Posts tagged: music

On church music

By , 19 March 2010 7:00 pm

There are many indicators that you are getting old, or at least older. I suspect one of them is that you increasingly find yourself grumbling about church music. So at the risk of alienating some of my few friends let me make some comments. I should say though that they are not entirely directed at my own church but elsewhere.

This reflection was triggered curiously enough by an interview in a paper with a fireworks expert (there’s probably a special term for them) who do these wonderful firework displays that accompany music. His comment – I forget the precise words – was that he preferred working with classical musicians because they didn’t put themselves forward. The point was that with rock groups he found that he had personalities to deal with and they apparently wanted the limelight over his fireworks. Well the application to church music is pretty straightforward.

Mind you I don’t entirely blame our musicians, most of whom are under thirty. I suspect previous generations, by and large, held to classical music as the supreme model of musicianship. And there even the most extrovert of pianists or violinists is still bound by the score and, at least hopefully, the conductor. Of course there has been a trend as cult of personality with the conductor for which we have, I imagine, very little parallel in church music; though some of you may worship in churches where music groups are large enough to require a conductor. But in general classical musicianship centres on humility and reticence and the art of not getting in the way of letting the music speak. The problem now is I think that we have seen the replacement of this classical model by a newer model based around the musician as rock star. Here it is the performer, not the music, that comes to the front. This of course flies in the face of the idea that all the contributors to a worship service (and here I include the preacher) are servants. So I think there is a need to remind musicians that they serve the service and do not rule it.

The second problem I think is the rise of amplification. Now we need amplification; and some musicians need it badly. Here I am particularly thinking of the more light-voiced singers. The problem is that it is all too easy to end up with some sort of ceaseless arms race; the bass guitarist has to be heard over the drums so he or she is miked and amped, then the lead guitarist has to be given a few more watts of power so that he or she can be heard and this means that vocal amplification has to be increased. By this time, the overall balance generally has been thrown out and everybody cranks up the volume one more notch. The resulting problem is not just a volume level that is far too loud. It is that balancing the resulting rapidly changing melange of amplified sounds to create a clear and harmonious whole is beyond the ability of the average church PA kit and the average church PA person.

Let me add one final point which I have never heard anybody propound in church, which is rather a pity because it’s important. While it is commonly assumed that the older people get the deafer they become; it is probably truer to say that what actually happens is the range of frequencies over which they hear becomes narrower. The result is that the more senior members of the congregation can actually find noise levels more irritating than young people because it is swamping some of the few frequencies they have left.

There are other things that I can add. The key is surely that we are to serve each other and put others first. And that is, of course, the key not just to the success of church music.

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