Acceptable Sounds for Worship; Quality

January 17th, 2011

What are you capable of?  How much more time do you have to spend in practice?  Is someone available that has more time and would do a better job?  What is your motivation for being in front of your church playing an instrument or singing?  Are these fair questions?

“Therefore, brothers and sisters, since we have confidence to enter the Most Holy Place by the blood of Jesus, by a new and living way opened for us through the curtain, that is, his body, and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near to God with a sincere heart and with the full assurance that faith brings, having our hearts sprinkled to cleanse us from a guilty conscience and having our bodies washed with pure water. Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for he who promised is faithful. And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching.”

Hebrews 10:19-25 (NIV)

My siblings in Christ, this is what we are doing on Sunday mornings during services.  This is what we are doing anytime we come together in prayer, fellowship, study, or song.  This is worship.  When we join together in song on Sunday morning or any other time, we are entering the throne room of God through the blood of our Lord Jesus to spend time pouring our hearts out to the King of the universe.  If we are going to insist on using music at our meetings, I would expect that the people or person leading the music take it more seriously than anything else they do during their week (unless the same person is speaking).

I have an unsettling number of memories of worship services that were clearly not taken seriously.  Sometimes this has been demonstrated through an effort issue in which a better sound was possible but not attempted because it was “good enough for church” (being out of tune due to laziness during performance for example).  Sometimes it has been a preparation issue that should have been avoided through more individual study and practice. Sometimes it has been because a person incapable of the task leads music because they were “led by the spirit” to do so.  If the music during services is being taken as seriously as it should be taken, should we not see people’s most valiant efforts to sound as good as possible?  Unfortunately, the issue of taking the music seriously is a surface issue, the possible causes of which are much more diabolical.

Being a highly trained musician, I know all too well the extreme temptation of thinking too much of myself after a performance that brings people to their feet in appreciation for what I just accomplished.  While it’s fine to be pleased that I have pleased others, it is not fine to be pleased with myself for all the hard work I did to get that reaction (that is pride, the sin that made Satan who he is). I should be pleased only to the end that I brought pleasure to my audience.  Leading worship with music requires humility in performance to be taken to a whole new level. When I do a recital, it’s half about me being really good at music and half about teaching people about God through music.  Pleasing my audience for the sake of pleasing my audience is on my agenda.  However, when someone leads worship with music their agenda should not be to please others, but to lead both their self and their congregation into passionate worship of our Creator.  If someone is pleased with the leader, I hope it is because the leader played or sang so effortlessly, skillfully, and passionately that the layman saw Christ right through the leader and worshipped Christ without a second thought towards what the leader was doing.  Therefore, every musical leader in a church should search themselves deeply and honestly in order to find their motivation behind leading worship.  Regardless of what they find within themselves, humility has to be the top priority before leading music.  If this one thing were handled more honestly, many issues related to taking musical worship seriously would be solved.

Take ability for an example. As a music teacher, I can confidently say that consistent practice for a notable length of time will always yield an increase in proficiency.  If someone is not showing steady progress in their technique, then they’re clearly not taking the role of leading a congregation into the throne room of the Almighty through the blood of Christ seriously enough. If not practicing would not be acceptable in a recital hall, how much less in this context?  If people are getting on the stage in church and not giving the sacrifice of praise they are capable of, what is this saying about their motivation for leading worship? As I hope you are beginning to see, the attitude required in order to lead musical worship takes care of these other problems.

Humility causes the right motivation. The right motivation causes leading music to be taken very seriously. Taking worship seriously causes refined technique. Therefore, just as good works are the natural result of faith (James 2:14-25), good technique is the natural result of humility.

So how good should the music be in church to be acceptable?  Depending on the cultural context, the size of the church, the availability of skilled people, and the quality of the local teachers, the music should be the best in town.  However, it should also be very different because of the reason behind the sound…


Art and Imagination

November 29th, 2010

This an essay that a good (anonymous) friend of mine wrote a while back.  It seems to tie some of the things that we’ve been discussing together and I’m exited about showing this to all of you.  Don’t forget to click the “like” button on the bottom!

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Art is a set of actions, rather than an object. When I see a painting, I see the actions someone has done with a set of given materials. Artistry is an act of creation. Thus, giving someone a cold glass of water in Christ’s name is a work of art. Witnessing and giving a sermon is a work of art. We believe that the Holy Spirit inspires us and brings new life, which in turn changes the way we act. In this way, spiritual fruit, the act, becomes art: we engage in the act of creation, imitating God in the beginning.

When we see the natural world, we see the creation of the Master Artist, even though both the natural realm and our perceptual faculties are filthy with sin. As disciples, one of the ways we grow is by fellowshipping (communicating) with other Spirit-indwelt believers.  This communication may take many forms, but it may be boiled down to action. A sermon, for example, is an action: it is art. The preacher engages in an action that involves communicating truth to the congregation.

