Editorial License

Rob Hammerton, music educator etc.

Supporting the Message of the Day -or- Levels of Appropriateness

As a musical ensemble director, for many years I’ve had to keep an eye on the question of: what repertoire is appropriate? Appropriate for the ensemble’s abilities? Appropriate to properly represent the school or organization with which it’s affiliated? … Appropriate for human consumption?

I mean, other than the songs I wouldn’t program for my marching band or concert band or choir or jazz band on a bet, because I feel like they aren’t of sufficient compositional or lyrical quality to make the ensemble sound good. There are those.

 

Early in my time as a public-school band and chorus director, I confronted the question of what selections to have those groups perform at our December concert.

Being aware of the whole separation-of-church-and-state thing that was in play in this taxpayer-funded school setting (ya know … the Constitution and all), I called that event a Winter Concert, rather than a Christmas Concert. There weren’t many Jewish or Muslim students in town (now there’s a vast understatement), but one did not wish to make them feel left out.

So I did lots of research into obscure Medieval carols and not-religious wintry songs. Considering the fact that during my very first year in town, the teachers’ holiday-season gathering was called the Faculty Christmas Party, perhaps I need not have fretted so much. But, better safe than sued, I thought.

That was not my challenge while I directed the athletic bands at the College of the Holy Cross, as you might glean just from the name of the joint. But, as an employee of a Jesuit institution, I did get a sense that perhaps we might be holding ourselves to a slightly higher standard than your run-of-the-mill small college.

It was perhaps an overly inflated sense. It only took me until the first basketball game to get it: HC students in fact held up very nearly the same standards of pious resistance to profanity and such as any other early-21st-century college students. (“God’s on our side <*clap, clap, clap clap clap*>” was about the most G-rated the student section got.) What did I know? I was hanging out with marching band kids, a statistical majority of whom talked quite knowledgeably about going to Mass on Sunday mornings.

Jesuit institution or not, I felt that it was better to leave out of our halftime shows or timeout repertoire items like “Why Don’t We Get Drunk and Screw?” … and I felt it might even have been pushing it to plan a Pink Floyd show that included “We Don’t Need No Education”, considering how seriously my band folks took their studies. Again, better safe than called into a meeting with Father Mike, I reasoned.

 

And then, of course, there’s my current work as a church musician. This would seem to be an easy call for a choir director. Keep it Sunday-morning appropriate, y’all; and support the message of the day – don’t overshadow it.

The challenge in our congregation, for many years now, has been observing (or not observing) Memorial Day and Independence Day. Some pastors have steadfastly refused even to acknowledge Memorial Day – expressing an aversion to the glorification of war and such, about which I think Our Lord had a little something to say. Others (of less recent heritage) have observed those holidays during services – bearing in mind the many US military veterans who have been members of our congregation, and also bearing in mind the fact that our congregation was located not far from a Raytheon research facility. The military-industrial complex had contributed to the town’s culture, in at least an economic (and, at times, a patriotic) sense.

The concept of national patriotism can be a controversial one in churches, although not as often as I used to think. “Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s,” wrote the author of the Gospel according to Matthew (22:21); the tussle between adherence to earthly authority and the practice of Christianity (particularly as it relates to issues of tax avoidance and defense spending) has not abated in intensity since.

When I was a kid, I noted that our church hymnal included “America the Beautiful” and “My Country, ‘Tis of Thee”. While I didn’t run right up to the pastor with a burning question about that, I did wonder (in a little-kid way) about the inclusion of American patriotic songs in a Methodist hymnal. Isn’t this a book of songs devoted to singing the praises of God and the living of the kind of life that Jesus went on about so much? (i.e. Advising against putting first priority on earthly city-states and their tendency to want to toot their own horns as the Best Thing on Earth.)

Although, I must say, what sanded down my worries a bit were the verses after the first verse of each of those songs. They seemed to veer away from outright “my land is the best land” and toward “what d’you say we ask God to help us not to screw up our wonderful land and anyone else’s?”

And as for the separation of church and state that Constitutional enthusiasts tend to smile about … Jesus said (John 18:36) to Pontius Pilate, “My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world, my servants would have been fighting, that I might not be delivered over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from the world”. Not that he couldn’t turn over a table or two to make a point; and not that I haven’t heard a few great sermons that focus on Issues of the Day; but I think his point may have been that his religious teachings were separate from earthly political activity.

