Last month when I knew I’d be at the mechanic all day, I brought along a copy of Alice Parker’s, “Melodious Accord." Just as preachers study diverse interpretations of scripture, every church musician has an obligation to read different philosophies of music making. Parker, as you might expect from her compositional output, is an exceptional writer.
In the book she pleads with church musicians to recapture the magical mystical elements of music that cannot be adequately notated on a score. She offers fresh ideas to give the gift of musicing back to congregations and, better yet, a philosophy for defending Music that doesn’t rely on its side-effects; she advocates music for music’s sake.
Organists are, by and large, a traditional bunch. So many of us cling to the hymns of yore, the ones we grew up singing and playing. For me that means rich toccata postludes, anthems by Goss and Parry, a hymn with transposing interlude and reharmonized last verse while I watch incense fill the room in grand procession. For your congregation it might mean hymns by Franny Crosby and anthems that embellish old gospel tunes. Whatever it means to you, we are all just fine with this standard: it’s more comfortable to sing the same tunes for forty years than to learn new ones. No organist has ever been fired for playing the congregation’s favorite hymns on repeat.
This trend is particularly contemporary. Partly due to the ever-waging worship wars and partly to feed our own discomfort, traditional worshipers have receded to the trenches, a theological safety zone, clinging on to things that “work” for fear of conforming to the times. To many, nothing cedes victory to the “contemporary music” movement like trying out new music in “traditional” worship. What would the church look like if the church historically silenced contemporary music? All of those hymns we treasure would never have made it into popular canon. There would be no romantic yesteryear to reminisce.
In her book, Parker offers ways to fix this and other issues. You’ll have to read the book to see if her suggestions can help in your ministry. But I challenge organists to consider, truly and deeply, our role as church leaders. Are we offering unique methods of music making to our congregation? Are we offering diverse styles? Contrasting hymn texts? Are we thinking about the quality of music or just about the theology of the text? Are we willing to make uncomfortable musical decisions for the benefit of our congregation? How far outside of our comfort zone can we travel?
Different musical options can reach the same results. If our goal is simply to worship God, our possibilities are infinite. Each denomination, each region, each individual church has its own tradition to continue, and it is healthy to continue doing so. I’m not suggesting an abrupt switch from the 1982 to Wonder, Love and Praise in your Rite One Episcopal parish. Rather, how can we broaden our approach? I have often found that when I analyze the goals of music in worship, I find multiple outlets to accomplish the same end.
With that in mind, creating traditions that last must be at the center of the worship wars debates. If we are quick to bend at the new and marketable, we quickly forget the pillars of our theology, and these repercussions are hardly ever considered at the time of decision-making. A new hymn text may perfectly capture a topic being left out of our hymnals, but if it is paired with a terrible melody, how good can the hymn truly be? On the other hand, choosing a hymn from the “old hymnal” because the congregation will know it better than one of the equally apt choices in the newer hymnal leads to a dead end in music creativity.
Before the hymns in our hymnals passed the “test of time” they passed the “test of ability.” Many of these hymns would be passed over if they didn’t have musical, textual, and emotional interest. Our churches should be laboratories for the new, labs that are capable of determining what works and what doesn’t, so that the best of our hymns might continue to inspire thoughtful worship for years to come.
Somehow we must learn to balance these two sides. Our society loves polarized debates. We love dumbing down and avoiding confrontation. How can we continue to offer the highest quality of music without reserving music for the elite? As young organists we are in a unique place to define the future of church music. Will we favor higher training over the grit of congregational ministry? I hope we, as a profession, will continue to feed the pastoral side of our careers, the servant side, the side that gives in a bit to special requests when we have the option to hide behind rules of liturgical correctness.
How are we, as young organists, contributing to such conversations? Our voices matter. AGOYO exists to not only connect young organists but to give us a voice. For years, young organists have complained about the lack of opportunities for cultivating camaraderie between generations. Many chapters pigeonhole young AGO members to roles like “Social Media Coordinator” or “Chapter Photographer.” The Guild is a bottom-up organization: POEs and Conventions are hosted by local chapters. The responsibility is our own to make an impact on the profession. As we create new, exciting music meant to last we too should seek professional relationships that last. If your sole connection to the AGO is through the AGOYO Facebook page, I implore you to step out of your comfort zone and attend a local chapter meeting. AGOYO officers, take an active role in your chapter and region. Explore leadership positions: every chapter can benefit from having a young organist leader. Message and meet other young organists, especially in your area. Fellow members of this AGOYO initiative have not only become my mentors, but my friends. If our sole outlet is to spark conversations on fleeting Facebook posts, I fear we will lose the voice given to us.
- Scott Ziegler, AGOYO Southeast
Organist, First Presbyterian Church of Lakeland, Florida