-offs (and aren't really as hard as they sound, usually), and worst for the congregation, they are nice and unchallenging for anyone's ears, or faith. They leave us in pretty much the same condition we were in when we entered the church.

But thoughts like these are the luxury of those with time on their hands, right? And those church catalogues do come straight to your mailbox, right? They make it easy to choose something out of them, and you know those sweet old ladies in the back will love hearing another pretty rendition of "The Old Rugged Cross" anyhow.

What I ought to be doing is making your job easier, just as I am trying to find ways to make mine easier (some of the time). What I should be doing is providing resources. Funny you asked.

Life goes by quickly and I work slowly. But I am slowly created a resources page for each of these articles. The improvisation route has its own thread, a series of short exercises designed to stimulate activity in that area. Persons interested in composition will want to check those out as well, unless you are interested in full-fledged lessons (we can talk). The classical route is going to take a bit more time to develop, but I am already compiling a list of things I have played from various centuries and for various circumstances. You will also get some kind of insight into my actual practice by checking the Godmusic page itself and the attached archives from each year; the only thing to note is that most of the context is missing (our church doesn't record our services, post our sermons, or post our bulletins, so only this tip of the iceberg is available to you unless you attend our services). Finally, I am creating a list of pieces that I don't find very difficult. Keep in mind I am a concert pianist and probably, by now, a pretty good organist as well. The mp3 index gives you a gage. By simple, I mean things I can practically sight-read, or that I could play with a couple of days to practice them. You can calibrate your relationship to that forthcoming list accordingly.

My list will still not include many hymn arrangements, although I occasionally find some I like very much, particularly if they avoid the usual cheese and clichés of the rest. I've thought about that issue, though, and here's what I've come up with:

It isn't as though the old familiar hymns don't get representation. Left to their own devices, our congregation chooses the same five hymns nearly every week at our Saturday night service, and on Sundays that we have hymn sings. When the hymns are programmed by our choir director, one of them is usually one of the 'old familiar' hymns. It is important to recognize what the congregation likes. But it is just as important to realize that we are not just there to cater to ourselves. And that means stretching ourselves a little. Since the offertory and prelude are only a part of the service, it isn't really necessary that it be an instrumental version of something we are likely to sing this week or next anyway. But once in a while it isn't a bad move to show solidarity with the musical tastes of a large percentage of your congregation. One week recently a woman from the congregation and I finished a rendering of a familiar hymn for piano duet. The arrangement wasn't too bad, actually, but it wasn't about the music. She had suffered a loss recently (two of them) and from the applause and the smiles of the congregation you could see how glad they were to have her back and sharing her musical talents with us. That is a taste of the kingdom of heaven.


posted February 25, 2012

Having a website can be a bit of a strange proposition after all. There seems to be some sort of an invisible contract between the webmaster and the persons going on the site: usually, you expect a certain amount of new content every so often--the webmaster does it to keep you coming back, and you hope your repeated visits will be worthwhile.

This is particularly true if the provider of the content (in the grandiloquent language of the current election let us call him/her a 'content creator') has been posting on a consistent basis, and promising, implicitly or explicitly, to do so in the future. Case in point: weekly posts of the titles and explanatory notes for the things I play in our church. This is largely accompanied by a recording made by yours truly on one of the instruments in our sanctuary, probably in the last week. This seems pretty nifty since it enables one to hear the week's organ or piano selections even if unable to attend the worship service. I have had persons on vacation comment that they felt connected to the church even when away.

There are exceptions to this: if the music is still under copyright I won't post it (I may soon start to inquire about how to do this legally by getting permission from the copyright holders, etc.) and if one of our church members is collaborating with me I don't make a recording of it. I don't make the recordings on Sunday at the church service itself because I have to use my own equipment and operate it myself and Sunday morning is too complicated to add one more thing--additionally, the recording might be marred by too many extraneous noises (people used to talk loudly over the prelude though we've arranged it so that you can now hear it, which doesn't really seem to have cramped our style too much), including the sound of me running up the aisle after I've started the recording device because I've found that it gets a better sound from the back of the church.