Which brings me to an evening three weekends ago.

 

It was the Sunday before Independence Day, and the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC was the site of an event called the “Celebrate Freedom Concert”. Good so far. The musical presentations were primarily to be provided by a few hundred choir- and orchestra-members, with the President in attendance. Fairly straightforward for a Fourth-of-July weekend event.

The choir and orchestra were from First Baptist Church in Dallas, Texas. No matter how large my church’s musical community seems to me, well, doesn’t Texas always do it up bigger? First Baptist is often described as a megachurch, so of course their choir has hundreds of people in it. I’m not jealous. At all.

Here, things begin to veer off.

The “Celebrate Freedom Concert” was hosted by First Baptist’s pastor, Robert Jeffress, who noted afterward that the second half of the program had been a “Gospel-oriented presentation.” Which made me twitch a bit, flashing back to the whole church-state separation thing, and also to the whole “my taxpayer dollars are paying for the Kennedy Center lights and sound system” thing. Well, yes, the Divine is invoked at plenty of government-oriented events – like, say, the Inauguration, with its invocations and prayers and whatnot. But the main thrust of an Inauguration is not the worship of one particular religion’s God, no matter how any President’s supporters may privately feel.

As I watched the concert (broadcast live on C-SPAN) that night, what put a distinctly queasy feeling in me was a selection performed by the choir and orchestra, written by First Baptist’s former music director, Gary Moore.

That had nothing to do with whether it was or wasn’t a great musical composition, strictly on compositional grounds, at least as judged by another choir director who has on occasion penned original songs for presentation at his church’s events (and, afterward, has occasionally been sharply critical of his own stuff).

It had nothing to do with whether the song had or didn’t have great lyrics, at least as judged by another choir director who freely admits that he will only set pre-existing texts or poems to music, since his capacity for creating liturgically-valid lyrics is minuscule.

It had nothing to do with the actual presentation by the choir and orchestra. There are presentations of sacred songs in the style of the Gaither Homecoming ensembles which this choir director really digs, as well as those he thinks are at least a tiny bit saccharine. There are particular versions of songs like “God Bless the USA” – a song I don’t much care for, taking into account the aforementioned musical and lyrical reasons – which I nonetheless appreciate greatly. One person’s carcinogenic artificial sweetener is another person’s manna from Heaven.

 

It had everything to do with the song’s title and its context.

The title was “Make America Great Again”, and the context was a concert-slash-”Gospel-oriented presentation” hosted by a pastor who was one of the very first evangelical leaders to support the President at his campaign events in 2016.

The song’s lyrics included:

Make America great again
Make America great again
Lift the torch of freedom all across the land
Step into the future joining hand in hand
And make America great again
Yes, make America great (again)

The pastor’s protestations aside, I think it’s possible to imagine that a song whose lyrics are mostly comprised of the President’s main campaign slogan might appear more specifically partisan than might be appropriate, during an observance of the national holiday which theoretically every American, every voter, ever member of every religion, every member of no religion, gets to take part in together.

A few days later, in an interview with the online website Christian Post, Pastor Jeffress said, “There is no difference in singing ‘Make America Great Again’ than there is in singing any other patriotic song, like the ‘Star Spangled Banner.’ This song was sung at a patriotic rally at a concert hall on Saturday night, not sung in a church as a worship song on Sunday morning.”

Technically true, if one sets aside Jeffress’ own characterization of the event’s back-nine as a “Gospel-oriented presentation”. Many times, though, context is important.

As is the contextual detail about the possible interpretation of Gary Moore’s “Make America Great Again” composition. An op-ed in The Resurgent, a conservative blog, accused the song of “crossing the line into idolatry. … The Church has no business putting its faith in and singing songs in honor of worldly leaders,” it said.

As is the contextual detail about the presenters of the song: an organization that, while not performing in its official Sunday-morning-go-to-meeting role as a church choir and orchestra, was identified (in fact widely publicized) as the First Baptist Dallas Choir and Orchestra. Not “members of the First Baptist…”. Not “a choir and orchestra featuring many musicians from First Baptist…”.

