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…


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.


Art and the Sin of Apathy

September 10th, 2010

On Monday through Friday I wake up at 7:00am, make a latte or some coffee, and spend the first hour or so of my day with God.  My wife wakes up at 8:00, I spend some time with her over breakfast and a little more coffee, and we’re both off to work by 8:45.  The job I have isn’t great, but between our two incomes we make it just fine.  Plus I very much enjoy the people I work with and building relationships with my co-workers has proven to be a very positive part of my life.  At 5:00pm I punch out and head home where my wife and I make dinner and discuss the intimate details of our young lives together.  On Wednesday nights we go to prayer meeting at our church.  On Friday nights we spend time building relationships with people in our church over dinner and games to start the weekend during which we take care of our domestic logistics and rest from a productive week of work and study (we try to learn more about various subjects with our spare time with the resources available to us).  This is the way our quiet and beautiful life together has been for some time now, and although children or unexpected changes may shape our life differently in the foreseeable future, for now things are stable and there is no reason to alter anything in any way.

For those of you who haven’t realized that I haven’t actually been describing my life, welcome back to reality.  I have only been describing the life I long for in my weaker moments.  While its a perfectly plausible and very happy reality for many people my age, I am unable to pursue it because of the task that God has clearly set before me.

Retain the image I have set before you and take it to its logical conclusion.  A happy couple with no real ambition outside of loving God and loving others.  They have a good marriage with no pressing needs or concerns; just two people living comfortable in the presence of God.  Let this comfort go on long enough and eventually their passion for life will fade.  Scripture will become words, the redundancy of work will not bring fulfillment, relationships will become stale.  How can this be kept from happening?

This is one of the best apologies I can give for undertaking this seemingly masochistic pursuit of music composition.  What better way is there to look at specific aspects of the world in a fresh way than through a form of expression that uses a completely universal and wonderfully unique method of creative communication?  What a fresh and wonderful way of portraying the noise of our distracted culture John Corigleono presented in Circus Maximus.  What a beautifully passionate and hopeful outlook on death Takashi Yoshimatsu presented in his “Fuzzy Bird Sonata”.  How do people fight their apathetic outlook without various forms of artistic expression helping them attend to existence in ways they’ve never considered?

At this point I feel the need to discuss apathy.  First of all, it’s a sinful attitude to be indifferent towards God’s creative work which is part of his glory.  If it’s a sin to be indifferent to creation, how much more to be indifferent to his word, his will, or your fellow man for whom Christ died?  Is God an apathetic being in regards to anything?  Since he is not, we cannot be either and art keeps us from this sin.  Apathy is a powerful temptation because it is a seemingly useful tool for acquiring happiness (or a cheap substitute for it).  One way to eliminate pain is to stop caring about the part of you that is in pain.  You get upset with politics so you stop caring; life gets a little easier at the expense of something important.  Thus apathy leads to bliss which is an “emotion” enjoyed by fools.

So then, apathy is to be avoided at every level.  Care deeply about God, people, the created world, and the dark powers that work against them.  Do everything in your power to maintain your passion for good.  But how?  Well, as I was saying, perceiving the world in a variety of different ways will help you to continue caring.  Keeping a fresh perceptive on the whole of life will keep you from the sin of apathy and help to bring you into a full and rich awareness of the wonderful life that God has given you.

Sorry if I sound pretentious, but the fine arts (by that I mean work that actually attempts to say something worthwhile) are more important than the football game. Spending an hour with great art will open your senses to new ways of perceiving creation, people, God, and your own life in wonderfully rich ways.  Do consider it.


An Indirect Solution

June 3rd, 2010

One of you says, “I follow Martin Luther”; another, “I follow the Pope”; another, “I follow Baptist doctrine”; still another, “I follow Christ.” Is Christ divided? Was the Pope crucified for you? Were you baptized into the name of the Baptist denomination?

