Sunday, May 1, 2011

Stop Insulting Us!

     There is a movement, that has been around for a long time, to remove traditional 4-part hymn singing from the churches and to replace it with unison chorus singing.  When one tries to have a discussion of it the chorus singers always come down to " Well, it's okay because God loves all music.",  seemingly missing the point completely.  After all,  God loves our naked bodies too but that doesn't mean we all show up to church naked; at least that movement has not reached my congregation yet.
      People like myself do not only support the idea of keeping 4-part singing for the obvious comfort it gives to the old and vulnerable in our congregation but also because it is the job of higher institutions to give the masses something to aspire to.  If we dumb down the sermons or music we are insulting our listeners.   I really appreciate how the writer Daniel Gregory Mason explains this concept.
     I wonder if you have ever heard the story  of the great nature-lover, Thoreau, and the Indian arrowhead.  It was told by a friend of his who went with him on one of those long walks which he so loved to take all about the country  near Concord, and in the course of which he saw and heard such wonderful things.  The two men fell to talking of those rude arrowheads, chopped from stone, which are almost the only relics now to be found of the Indian tribes that used to hunt in that region; and Thoreau's companion expressed his surprise that any one could ever see, in those wide fields around them, such mere chips of quartz.  "Here is one now," replied Thoreau, stooping and picking one up at his friend's very feet.
     Thoreau was justly proud of his keen powers of observation and  used to explain it by saying that he knew what to look for.  "nature," he writes in one of his books, "does not cast pearls before swine.  There is just as much beauty visible to us in the landscape as we are prepared to appreciate- not a grain more....There is no power to see in the eye itself," he insists, "any more than in any other jelly.  We cannot see anything until we are possessed with the idea of it, take it into our heads."
     What is here so well said of the eye is equally true of the ear.  As there is indeed no power to see in the eye itself, so there is no power to hear in the ear itself.  We cannot see until we know what to look for; we cannot hear until we learn how to listen.  Yet how few people realize what care and study, what love and enthusiasm, are needed to make a good listener, especially to that rarest, subtlest form of sound - music!
      We often hear people say, for example, that they are fond of popular music but that what they call "classical music" is too dry and heavy for them.  They say this complacently, as if it were entirely the fault of the music, and their state of mind couldn't possibly have anything to do with it.  Yet the reason for their preference for the commonplace is that they are not yet trained to seize the more delicate beauty of a melody by Schumann or Chopin.  Let them cultivate their power of hearing by listening with their minds as well as their ears, and these rare, finer beauties will charm them more each day, while the old popular favourites will in the same proportion grow to seem more and more noisy, meaningless and stale. (taken from The Canada Book of Prose and Verse)
     I myself, am one who has only the most elementary form of musical training.  I have that aggravating amount that lets me know there is something there but what that something is, is usually beyond me.  I am still in the stage where I appreciate music with words more than pure music and that is because I need that guidance to understand the music.  I am not yet a sophisticated listener.
     Many of the advocates for unison simple singing in my circles are classically trained musicians.  They can afford to play these simple songs in church because they are exposed to classical music in other settings, but for many the church is their place of live music.  It is their only chance to expose their listening minds to more complex forms.  Popular music is available everywhere, you can't get away from it.  It can be used in Sunday School and Youth nights and all informal gatherings, so you don't need to come to a formal worship service to hear more of it.
      As stated. I have no formal music education and sing at the top of my lungs when watching the Mama Mia movie but because of exposure to good music in my church and home I can discern  that Bach's Mass in B minor is slightly more complex than ABBA's  Chiquita.  I know I am only catching a little of what Bach intended and the fact that there is so much more to discover is exciting to me.
     I really want our institutions like churches and schools to give people something higher to aspire to in all aspects of life.   Athletics, Art, Music, Academics, and Spiritual fulfillment.   If they don't, who will?