But weekly posts are like any commitment: they seem like a neat idea at first but in the long run all kinds of unexpected obstacles can come along and make them next to impossible.

First there is the standard cry of the overcommitted. Life is busy and there are plenty of things on everyone's plate; I am not different. But assuming there is enough time and I've planned ahead well enough, there are still all kinds of things that can get in the way of making a recording, even if it is a Tuesday afternoon and I don't have a staff meeting that day. For instance, a nest of bird eggs may have just hatched and the inhabitants thereof are chirping their fool heads off because they think it is cool. Last summer I managed to get around this by recording after dark when they'd gone to bed. This might have been a problem, but last year my wife was in Germany researching a dissertation and we have no children so it didn't matter to anybody if I didn't get home till midnight. I developed a habit of sleeping until 8 or 9 and staying up until 1am.

There are also crickets and other fun things to contend with. I spent one session interrupting a beautiful, calm piece by Bach going around the sanctuary trying to find and kill the cricket that was insisting on singing along, badly off key. I am seldom in such a murderous mood; usually I even take spiders outside to let them roam freely away from my wife. Sometimes the creatures interruptis are quite human; brides routinely come in to look at the sanctuary, groups have functions in there (which I usually know about but things happen sometimes), and sometimes people just come by to talk in the middle of a take. The custodian usually vacuums on Fridays, but not always, and I think the guy with the loud mower generally sticks to Mondays, but again, he's flexible. And sometimes I get sick on the wrong day. Or the piano is out of tune. Or the organ. Which sometimes means a recording does not get made because there was a small window in which to make it before it was time to do something else. Although much of the time I can simply shrug my shoulders and try again the next day. Anyway, I haven't heard you complaining about it, so thanks.

By the way, once a recording gets made it isn't always smooth sailing, either. My software, which I use to mix, edit, and export the files, has some interesting bugs in it, and from time to time decides that certain functions should have the day off. The most peculiar of these is a bug where, when you try to save your file, actually ends up destroying it. I've learned to use the save/as function a lot more often as a result (though whenever I make changes to a file I usually save it under a different name anyhow). I call it the "Jesus" bug (whoever wishes to save his file will lose it).

Usually it takes 3 or 4 months for the mp3 finders to find out about a recording, so the bulk of my listeners, who don't care what I played on a particular Sunday at a particular Midwestern church they don't care about, but are looking for a particular piece of music and the search engine led them to my recording, don't need to know any of this anyway. But if you are out there, and you are wondering what my life is like in small doses, there it is. Thank you for listening.



Would Jesus Have Used an Urtext Edition?
finally posted May 23, 2012 (although I obviously started writing it about six weeks earlier)

Sometimes I'm probably too clever.  Last Sunday, Easter Sunday, the pastor preached an unusual sermon on an unusual text. The lectionary likes to go to the gospel of John for all the high holy days because it is very doctrinaire and formally beautiful, but our pastor likes Mark, with a more human Jesus (who even makes mistakes occasionally and shows strong emotions), contains fewer doctrinal lectures, features more unusual incidents involving cursed fig trees, a botched miracle, and so on. He spent some portion of the sermon pointing out that the gospel of Mark actually has three different endings. His is certainly a minority position, but, he said, he likes the original, which ends abruptly, and doesn't tie everything up neatly and happily. Now, as is our Easter tradition, I concluded the service by playing the Widor Toccata. What I can't imagine anybody noticed was that I played it with the original ending.

Ok. you can cough into your hand and say :geek: now. I get it. And what is worse, I felt like writing about it.