C.S. Lewis describes the Christian denominations as a single house with multiple rooms. If you are part of the house, you are living for the same purpose and with the same life direction (seeking a personal relationship with Jesus Christ and behaving accordingly). However, every Christian gravitates towards people with the same specific doctrinal beliefs. Lutherans are in one room, Evangelicals another, Anglicans another, and Roman Catholics another. There is nothing wrong with this. It’s a big book and we’re going to disagree on how to interpret it. But the problem comes in when these different groups refuse to leave their rooms and associate with other people in their family. This behavior doesn’t encourage people from the outside to come into the house and enjoy a relationship with Jesus Christ themselves (which should be our greatest concern). On the contrary, it discourages them from entering and is actively counterproductive to the work of the gospel. Not to say that we have any power over the effectiveness of the Lords work, but he does want his children to be obedient. I Corinthians 1:10, “I appeal to you, brothers, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree with one another so that there may be no divisions among you and that you may be perfectly united in mind and thought.” Then Paul says this again in Philippians 2:1-2, “If you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any fellowship with the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and purpose.”

Unfortunately, all of the various denominations are so set in their different doctrines that they have deprived the body of Christ from necessary diversity. For example, Baptists don’t tend to associate with Pentecostals because Baptists are stiff and reserved while the Pentecostals are hyperactive and emotional. When people of these types don’t worship together, the Baptists become too stiff and the Pentecostals too emotional. Worshiping God must have aspects of both thoughtful meditation (Psalm 119:27) and of joyful noise (Psalm 98); Baptists and Pentecostals need each other in order to not take their natural tenancies too far. Different denominations contain different types of people, and these different types need to each other in order to maintain healthy and well balanced worship. In other words, denominations create extremes.

Getting God’s people to come back into the commons area of God’s house is going to be quite a challenge. In fact I don’t really see how its even possible. But where humans fail, God will succeed. Not only that, but he will succeed while using us to do it. That being said, I don’t quite understand the implications of the idea that I am now going to present to you. I see how it could work, but I know that it is not going to happen the way I think it is. Only God can move in the hearts and minds of his people to having the response necessary in order bring the body of Christ back together again. All I can do is present an idea that God has put on my heart. What God does with it in your hearts is up to him.

To bring all the churches together something must develop that members from all of the various denominations can be a part of. Higher education is already doing this to a large extent. For example, Cornerstone University (where I did my undergraduate studies) has more than 45 denominations represented in its student body. After growing up in a Baptist environment my entire life, this was an incredible opportunity for my ideas to merge with the view points of students from other backgrounds. It resulted in me actually getting into God’s word and discovering truth like I’d never experienced it before. This is the type of growth that could happen should Christians find something comparable to this in their own communities. Unfortunately, higher education can only go so far since it is very expensive and it is completely unreasonable to hope for a Christian university in every geographic context. It is also unreasonable to expect private elementary and high school education to accomplish church unity since this targets a fairly narrow demographic.

Music education is very peculiar. Because of the performance orientation it has, it drives people from very different backgrounds into that same room to enjoy an intellectually rich presentation together. Since the audience is typically connected with one of the people performing, and the people performing are connected to one another, these performances result in social connections that would’ve been impossible any other way. In this way music education has the power to bring random people together in order to strengthen the relational context of a community. But then make everyone in that room a passionate believer in Christ Jesus, and the result isn’t just a well connected community. What results is a well connected church that otherwise did not exist provided that this program does not exist only in a single church. And this finally brings us to the point I wish to make.

Create an inexpensive and Christ oriented music education program in a community that is connected with every church in that community, enroll representatives from every congregation to participate, back it up with prayer, and encourage every congregation to observe the resultant artistic presentation, and you will see entire church bodies uniting starting with the individual layperson and working its way up into the leadership.

If you live in the Lansing area and would like to see this happen, look over the plan in my blog entitled “The Church’s School of Music” and contact me to let me know you want to help make this happen. If you don’t live in the Lansing area but you would like to see this happen in your community, be bold and give it a try.

