Posts Tagged 'Singing'

Etched in Our Hearts

mattmontgomeryThe following is a guest post by Matthew Montgomery, a senior Music Education major at Geneva College. Matt is a talented guitarist and vocalist with a passion for sharing the gospel through song. Last fall he led devotions for The Genevans choir and reflected on his introduction to psalm-singing through the college’s chapel program, the choir, and New Song (a smaller vocal ensemble). Matt’s story is a wonderful testimony to the long-term spiritual impact of singing the psalms.

This is my fourth year singing with The Genevans, and I’m all too aware that it’s my last year here at Geneva College. Right now, I want to talk to the underclassmen, but you veterans are welcome to listen too. Freshmen, I remember being in your shoes and being pretty confused about some things when I came to Geneva. Now, I grew up Presbyterian, but I had no idea what the Reformed Presbyterian Church was all about until I got to chapel here and realized that there were no instruments or hymns.

At first, I remember feeling like my right to express myself through worship was taken away with psalm-singing in chapel. How was I supposed to worship without the songs and instruments that I was used to? Well, I slowly got used to the whole a capella thing. And as strange as it seemed to me at first, I did appreciate that we were singing straight from God’s Word. However, part of me still missed the songs that I liked to sing.

The longer I’ve been here at Geneva and the longer I’ve sung the psalms with this group and with New Song, the more I’ve fallen in love with psalm singing. God gave us the gift of music for many reasons, but one of the most evident reasons in my own experience is that God gave us music to help etch his Word into our hearts. Think about it: we struggle to remember a simple list of terms for an exam, but we can remember every single word to our favorite song. When we sing the psalms, we are not only praising God by echoing back His holy inspired Word to the Author of creation, we are tucking those words into our hearts for when we may need them most. There have been times that I’ve been so struck down and defeated that I have no words of my own to even pray. It is in moments like this that the melody and words to Psalm 6 have echoed through my mind:

I am weary from my sighing,
And my bed dissolves in tears,
For my eye grows weak with sorrow,
My comfort disappears.

Return, O Lord,
Rescue my soul because of your lovingkindness.

Or the words of Dr. Byron Curtis’ setting of Psalm 130:

Out of the depths I cry to thee;
Lord, my master, hear my voice.
And let thine ears attentive be
Unto my voice my crying plea.

I wait for the Lord, all my hope is in his mercy.

Michael’s Psalm 103 will forever be stuck in my head. Like Dr. Smith said yesterday, we will never be able to read that psalm without hearing the music in our head. That is a beautiful thing. This list of psalms that veteran Genevans know by heart could go on and on. Newbies, I encourage you to be mindful that you are not just learning and making memories during your time here at Geneva, you are equipping yourself with God’s Word which will guide and direct you for the rest of your life.

I urge you all, no matter what denomination you’re from or what style of worship you prefer, to be mindful of the incredible blessing it is to sing God’s praise and to be etching His word into your hearts and minds. I feel like a fool for ever thinking that my right to express myself through praise songs was being taken away, because the psalms are more expressive than any song that I could ever write. Every emotion or situation we find ourselves feeling or experiencing can point to a psalm. Don’t be as closed-minded as Freshman Matt.

I hope that when we all eventually leave this place, we would all have a better understanding of what it means to sing praises to God and to live a life of worship that stems only by being rooted in his Word.

–Matthew Montgomery

See Matt’s YouTube channel for some of his varied tastes and talents in music!

Solace (Review)

My friends at Crown & Covenant are aware of one of every niche blogger’s Achilles’ heels: free review copies. Over the past two years they’ve sent me several books and CDs to feature on URC Psalmody, and I’m always more than happy to do so. The only problem is that they’re the only publishing company that currently offers me this incentive, which means my reviews are not as well-balanced as they could be! Nonetheless, since I may be waiting a long time for Reformation Heritage or P&R to add their contributions, I’ll happily continue to review C&C resources.

Solace: Selections from the Book of Psalms for WorshipOver the past several years Crown & Covenant has published a series of albums with simple recordings of psalms from The Book of Psalms for Worship. Currently twelve such albums exist (if my count is correct), and more are expected to appear in the coming months. The most recent is Solace, a collection of twenty psalm settings that focus on the Lord as a source of protection and strength in times of trouble. Utilizing multi-track recording technology, Solace was produced by three members of a very musical Reformed Presbyterian family in California who recorded over their own voices to create the auditory illusion of a small choir.

I’ve had the privilege of getting to know this family a little bit and can attest to their love for psalm-singing, as well as their skill in doing it. Recording twenty psalm settings at professional quality for commercial distribution is no easy task! And overall, this is a recording worthy of the long heritage of psalm-singing that Reformed and Presbyterian churches have enjoyed.

The primary use I would have in mind for this album would be a reference recording. That is, I would go to Solace mostly to find out how an unfamiliar tune goes or to explore possible tempi, arrangements, etc. Because most of the arrangements are very simple, Solace would be especially helpful for those seeking familiarity with The Book of Psalms for Worship or a cappella psalm-singing in general. But the recording quality is generally good enough that the album could make for enjoyable listening music as well, particularly in the area of personal devotions. Again, the simple singing style makes it almost impossible not to meditate on the words as they are sung.

Some aspects of Solace are not as aesthetically pleasing as they could be. The multi-track recording can sound too manipulated at times, especially the female vocals. And, to return to one of my typical complaints about many kinds of psalm-singing, I would love to hear a little more variety in the pacing and dynamics of some of the psalms. In general, I always prefer real-time recordings like those of the Syracuse RP Church, also in this series, which are excellent.

Still, Solace and this series in general set a high standard for psalm-singing albums of all kinds. The closest comparison I can make to a series from the CRC/URC tradition would be Dordt College’s Be Thou Exalted, LORD! series from the 1980’s. As we look ahead to the publication of a new Psalter Hymnal, the OPC and URC’s talented musicians and singers ought to give careful thought to producing a similar set of recordings. Singing the psalms does not need to be beautiful in order to be worshipful, but it certainly deserves our best effort!

–MRK

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

Sing Joyfully: Getting the Most out of the Book of Psalms

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(The following is adapted from a workshop delivered by Michael Kearney and Dr. David Kenneth Smith to high schoolers at the 2016 Reformed Presbyterian International Conference on July 26, 2016.)

Thanks for giving us a little slice of your busy schedules during this convention. As two non-Reformed-Presbyterians, we are really enjoying the chance to get to know so many of you along with your friends, family and fellow church members this week—we’ve been invited to participate in something really special, and it’s great to be here!

We want to talk to you today about something the majority of you have probably experienced for your entire lives—psalm-singing. We’re going to leave aside theological or historical arguments for psalm-singing, which you’ve probably already heard countless times and which you can probably explain better than we can. Rather, we want to speak to you about the psalms as they fit into the theme of RPIC’s high school program, “Exploring Life in This World: Adulthood Is upon You.” In this workshop we want to suggest that the psalms are a divinely-given resource to help us make sense of the ups and downs of life. There are three main ways in which the psalms do this.

First, the psalms help us make sense of the world through their role as a spiritual discipline. I’m sure you know the passage in Ephesians where the apostle Paul commands the church to sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs (Ephesians 5:19). But look at the context surrounding this command. The command to sing psalms doesn’t arise out of thin air; it appears in the middle of a list of activities that are really very countercultural. And I’m sure that many of your friends, whether believers or unbelievers, would be kind of surprised to hear that you gather in church or in your home during the week to sing psalms. In our current culture, singing—and especially singing Scripture—is a strange practice.

In Ephesians Paul describes how Christians are to “be imitators of God” rather than imitators of the world. And a lot of his commands have to do with what fills our minds and mouths. Is it crude joking, or thanksgiving (v. 4)? Is it empty words (v. 7), or the wisdom from God (v. 15)? Is it drunkenness, or Spirit-filled speech (v. 18)? Indeed, now more than ever we are surrounded by empty and foolish talk on so many sides that cultivating heavenly wisdom takes serious effort. Spiritual disciplines are called disciplines because they take a lifetime of strenuous dedication to establish in our lives. But singing the psalms is one way we can grow in the wisdom and maturity that we are called to when we follow Christ.

Second, the psalms help us make sense of the world by teaching us about living in harmony within the church. Paul’s list of instructions to the church in Ephesians 5 begins with the words “walk in love, as Christ loved us.” We often think of psalm-singing as a way to obey God and build up our own hearts. But do we think of psalm-singing also as an expression of love toward our fellow believers?

Congregational singing is an excellent picture of building one another up, especially when we sing in harmony. A song that contains only one musical line can be very shallow and boring. That’s why our psalters are written with four parts that rise and fall independently, but intermingle to form a beautiful and harmonious whole. Some people have lower or higher voices than others, but all can find a part suited for them in the church’s music. The fact that we sing in harmony rather than unison seems to be a great picture of the Christian life, especially since not everyone in the church “plays the same part.” We each have different strengths and weaknesses in different areas, but God uses those differences to help us grow as the body of Christ. In the case of singing, we work together to imprint divine vocabulary on each other’s hearts. We learn to speak like Jesus!

The third and final way in which the psalms help us make sense of the world is that they fill us with joy in the face of opposition. When asked why we Reformed believers sing the psalms, we are often quick to respond with the fact that it’s divinely commanded—and that’s true. But let’s not lose sight of the fact that we also sing the psalms because it’s a joyful activity for the redeemed soul. Paul lists singing as an expression of love and thanksgiving, not a tedious obligation.

I can say to you, even as someone who’s just a few years older than you are, that the experiences I’ve had so far have taught me to treasure the psalms more than I did in high school. There have been mountaintop experiences (literal as well as spiritual) where the psalms have filled me with new heights of praise, and there have also been dark valleys where the laments and prayers of the psalter have been some of my only comforts. I suspect the same has been or will be true for most of you as well as you go forth into this world. And as the psalms help you to make sense of the apparent chaos and absurdity in the world, they will also help you share God’s perspective with your friends, family, coworkers and acquaintances. The psalms can help them make sense of the world too!

We titled this workshop “Getting the Most out of the Book of Psalms” because we believe the psalms have a tremendous wealth of benefits to impart to the believer. In order for the psalms to help you make sense of the world, of course, you also have to work hard to make sense of the psalms as you sing them. That takes place by meditating on the text, letting the words shape the way you sing, and striving to make music to the best of your ability. When you exert this effort, whether individually or in a congregation, we are sure your life will begin to reap some of the many fruits the psalms offer.

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.)

Time for a Second Edition!

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Timing can be a funny thing. Two weeks ago came the news that the OPC’s General Assembly and the URCNA’s synod had both approved the Trinity Psalter Hymnal for publication—less than two weeks after Reformed Fellowship’s announcement that their stock of blue Psalter Hymnals had run out. At the very least, we can be sure the URCNA won’t be left without a book to sing from!

Of course, this historic decision means much more than that we have a book of our own. Several readers and friends have asked me: “Are you excited?” or “Are you relieved?” A few have even said something along the lines of, “Just think! Your Psalter Hymnal got approved by the synod!” And yes, I am excited—though it’s not my Psalter Hymnal by any stretch of the imagination.

See, that’s just the point: the fact that we’ve adopted the Trinity Psalter Hymnal means that as a federation we’ve been able to move past the substantial differences between “my” ideal songbook and “your” ideal songbook. It proves that by God’s grace, to some limited extent, we can work together—imperfectly, yet sincerely. The new book won’t provide the final answers to what we should sing or how we should sing in worship. It may be an excellent collection, or it may be only a reasonably good one. It may be forgotten in 100 years, or even 50. But it is a step forward.

As demotivational as it may sound, I’ll add this: The time to start preparing for a second edition of the Trinity Psalter Hymnal is now. If the URCNA and OPC have adopted this songbook out of a desire to worship God in greater truth and greater unity, we need to set our minds on long-term investments to improve this unity. I hope the Songbook Committees are already noting what might be done differently in compiling future editions, what recently-composed songs might be worth including someday, or even what other favorite songs from our old books ought to be reconsidered. As individuals and churches, we can take ownership of the new book by immediately noting which songs gain the widest acceptance and which problems need to be addressed most urgently. This could be as involved as an Excel spreadsheet or as simple as a tally mark placed above a psalm or hymn every time it is sung.

All of these are simple examples, but the central purpose is the same: to be thankful for the very good work that’s been done so far, while continuing to propel it forward so that future generations will benefit from the thoughtful investments in worship we are making today.

In short, I’m excited—not because we’ve yet reached the pinnacle of united worship in the URCNA and OPC, but because we’ve set our faces in that direction. And I’m excited for what God will do, as he has done in the past, when his people unite with a humble heart to seek the good of Zion.

–MRK


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