Now, unlike Mark, which (if your Bible is at all scholarly, it will point out) has been added to at least twice, one of whose endings now includes a charming bit about snake handling, which for some reason didn't get into the lectionary (!), Charles-Marie Widor apparently changed his mind about his own works so many times (even after publication) that some of his pieces have as many as eight different versions. As a general rule, whenever a classical musician is playing something with multiple versions, it is the last one which is universally preferred, it being assumed that, once dead, the composer can no longer change his or her mind. Entrenched dogma regarding this practice aside, I would generally agree that most composers, even those who showed genius very early in life, grew and learned their craft as they aged, and generally wrote their best works at the end of their catalogues, and revised their earlier works, if they did, to improve them. And anyway, unlike Mark's gospel, we aren't talking about something that was added by a third party.

Lest it seem like we are talking about a case of extreme cleverness here (or extreme obsession over minutiae) I should perhaps explain that it was also may default edition. I've been playing the Toccata every year on Easter since 2004 (save 2010 when we had a guest trumpet and did something else). I first came across the score in the cheapest and therefore least scholarly way possible: on a CD of French Romantic Organ Music. This "CD Sheet Music" (trademarked, no doubt) enables you access to reams of music for only $20. The complete works of Bach, for instance. Or hours of epic French organ works. Back in the day, as a graduate student of the piano, and a naive, untrained organist, I did what most untrained instrumentalists do. I played what was in front of me.

Then I noticed, listening to a recording of someone else on the internet, something unusual. The ending was different. I could have sworn that was a D-flat instead of a d-natural in that second to last chord. And also, that high F at the end, the one that, in my version, ends, and, before the final chords, there is a moment of silence. In the recording, that high F gets held throughout so that there is no pause before the ultimate outburst. Or between those last chords, either. The F binds all the changing harmonies together. Interesting.

It turns out that there are several editions of the Widor Toccata, and that the one that the CD Sheet music people grabbed was apparently the first edition, before Widor had rethought the ending and decided he didn't like that grand pause. Now the scholar in me is thinking I probably ought to go find the last edition and do it "the right way." I've already made one concession to Mr. Widor's later thinking. There is a recording of Widor himself playing the piece. He is 90 years old, and the tempo is a bit on the slow side. Apparently he liked to complain that organists, particularly American ones, took the piece too fast. So I slowed it down a little for this recording.

Honestly, right now I'm not sure I wouldn't prefer it a little faster. But it helped with the accuracy, anyhow, especially since I made the recording the day after Easter, when I was completely exhausted. I'd have gotten to it the day before Easter but there was a seven ton crane operating in our sanctuary.

I'm not kidding. A couple of boards from the ceiling had fallen and we didn't want another one to come down and conk somebody on the head during the Easter Services. I have a picture of it. Anyway, you can add that to my list of excuses for why recordings don't always get done on time. Also, when I get time, I will explain how I feel in dialogue with these pieces as I live and learn and experiment, and how I don't always feel my approach on a given recording is the best one. In other words, like Mr. Widor, I am apt to change my mind.

There is another issue, though, lurking in the background, and that is an economic issue. CD sheet music is cheap. My Dover editions from school are also cheap. That is their point. But they usually do not reflect the latest, greatest scholarly thinking about a piece of music. For that, you generally turn to something like my Henle editions of the Beethoven sonatas, which, back in the 80s, were around $35 each, which was a lot of money. I just looked them up and they are now going for $50 a volume. There are two, so it would take $100 to own all 32 Beethoven sonatas in a scholarly edition. The funny thing is that that doesn't seem as expensive as it used to. But it ain't cheap. These days you can even download the sonatas for the cost of the printing ink.

Those scholarly editions generally have the vaunted word "urtext" on them, which is German for "unmessedwith." The idea behind this is that everything you see on the page was Beethoven's idea. In a less scholarly edition, say, something that might have been prepared for pianists of moderate ability, an editor might insert little interpretive marks, like dynamics, or staccato dots or slurs, or add fingerings or expressive instruction, to aid the student in playing the piece the way the editor thinks it ought to be played. Or at least the way the editor thinks the composer wanted it to be played. Pieces by composers who didn't use all those 19th century instructions, like Bach, now have people adding them to the works so the student pianist doesn't just play a valley of expressionless notes. At the extreme end of this an editor will change the key or shorten the work without mentioning it.