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Thank you all so much for your support by inviting people to join the Facebook group.  I’ve been pretty overwhelmed by the results so far.  To the newcomers, thank you for joining us and taking a look at what God is doing here.  Feel free to invite your Facebook friends to the group yourself.  You can find instructions on how to do this in the post from last week.

May God continue to work out his plans in completely unpredictable ways.


Professional Musicians?

May 2nd, 2010

I want to make something very clear before I start:  Some people have recently confronted me with the fact that many people don’t believe that there is a God (or that he is not who he says he is).  A few people have even unfriended me on Facebook out of anger because I say what I know to be true (How’s that for religious tolerance?  I could understand leaving my website group, but wow…).  They think that my approach to reasoning through these discourses is flawed because I assume that everyone agrees that God exists. The thing is, if we are going to be held accountable for the things we did here on earth after we die, and if God did reveal his word to us which we are expected to obey, and he did make the atoning sacrifice so that our sins could be forgiven provided that we believe and behave in accordance with that belief, then that changes everything.  To not mention God in my arguments would be to say things that I don’t believe to be true.  If you want to say anything about how to live life at all, you have to choose whether you’re living for yourself, or living for the Creator.  I happen to know God, and I happen to talk to him every day through prayer and the study of his word.  I don’t simply think he exists; I know he does and I’m in very good company.  I will never post anything outside this context.  Moving on…

Not professional in the sense that one is trained and very good at what they do, but simply in that one makes most of their income from writing and playing music.  My new CD, Purpose, is hopefully coming this June (although it may end up being later since life keeps happening) and it has been causing me to reflect very deeply on the purpose God intended music to serve.  Each purpose that I’ve considered while writing the music for this project does not seem to require the existence of professional musicians.  While the project itself proves that a very high artistic level is pleasing, it is being done by students who will probably never make the majority of their income from performing or composing.  If I myself stay the course I am on, I will never be a professional composer but I will be a teacher.  For some time now I’ve been bitter about this and have had a desire to make a valiant attempt to work out a way for professional composers to actually exist to the extent that I could hope to become one.  But I’m beginning to see that the purpose of music can be fulfilled without people generating most of their income from it.

At this point we have to establish what purpose God originally intended music to fulfill.  My subjective explanation is that the all encompassing purpose of music is to communicate difficult concepts decisively and in a different way.  For example, I was told by many people that my abortion piece provoked tears.  This indicates to me that the music effectively communicated what I intended, which was to depict abortion for what it is.  Obviously, God has blessed that work with the ability to communicate its intended message very effectively.  To me this is a clear demonstration that music can teach us things that can be difficult to express in other ways.  That piece taught me personally just how awful and devastating abortion is, and yet I’ve perceived countless hours of very good presentations devoted to the subject.  Once I finished that recording and listened to it, I understood  the situation much more clearly than I ever had previously.  “Music is communication.”

In order for this purpose of effective teaching/communication to be fulfilled, musicians being paid is not at all a prerequisite.  Replace my proposed purpose with something else and you will most likely be able to reach the same conclusion.  Extensive knowledge and skill is a prerequisite, but myself and all of the people I call my peers are already fulfilling these purposes and none of us are making a living by making music.  Apparently music’s purpose is being fulfilled without any significant amount of money being paid.

I suppose I must now address how I justify undergraduate and graduate level studies while knowing that my education is relatively useless for generating a larger income.  As believers, since when has anything God led us to do been for the sake of our own selfish pleasure?  Since when has God called us to make an enormous commitment like college in order to indulge our desire for more wealth?  My education in music composition has not been for the sake of me generating an income, but rather to serve by effectively communicating truth that can’t be expressed in any other way.  I would not be able to write like I do had I not had the training that God clearly called me to endure.  Graduate study has been the only way for me to be prepared to serve the church in the way that God wants me to serve.

Don’t just give a gift, be a gift.

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