Posts Tagged 'Instruments'

Abraham Kuyper on Church Music

9780802863935The Dutch theologian and statesman Abraham Kuyper (1837-1920) knew how to poke where it hurts when it comes to Reformed church music. But his words are an important reminder for church musicians in a variety of settings and styles:

The congregation had to sing, but in the north of Europe, where Calvinism was especially strong, the people as a rule sing neither in tune nor with accuracy, and neither do they excel in melodious voices.

They tried to correct this shortcoming in two ways–by introducing the organ, and by using a choir or precentor. Of course, it would have been most desirable if they could do without the organ. The pure singing of only human voices is far superior to organ music; the organ comes in to lead only when the singing falters. Leading of congregational singing can also be done by a choir or a precentor with great vocal power. Such precentors, however, can only rarely be found, and should they be found, they often exude their personality too much and thereby become a diversion. A choir is easily assembled, but a choir usually concentrates on the art, seldom on the spirit and contents, and soon the congregation, seduced by the beautiful choir, will keep silent in order to better listen to the singing of the choir. For that reason churches gave preference to organ music . . .

There is nothing objectionable about this organ music, provided that the church council makes sure that the organists do not try to push themselves to the fore. Their task is to lead, support, regulate, and promote the singing; the organ should never assume the right to let itself be heard. It has to serve the singing of the congregation and be dedicated to improve it, to elevate it, to inspire it, and to enter into its spirit. The organ must not overpower the song, but the song must be rendered all the more gloriously because of the organist’s support. When the organist seeks to serve himself and not the congregation and tries to attract attention to himself, the congregation is offended. Our great organists have always been able to avoid this evil; it is only the half-baked organists who, understanding neither the requirements of art nor the sacredness of the worship service, continually try fancy tricks for their own promotion.

Abraham Kuyper, Our Worship (Onze Eeredienst), edited by Harry Boonstra, translated by Harry Boonstra, Henry Baron, Gerrit Sheeres, and Leonard Sweetman (1911; repr., Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2009), 56-57.


NEW Grotenhuis Music Collection Released!

Are you a Reformed church musician who struggles to find musical resources related to the blue Psalter Hymnal? For the 1912 Psalter, there are accompaniment tracks, choral arrangements, and even entire conferences produced by members of the Protestant Reformed Churches. And an entire section of the publishing house of the Reformed Presbyterian Church, Crown and Covenant, is devoted to selling their own psalm-singing resources. But for us in the URCNA, besides the occasional MIDI track that reaches our computers through the internet grapevine, there isn’t much beyond the bare sheet music of the blue Psalter Hymnal.

Except for the work of the late Dale Grotenhuis.

Choir Settings by Dale Grotenhuis

Choir Settings by Dale Grotenhuis

Painfully aware on my own part of this great need for Psalter Hymnal resources, I discovered some of Grotenhuis’ choral settings fairly soon after beginning URC Psalmody. As I listened to his versatile and varied arrangements on Dordt College’s 6-CD set Be Thou Exalted, LORD, I fervently wished I could somehow get my hands on the sheet music. Since most of Grotenhuis’ music was never formally published, however, it seemed a fruitless task.

Just this week, however, a reader sent me a link to a new database in Dordt’s digital collections. After his death, Dale Grotenhuis’s family authorized Dordt to make his extensive collection of unpublished sheet music available on the internet . . . for free! Here’s what the database home page says:

The Grotenhuis Music Collection was deeded to Dordt College by the Grotenhuis Estate in 2013. The physical collection includes over 500 unpublished music scores composed or arranged by Dale over the course of his career and is housed in the Dordt College Archives. Choral and instrumental pieces make up the majority of the collection with the instrumental category being further subdivided into band, brass, and keyboard compositions and arrangements. Most of the scores are undated. The few dates specified range from 1973 to 2002. All scores were scanned in their original state to preserve the primary format of the works.

The Estate assigns a Creative Commons Attribution/Noncommercial/No Derivatives (CCC BY-NC-ND) license to all of the material in the Grotenhuis Music Collection. Individuals who wish to publish materials from the Grotenhuis Music Collection must secure permission from both the Estate and from Dordt College in its capacity as the owner of the physical property.

It would take days, if not weeks, to even scratch the surface of this exhaustive collection, but here’s a tiny cross-section of the wonderful resources it contains:

Whether you’re a pastor, an accompanist, or just a musically-minded member of a Reformed congregation, this collection of Grotenhuis’ works just might become your new standard resource for sheet music related to the blue Psalter Hymnal. I’m thinking especially of small churches which, in the absence of pianists or organists, often need congregational accompaniment from whatever instrumentalists happen to be on hand. With access to a library like this, finding a trumpet transposition or clarinet arrangement of a Psalter Hymnal tune becomes a manageable, maybe even easy, task. Reformed musicians owe the Grotenhuis family a huge thank-you for making such a valuable resource available to the church at large.

