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Worship songs

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I’ve been wondering for some time why “worship songs” get such a bad press in this forum. Am I the only organist who likes quite a few of them? Surely worship songs are like any genre in music: there are good ones and bad ones, just as there are lots of good traditional hymns and probably thousands of bad ones, most of which have been forgotten. Where there’s a band, what’s the problem with the organist joining in and making a positive contribution to services that many young members of congregations enjoy greatly?

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I absolutely agree; I think the organ, played sensitively, can make a very positive contribution to a “mixed” consort of the type I often work with, eg trumpet, trombone, violin, cello, acoustic guitar, cajón. 

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At Fredericton Cathedral, we have three services on Sunday mornings; 8.00 Said Communion (BCP) with no music, 10.00 Choral Communion (BCP and BAS -the Canadian modern language book - on alternate weeks) with choral Introit, Motet and Setting, 11.45 "Come Worship Eucharist" - informal, but still properly structured with music group and worship songs.  The Director of Music (that's me) plays the keyboard.  I had been a bit nervous about this, thinking it would be outside my comfort zone, but in fact I rather enjoy it.  The musicians are good, some of them old enough to remember how to do rock and roll properly, and all competent to extemporise and generally blend in with everyone else.  I find some of the songs are rather cloying, of the "Jesus I love you" variety and I take a lot of trouble in choosing the music for this service so as not to wallow in the cult of the individual. There are, however, enough songs to allow an outward rather than inward looking overall feel to things.  One of our players writes very good worship songs - theologically and liturgically sound and decent music.  The full combo consists of lead, rhythm and bass guitars, kit drums, half a dozen singers and a woodwind player, who is a wizard on most things, reckoned to be one of the best tin-whistle players in Atlantic Canada, and plays a mean harmonica.  Occasionally, I might play something on the organ, but it's awkward because the console is in the Quire and most of the pipes in the north transept behind the choir-stalls, while the other musicians are at the east end of the south aisle.  This makes co-ordination tricky, but the most difficult aspect is that it's not really practicable to mike the organ, so balance and mixing is difficult.  I think the secret is that all of us are competent enough in our own field to be able to avoid taking ourselves too seriously, so the lighter aspects of this sort of music are able to flourish.  We also try to allow for as much congregational participation as possible (not always easy with some worship songs), unlike some groups who seem totally engrossed in themselves and make so much damn noise that it acts as a deterrent to anyone else who might want to join in. I remember a particularly gruesome "These are the days of Elijah" perpetrated by a high-decibel band back in Newfoundland....

I, too, quite like some of the songs - I'm not averse to a belt through "Shine, Jesus, shine" occasionally, and there are a good few others which are very decent.  Quite a lot of them remind me of Scottish folk rhythm and melody.  I prefer them to a lot of the uninspiring ditties put out by the RC church ("Eagle Swings" and "Be not afraid", for example), a lot of which are too complicated for congregational participation and are, in any case, monopolised by a heavily-amplified Mr. (or Mrs.) Caruso at the mike.  Over-amplification is the worst thing for killing off any congregational music-making!

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I will make no secret that I simply don't like the style, but that's irrelevant since taste is a personal, subjective response; it changes with fashion and is therefore unreliable as an indicator of musical quality. I hope my real objection is more objective.

I have always taken each song on its musical merit, as it comes. My problem is that they simply don't tend to have much merit.  By and large they are just poor compositions (I have ranted about "Shine, Jesus, shine" elsewhere recently). The biggest fault overall is musical illiteracy, both in the melodies and in the arrangements.  Stuart Townend's  music for "How deep the Father's love for us" actually has a pretty good tune, but in the form I encountered it the arrangement was sadly incompetent. The tune is clearly in a mixture of 3/2 and 2/2 time, yet for some reason (I can only assume ignorance) it was actually barred in 6/4 with the barlines in quite the wrong places. The chordal structure was musically tautologous, aimless and depressing. Barred correctly and reharmonised with more variety, it can be transformed into a perfectly attractive piece. The harmony of worship songs is often constrained by the need to keep them within the unimaginative strumming capabilities of very average guitarists. Perhaps because they were originally dreamt up with a solo performance in mind, a good few of the songs I used to encounter were full of syncopations about which the congregation could never agree and which they could never manage to imitate (and nor were they interested in doing so: they hated the things as much as I did).  When it comes to merit, you could fairly point out that a lot of Victorian hymn tunes don't have much merit either. This may be true, but it is also true that time has weeded out the most meretricious. In any case those that have survived have all been composed and arranged competently by people who had the necessary skills (if not the imagination).

