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

First Impressions

Have you ever entertained visitors from out of town?

Suddenly you’re faced with an exciting opportunity to host people who may not have been to your part of the world, ever … but perhaps a limited amount of time in which to prepare.

You get to show off the place! … You look around and perhaps realize, holy smokes, the place is a wreck. Or maybe not; but to your eyes – oh my, lots to do.

So you desperately dust, mop, throw random scraps of paper (and other things) out, straighten all the pictures hanging on the wall … and perhaps realize there’s really no way on God’s green Earth that you will be able to make the place look like you want it to, i.e. museum-quality. But if you know the people well enough, perhaps you know that they’ll be excited to see you and they won’t focus so much on good LORD! the dust bunnies!!

The church where I do my church-giggin’ – certainly the musical people therein, and a number of other people who helped immensely – had this experience this week, or at least portions of it.

Roberts Wesleyan College is a Methodist-affiliated college in Rochester, New York. Their Chorale is currently undertaking a tour, as collegiate ensembles will do from time to time. Apparently, in planning this tour, their director went to the local Internet, typed “Methodist churches near Boston” into the search box, and conducted a tour of local church websites, to see if there might be one or two at which they might present concerts. He found us (our website made us look kinda active, apparently), and got in contact.

I will reveal a tiny fact about church musicians: every so often we get gentle eMails that say things like, “hey, our ensemble, chorus, praise band, trio, me!! (e.g. I’m a great Christian-music pianist!, although I’m not attaching any media files to prove it!), … whatever, I or we would like to come visit your church and present a Great and Inspiring and Spiritually Life-Changing program of music!”

I will confess that when I receive this sort of communication, my initial knee-jerk reaction isn’t that different from when I receive an eMail that seems to be from an exiled Nigerian prince with a lot of time and money on his hands.

It’s not fair, I know. Most of these people may well be very well-meaning, and in fact may have an entertaining and uplifting evening in them. Forgive me, but as I have chronicled occasionally, presenting Inspiring and Spiritual and Uplifting music in support of our worship program is my church gig’s main job, and I think we do it fairly well.

But it’s good to keep an open mind; and I would not want to be known as a person who thought he had all the answers, who thought that nothing about his musical program could possibly be improved upon, who thought that he or his ensemble couldn’t learn a little bit from some other person or ensemble.

So, when our church’s staff was presented with this communication from Dr. Jamie Spillane, the conductor of the Roberts Wesleyan College Chorale, we conducted a quick Internet research junket of our own, and based upon that and the experience and knowledge of our senior pastor, we decided to reply and see what could be set up.

The RWCC’s hope was to present a concert on the Saturday of their tour, stay overnight with some host families, and then the next morning they hoped to participate in our Sunday worship service.

To my knowledge, our church has never done this before. I can’t remember a time when another church choir (or related group) has provided all the musical content for one of our services. I don’t know whether this is because we’re relentlessly territorial, or we’ve just never been offered this sort of idea before, but my four decades of institutional memory don’t include anything like this.

But we’re big kids, and we can play nicely with others, and we’re at least confident enough in our own musical groups and people that we didn’t feel threatened. And we didn’t think that our congregation was going to hear some other choir and demand that they stay forever and ever and that we disband our own choir. Just not very likely.

So, we made plans. One of our parishioners volunteered to organize a Saturday pre-concert supper and a Sunday post-service brunch for the college musicians (and also, crucially, found people who would be willing to host pairs and trios and quartets of them overnight). We eMailed back and forth with Dr. Spillane and found that he was amenable to having one of the Sunday morning musical offerings be a “combined forces”, Roberts-Wesleyan-and-our-choir-together anthem – luckily, we had some experience with a couple of the Roberts Wesleyan tour repertoire items. Very exciting! The RWCC plus our choir bringing forth “The Heavens Are Telling”, from Franz Joseph Haydn’s “The Creation” … this oughta be good. We canvassed our congregation’s instrumentalists, and found seven or eight who were willing to jump in and read down a little Baroque music.

So, last night and today, we pulled it off. (Actually the Roberts Wesleyan musicians did the lion’s share of the pulling. I should be honest.) The RWCC repertoire included Baroque anthems and spirituals, African noels and Mozart opera, contemporary Finnish composition and Hebrew love songs. They can sing, clearly, many different things. Our choir heard a couple of kinds of music that may not come naturally to us but which we thought we might like to try, now that we’ve heard it done very well.

[Because humans are humans, I was prepared to hear church members wonder aloud why our choir couldn’t do this sort of music, or that sort of music; hey, if college kids can do it, we should be able to, as well. I actually only heard one or two people say this sort of thing, and I gently noted that the Roberts Wesleyan musicians, as busy as their music major lives are (trust me, I get it!), don’t have: full-time jobs, kids, mortgages, other church and community meetings, etc etc etc. And your average church choir prepares a couple of new and different anthems every single week, rather than a dozen items over the course of a five-month semester. None of which diminishes either a church choir’s output or a collegiate chorale’s. It’s just the world that each ensemble lives in.]

