people these days don’t sing. right?

This just in from UU music director Jed Levine:

Here are a bunch of young people, clearly having fun, and sounding great. No sheet music, no prior rehearsals, no advance notice of the piece. This happens in a bar in Toronto every week. The people just show up, rehearse and sing! Granted, church is not a bar, but I’m sure some of our congregations would appreciate this sort of energy.

What a fantastic experience these happy people are having! We sing in worship because music moves our hearts and minds and bodies in ways that words can’t. It’s not complete without both. These folks (not all young, either!) are clearly having a heightened experience — not worship, but akin to it.

I agree, Jed. This could be a perfect complement to worship, or with the right songs, an entire service. It’s going into my idea file for the next music special service. Thanks for sharing it!

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your brain and music

Answering the “chicken or the egg” question about music and language, here’s an article that will make you sit and think “whoa … really?” Take a few minutes to read it and feel great about having music in your head!

Language, music and your brain.

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Soulful Sundown

Here’s the order of service from a Soulful Sundown worship I attended a couple of months ago at Shelter Rock Unitarian Universalist Congregation in Long Island, NY. It was part of a full Friday night for UUs, with dinner in the social hall, the Soulful Sundown service, and a coffee house with a visiting singer/songwriter afterwards.

If the name “Soulful Sundown” doesn’t ring a bell, let me digress for some background. Soulful Sundown is a kind of rock vespers, a UU contemporary style service usually held on Friday or Sunday evening. It was developed at All Souls Unitarian in Tulsa as a way to appeal to young adults and there were a lot of UU congregations who started these services right around the turn of the millenium. (For example, Lavanhar Promotes “Soulful Sundown” Concept as Ideal Way to Minister to Young Adults.)

They’ve had an up-and-down history. Most of the original ones from the early 2000s didn’t last long. Already in the mid-2000s, when I was looking into the concept for our congregation, Tulsa was the only one remaining. The idea seems to have undergone a revival, however. Searching for “Soulful Sundown” now yields a good number of them around the country, and I think maybe our sense of what’s possible (and maybe what’s appropriate) in UU worship has finally caught up with Rev. Lavanhar’s vision.

So, back to the Shelter Rock service: To my mind, this is the essence of what “UU contemporary worship” could be: an expression of our faith and values with no reliance on traditional Protestant liturgy at all. A couple of things jumped out at me: first, the music, of course. Second, there is no “sermon”. Which is not to say that there’s no spiritual message from the minister. The segments labeled “Spoken Word” and “Reflections from the Road” were a combination of readings and a short homily by the minister. It was not a 20-minute dissertation on the topic, though the parts could have been assembled into one.

Rather, the spoken word and music were woven together organically throughout the service. The words were interspersed with songs from the popular repertoire that commented on or reflected the message (in this case, life as a journey and choosing your journey). It was a very fulfilling and thoroughly UU worship. 1

Last, there was no standing up and sitting down, no unison affirmation read from a hymnal, no singing of “Doxology” or “Spirit of Life”. There was nothing that reflected mid-20th century Protestantism (as carried on by typical UU liturgy).

And yet, the arc of the service was familiar: beginning with spirited singing, with a quieter time of meditation, prayer and contributing to others in the middle, and an uplifting mood at the end. The volume level may have seemed shockingly loud to some, but I noticed on Sunday morning that the congregation’s mammoth pipe organ produced about the same volume as the rock band, so I think that’s the sound level Shelter Rock operates at. 2

The main thing is that this “UU contemporary” service and every one I have participated in (at my church, at GA, at UUMN conferences) appeals not to an age demographic, but a spiritual demographic that reaches across the generations.

It’s what you want out of worship, rather than your age, that draws you to this kind of service. “UU young adults” are not automatically attracted to popular music in worship. And “older UUs” are not automatically repelled by it. Some of the younger ones prefer the symphony, and the older ones are members of the pioneering rock-and-roll generation. In my view, Soulful Sundown worship appeals not to an age group, but to a particular approach to one’s spiritual life. Some people prefer more formality in worship, some less. Some people want worship to inspire joy and celebration. Some associate a joyful and energetic worship style with a theology they despise. Some people just don’t like change (maybe that’s where the assumed appeal to the young comes in?).

Here’s the downside: these services are still considered “special events”. They’re typically held once a month, often in conjunction with some sort of “coffee house” entertainment afterwards. There’s nothing wrong with that, of course, but why couldn’t this obviously appealing style be a regular thing every Sunday morning?

There is much gnashing of teeth and rending of garments over the ~75% of people who self-identify as UU but who don’t belong to a UU congregation. I would bet good money that a lot — most? — of them are totally into UU spiritual values, but don’t have any interest in sitting in a service that reflects mid-20th century Protestant worship values. 3

We consider ourselves “religious liberals”. We have broken almost totally with Christian theology. It makes me wonder why most of us still worship like conservative Christians.



Footnotes:
1. Well, there was some dancing; maybe that’s not what most of us are used to seeing in worship.

2. Anyone who complains that rock music is “too loud”, while being blissfully blasted by a pipe organ in a small sanctuary is objecting not to volume, but style.

3. I have seen no data to support or contradict this assertion, so you may ignore it as you like. But do ask those “free range” UUs you meet what keeps them away from your congregation and what would make them comfortable there.

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my apologies

It seems that WordPress has decided to monetize me by inserting advertisements at the end of each post. Let me repeat: their ad gets the last word when you are reading my posts. Of course, the chances that these will not harm (forget about helping) is about zero.
They want $30 a year to return control to me. I understand that they have to pay the bills somehow, but I can’t think of a more intrusive way to do it than sticking an ad for beer or Viagra on the end of an essay about worship music. I am pondering whether to negotiate with the hostage-takers or find another host. I welcome your suggestions, comments or ideas. In the meantime, you can view this or any site ad-free by using Firefox and installing the Adblock Plus extension.