  1. Hear, Hear Lori!!


  2. Pun intended.


  3. I really enjoyed reading Thoreau and Mason, good insight, very interesting.
    Great post!
    Hah that is so true of many things in society nowadays, just keep everything simple and losing quality and standards. Your line says it all "God loves all music", entirely missing the point.
    Church music grows as we mature in faith, which is why we start with "Jesus loves me" and move to " O power of love all else transcending". It must reflect us and be meaningful to us, our personal faith expression to glory God.
    I quesioned the role of the church as offering something to aspire to musically. Did not think of it this way and then I thought of Luther and remembered when I researched him for my choir tour album.
    Here is a great quote of his musical passion for worthy worship.
    I also love this one
    " Music is an outstanding gift of God, and next to theology. I would not give up my slight knowledge of music for a greater consideration. And youth should be taught this art, for it makes fine skillful people". Luther
    He purposely introduced four part harmony for the congregation and for the young people.

  4. Sorry for my many spelling mistakes I had trouble posting took me three times before it went through. ARRGHHH!!!

  5. You present a strong argument, Lori, and if I had to be convinced this would do it.

    I must dispute your assetion that you have no formal training, because surely that's where Shirl Penner comes in with her exacting emphasis on breathing from the diaphram, teaching all the TT's voice and theory and yes stage manners. I still have pangs of guilt when I take a shallow breath! The training with her has stood me in good stead and obviously you too, as you are the star alto in the first Menno choir. I'm glad Shirl pushed all of us to perform in the festival. Mostly I was mediocre but sometimes it turned out okay and it enforced my love of singing. And did you know that saying one has ones grade 8 in voice from the Royal Conservatory is a conversation piece? Who knew?

  6. Well Opal44 you are certainly right that Shirl did teach breathing technique and stage manners but I was only there for 2 short seasons and only took my grade 4 exam which I am sure, is not a conversation piece. I also think it is good that she made us sing in the festival. We also did two television shows with her and recorded one album, which wasn't done so much in those days. Good Times!!

  7. Hi, Lori,

    I agree with your comments - we are certainly on the slippery slope to dumbing down our beautiful 4-part harmony church music (for which Mennonites are renowned) to down-play for the lowest common denominator. I find myself wondering, as I listen to that "unison chorus singing" as you so diplomatically call it, whether I should be dressing for camp around a campfire when I come to church, or for a dance to keep time with the 3/4 time waltz beat, or perhaps my glittery evening wear for a night at the disco. Certainly that music doesn't move me to feel the peace of the sanctuary of the church, and it doesn't lead me to aspire to the higher ideal of "more delicate beauty" or the greater good. Just as I wouldn't go to a bar if I wanted to hear church music, or to a dance to sing 4-part harmony, I don't want to go to church and listen to rock music. But then, of course, no-one really cares what the vast majority of the congregation feels, as we are ruled by a small but vocal and seemingly powerful minority, as ever...

  8. Lori, you write "about there being something there" and the complexity of the classics.
    I think I told you this once not sure, it fits with your good write up. She is not against pop of course like you and also feels like you we are missing out dismissing classical.
    Annette Dasch a 33 yr old Opera singer described the difference between classical and pop like this,
    "classical ....just listen, you don't have to know about it"...
    "pop tells you what to feel, it is strong, takes you, wants you to feel, to move...but Schubert symphony calmer way of getting into it, you need a door to get into it"...
    "classical is not old fashioned, goes into layers of your soul that are never touched."

  9. I would like to write something more extensive on this topic in our church's newsletter at some point seeing that it continues to be a live topic. Because I am not musically trained nor particularly invested in either form what I tend to see in churches is real lack of interest in dialogue on this topic, or more pointedly, no real or broad interest in what things could like beyond an us/them divide. As you point out the argument from 'chorus' supporters about it being 'pleasing to God' is a false start but so is the notion of unison singing being a process of dumbing down. Both arguments can be true but are not necessarily. For me it is sort of like saying going back to Plato is dumbing down because he deals with 'simple' topics as opposed to wrestling with Kant and his complex metaphysics. In any event like I said I hope to write more about this at a later point

  10. Thanks for your comments David. I would be interested in reading your thoughts on this topic here, or in the church newsletter. The Community Well, however is not that. It is not the well or meeting place where people can come and share their differing views. It is more a mouthpiece for the Water Management Department. If you were to write on this topic it would be wonderful if it could include more than one point of view.
    I will have to respond to you by saying that unison singing is a dumbing down of music. It may not be a dumbing down of ideas, thoughts, or concepts but from a pure musical sense it is less complex than other forms of music. This is documented in MRI obtained brain images that show more of the brain lights up when more complex forms of music are played. It is good to be challenged in this way.
    Just like your sermons. They are not simplistic and that is what is good about them. You are not trying to speak to a mean mental age of 10 which is what this chorus music seems to be doing. It's sole purpose seems to be to draw young people in instead of trying to raise them up.
    I appreciate your willingness to interact on this issue.

  11. I just wanted to say I so agree with Hedie L's comments, about music suiting the place and setting. Well said.

  12. Lori,

    I realize I'm leaving this comment long after the discussion began, but I want to comment, if for no other reason than to sort out my thoughts.

    (And I was going to get to bed early today!!!! Caroline told me there had been lots of action on the Prosper blog and so I've been reading there and then popped over here. And now it's getting late again! Missed you today, btw.)

    First let me say, that I LOVE 4-part singing of any kind . . . hymns, folk songs, whatever.

    I used to be a strong supporter of more chorus singing. I'm not anymore. Some of them make me feel very, very annoyed. The lyrics and the melody are not my favourite (I'm trying to be kind).

    As a former 'chorus singer' and lobbyist :), it never even occurred to me to do away with 4-part harmonies. In fact, a chorus that didn't have an alto part, or required singing in unison, was not a fun chorus to sing.

    The reason I, and I think I speak for more than just myself, enjoyed singing choruses, was b/c they spoke to my heart and my soul. They moved me. In the same way that hymns and classical music move me. But hymns and classical music don't speak to everyone's soul, just as choruses don't speak to everyone's soul.

    When I was going to an institutional church, I never understood why some people felt so strongly that there should be only one kind of music sung/played/celebrated. I also didn't understand why we couldn't have a civil discussion about music that did not include insults. The worst insults were doled out to my drum playing husband. As a tender and sincere 20-something young person just beginning to contribute to a church congregation, it's intimidating to get up on that stage. It's even more intimidating to realize that you're playing/singing to/for your worst critics. The memories might give me nightmares.

    We certainly, never, ever!, intended to dumb down and do away with 4-part harmony. We do need something to aspire to. Absolutely!

    In all honesty, I'm so glad that I no longer have to a part of this debate. I hated it when I was in it. I'm happy to comment to here and voice my experiences. Now I can yell . . . BRING ON THE HYMNS! And no one will roll their eyes or groan. Or I can yell . . . LET'S SING A CHORUS!!!! And no one will give me an evil stare or a 'talking to' in the back foyer after church. Having said that, the thing I miss the MOST about institutional church is the corporate music. I miss it a lot.

    As an aside, but somewhat related: I've been making a playlist of popular songs with a positive message for my classroom. I've also made an equally long playlist of classical music for my classroom.

    My plan is to have something playing when the class walks in, in the morning, and during a appropriate work times. I have full intentions of learning the words to most of the songs and singing out loud and clear, the lyrics I especially want my class to hear.

    (You're) that star up in the sky
    (You're) that mountain peak up high
    Hey, (you) made it
    (You're) the world's greatest
    - R. Kelly

    I'm hoping to endear them with the awkwardness of it all. I can hardly wait. I'm hoping to belt out various lines when I really want to stress a point.

    We can work it out
    - Jurassic 5

    I think it will make them laugh and think twice. I'm expecting eye rolls and grins and an experience they will never forget.

    I'm also planning to to crank up the classical. I've got all the pieces you sent in your email and more. :) I'm expecting to hear groans and eye rolls and I will grin and turn it louder and tell them that I am making them smarter by playing it. And since it's my job to make them smarter, it must be done!!

    I'm quite sure they will love it ALL.

  13. Monica, thank you for sharing your thoughts on my Blog. I love to hear from you.

    Thanks for the reminder to not insult those chorus singers, and I am sorry that you had to endure insults from people. In my youth we sang chorus songs all the time. In Sunday School, every Young People's gathering singing was loud and long and fun! Chorus singing represented that part of the church to me. Still, chorus singing was not done in the worship service on a regular basis. Here we used our young campfire trained voices to sing the 4-part hymns and grew to know and love them too. I thought, and think that this is an ideal arrangment.

    I am so excited about your upcoming school year!! I want to hear how it goes, from arrival anthem to departure ditty! Your students are so lucky to have you for a teacher. They will always remember you and tell their children about you.

    I admire you greatly!