Art, then, is a witness and a discipler, because it is a set of actions that communicates truth from a Spirit-indwelt believer to the world. This holds true for music, literature, paintings, sculpture, architecture, etc. All of these forms may be as didactic as any Western sermon (though most CCM today is not. As Grudem notes in his Systematic Theology, “[W]hen I began to select hymns that correspond to the great doctrines of the Christian faith, I realized that the great hymns of the church throughout history have a doctrinal richness and breadth that is still unequaled”). Art in this sense, can also do the work of systematic theology texts (and for many, it is more memorable.)

All of this hinges on the act of communicating, which invokes the concept of the metaphor. Because our feeble brains are not capable of comprehending God fully, we understand his characteristics are like unto other things, but always better (here the imagination is at work). So when David declares that “The Lord is my rock, and my fortress,” we obviously don’t believe that the Lord is actually a rock or a fortress, but our imagination allows us to make the jump from that metaphor to an understanding of the Lord really is like: stable and unmoved, like a fortress, only better. This is how the imagination is tied to worship. The imagination allows us to make attempts at seeing what cannot be seen from what we can see.

Art is a way of explaining these things because it welds the natural realm to transcendence. “The heavens declare the glory of God, and the firmament showeth his handiwork. Day unto day uttereth speech, and night unto night showeth forth knowledge. There is no speech nor language where their voice is not heard.” The ultimate tapestry reveals truth in a way that is not actual speech, but it is of course communication. Human art, then, is a way of imitating God and conveying his truth.

Art, then, can be a sermon. It can be a teacher, a discipler. Art is one of the best ways to awaken our minds to the worldly areas of our minds, since much art from the past was created by the greatest Christian thinkers of all time. When Dante came to Purgatory, the place of cleansing and preparation for Paradise, he noticed many souls staring at carvings in the stone walls. The carvings were works of art, many of them portraying Biblical scenes, and the point seems to be that art can be used by God as a purifier, a conveyor of truth and beauty. Dante, Dostoevsky, Caravaggio, and Bach are no less brilliant teachers in my mind than Grudem.

Beyond the teaching aspect, art can also be legitimately pleasurable. On this Calvin writes, “Has the Lord clothed the flowers with the great beauty that greets our eyes, the sweetness of the smell that is wafted upon our nostrils, and yet it will be unlawful for our eyes to be affected by that beauty, or our sense of smell by the sweetness of that odor…Did he not, in short, render many things attractive to us apart from their necessary use?” So apart from the necessaries, there is something about beauty that is good for us. One must ask, “Why, then, did God give us flowers? or pleasure at all?” I submit that we not only learn more about the beauty and the joy of the Lord, but it is an aesthetic experience that is wholly separate from knowledge and wisdom, and equally desirable.

One final point involves the skill necessary to complete certain pieces of art. When building the tabernacle, the Israelites selected only the finest craftsmen to complete the Lord’s house. This suggests that only the best will do for God, as in the first fruits. This is deeply connected with how David speaks of worshiping God in the “beauty of holiness.” To be holy is to be separate. There are many works of art that the layperson will never be able to imitate; these beautiful artworks (sets of actions) are beautiful because they are distinct and set apart. This suggests that true beauty is separate and transcendent, and that all beauty that we can ever see in art is merely a signifier, a pointer to true beauty: God.


Violin and Clarinet Duet – Proclamation

November 13th, 2010

I’ve learned to never force music into the box I originally intended it to be put into, but this violin and clarinet duet took that concept to a new level for me. My original plan was to write a sacred work for violin and saxophone for my friend and I to play during communion services. Typically, communion has two musical segments; one for each communion element. So, I wanted the work to be two movements with each being less than two minutes long. The first movement came together very naturally and very quickly, but then life happened and I never got around to writing the second movement. When I finally got a chance to work on it again, I realized that there was no good musical reason to add a second movement. I also realized that the only reason I was using the saxophone was because I sound my best on it. Clarinet blends with violin much more naturally (although I attribute this partly to traditional bias) and the very simple part I had written for it makes more sense with a simpler sound. I rewrote the piece for violin and clarinet thinking I would just have my wife play it instead (although I ended up recording it since we weren’t married yet and she was 650 miles away at the time). So I started with a two movement work for violin and saxophone to be used for communion and ended up with a one movement work for violin and clarinet to be used for who knows what.

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The recording process was another matter. I had most of the Purpose project squared away with only this piece left to record. I got off my night shift at 6:00am on Sunday morning and set to work on laying down the clarinet track so that Eva could come and add her part that afternoon. I armed the four microphones I was using and combined several takes to form a satisfactory performance. Before I remembered that I hadn’t saved my progress, the power went out and I was forced to try again and ended up with a significantly better sound (and I still made it to church on time). That afternoon I got all the takes I needed from Eva and finally went to bed (I’d been up since Saturday afternoon). On Monday I woke up only to discover that all of the files for the violin’s tracks had been scattered beyond repair. I was only able to salvage the files from one microphone resulting in a very thin sound. But just for kicks, I tried muting 3 of the four clarinet recordings so that they would both sound thin and be able to blend. To my surprise I liked the result very much. It certainly wasn’t the pristine audio quality I wanted for the Purpose project, but there was an irresistible authenticity in the sound that spoke with an innocence and a sincerity that I could not have possibly come up with intentionally. Instead of redoing the recording, I decided to sit on the idea of using what I had. When I tried listening to the CD in its entirety to see whether or not the transitions worked, I finally decided that this authentic and unrefined sound perfectly captured the reason I made the CD.