As more and more people become acquainted with Dale Grotenhuis’ collection, I’d love to see the development of a topical index or search function to make locating a particular piece or instrumental part more efficient. For now, though, this incredible library of music for Reformed churches is all there, ready to continue its service for God’s kingdom—just as its composer had always intended.

Visit the Grotenhuis Music Collection »


Featured Recording: Analyzing Accompaniment

Featured Recording

Even with URC Psalmody’s 187 videos on YouTube and hundreds of other psalm-related videos from other channels, picking a Featured Recording each week can be surprisingly difficult.  Usually I try to pick a recording from which I can make a related point, or at least offer some helpful thoughts for reflection.

The candidates for today’s post included a video I just put up yesterday of my home congregation singing “Be Thou My Helper in the Strife” (Psalter Hymnal 60, from Psalm 35).  I was unconvinced; it’s a six-and-a-half-minute long video, much longer than the average congregational song, and it’s far from perfect.  For my own part, I wasn’t too confident about the way I had played it, or the merits of the recording in general. But I did start to think about some of the challenges and unique aspects of a song like this one, and came to believe it could make for a thought-provoking Featured Recording post after all.

My pastor had chosen this song from Psalm 35 to accompany a sermon on Luke 20:45-21:4—and it was a very appropriate choice, I think.  He also decided to split the psalm setting in half, having the congregation sing the first four verses before the sermon and the last four after it.  I combined the two halves on the recording for continuity, but you can still pick out the splice.

As I mentioned, the challenges inherent in this case were many.  Our second service is slightly smaller than the morning service (which isn’t large either), so the entire congregation usually sits on one side of the sanctuary.  When I’m scheduled to play, I tend to prefer the piano for this smaller group.  This gives me more musical freedom, since I’m still no master of the organ, but it also means I have to work extra hard to musically lead the congregation.  Thankfully the tune of this psalm setting is that of the familiar hymn “He Leadeth Me,” so they were able to hold the melody line without much trouble.

Then there was the interpretation of the psalm itself.  Psalm 35 is one of the most violent imprecatory songs in the entire Psalter, alternating between exultant highs and the darkest of lows.  Reflecting this in my piano playing was incredibly difficult; while I should never dominate the congregation or view the piece as a performance, I try to at least reflect the overall mood of each stanza for their benefit as I play it.  (It doesn’t help that “He Leadeth Me” is a generally uplifting tune in the bright key of D Major!)  To accomplish this I used a few techniques such as melody in octaves, changes in register, or limited harmonization tweaks.

Finally, there was the typical variety of technical obstacles to overcome.  Settling into the right tempo can be challenging, and if anything, I usually tend to speed when I’m playing piano.  The phrasing of this Psalter Hymnal arrangement also threw most of the congregation for a loop; unlike number 463, this setting includes only one fermata, at the end of the second line.   And through it all I had to rein in my urges to improvise and keep one and a half ears on the congregation.

Were my attempts at properly accompanying #60 successful?  Honestly, I’m still not sure.  At the very least I think my amount of musical communication with the congregation was deficient, as evidenced by the fact that I managed to throw them off on nearly every stanza.  I haven’t yet made up my mind whether piano or organ works better for congregational accompaniment, especially for a small group like this.  And I’m not sure what level of musical freedom I should allow myself.

So, although this Featured Recording lacks a thesis or points of application, perhaps it can still serve as a springboard for discussion.  Fellow musicians, how do you accompany your home congregation?  How do you bring out the themes of the songs you play?  What solutions could you offer to the problems I’ve mentioned above?  Your thoughts will doubtless be valuable to me and anyone else eager to learn how best to assist the church in singing praise to its Lord!


(Click here for last week’s Featured Recording)

Featured Recording: Dunnville Sings

Featured Recording

Although most of our Featured Recordings here on URC Psalmody have focused on particular mechanics or nuances of church music, today’s video is simply for your listening pleasure.  But along with it comes an opportunity for some reflection as well.

Here in the United Reformed Churches in North America, many of our congregations are small, some are constrained to worship in subprime acoustical areas, and a growing number are composed of first-generation churchgoers who are still learning how to use their voices in praise to God.

Especially for these young churches and church plants, the problems associated with establishing good congregational singing are numerous.  Organ or piano accompaniment (or guitar)?  Blue Psalter Hymnal, Book of Psalms for Worship, or some other collection of psalms and hymns?  What about “contemporary music”?

I don’t believe there is a universal answer to any of these particular questions.  Perhaps organ accompaniment, while useful for a large congregation, will prove overpowering and ugly in a small urban sanctuary with a whiny old electronic instrument.  Depending on a church’s background, the songbook of choice may vary as well.  It may even be necessary to use some form of “contemporary music” in a newly reforming congregation for a time.