In an urtext edition, the editor usually writes a preface in which he/she lists the sources for the edition. Was it the composer's own manuscript? A first edition? A first edition that the composer owned and made pencil annotations in? Copies the composer's students made? In cases where there are divergent readings--say the same passage has different notes in one version than another---the editor will choose one reading and mention the other in a footnote. Even if there are obvious errors--say the composer surely meant an F# when there is an F natural in all the sources, the editor will usually correct it in small type (and in parenthesis) so you know that they, not the composer, put it there. And all of these policies will be thoroughly explained. The idea is to be as transparent as possible and to try to get at what the composer intended as best as one can through the most painstaking research. The difficulties of all this pay off in the authoritativeness of the edition, and of being the sort of person who is willing to bother with things like this when others don't care. But scholarship is costly.

There is an often overlooked theme running through the gospels, and that has to do with economics as well. Jesus and the religious authorities are always butting heads over this issue. In one of its manifestations, Jesus is accused of not washing his hands before a meal, which not only meant your hands were dirty, it also made you spiritually unclean. He responds that it is what comes out of a person, not what goes in, that determines cleanliness. What is in your heart, and how you live, for instance, rather than whether you performed the proper ritual. But there is more to it than simply choosing to observe or not observe. If you worked in a field all day as a day laborer, barely getting paid enough to be able to feed yourself, you wouldn't have been able to race home for a nice long lunch and wash your hands first. If you lived in a nice house in the city, you had access to water. It was easier to be righteous if you had money.

It is also easier to be scholarly. If you don't have $100 burning a hole in your pocket, though, there are some ways to get around it. For one thing, your university library might have a copy. You may be able to borrow one from someone with such an edition. I've even been known to check my renderings against the common consensus on Youtube. If everybody else is playing a different note there (and my list of everybody elses is limited to people who can really play) then maybe my edition isn't so trustworthy.

Likewise with righteousness--at least to a point. I'm not sure we'll ever figure out precisely why Jesus was angry about the temple merchants. Rome seems to have figured it was because they were collaborating with the Empire. But was it merchandise in general, or merchandise in the temple, or just the way the merchants were going about their business? The law required a sacrifice, but it did allow those with little means to buy pigeons instead of the more expensive animals, and it does not seem to have distinguished among levels of forgiveness. It did not tell those buying the pigeons that they were less forgiven than the ones buying cattle.

On the other hand, if you couldn't wash your hands you weren't clean, and there doesn't appear to have been an initiative to put kosher wells in all the fields. So maybe the system was doing what systems usually do: figuring out how to get the most money out of the most people, which includes being practical about how to get it, and still maintaining a nice thick line between the good ones and the bad ones, the movers and shakers and the rest of you dolts.

If our vision has become blurred, that's the point. There are two standards. Yes, everybody is equal, and no, everybody is not equal. It's been like that since long before Jefferson. Jesus may have been arguing that very point. And he wasn't so scrupulous about how he used the law of Moses to do it. In other words, when it came time to sing a new song he did it. If he had to uproot whole scripture passages in the presence of the Pharisees he'd do it. Preserving the big picture at the expense of their picky little "rules taught by men."

Maybe he wouldn't have been such a fan of the urtext editions. On the other hand, Matthew has him say "Not one jot or tittle shall pass away from the law...."

Now that's pretty detail-oriented.


Sons of Korah
posted March 7, 2014

Last fall our Bible study group was looking at some readings from the book of Psalms. One of them was intended for “the sons of Korah” and that set off a bell and I went looking for what I remembered as a pretty interesting story. Sure enough, there it was in the 16th chapter of Numbers.