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the pistol is the devil’s right hand

Sunday I sang Steve Earle’s “The Devil’s Right Hand”. I like this song because it tells an interesting story and makes its point in a subtle way. The point, as I see it, is that “to a kid with a hammer, everything looks like a nail”. Or, more relevant to current events, “to someone with a pistol, everything looks like a target”. It’s a warning not to let mere possession of technology override your moral judgement.

I chose this song before that murder trial in Florida began, but we ended up doing it for a worship service the day after the jury acquitted George Zimmerman of killing an unarmed teenager. Apparently, not much was said from UU pulpits about the situation, but singing Earle’s song the morning after made a powerful comment on the verdict. Sometimes, things just work out that way.

Earle’s articulation is terrible, so here are the lyrics, if you’re interested, followed by a video of the song.

About the time that Daddy left to fight the big war
I saw my first pistol in the general store
In the general store, when I was thirteen
I thought it was the finest thing I ever had seen

So l asked if I could have one someday when I grew up
Mama dropped a dozen eggs, she really blew up
She really blew up, and I didn’t understand
Mama said the pistol is the devil’s right hand

The devil’s right hand, the devil’s right hand
Mama says the pistol is the devil’s right hand

Me very first pistol was a cap and ball Colt
Shoots as fast as lightnin’ but it loads a mite slow
It loads a mite slow, and soon I found out
It’ll get you into trouble but it can’t get you out

So then I went and bought myself a Colt 45
Called a Peacemaker but I never knew why
I never knew why, I didn’t understand
Mama says the pistol is the devil’s right hand

The devil’s right hand, the devil’s right hand
Mama says the pistol is the devil’s right hand

Got into a card game in a company town
I caught a miner cheating, I shot the dog down
I shot the dog down, I watched the man fall
He never touched his holster, never had a chance to draw

The trial was in the morning and they drug me out of bed
Asked me how I pleaded, not guilty I said
Not guilty I said, you’ve got the wrong man
Nothing touched the trigger but the devil’s right hand

The devil’s right hand, the devil’s right hand
Mama says the pistol is the devil’s right hand

The devil’s right hand, the devil’s right hand
Mama says the pistol is the devil’s right hand

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chords for Singing the Living Tradition

Here’s a reminder: last year several members of the Unitarian Universalist Musicians’ Network (UUMN) contributed to a document containing chord symbols for a goodly number of hymns in “Singing the Living Tradition”. If your congregation has a guitarist, or keyboard player who prefers to play off of chord changes, this will speed them on their way to accompanying the more traditional hymns from that book. (“Singing the Journey” was prepared with this in mind, so almost all the songs have chord symbols.)

For example, I just added chords for #44 “We Sing of Golden Mornings”:

44
Bb | Eb / / Bb | Eb / / Cm7 | Eb / Fm Fm7 | Eb / / / |
Eb / / Bb | Eb / Bb Eb | Eb / Fm / | Eb / / / |
Cm / / / | Eb / / / | Eb / Fm Fm7 | Eb / Bb / |
Eb / / / | F7 / Bb Eb | Eb / Ab Bb | Eb / /

The format here is laid out just as the hymnal page is. Vertical bars are bar lines, slashes are beats with repeated chords.

You are welcome to use this for your services or any other occasion. If you have chords for hymns not in the collection, I’d be pleased to add them.

Chord Changes for “Singing the Living Tradition”

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drawing the circle wider, or, what is it about the third principle that’s hard to understand?

This was the third year I’ve played in the UUA General Assembly “house band”. It’s a wonderful experience – exhilirating and exhausting, as a meaningful experience ought to be.

Every year I’ve been to GA, the music has gotten a little more eclectic, a little more inclusive, and a little more lively. Though I dream of the day when “Rank by Rank” is considered a baffling artifact of a previous era, I don’t expect it in my lifetime. But to have a varied group of “Americana” singers/songwriters in the opening ceremony was fabulous – we heard Appalachian, African-American and modern “folk” styles from some really talented musicians. Pretty much the entire spectrum of Western music was covered, from banjo frailing to string quartet. (OK, no tangos, but you can’t have everything.)

Interestingly, the Service of the Living Tradition was (“Rank by Rank” notwithstanding) musically the least traditional I remember. David Smith, Rick Fortner and the All Souls (Tulsa) singers and band rocked the house. Hard.

But it wasn’t just stylistic difference. There was some “God language” in that service, and some others, that seems to have riled some people. I don’t get this. The whole core of our religious movement is that everyone’s (EVERYONE’S!) path is honored and encouraged. If the Deist or Atheist or Buddhist doesn’t find resonance in African-American gospel, they will find their path honored at another time. I don’t find it threatening to my beliefs to listen to someone else profess theirs. Meanwhile, we have some spontaneously generated Universalists in our midst, willing to share with us their fresh and unjaded joy at having come to that spiritual place. How can we react to that in any way but elation?

The music at GA, like everything else, is meant to be a showcase of best practices and also limit-stretching possibilities for UU worship. I always learn a lot there about how to do worship well. If you didn’t get to go, you can still experience the group worship (and music) on video: http://uua.org/ga/2013/ That could be your weekly spiritual practice for several months.

I recommend this heartily to anyone who wants to know just how fulfilling, exciting and rich UU worship can be. And that variety comes from our own range of beliefs, traditions and cultural backgrounds. At GA, you can see fully who we are, and who we aspire to be.

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