On top of all that, Dr. Spillane and his charges just seemed to us like the kind of people whom we would like to have back whenever they’d like to come back, whether it’s on their next New England tour, or next year, or next week … Fun. Friendly. Fine musicians with something of a sense of humor.

But my musings about all this have only a bit to do with the actual music; perhaps a little more to do with the kind of fine people Roberts Wesleyan College sent our way; but a lot more to do with this: the kind of introspection and self-analysis and, well, okay, mild navel-gazing that comes with hosting out-of-town visitors.

Saturday afternoon I arrived at church, saw that the Roberts Wesleyan tour bus was parked neatly along the outskirts of our parking lot, noted that they were having supper in our fellowship hall, and headed to our choir room. And straightened up the rows of chairs, threw out random bits of paper, did all those frantic “neating up the living room” things that we do when we’re preparing our houses for guests. (The Chorale never actually formally used the choir room as a warmup area, but it was a worthy effort, I think. The room is clean.) Soon it was time for concertizing, and then the concert was over, and the host families collected their guests; and the next morning, we all converged on the church again and had ourselves a grand morning. (For the Haydn, Dr. Spillane conducted, which was entirely appropriate – the majority of singers were RWCC, at least slightly; and it allowed me the opportunity to play tympani, which I will shamelessly admit I was looking forward to, a tiny bit.) Afterward we exchanged very pleasant pleasantries. In an infinite universe anything is possible, but only some things are likely; yet some of those pleasantries seemed to suggest that our two institutions might yet collaborate musically again. Who knows?

But the very strong sense I got, over and over, this weekend, was a fresh and positive view of the church – the building and the people.

When we have houseguests, we tend to look at the kitchen, the bedrooms, dear Lord! the bathrooms, every corner of every room … differently. We look at them as if we were new to the place, too. And we have the opportunity to look at them hyper-critically, but we hope to be able to view them positively.

Indeed, I looked at our sanctuary … our fellowship hall … the hallways … the bathrooms! … the website! … and tried to imagine myself as a member of that visiting ensemble, and tried to imagine what I would think of it all. Not so much “do we look decent compared with other churches the group might visit?” but “do we look decent?”

And also, how does our congregation come off? Friendly? Reserved? Over-ebullient to the point that it’s a bit unnerving? Helpful? Cloying? Bunch of dorks? Cool people to know? If “I am the church, you are the church, we are the church together; if the church is not a building, the church is not a steeple, the church is not a resting place, the church is a people” … then as much as visitors are checking out the digs, they’re checking out the people who populate the place.

I was pleased to note that the rooms looked in good shape … no cracks in the walls, no shoddy painting jobs, no floor tiles out of place … and our sanctuary is indeed a beautiful room with some pretty good, live acoustics going on. I was (just a bit territorially) pleased that we were able to augment the Haydn anthem with flute, violin, clarinet, bassoon, horn, trumpet, and alto recorder, all played by members of our congregation; no ringers. (We can do a little music!)

Just as pleasingly, I saw lots of church members making a point to be a welcoming bunch. It wasn’t just that the congregation clapped loudly after the Roberts Wesleyans sang William Dawson’s arrangement of the spiritual “Ain’-a That Good News” at postlude time (and hit it out of the park) … but it was also that afterward, our guests couldn’t take five steps in any direction without some congregation member running at them (gently!) and thanking them for coming, admiring their musicianship, asking how the tour was going, all those good things.

Sometimes I think it might be possible to make the world a better place than it is, if we only did this and this and this. For a stretch of not quite 24 hours this weekend, this and this and this were fully on display. And I just smiled, and smiled, and smiled: it was one of those days that you know is special, and you know you’re going to remember it for a long time, as it’s happening.

It’s been said that you never get a second chance to make a first impression. This weekend, I think we had a winner: some pretty fine first impressions were flying back and forth, in both directions.

February 19, 2012 Posted by | choir, music, Starred Thoughts, SUMC | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Do I Have Any Business Expecting This?

Every year around this time, church musicians get a little crazy.

Much to prepare for! Christmas Eve services! Four Advent Sundays, two anthems per Sunday, plus choral interjections, plus psalm tones if your church does that sort of thing! Blue Christmas service (for those who have experienced loss in the last year, and/or during any Advent season; these holidays can be a tough time to be hurting)! Barn Sing (easy enough for the carol-singing audience, but who’s going to set up that Powerpoint presentation so we don’t have to print lyric sheets?)! Caroling visits to our shut-ins! And if you’re a public school teacher, that’s on top of rehearsal, rehearsal, dress rehearsal, concert, concert, Senior Center performance, in-school music assembly …

Crazy.