Despite these widely varying circumstances, however, I believe there is a universal and attainable ideal for good Reformed church music.  Its primary instrument is a congregation of any size that knows how to sing, why to sing, and what to sing.  Its primary material is composed of the psalms and Scriptural songs, whether or not uninspired hymns are included.  Its accompaniment (whether piano, organ, guitar, or some other instrument) serves only to support the singing of the congregation, not to dominate it.  In short, it satisfies all of the requirements of Biblical, sincere, and beautiful worship.

This complex preamble brings us to today’s Featured Recording, which I believe is an excellent example of good church music.  The congregation which provided the recording is one of our own sister churches, in fact: Grace Reformed Church in Dunnville, Ontario.  As a fairly large church with a strong Dutch Reformed base, they use primarily organ for accompaniment and sing out of the blue Psalter Hymnal, like most of our federation.  And they excel at it!

This particular selection, “Hallelujah, Praise Jehovah” (Psalm 146, Psalter Hymnal #301), is sung with gusto and skillfully accompanied by Scott Lindeboom.  The tempo is not so slow that it drags, but allows ample time to think about the words as they’re sung, while the broadly exultant affect of the psalm is perfectly reflected in the music.

Are there any particular strengths or weaknesses you’d like to point out in this recording?  How would you suggest applying these criteria for good church music to other worship settings?  As always, the comment section is open!


(Click here for last week’s Featured Recording)

How to Prevent Church Music Disasters

Organ PictureA few days ago, while I was browsing through some recordings of church services, I came across a very peculiar incident.  The song leader had spontaneously chosen a rather contemporary hymn for the congregation to sing.  To the congregation, the song was completely new; the pianist, struggling to find the right notes and rhythms, had obviously never heard it before either; and, most unfortunate of all, the leader himself was unable to hold the tune.  The result was a comic disaster.

When I had given up on trying to decide whether to laugh or cry, I began to wonder if there might be a few things we could learn from this incident.  Perhaps an obvious reaction would be to complain that song leaders shouldn’t pick psalms or hymns the congregation doesn’t know.  For my part, I believe this response is both oversimplified and misguided—after all, if only familiar songs are to be sung, how can someone learn anything new?  No, I concluded; dumbing down our churches’ repertoire will only be detrimental.

As a church musician, I found myself instead focusing more intently on the role of the accompanist in such a situation.  Let’s be honest: if you’ve played an instrument in worship services for any period of time, you know that if the unexpected can happen, it will happen.  Bulletins will come out late.  Pastors will make last-minute changes.  You’ll have to adapt to instruments that need repair.  And at some point, you’ll probably be put in a position similar to this poor pianist’s, faced with the responsibility of spontaneously sight-reading a completely new piece of music.

However, I believe there is a remedy (if not a complete cure) for this kind of dilemma.  It’s a simple solution that any church musician can follow, and in my own all-too-short experience, it has proven itself immensely helpful.  This program comes in two parts:

1.  Listen.

Listen often and again to good recordings of church music, specifically the kind you’ll be playing most often in our Reformed churches (congregational psalms and hymns).  This has a huge variety of benefits: it’ll familiarize you with the styles and nuances of church music; it’ll expose you to a wide range of interpretations, tempos, embellishments, and the like; and it’ll help you develop your own well-rounded approach for your own congregation.  These aspects go far beyond mere technical difficulty; that’s why we try to collect links to real recordings from the Psalter Hymnal (not computerized renditions) here on URC Psalmody, especially on our Psalter Hymnal Albums page.

2.  Play.

Play—a lot.  As you listen to other church musicians, try to evaluate their styles and decisions; then try to emulate the best of these in your own playing.  As a personal example, listening to recordings from other URC churches has prompted me to turn my tempo down a notch and support the congregational singing rather than dominate it.  Also, it might be beneficial to aim to familiarize yourself with every number in your church’s primary songbook, whether that be the Psalter Hymnal or another collection.  (This may seem like an overambitious goal, but just think: if you play just two songs from the Psalter Hymnal every day, you’ll be finished with the book in well under a year.  And you’ll never again be caught by surprise when playing from this songbook!)

Certainly it is the pastor’s or song leader’s responsibility to pick good, solid psalms and hymns that are suitable for congregational singing.  And certainly some of the responsibility rests with the congregation, to sing actively and enthusiastically rather than absently mumbling.  But we, the church musicians, must bear in mind that it is our responsibility to be familiar with all the songs in our church’s collection, even before they’re picked for a service.  This is necessary not so that we can give solo performances during worship, but so that we can properly support worship’s primary instrument: the congregation.

(Side note for a cappella worship traditions: In this case, the leader and the congregation both bear a much heavier responsibility.  Not only is the congregation the primary instrument, it is the only instrument, and as such, it needs to have a much greater awareness of and connection to its music.  With greater challenges, however, come greater benefits.)

So if you ever find yourself in the midst of a musical “train wreck” during a worship service, don’t despair.  Surely it’s happened to all of us at one time or another.  Rather, press onward to further improve your own technique and better support the congregation.  And take comfort in remembering that, regardless of what songs are selected, your role as a good church musician should never change.


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