give a small boy a hammer…

Here’s a good insight from “When Is a Pipe Organ Just a Pipe Organ?” from the Alban Institute:

People confuse accretions with traditions, and this confusion leads to worship wars. … [W]e cannot be intentional about connecting with the Holy through our practices until we are able to distinguish between what is accretional and what is foundational to a tradition.

There are some valuable reminders in this article about what we try to create or foster in worship, and how we go about it. I have taken to stating at the first of each worship why we have come together: “We’re so glad you are with us today, as we look for ways to connect with the holy and work to transform our lives in community.” After that reminder, whatever we do should be aimed at those goals.

An organ is not a sacred object, nor is a piano or a harp or an electric guitar. They are tools with which we look for ways to connect with the holy. I recently heard someone talk proudly of the organ in their church, which has been valued at $1.5M. I was simultaneously struck by admiration of a magnificent musical instrument and horror at what possession of it must mean for the worship life of that congregation.

I’m reminded of Abraham Kaplan’s “law of the instrument”: Give a small boy a hammer, and he will find that everything he encounters needs pounding. When your most cherished tool would command several years of your church’s total budget to replace, you will no doubt use it at every opportunity, whether or not it’s the appropriate tool for the situation. Is an organ the only way to connect us to the holy, musically? Is it the best way? We could reformulate Kaplan’s quip to get “the law of the sanctuary instrument”: Give a church musician an organ, and she will find that every worship service she plans needs Buxtehude.”

The same is true for pianos and harps and electric guitars. They are just tools, and the use of any tool in worship should be constantly evaluated to see whether it is the best one for the job of connecting to the holy and transforming lives in community.

About liberalreligiongetsloud

Contemporary Music and Worship Director (retired), First Unitarian, Albuquerque NM
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4 Responses to give a small boy a hammer…

  1. Kaye says:

    Thank you for this terrific reminder. As a pianist, my tendency is always to put piano with EVERYTHING. However, I remember one time when a visiting pianist was accompanying a congregational hymn, and in the middle of the hymn, she gradually faded out and then simply stopped playing while the singing continued. It was something slow and beautiful and full of harmony — I think perhaps it was “We Would be One,” the melody of Finlandia. Once the piano dropped out, the voices of the congregation came through strongly and beautifully, totally a capella. It was a special moment and the best non-use of a piano I’ve ever heard.

  2. What a great story! One day, after rehearsing a piece for a long time, the bass player complimented everyone on finally getting such a spare sound. I think he was taking the same approach as your guest pianist – less is more when there are beautiful words and harmonies to be heard.

    • Paul Oakley says:

      It is my understanding that this was the original impetus behind the RCC’s adopting Gregorian Chant as its preferred liturgical musical form: the spare musical lines allowed the words to come through unimpeded despite architecturally produced echoes and resonances that can sometimes obscure lyrics that are more elaborately orchestrated. And of course the Gregorian Chant’s use of Latin originally spread meaning across a wide cultural region rather than obscuring it, as it later did.

      Architecture and language and technology and cultural/art forms all play together at the intersection with meaning.

  3. Paul Oakley says:

    I found the Alban Institute article interesting. At its core it is about not being inflexible about retaining inessentials. But I would quibble with the distinction between tradition and accretion. To me it seems a distinction without a difference.

    You can strip away (almost?) everything that Christian history has provided the worshipper. Divinity of Christ. Atonement theology. Every style and wording of everything. And pretty much every single doctrine and dogma and practice. There is essentially nothing except accretion in the entire tradition of Christian and Christian-derived worship and probably of all except the most innovative and novel worship forms. Meaning need not be less because it rests on accretion rather than on something more “foundational.”

    IMO, what it does mean, though, is that we have radical freedom to do what works rather than doing things simply because they were handed down. The only reason to hang on to any tradition (or accretion) is that it provides many people a sense of home and security. How much of which parts of a tradition provide that sense varies through time and community to community.

    Thanks for sharing the link!

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