No: the church’s own publicity release stated, “Stirring patriotic music will come from the renowned choir and orchestra of First Baptist Dallas, under the direction of Dr. Doran Bugg.” And those musicians were First Baptist Dallas’s standing choral and instrumental ensembles … in toto … in their official uniforms … participating in an event that was pitched as an Independence Day observance held at the Kennedy Center but which turned into something that looked very much like a particular religion’s observance.

 

As an ensemble director, and particularly as a church musician who paid attention during AP US History class in high school, in that situation I believe I would have to think long and hard about the context into which I was leading the ensembles under my baton, and especially when it came to that particular song.

Contractually, I might be obligated to musically support the organizer of the event – which is what I do when I program choral anthems for a Sunday-morning worship service. The pastor of my church gives me advance information about what his “message for the day” will be, and I find music that will amplify that. Most church musicians do. Similarly, I have to presume that the leader of the US Marine Corps Band, for example, does the same thing when he (someday she) receives the outline of any event in which “The President’s Own” is assisting.

Perhaps the Dallas music director didn’t require much, or any, persuasion from his boss. Nothing I can do about that. They were in that situation, and not I. I can only control what I can control.

Which is to say: in my current church-gig situation, I feel comfortable that I could whisper to my pastor, “are we sure we want to dip our toes in this pond? Are we sure we want to risk appearing partisan in the middle of a Fourth-of-July-themed event? In fact, are we sure we even want to be overtly involved in this at all?”

The leadership of First Baptist Dallas were sure.

I don’t think I would be.

 

 

P.S. From the Maybe I Shouldn’t Have Been So Worried About Tap-Dancing Around This Subject Dept.:

The New York Times has since reported that former First Baptist Dallas music director Gary Moore has said that his “Make America Great Again” song was as much a tribute to Trump as it was to freedom of speech and religion in America.

So, perhaps not so murky and open to interpretation as all that, after all.

July 18, 2017 Posted by | current events, music, religion | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Say No To This

The headline: “President-elect Trump Demands Apology from HAMILTON Cast”

That breathless news story of today, the timing of which has caused many people to note that it owes its existence to the need to bury a different breathless news story (namely a $25 million settlement of a civil case involving a certain real-estate “university”), is nonetheless what I’m going to focus on today, here, since … well, there are a couple of tiny things to note about it. And those things are anything but tiny.

Especially to someone (me) who has spent the bulk of his life pretty tight with the arts, and artists, and free creative expression.

Quickly now, the back story:

Current Vice President-elect, Michael Pence, paid a visit to Broadway’s revolutionary mega-hit, ‘Hamilton’ last night and reports from inside the theater confirmed a less than enthusiastic reception. The forthcoming Vice President got a mixed reception from the packed as he was both cheered and booed upon arrival.

So the current President-elect did the Presidential thing, which of course was to immediately climb onto the Twitter machine without adult supervision:

Our wonderful future V.P. Mike Pence was harassed last night at the theater by the cast of Hamilton, cameras blazing. This should not happen!”

Further back story:

Following the show (as reported by the Washington Post in the quote below), Brandon Victor Dixon, the actor currently portraying Aaron Burr, read a brief statement to the Vice President-elect on behalf of the company:

‘You know, we have a guest in the audience this evening,’ he said to audience laughter. ‘And Vice President-elect Pence, I see you walking out, but I hope you will hear us just a few more moments. There’s nothing to boo here, ladies and gentlemen. There’s nothing to boo here. We’re all here sharing a story of love. We have a message for you, sir. We hope that you will hear us out.’

As he pulled a small piece of paper from his pocket, Dixon encouraged people to record and share what he was about to say ‘because this message needs to be spread far and wide.’

‘Vice President-elect Pence, we welcome you, and we truly thank you for joining us here at “Hamilton: An American Musical.” We really do,’ Dixon said to further applause. ‘We, sir, we are the diverse America who are alarmed and anxious that your new administration will not protect us, our planet, our children, our parents, or defend us and uphold our inalienable rights, sir. But we truly hope this show has inspired you to uphold our American values and work on behalf of all of us. All of us. Again, we truly thank you truly for seeing this show, this wonderful American story told by a diverse group of men and women of different colors, creeds and orientations.’”

