Posts Tagged 'Practical Ideas'

Goodbye to the Pocket Psalter?

In the afterglow of the Trinity Psalter Hymnal’s publication, one of the questions that rolls around every now and then is whether the publishers will ever prepare a pocket-sized version of the new book.

Pocket Psalter HymnalRemember the mini Psalter Hymnals of the CRC? We celebrated them here on URC Psalmody because they testified to a thriving culture of psalm- and hymn-singing—not just in church but also before bed, around the dinner table, or on the road. Even today, you can still get a pocket edition of the 1912 United Presbyterian Psalter from Reformation Heritage Books, and multiple mini editions of the Book of Psalms for Worship are available from Crown & Covenant Publications.

So it’s only natural to hope that the advent of a new psalter-hymnal in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church and the United Reformed Churches in North America will bring the added blessing of a pocket edition. Sadly, that’s not likely—for at least three logistical reasons.

First of all, the Trinity Psalter Hymnal offers a very large collection of psalms and hymns—about 50% larger than the 1959/1976 “blue” Psalter Hymnal. That means the pages of the regular edition have to be very thin in order to allow it to fit in a pew rack. It’s difficult to imagine making the paper any thinner in a pocket edition without compromising the integrity and readability of the pages.

Here’s a second factor related to readability: The pages of the Trinity Psalter Hymnal are quite full. The songbook’s commitment to thorough versifications of the Psalms and complete hymn texts leads to a lot of small type and a complex, even busy, page layout. Unlike the larger and simpler type of the 1912 Psalter or the 1959/1976 Psalter Hymnal, a pocket edition of the Trinity Psalter Hymnal would require cramming a lot into a small space.

The third reason a pocket Trinity Psalter Hymnal is unlikely is the expense involved in producing a separately-sized edition of the book. Despite the interest that some church members have expressed, the demand for pocket editions probably wouldn’t be high enough to justify the production costs.

For those of us who fondly remember the tradition of pocket Psalter Hymnals, this may sound like a loss. But it’s important to recognize that the idea of a miniature songbook reflects particular attitudes and beliefs toward worship. And it’s possible to honor and maintain those attitudes without needing a pocket-size hymnal in your hands. So how can we use the Trinity Psalter Hymnal the same way that generations of old used their pocket psalters?

  • Pocket psalters emphasized that singing is a personal devotional practice as well as a corporate activity. Consider buying your own copy of the Trinity Psalter Hymnal and keeping it nearby for family worship or for your own devotions.
  • Pocket psalters were often given to kids so they could learn the songs of the church using their very own book. (I own more than one pocket Psalter Hymnal with scratches and scribbles in the end pages!) If you have a personal Trinity Psalter Hymnal, encourage your kids to explore it for themselves. Sure, you may end up with crayon doodles and ripped pages in a once-pristine book, but you’ll be making a far more worthwhile investment in your children’s spiritual nourishment and development.
  • Pocket psalters were a picture of church membership: As we grow up in the family of God, the songs of his people become our songs too. Pastors and elders, consider giving Trinity Psalter Hymnals as profession-of-faith gifts to young adults in your congregation. There are leather-covered, gold-edged gift editions available for such occasions.

How have you incorporated the Trinity Psalter Hymnal into your personal and familial devotional life? What other opportunities are there to honor the devotional commitment that the tradition of pocket psalters represents?

–MRK

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.

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!

–MRK

(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.

–MRK


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