It is an old story. And a new one--that is, it renews itself every season. Moses, the leader of Israel, and its priest-in-chief, is quite displeased with the Korahites, who are from the clan of Levites, serving in the tabernacle worship. At the beginning of the story one gets the sense that they have fomented full-scale political rebellion (which may have been the historical reality), but Moses’ summation a few verses later, likely the work of a later priestly writer, I think,  suggests a different interpretation. The Korahites are from the tribe of Levi and are apparently a part of the worship in the tabernacle, though for some reason that isn’t given they seem to think Moses isn’t doing a good job as leader. Moses thinks they have over-stepped their bounds. He thunders that they don’t seem to think it is enough to serve as musicians but now they want to take over the priestly functions, too!  Moses doesn’t feel the need to bring in an arbitrator for this conflict between clergy and musicians. He goes straight to the top. O God, show these people that they can’t get in my—I mean Your way, like that. Let it be writ large on the hearts of all Israel: in other words, smite my enemies and do it in spectacular fashion. Let’s have a great seismic shift so the ground opens up beneath their feet and they all fall in and die gory deaths. And, continues Moses, just in case anybody is not clear on the fact that this is going to be Divine Retribution, lest they think that having the ground open up and swallow the offending Korahites wholesale is just some kind of coincidence and not an indication of whose side God is on—let’s make sure the ground opens up at precisely the time I am finished speaking. Not 30 seconds from now, not tomorrow, not a week from Tuesday, O God, do it now! –please.

Of course that is exactly what happens. Right on schedule, and very cinematically, to be sure. I love the anxiety built into the story over having to prove that this is most decidedly God’s hand at work and that the disaster to come could not have come about just by accident, say, by way of a random sinkhole, though I doubt that sort of exactitude would have been necessary for the original readers of the story—the priests, and perhaps the assembly of Israel, who would have known better than to ask why.  Like moviegoers who cheer when the bad guy gets what’s coming to him, they would have already aligned their sympathies with Moses, their founding hero, and relished tales of the destruction of anyone who got in his way. A little natural superstition could have taken care of the rest. And not just in ancient Israel.

I am reminded of the fellow here in Illinois last fall who wrote what must be the 50,000th installment of the God-sends-storms-when-he’s-angry trope. In a letter to the editor he suggested that the tornados that devastated several towns in our immediate environs were God’s response to the fact that the Illinois legislature legalized same-sex marriage.

I didn’t have time then to waste ink in response, but I could have suggested that there were, perhaps, holes in his logic, that there were any number of other things God could possibly be mad at (including his ignorance), and that in any case there might have been more productive and accurate ways of showing His Divine Displeasure. Which is where the timing and location of God’s response in the story from Numbers becomes so tantalizingly secure and a nice bulwark against crazy Liberals like myself who have to doubt that human power struggles always have God’s imprimatur on the side of the chronicler. For instance, suppose God had sent those tornados on the same day that the governor signed the legislation, even the same hour! Rather than waiting a couple of weeks. And suppose he’d decided to choose a more liberal target, rather than a few socially conservative small towns in downstate Illinois, far away from the legislature He is angry with, and where, quite possibly, hardly a soul is in support of same-sex marriage to begin with. Why target them? Why not open a crack in the earth and swallow the legislature? [by the way, as I write this, the people of Alabama and Georgia are dealing with a terrible winter storm. Both of those states are very conservative and both ban gay marriage by constitutional amendment. I have no idea what God could be angry about in this case, nor have I heard any helpful preachers tell me, unless it is just that they have to share a country with other states that allow it.]

So there go all of the Korahites, down into the earth, sorry, too late, that they had rebelled against Moses’s authority. The Bible does not give details about what it is they did, exactly, preferring to spend more time on the rhetoric, and the fact that there is an argument going on (a foreshadowing of today's media coverage?) but it is clear on who is on the right side. There is a small problem, though. As I pointed out after relating the story to the assembled multitudes (a few friends and our cat) the Psalms—several of them—refer to the sons of Korah, serving in the temple. Now if the Korahites were all destroyed back in Moses’s day, what are their descendants doing serving in the temple centuries later? And apparently with sufficient importance that several Psalms were either written by them or intended for their use?