And certainly in my case, that means marathon rehearsals. It’s actually the norm at Sudbury Methodist, since my brother-in-law Kevin (organist) and I seem to have a history of cooking up, um, rather large projects. Christmas Cantata! With a cast of thousands! The more the merrier! We’ll hang the extra players from the rafters if we have to! Last year, it was Kevin’s own Christmas Cantata, thirty-five minutes of some of the hardest music I’ve ever conducted, or that our choir has ever sung. Two years ago, a cantata of Dietrich Buxtehude; very baroque. Three years ago, it was the Christmas Cantata of Dave Brubeck, which was about a half-hour worth of the OTHER hardest music, etc. etc. (Did you know Brubeck had written one of those? I didn’t either, till the August before December 2007. It’s neat, but he obviously never sang in a choir. Voice leading, hello?!)

 

So, this past Thursday night, following three months of work preparing choral parts for nine out of twelve movements of Benjamin Britten’s “Ceremony of Carols” … we went for the marathon session. It’ll be presented tomorrow morning during our regular 9:30 am service. A curious piece of work indeed, scored originally for three-part treble voices, soloists, and harp. The text is fairly middle-English, with all manner of curious re-spellings and odd pronunciations. It’s been converted by a kindly publisher to SATB voices and piano, on the odd chance that your church doesn’t have a harpist sitting around.

Hold off for a moment on the harp part of this.

Considering we usually start evening rehearsals at 7:30, run through Sunday’s hymns, and start the major-work fireworks hopefully by ten till 8 … our choir folks recognize the potential to go a bit past “union time”, as it were. Nine o’clock is our usual stopping point, but on these special evenings, it could be 9:30 … could be quarter till 10 … hopefully not beyond …

With one movement to go, I turned to look at the clock in the back of the Sanctuary, expecting it to say 9:30, or some version of Stupid O’Clock. I was ready to turn back and apologize for the lateness of the hour. Instead … the clock said 8:55 pm.

Wow. Fast work. More than that though – good humor throughout. One thing I love about our choir – they offer up more than their fair share of patience and belly laughs. To adjust a previous “starred thought”, this crowd is at their best when things are at their goofiest. Whenever we worked on the movement that was basically just chant, one of our basses would actively campaign for us to close our music folders and whack ourselves in the heads after each phrase, a la “Pie Jesu Domine (slap!)” from Monty Python and the Holy Grail.

Now to the harp part.

Consider: my job Thursday night was to help a 28-member choir of volunteers (and very few trained musicians) integrate their choral parts with congregation members playing flute, clarinet, French horn, trombone, baritone horn, violins times two and cello … and to integrate it all with the sound of a professional harpist. Her name is Lira Cady; she teaches at Atlantic Union College (Lancaster, MA) … and she clearly knows her stuff.

But the harp will not necessarily project its sound as well as an accompanist bangin’ on a piano. Plus the harp parts in the Britten cantata usually offer very little to a choir in the way of doubling their parts for security. So if you take a volunteer choir away from its usual low-ceiling rehearsal room and its very-nearby piano … and you stick them in a large space and separate them from their accompanying harp by several yards (and eight or nine other musicians) …

You might get quiet panic.

 

Not here, apparently. Choir hit it out of the park. Oh did they bring their “A” game. We’d arranged parts for the various non-harp instruments which would double choral parts and help keep the choir in the game – but they really didn’t need help Thursday night. I kept checking in with Ms. Cady at the harp, hoping against hope that she thought it’d been worth the drive out to Sudbury … and whew! she kept hinting that everything was fine. (There are a couple of movements featuring only the soloists which are just oddball enough that I need to spend some time today, just plain ol’ practicing my “vave your arms!” work … but Ms. Cady politely didn’t mention those.)

The “degree of difficulty” of this work is fairly high; and everyone in the room had already completed a full day of work (or, in the case of some of our instrumentalists, school) and was probably not exactly fresh as the proverbial daisy. But if you’d loitered outside the Sanctuary during that session, you’d have heard – besides the fine music – some really good punchlines and a lot of full-throated laughing. No grumbling that I could perceive; no rolling of eyes, gnashing of teeth, checking of watches. When I asked gingerly if we could possibly run one of the bouncy movements a third time, to make sure of a couple of things, I heard boisterous “yes, yes, yes, one more.” Afterward I thought aloud, “I had no business expecting any of that when we finished at 9:10 pm.” But I got it.

 

Lest there be any wondering about whether I like my church gig…

December 11, 2010 Posted by | arranging, choir, music, SUMC | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments