Posts Tagged 'Choir'

Announcing “Psalms for the King” Giveaway

2014 Genevans CD Insert COVER frontOne of the most common questions I receive on this blog is from readers looking for good recordings of the psalms. The list of psalm-singing recordings available on the web is already quite large, including some enjoyable (though outdated) recordings of the blue Psalter Hymnal and entire websites devoted to Scottish metrical psalmody. Today I’m happy to announce a wonderful addition to that list with the online release of one of my favorite CD’s, Psalms for the King.

Psalms for the King was recorded by my college choir, The Genevans, during the season that included a three-week international tour in the Philippines and Malaysia (you can read about that tour here). A freshman at the time, I got to sing all of these pieces as well as accompany a solo psalm setting on the organ (Track 14, “The Lord is my Shepherd”).

With the exception of the organ piece, Psalms for the King is entirely a cappella. That’s not for principled reasons as much as for practical ones: when you’re visiting concert locations that require piling into jeepneys and hiking through jungles, you can’t always guarantee there will be a piano or organ at your destination. But if you thought a cappella singing represents a single musical style, think again. Psalms for the King bridges the worlds of congregational psalmody and sacred classical music, with everything from Bruckner’s spine-tingling Os justi (Psalm 37:30-31) to a jazzy version of Psalm 118 arranged for men’s chorus by our director.

A lot of college choirs choose repertoire that shows off their technical skills. And The Genevans certainly have the chops for difficult music, including Mendelssohn’s motet on Psalm 2 and a choral fugue on Psalm 150 by J.S. Bach. But when the choir sings simple tunes, they do so just as beautifully. Despite my appreciation for intricate choral counterpoint, some of my favorite tracks are the traditional CRIMOND setting of Psalm 23 and a setting of Psalm 16 by Dr. Bob Copeland.

A drawback of this recording is that a few selections are sung in different languages, so a casual listener might not immediately benefit from those particular psalm texts without consulting the liner notes. However, the second half of the disc more than compensates for this shortcoming. Overall Psalms for the King remains one of my favorite psalm albums to listen to—not just because of my emotional attachment to the choir, but because it captures some of the best of psalm-singing from a wide variety of times and places. Below is a sample track from the album, a new setting of Psalm 130 by Geneva College professor Dr. Byron Curtis.

Psalms for the King was released in early 2015, but the album wasn’t available online until very recently. Crown & Covenant, the publishing house of the Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America, has just begun selling the CD’s on their website for $15.

Even better, I’ve obtained permission to hold a contest for a free copy of Psalms for the King on CD (the first of its kind on URC Psalmody!). Simply submit your information here, and the sixth person (in the US or Canada) to contact me will receive a free copy. I’ll even cover the postage!

Even if you don’t win the contest, consider getting yourself a copy of Psalms for the King. It will bring joy to your ears and your soul.

–MRK

Buy Psalms for the King (C&C) »

Enter the giveaway contest »

I AM: Kids Sing Psalms! (Review)

I AM: Kids Sing Psalms!Last week I was reminiscing with some friends about the Sunday school songs of our childhood. Although we had plenty of choices, we really had only a few recurring favorites, including “Father Abraham” and the dubious classic “Arky, Arky.” Another favorite was the antiphonal “Hallelu, Hallelu/Praise Ye the Lord” chorus, which most often turned into a screaming competition between the boys and the girls as each group tried to produce the loudest exclamations of praise. We may not have been very musical, but we were definitely enthusiastic.

The topic of Sunday school singing comes to mind because I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how we teach kids the psalms. Even congregations with a robust tradition of psalm-singing often find it difficult to impress these songs on the minds and hearts of the next generation. On one hand, an energetic group of kids could be bored to tears by some of the more solemn selections in the psalter. On the other hand, more engaging styles of music like Steve Green’s classic Hide ‘Em in Your Heart albums tend to be unrepresentative of what would typically be sung in worship.

Crown & Covenant has recently released a CD album, I Am: Kids Sing Psalms! (2016), which seeks to meet this need. Featuring 27 children choristers from the Pittsburgh School for the Choral Arts, the album pairs eight “I AM” statements of Jesus (“I am the bread of life,” “I am the light of the world,” etc.) with similarly-themed psalm settings from The Book of Psalms for Worship. Each psalm is introduced by a choir member who reads the New Testament passage accompanying it. This album isn’t the first of its kind; other C&C releases include You Are My God: Kids Sing Psalms! and the correctly-spelled Kids Sign Psalms: O Be Exalted High, O God!

I expected I Am: Kids Sing Psalms! to resemble the singing I described above—what it lacked in tone quality it would make up in enthusiasm. Surprisingly, the opposite is true. These kids are excellent singers, and their polished sound proves that the Pittsburgh School for the Choral Arts provides a solid musical education. By the same token, I have to admit that the youthful zeal I anticipated often seems to be missing from this recording. The choir sings in unison with the rare addition of a second part, so the publisher’s description of “rich a cappella harmony” seems to be overstating the case. Whether it’s the restrained tempo, the absence of dynamics, or just the teaching style, I long to catch a little more excitement from these children’s voices.

Crown & Covenant describes I Am: Kids Sing Psalms! as being “designed for young children to gain familiarity with the psalms.” The difficulty in reviewing an album like this is that it really ought to be considered on two different levels. To be sure, the choristers in the recording have definitely benefited from learning and singing these songs. Nothing gets words and tunes stuck in your head more firmly than choir rehearsals, and the polished sound of these singers proves that they have put plenty of hours of practice time into the music. Whether they realize it or not, these kids’ experience with psalm-singing has left a lasting impression on their minds, hopefully one that mirrors the impression made on their hearts.

Unfortunately, the album’s design is less likely to make an impact on kids on the listening end. Subdued psalm-singing might be helpful background music for children as they go to sleep at night. But I doubt many children would beg to hear this CD in the car or in the middle of the day’s activities—and I say that as someone with an unusually mellow musical taste myself. Even lively congregational singing, for all its rough edges, might make more of a joyous and exciting impression.

Despite my criticism, I’m very encouraged by the production of this album—both because it’s great to see an acclaimed children’s choir working together with a Reformed denomination on psalm-singing, and because Crown & Covenant clearly recognizes the need for engaging and lasting ways to teach the psalms to youth. Although I Am: Kids Sing Psalms! may have left me missing the shrill enthusiasm of “Father Abraham” and “Arky, Arky,” I’m still looking forward to future releases.

–MRK

(Per FCC rules, I need to note that I was sent a complimentary review copy of this CD, and I was not required to write a positive review.)

Caution: Choir in Use (Part 2)

West Sayville Choral SocietyLast week I asked a heavily loaded question: Do you have a choir at your church?  The use of choirs in the worship service, especially in bodies like the United Reformed Churches in North America, tends to be a controversial subject, so that question was actually pregnant with another one: Should you have a choir at your church?

To help set the issue in context, I brought Revs. Idzerd Van Dellen and Martin Monsma into the discussion with their 1967 work The Revised Church Order Commentary.  Their insight explained the traditional and well-founded aversion to church choirs in the Reformed heritage, but we left off with little practical advice.  Today I’d like to wrap up this discussion with some more down-to-earth ideas for the average United Reformed congregation.

Van Dellen and Monsma provide a nicely succinct sort of thesis for their own position regarding choirs, which agrees with the historic stance of the old Christian Reformed Church:

Rather than seek our strength in choirs and in special numbers of all kinds, let us continue to appreciate and emphasize worthy and vigorous congregational singing.

To some extent, the relationship between the choir and the congregation is an “either-or” proposition.  The authors ably demonstrate that the choir was one of the chief factors, if not the chief factor, in silencing the singing of the congregation in the medieval Roman Catholic Church.  At the time this commentary was written, Van Dellen and Monsma noted that “many churches all around us have excellent choirs and soloists, but congregational singing in these very churches is often extremely weak.”  And it’s not hard to draw a parallel between the ostentatious church choirs of the mid-1900s and the blaring praise bands of the present day.  In decisions such as that made by the Synod of 1926, the Christian Reformed Church expressed strong reservations about the use of choirs in worship, rightly noticing a definite inverse relationship: Where choirs sing, the congregation becomes silent.

Van Dellen and Monsma fear more than just weakened congregational singing, however:

Choirs easily sing songs which are inferior or unsound doctrinally, because the music or sentiment of certain songs appeal.  Neither should it be forgotten that good solo and choir singing easily becomes an attraction at church services.  Some singers are tempted to exhibit.  And some church-goers go not so much to worship and to listen to the message of God’s Word, but to hear good singing.  The singing by experts occupies the center of their interest.  Furthermore, churches in their attempt to secure good choirs are often tempted to let unworthy persons sing in their choir.  Many employ paid singers.  But even if the commercial element is avoided the primary requisite with many is not true spirituality, but rather a good voice, ability to sing well.  Church choirs have often been a source of trouble and grief.  Petty jealousies and unworthy ambitions are factors which have made for ill-will again and again.

Taking all of these concerns into account, I think the regulative principle of worship and historic Reformed practice make a compelling case for the complete exclusion of choirs from our worship services, at least as an art form.  But before you disband your loyal group of singers in dismay, let me try to reframe this conclusion in practical terms.

The highest form of musical praise the church can offer is through corporate singing.  What a beautiful sound and sight when the entire congregation sings together with joy and vigor!  This kind of music, Van Dellen and Monsma note, keeps the Word of God at the center of the worship services (if the psalms are sung, as they should be!) and serves as a wonderful united expression of praise.  “[I]n the church,” they say, “we believe it is best for the whole church to sing.  Strangers who may happen to visit our services often express their appreciation of the fact that we have splendid congregational singing, that all, young and old, sing at our church services.”  The psalms contain plenty of individual exhortations to lift one’s voice to the Lord, but their commands to the congregation are also unequivocal: “Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the earth!” (Psalm 100:1).  Give me a group of however many hundred men, women, and children singing with joy to the Lord over any little group of trained singers—any day, any time.

But alas, not all of our churches are blessed with large membership, musical literacy, or even favorable acoustics in their meeting places.  What many of us witness on a Sunday morning is not a hundreds-strong congregation belting out the psalms with gusto, but a smattering of unenthusiastic voices growling out unfamiliar tunes.  How can an ordinary church translate from the latter picture to the former?  A church choir can’t infuse the right attitude into the worshipers’ hearts or magically triple the size of the congregation, but I believe its use in these situations can still be beneficial, if—and only if—the following points are clearly understood:

  • The choir is a teaching choir, not a performing choir.  The purpose of the choir ought to be to instruct its members in the habits of good singing and musical literacy.  This is not a group primarily for performance in the worship service or elsewhere, although putting on special programs is not out of the question.
  • The choir is to consist only of members of the congregation.  This should simply make sense if the purpose of the choir is clear as explained above.  The introduction of paid singers would be proof that the choir’s mission had changed.  And the director of the choir absolutely must understand and uphold the key principles of Reformed worship as well.
  • The choir should learn only what will be helpful in inculcating better congregational singing.  I hesitate to exclude all complex anthems or oratorios, but as far as corporate worship goes, they are at best irrelevant and at worst distracting.  A small teaching choir can’t go wrong with a repertoire built mainly on simple four-part psalm and hymn arrangements.
  • The choir should sing in the worship service as the exception rather than the rule.  This is tricky territory; I would highly prefer having the choir sing only on special occasions rather than in a Sunday worship service.  However, this decision must take into account the needs and expectations of each individual congregation.
  • The choir is nothing more than a slice of the congregation.  It would be ideal, of course, if every member of the church would join the choir as a kind of “Singing 101” class.  At the very least, however, the members of the choir will hopefully develop an appreciation and love for the psalms and hymns of Reformed worship.  Then they merely have to carry that renewed enthusiasm back to the pews with them on Sunday morning.  If they do, the choir has fulfilled its mission.

I would welcome your additions or corrections to this list, but I submit to you that the points above set forth a justifiable and properly-regulated domain for the church choir which is in keeping with the standards of Biblical, Reformed worship.  They are not foolproof, but at least they are fall protection.

The seventy-fifth anniversary booklet of my home church, then the West Sayville Christian Reformed Church in 1951, refers specifically to improved congregational singing as one of the goals of its Choral Society, dating all the way from 1915: “Programs are given once or twice a season and on special occasions.  The Choral Society also has done much toward the improvement of congregational singing as well as in the field of music appreciation.”

The choir, then, can serve the church only as it serves congregational singing.  Would Van Dellen and Monsma agree?  I think so.  They conclude:

All this does not mean that we should not bring our congregational singing to higher levels.  We should improve our singing whenever possible.  The organization of Choral Societies should be encouraged.  Good singing should be promoted.  But let us continue to emphasize and to improve congregational singing.  And let our good singers help to improve our congregational singing.

Amen!  “Let everything that has breath praise the Lord!  Praise the Lord!”

–MRK

The excerpts quoted here are from The Revised Church Order Commentary by Idzerd Van Dellen and Martin Monsma, Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1969 (third printing), pp. 205, 206.

Caution: Choir in Use (Part 1)

(NEWS ITEM: Please be in prayer for the 80th General Assembly of our sister denomination the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, which will convene beginning tomorrow, Wednesday, June 5th, at 7:00 pm.  Besides the treatment of other weighty matters, this meeting will include the release of the psalm section of the proposed URC/OPC joint Psalter Hymnal.  Pray that the Lord would grant wisdom and insight to those charged to make decisions regarding this important songbook, and that he would allow this “ecumenical opportunity of a generation,” as one OPC minister has termed it, to bear plentiful fruit.)

Choir Music ListingDo you have a choir at your church?

Here in the United Reformed Churches in North America, it’s entirely possible you do.  It’s also entirely possible you don’t.  And it’s entirely possible you feel strongly about it either way.  Quite an explosion ensued when a similar question was asked not too long ago in a Reformed discussion group.  A stranger to the practice of the URCNA might well ask, “Why all the controversy?”

The primary objection to the use of a choir in the worship service is that it tends to violate the dialogical principle which guides our Reformed worship services.  The principle is simple: God speaks, we respond.  There are only two parties in the equation—the Lord, who speaks to us through the ministry of the Word and sacraments, and the congregation, which offers up songs, prayers, and gifts in thankful reply.   In this system it is difficult, though not necessarily impossible, to justify the existence of a choir in a corporate worship service.

Assessing the ecclesiological implications of choirs in worship is far above my capabilities at this point, and the fact that so many learned men have been unable to reach an agreement on the topic shows that it can’t be resolved simply.  But I would like to approach the question from a slightly different and more practical perspective, one taken by the authors of the excellent volume The Revised Church Order Commentary.

Revs. Idzerd Van Dellen and Martin Monsma undertook the writing of this commentary on the Church Order of the Christian Reformed Church (CRC) in 1941 to help explain to ministers, elders, and interested laypersons the proper functioning of this group of churches.  The Revised Church Order Commentary was published in 1967 to coincide with the extensive revision of the CRC’s Church Order in 1965.  And since the Church Order of the United Reformed Churches in North America is completely silent regarding choirs, this resource is probably one of the best and most applicable to which we can turn.

Article 52 of the 1965 CRC Church Order, which directly addressed the issue of choirs, read as follows:

a.  The consistory shall regulate the worship services.

b.  The consistory shall see to it that the synodically-approved Bible versions, liturgical forms, and songs are used, and that the principles and elements of the order of worship approved by synod are observed.

c.  The consistory shall see to it that if choirs or others sing in the worship services, they observe the synodical regulations governing the content of the hymns and anthems sung.

(These principles are reflected somewhat less explicitly in Article 38 of the United Reformed Churches’ present Church Order, which states: “The Consistory shall regulate the worship services, which shall be conducted according to the principles taught in God’s Word: namely, that the preaching of the Word have the central place, that confession of sins be made, praise and thanksgiving in song and prayer be given, and gifts of gratitude be offered.”)

What points of application does this article make as to the use of choirs?  First of all, Van Dellen and Monsma point out that “the very wording of the provision under consideration, as may be noticed, is simply permissive…And if [choirs] do [sing], then the consistories shall see to it that the pertinent synodical regulations are adhered to.”  In other words, the Christian Reformed Church did not forbid the existence of choirs in worship, but it did provide a guard and limit on their use.  The authors of the Commentary note that Article 52 also allows soloists and small groups to “render special song numbers in the worship services,” provided the same restrictions are applied.

Back in 1930 the CRC had actually adopted a resolution which, though it did not condemn choirs outright, cautioned consistories from using them indiscriminately, for the following reasons:

1.  The danger exists that congregational singing shall be curtailed.

2.  If the choir sings separately there is the difficulty of maintaining the principle of Article 69 of the Church Order [which states that only the psalms and the synodically-approved hymns, i. e. the contents of the Psalter Hymnal, may be sung in worship].

In cases where choirs exist or shall be introduced, synod insists that only those psalms or hymns shall be sung which are approved by Article 69 of our Church Order; or such anthems, which contain only the exact words of portions of Scripture.

To many of us here in the URCNA, these synodical restrictions may sound unduly harsh.  Why such concern over what a choir sings?  Does its repertoire really need to be limited to the Psalter Hymnal or excerpts from Scripture?  Doesn’t its music ultimately help the congregation as we together lift our hearts in praise to the Lord?

Van Dellen and Monsma give two principal consequences of the use of choirs and soloists which the Christian Reformed Church feared.  First, many of these musical offerings are of the type which simply “do not fit in the framework of our worship services and which do not edify the worshipers.”  What percentage of these selections might be prepared with no thought at all given to the dialogical principle of worship mentioned above?  Even though we would recoil in horror from saying it out loud, too often our soloists tend to become performers and our choirs tend to give concerts.  Suddenly the dialogue between God and his people is broken, even unintentionally, by the awkward intrusion of a third party—an awkwardness that is exemplified in the uncertain smattering of quickly-smothered applause from the pews at the end of the “performance.”  Should we really be faced with this situation on a regular basis in corporate worship?

Second, the authors simply call our attention to the fact that “these extra and special numbers are very hard to control as to their doctrinal soundness.”  It is a strange phenomenon, but a true one, that an unsound song is much more likely to be sung first by a soloist or choir than by the congregation.  It is, as Van Dellen and Monsma admit, an area in which Scriptural accuracy is much more difficult to regulate than in simple congregational singing.

What is the solution to the perennial problem of the church choir?  Can this tricky element of worship be effectively redeemed, or ought it to be eliminated entirely?  Although I don’t have a simple answer to the question, in the second half of this article I’ll try to explore some practical ideas that can help individuals and congregations reach a conclusion.

–MRK

The excerpts quoted here are from The Revised Church Order Commentary by Idzerd Van Dellen and Martin Monsma, Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1969 (third printing), pp. 205, 206.  See also The Church Order of the United Reformed Churches in North America.

Choir Settings by Dale Grotenhuis

Today’s post on church music resources is both a recommendation and a request for your input.  The resource in question is a set of paperback volumes of Psalter Hymnal arrangements by Dale Grotenhuis.  I’ll back up a little bit to explain.

Recently I spent a few hours making an inventory of all the papers, booklets, volumes, folders, drawers, boxes, shelves, cabinets, and rooms of choir music at my church (West Sayville Reformed Bible Church).  The sheer amount of sheet music, from the early 1900s to the present day, is staggering—and, if you’re trying to get organized, overwhelming.  But in the bottom of one of the boxes, I found an orange booklet from 1979 which read, “SATB Choir Settings from the Psalter Hymnal, Book 2, by Dale Grotenhuis.”  What a find!

I already own the recordings of these arrangements on a CD set, “Be Thou Exalted, LORD,” from Dordt College.  But since we’ve just started up a church choir again for the first time in decades, having the sheet music at hand was a tremendous plus.  These arrangements are perfect for Sunday services—easy enough to learn, reverent enough for worship, and familiar enough for the congregation to recognize and appreciate.

Choir Settings by Dale Grotenhuis

Choir Settings by Dale Grotenhuis

I was even more excited to find about twenty more copies of this orange booklet in the back of one of the cabinets.  After I mentioned this discovery to one of our organists, she offered me another volume of Psalter Hymnal choir settings (volume 1, with a blue cover).  Unfortunately, however, I haven’t found any more of these volumes at church, so I am currently trying to learn how I can obtain more.

From some of my research, it seems that there are more volumes in this set—possibly as many as four.  There is no indication that the booklets were officially published by the CRC, nor is there any contact information inside the cover for author or publisher.  A quick search on Amazon.com only turns up a copy of Book Three, which it helpfully adds is “currently unavailable.”  As far as I know, Dale Grotenhuis is now retired, but continues to be a member of a URC in Michigan.  Does anyone know if his arrangements are still available, and if so, how they can be obtained?  Your help in this effort would be very much appreciated!

If this is of any help, below are the tables of contents for Books 1 and 2:

Book 1

  • Lord, Our Lord, Thy Glorious Name
  • The God Who Sits Enthroned on High
  • Since with My God
  • The Heavens Declare Thy Glory
  • Jehovah Hear Thee in Thy Grief
  • All Ye That Fear Jehovah’s Name
  • Amid the Thronging Worshipers
  • The Lord’s My Shepherd
  • Lord, I Lift My Soul to Thee
  • Be Thou My Judge
  • O Lord, Regard Me When I Cry

Book 2

  • Lead On, O King Eternal
  • How Blest Is He Whose Trespass
  • Shepherd of Tender Youth
  • Thy Mercy and Thy Truth, O Lord
  • O Christ, Our Hope, Our Heart’s Desire
  • When I Survey the Wondrous Cross
  • I Waited for the Lord Most High
  • Joy to the World
  • As the Hart, About to Falter
  • O Lord, by Thee Delivered
  • A Mighty Fortress Is Our God

Even if you’re hearing about these arrangements for the first time, you might want to check your church’s music library or storage room.  If you have access to copies of these booklets, you’ll be amazed at the quality of these settings and their versatility as solos, offertories, choir pieces, and so on.  As I perused the contents, it struck me that these are some of the best arrangements for simple, wholehearted praise to God through music.  I’m so thankful for the work of musicians like Dale Grotenhuis.

–MRK


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