Shh. You’re not supposed to ask that question. It might give the impression that some ticked off priests just put the story in there well after the fact to warn the musicians to stay in line, and also to make themselves feel better, the way an angry adolescent might write a story about their math teacher going to a fiery doom after a major homework assignment. Which would make it Wish fulfillment, not history, which is often stubbornly, and highly, unfair. [Actually, I did later encounter a phrase in Numbers 26 that tells me that the "The line of Korah, however, did not die out" which makes having descendants alive centuries later a bit easier. And it means that either somebody in the Priesthood noticed this problem before I did and stuck the phrase in there, or, as would certainly be more popular with believers, it is actual history which the chronicler just happened to not mention until 10 chapters later in a geneology for some reason. Apparently having "everybody associated with them" die did not necessarily include the "wives and little ones" who, in the 16th chapter of Numbers are found standing right next to the men shortly before the earth swallows those men. But you're all aware of those old television serials in which someone appear to have died at the end of one week's episode only to somehow have made it out. Oh, and did I mention the fire that consumes 250 of them at the same time? An ancient precursor to the way that everything in the movies associated with the bad guy turns out to be spontaneously combustible.]

Now I mentioned that this story is so old it is new. Conflicts between clergy and musicians are legion, sadly, and some ink (though not nearly enough) has been spent in counseling. In this regard I am quite lucky to have an excellent relationship with both of my pastors. They are both serious, purposeful persons, but they can also be very silly at times—much of it, really. I sent one of them an article some months ago about organists in England who were sneaking contraband tunes into the worship service in protest over various priestly overreaches (at least in their minds)—including one fellow who got sacked following a rendition of “Send in the Clowns” when it was time for the priests to process—however, in my church, if the organist plays something a bit ‘unliturgical’ during the morning prayer response, it is probably because the pastor put him up to it! Having a sense of humor about your role and the likelihood that you won’t always get what you want helps. Unfortunately, some folks don’t seem to have one. Or it is tipped with poison and barbed wire!

Some day I’m likely to start a blog to help church musicians. And when I do I will certainly have to discuss conflicts with the clergy. While I have practically no personal experience in this area (thankfully) it seems to me that the conflicts generally fall into a few broad categories, in which the opposite party’s perception is as much a factor as the behavior of the parties themselves. Consider the following far-from-subtle statements:

the clergy are control freaks and/or have insufficient understanding/regard for their musicians and/or are threatened by them

The musicians have no sympathy for either what they have in common with the clergy or what makes them distinct and are unwilling to bend any of their personal notions of how church music must be executed.


broadly speaking, there are two ways to grease the skids a bit, one of which requires musicians to improve their skills in a variety of areas so that, when asked, they are even capable of showing some flexibility. Sometimes musicians balk at requests from the people around them because they simply don’t know how to do what is asked. No matter how trained a musician is in one area it is possible that they may be completely incapable in another (such as being able to improvise, for example).

The other is to concentrate on social skills, which first require an attitude such that both the musician and the priest/pastor prefer to have things go smoothly between them and do not wish to show each other up, even when they feel that their understanding of a situation is the correct one. That first step may be the most important. The rest of the journey requires patience in order for mutual understanding and respect to be built up over time, which is the only way it CAN proceed.  I would second Erik Routley’s request: [clergy] talk to your musicians. And don’t expect to build Rome in one day. It wasn’t destroyed in one day, either. Remember that.

In the meantime, you could always avail yourself of the opportunity to blow off some steam by writing a story in which your nemesis goes to some kind of violent and dramatic end in a divinely sanctioned showdown between you and your adversary. Just a word of advice: don’t post it online and don’t show it to anybody until years afterward. Who knows? It could even wind up in the Bible if there is ever a second edition.