I was brought up in a deocentric Anglicanism that worshipped God in a spirit of meekness and humility.  During the last fifty or sixty years the church has been turning away from the Book of Common Prayer's "miserable sinners" image towards one that is altogether more egocentric, happy and self-fulfilling - and worship songs are one of the products of this new identity.  The words tend to be full of "me, me, me",  placing more focus on the individual's experience than the worship of God: "Give me joy in my heart"; "God forgave my sin"; the list goes on and on. Half an hour of singing these and you feel as if you've been to the supermarket and filled your trolley full of God's blessings for your very own delectation.  That's not my scene. 

When I was young I used to enjoy dissecting and skinning dead birds. I was unbelievably bad at it, but I did enjoy it. If I now went to my local hospital and offered my surgical services in all my enthusiastic sincerity I'd soon find myself on my way home with a boot mark on my backside. Why do we tolerate similar attitudes in church music?  Is there any other field in which the unskilled tyro is embraced as the bees' knees?

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On 01/06/2018 at 21:49, Vox Humana said:

 Why do we tolerate similar attitudes in church music?  Is there any other field in which the unskilled tyro is embraced as the bees' knees?

Oh yes - science.  Pseudo-science abounds.  UFOs, ESP, dowsing, crop circles - a full list would crash the forum.  In medicine a good book was written by Ben Goldacre called 'Bad Science'.  Within a circle of those who know little, someone who claims they do know can achieve an apotheosis very quickly.  Music is just one example of many.

On another of Vox Humana's points, I'm not sure I agree that the egocentric nature of today's church is new.  When I was young, a good while ago now, I remember wondering even then why so many hymns were of the 'me' and 'I' variety.  Subsequently I also wondered what it was about the church that attracted people who enjoyed preaching to, and often shouting at, a submissive audience who weren't supposed to answer back or have opinions of their own.  I've since come to the conclusion that it's a form of narcissism, which today gets amplified even further by the rise of a secular self-obsession in society in general.  So perhaps this has some connection with the trends in modern worship being discussed here.

CEP

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I don’t go as far as bands but if asked will play worship songs and will do so with (hopefully) musicality. I agree with the narcissism point above too though find it more problematic with some (possibly less open minded and maybe also less musical) church musicians than with those who run things. I tend to keep well away from those types.

A

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Hi

I suppose having been brought up in a free church that had a worship band of sorts in the 1950's does colour my thinking, but bssically, anything that helps people connect with & worship God is fine (As long as the theology is OK,, but that's a whole different can of worms).  I've rregularly played organ in worship bands, as well ass piano/keyboards since I first played in church over 50 years ago.  In my experience, finding pipe organs that are in tune with modern instrumental pitch can be difficult, but organ plus works as long as the organist doesn't try to dominate, or to do it all.

Every Blessing

Tony

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It's absolutely routine here to slip between the (pipe) organ bench and piano stool, depending on the style of the music. The degree to which the style is accepted by the congregation (average age 70) is illustrated by worship songs being selected by people for their own funerals... 

 

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Quite agree with all the above sentiments. I'd be surprised if anyone reading this would know more than a small percentage of the hymns in the average Victorian hymn book and similarly the better worship songs of today will be around many years from now, the majority of them won't survive into the next reprint. Provided it is in tune with other instruments, the organ can blend very well when used at appropriate moments and appropriate registrations. Some songs naturally work better when led by piano, others by guitar. There are worship songs (more like hymns indeed) that work very well on the organ as a solo instrument - Stuart Townend's prolific contribution to the repertoire spring to mind.

And then there are worship songs whose words can fit traditional tunes. Again thinking of Stuart Townend, the words to In Christ alone are I think some of the most profound of any song or hymn in the past 100 years but the Celtic-like tune isn't best suited to the organ. However, it can still be effectively played on the organ - to Parry's "Jerusalem". Just try it!

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