From the very first note, everything about this CD is polished and seemingly flawless in the aspects of performance, composition and engineering. Except for a few minor details, I could not have made this project any better even if more resources had been available to me. The first six tracks work together to communicate to the listener that life has value, meaning, and purpose and it is a wonderful gift from God that is worth your time to seek and understand. But what does all this look like? Where does it lead? It leads us to the feet of Jesus with nothing to offer but our love and authentic awe and worship. How would I depict this musically? I pick up an instrument I can’t play well enough to impress anyone with and play Amazing Grace with a sister in Christ Jesus. No virtuosic technique. No polished well-mastered recording. Not even a terribly original composition. Just two people showing authentic and sincere adoration for their creator through sound. A simple “I love you” to the creator of the universe. The very essence of the purpose of life.


Saxophone and Clarinet – Essence Altered

October 7th, 2010

I originally wrote this saxophone and clarinet duet for Liz and I to play at our wedding. It is, however, perfect for any setting whether it be for a wedding, church service, or a recital (I’ve used it for all three). However, since it was designed to be played by a bride and groom, the idea is to depict two people becoming one in the music. This is exactly what happens at a wedding, and the piece’s dissonant beauty reflects this sacred concept. This concept should be made clear to your audience so that they properly understand the piece.

This sample is taken from my album, Purpose. Click here for more information; its total length is 5 minutes

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Sample score

Additional information

I am now going to disclose my full intended meaning for this saxophone and clarinet duet, and I fear that both good-willed and malicious people may misunderstand. Discussing sexuality can be a very sensitive thing because of how our culture has mutilated it. We have taken an innocent and beautiful part of creation and removed it from its proper context thereby perverting the entire concept; from the act itself to its relational and spiritual application. Currently, sexuality is always associated with copulation in one way or another and people cannot seem to get this out of their minds. Sexuality can be (and in this context should be) understood as a deeply intimate relational concept that refers to a certain level of connectivity between physical sentient beings. It cannot be related to animals and it cannot be related to spirits. It is for the spirit-animal hybrids that we humans are. It has something to do with sex and as well as something to do with the marriage relationship and its intimate spiritual connectivity.

While this piece refers primarily to the spiritual aspects of sexuality, the sex act makes the spiritual aspects possible which is why its purpose in uniting man and wife cannot go undiscussed. Between Genesis 2:24, I Corinthians 7:4, and Ephesians 5:28-31, it is quite clear that a married couple is to be regarded not just as a unit, but a single physical organism. How this works is something of which Paul writes in Ephesians 5, “This is a profound mystery.” When a couple gets married, their resultant relationship is so deep and so profound that eventually their body, soul, and mind literally begin to function as a single unit. Two separate beings slowly growing to know each other perfectly and in every way in order to become one while each individual maintains the wonderfully complex distinctiveness that God gave each of them. Sex seems to have something to do with this, but it’s simply a means to an end. This end is what I’m attempting to get at with this piece; that profound mystery that I will never understand.

The first thirty seconds or so begin with a technique in which I give the performers a set of notes and tell them to improvise for a set amount of time. I’ve written the pitch sets in such a way as to leave no possibility for resolution so that by the time this section is over an unsettled and yet profoundly peaceful atmosphere has been created. This resultant texture represents two restless spirits of a living man and woman who are longing to be with one another; the essences of two human beings passionately desiring the fundamental change needed for them to become a single entity without compromising their distinctiveness.

After this opening improvisatory section, the rest of the piece consists of a simple three part form. The outer sections resemble a series of long sighs in which the instruments slowly merge in and out of each other’s timbre and pitch. The resultant sequence of dissonance and consonance is reflective of the intensity, depth, beauty, and mystery of the love found within the marriage relationship. However, since I’m depicting a change, the first of these outer sections deals with the relationship before the fundamental change that begins after marriage.

The middle section takes a motive from the limited melodic material presented in the first section and elaborates on it. This development is accompanied by the same type of improvisation as in the beginning, but this time with direction and intent. These elements work together to push the sound back into the sighs depicted at the beginning. The saxophone’s improvised texture is designed in such a way as to envelop the the clarinet’s sound while still allowing the clarinet to be clearly heard. Heading towards the climax of the piece the clarinet and saxophone both begin to have windows of improvisation. The lines (both improvised and not) dance around one another with increasing energy, finally pausing on a single pitch in unison. The two lines then separate with a sharp attack on the same dissonant interval which we heard in the beginning that resolves to reveal a much more intense and in depth joyful sigh compared to what we heard in the beginning. When the saxophone resolves the sigh, the clarinet responds by cascading down to a lower register which results in a related and peaceful sound caused by all of the sound that came before it.

The final section represents the goal of this fundamental change. The two distinct and complimentary people are now seen as one person. Their essences can now freely pass in and out of one another without fear and without shame. They know and are known deeply by one another.

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