The current President-elect tweeted, by way of response:

“The Theater must always be a safe and special place. The cast of Hamilton was very rude last night to a very good man, Mike Pence. Apologize!

Great art doesn’t always feel safe. Great art doesn’t always spare your feelings. Great art doesn’t always confirm your beliefs. Great art doesn’t always stay polite. Great art doesn’t always conform to its audience’s idea of propriety.

Great art takes risks and dares you to experience them too. Great art challenges your feelings and your beliefs. Great art is a bumpy ride. And great art wouldn’t be great art if it did exactly what you wanted, all the time – that being the case, it would be pablum.

So the President-elect’s tweets make sense. Because all his life he’s reacted badly to having his feelings and beliefs challenged, to having people do something other than exactly what he’s wanted, all the time.

Not long after the President-elect expressed all that dismay, and demanded apologies, one supporter of his on Twitter (whose Twitter handle I won’t include here, because I’m uninterested in giving that supporter any more exposure) tweeted this:

An artist’s job is to make people smile, not to make political statements. Apologize to Mike Pence, or stop calling yourselves artists!

The President-elect seems so concerned about the artistic environment being a safe and special place – when his political friend’s feelings may be endangered. He wants an apology from the “Hamilton” cast – for expressing those subversive thoughts about the effect they hope their show has.

He’s not likely to get it.

Fair is fair: I’m pretty damned concerned about the coming Administration’s policies making the American environment into a not-very-safe or special place for many groups of people – when their rights and freedoms, livelihoods and very lives may be endangered. And I want an apology from the President-elect – for the past seventeen months of expressing truly subversive thoughts in the past seventeen months about the effect he hopes his “show” has.

I have a feeling I’m not likely to get that, either.

But what’s obvious is the President-elect’s (and his groupies’) fundamentally stunted understanding of free, creative, artistic expression.

Happily for him – and for us – I have the sense that he’s going to experience a lot more of it in the next few years.

He’s going to get an education, all right.

Apologize, … or stop calling yourselves artists”?

Say no to this.

RESIST.

November 19, 2016 Posted by | arts, current events, music, news, politics, theatre, Twitter | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Safe As Band Rooms

This week, quite a number of people in my FB world will return to their musical ensembles – scholastic or church-related or community groups or whatever – stand in front of them, and try to find something to say that addresses the place we find our nation in. Not an easy job. (No easier is the job of the people who will return to their music – or other! – classrooms and try to find the right thing to say to their elementary and pre-school-aged charges. That’s certain.)

I will, too. So, I’ve been thinking furiously (and you may take that however you like). I’ve been remembering ensembles I’ve been a member of, throughout my life, and drawing inspiration from them.

Here’s what I think I would say to any of the ensembles that I get to work with. Here’s what I think I would say to any ensemble I’ve EVER gotten to work with — because there are groups full of people from my recent and distant past that I’ve been thinking of in the last day or so, as well, who happen to be wonderful people but even if they weren’t, it wouldn’t matter. They all were – are – PERSONS, and as such deserve respect unconditionally.

Deep breath.

I feel like I have to say this, in this moment; but I also feel like there’s no need to say this, generally, because you all know this already; but I also feel like it’s worth saying at all times.

In this ensemble, no matter who you are, no matter what you look like, no matter what instrument you play or what flag you wave or what voice part you sing, no matter whether you read music well or somewhat or not at all… no matter what…

When you are on this field, in this choir room, on this stage… you are IMPORTANT… you are WELCOME… and you are SAFE.”

Effectively, that’s what George Parks said (by way of his actions), for all those years. It’s what newly-minted NafME GNP Leadership Award winner Thom Hannum has done for all of his years – and specifically, valiantly demonstrated six years ago when a particular bereft band needed it the very most. It’s what was shown to me and to anyone within reach, by all the band directors and choir directors that I’ve ever played or sung for. And I’ve had the pleasure of working with, and for, a pleasant number of friends who are stellar band and choir directors, and they all personify that sentiment.

As role models go, they’re all far better than some of the public figures we’re fixated on now.

November 9, 2016 Posted by | band, BUMB, CCSUMB, choir, current events, GNP, HCMB, heroes, music, news, politics, SUMC, teachers, Thom Hannum, UDMB, UMMB | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment