Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Liturgical Karaoke and Snobbery

I love music. The highlight of my secular week so far was Neil Diamond's induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. (Yes, I realize a number of my readers will want to tune out after reading that, and more of you might feel that way after hearing that I've participated in a letter-writing campaign to get "Weird Al" Yankovic likewise inducted. Just hang in there.) I have over a thousand CDs, a packed iPod, and favored artists too numerous to conveniently list here, covering the gamut of genres and styles.

I will also admit to being a bit of a snob when it comes to the music used in the Divine Service. I do listen to some contemporary Christian music, but I am firmly convinced that what you experience in the Divine Service should sound and feel different than what the world promotes the rest of the week. On the other hand, I'm not such a snob that I believe the organ is the only appropriate instrument for the Divine Service.

All that being said . . .

I am the pastor of a fairly small rural parish. We have one organist. For as much as I love music, I can't play any instrument. My wife hasn't played her flute in . . . decades. My members don't play. And we could always sing a capella when we have to, I suppose, but we are not a bunch of bold singers. Accompaniment makes a big difference.

A while back I bought myself a copy of The Concordia Organist, a set of over 30 CDs of the music for the hymns and liturgy for the new LCMS hymnal Lutheran Service Book. It is my own personal copy. I use it for personal and family devotions, for teaching hymns to my children and Catechism students, for quiet "occasional music" in my study, and even for my burgeoning hobby of writing hymn texts. It is a valuable resource for my home and church life.

But I have also used it when our organist has been unable to play. (I did the same in previous parishes with "Every Voice a Song", the 9 CD set that CPH produced before "The Concordia Organist". I have since donated that first set to an Army chaplain to use as needed, and I would encourage you to do the same if you have such a superfluous resource.) I would always prefer to have a live musician even if it's not on the organ. That is not always an option. It is, for my congregation, a temporary aid, not a permanent solution. We will be using it for the hymns this evening and speaking the liturgy of Evening Prayer.

Some call the use of such a product "liturgical karaoke", suggesting that such recorded accompaniment is an affront to all things holy. "Find another solution." "Be creative." "The organ is not the only instrument a congregation can use." "Sing a capella." I'm amused (read that through the eyes of the Eighth Commandment, please) with those convinced of the ease of finding alternatives. Let me reiterate: We don't have a lot of resources here. This is not a large congregation in the big city. It's not even a medium-sized congregation in the suburbs. This is a small rural parish in an isolated area--or so I would say. Then again, I'm from the "big city". My congregation might disagree with me. Anyway, we don't have a lot of options. Even with an organist, I sing as loud as I can so the congregation has one fairly-confident voice to follow. We have a surprisingly large amount of churches in this area, and the musical talent is spread pretty thin.

You have a flautist and a guitarist on Sunday? Good for you, and thank God for that. You're able to pay other instrumentalists in addition to a full-time organist/Kantor? Blessed are you. We don't have access to those things. We tried a choir here. We had three people show up--and two of them were me and the organist. I don't hold that against my congregation; they serve in so many ways. But while they love hymns and music, they're not bold singers. I'm not, either, though I pretend to be. For a congregation like mine, "The Concordia Organist" is a great blessing when our organist is unable to play. And if it was "The Concordia Pianist" or "The Concordia Flautist", I'd feel the same way.

Call it "Liturgical karaoke" if you must. But let it be known that I consider that musical and liturgical snobbery of the highest order, and I probably won't invite you to fill in here when the organist is away. *wink*


IggyAntiochus said...

I with you on this one, and at odds with some church musicians.

This situation is a good use of The Concordia Organist. My parents' church still uses "Every Voice a Song" with LSB when their musicians are not available.

They were able to train some of the youth for organ and piano, so now they use it even less, but it is nice to have a backup.

I would add that all the carpet and padded pews in their sanctuary does not help congregational song either. Not sure how they would do acapella. If I ever play there again, I may try it on a stanza and see what happens!

Elephantschild said...

Iggy's right on the carpeting. Fastest way to improve singing even if your organist is less than ideal is to improve acoustics.

However, removing carpeting or pew padding would be akin to swimming the Tiber in some congregations. It's not always possible.