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)┬ámusically 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.

Posted in contemporary worship | 1 Comment

Plato on music

A poster for your music room. (From a long and amazing series of inspirational illustrations by Gavin Aung Than – highly recommended.)

Plato on Music

Posted in contemporary worship | Leave a comment

on authenticity and finding our own voices: a rant

Has this happened to you? You have a song that fits the theme of a service perfectly, but a problem arises during rehearsal: someone objects to a phrase or a word. It doesn’t fit their theology, or it’s not inclusive in some way. They insist on changing the lyrics, or they refuse to sing it altogether.

Can you imagine someone saying “I have theological objections to major keys. I can’t sing this unless we change it to a minor key.” (Sound familiar? Remember that major keys were banned by the Catholic church in the 1300s.) But we do this with lyrics all the time.

I understand this. We UUs can be a testy lot, but it’s usually when we have our antennae out for injustice or oppression. This is clearly a good thing, and has brought about many good results.

But is it always a good thing? I don’t think so. At some point this insistence on every word being perfectly in line with our own (personal) theology becomes a credal test (“We can’t sing that because I don’t believe in _____”). That’s not who we are. It fails to honor “the inherent worth and dignity of every person”and it is not “acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth”. (“We honor you, except that your theology doesn’t agree with the altos, so we’re going to put our own words in your mouth.”)

I have gotten more and more uncomfortable with this. Because we don’t have a common creed, we have to recognize that not every song is going to be a personal statement of faith for everyone singing it. But we are going to be singing music that has deep meaning for someone in the congregation, if not for us. And that is what our ministry as musicians should be about: bringing musical expression of everyone’s faith into worship, one song at a time.

For a long time, I was of the opinion that we would never be able to sing “Jesus is Just Alright” in a UU service. Then one day, it fit the service perfectly, so we scheduled it. We sang it absolutely straight; we did not try to adjust the theology, we did not try to make the language more inclusive, we just sang it, in honor of what the writer had to say about his own faith. It felt good to do this, and it was (mostly) accepted in the spirit in which it was created. Another time, we sang Meg Keene’s “Hymn to Her”, knowing that it would resonate deeply with some and totally fly by others in the congregation. Again, the respectful presentation of a particular theology was accepted as the gift it was, without controversy.

Why can’t we do this every time we sing?

Here’s my New Year Resolution (yes, it’s March, but I’m a slow decision-maker): I will sing every song we do with respect for the writer, without changing lyrics to fit someone else’s thoughts, sentiments or philosophy. I will not force my (or someone else’s) theology on anyone else by putting words they did not write into their mouths.

We may have to drop some music from our repertoire. That’s OK. If we feel strongly enough that a subject should be sung about, but in our own particular way, then we should write our own song about it. Which is a more desirable outcome in many ways.

Posted in contemporary worship | 9 Comments

what’s the score?

If you use music scoring software, are you aware of the turmoil in the market right now? AVID shut down development and support for Sibelius a few months ago, and there is much gnashing of teeth and rending of garments as a result.

In addition to leaving Sibelius users high and dry, this also puts the other “standard” software package, Finale, in the de facto monopoly position in the market.

Or does it? It turns out that there are other music scoring programs out there, some with similar capabilities to Finale or Sibelius, some less capable. Here’s one look at where things are going: http://www.newmusicbox.org/articles/notational-alternatives-beyond-finale-and-sibelius/

Although I have been using Finale PrintMusic for quite a while, I decided to give MuseScore a try recently and was very, very impressed. This is a SourceForge project, that is, an open source project contributed to and maintained by volunteers. Like OpenOffice, IntelliCAD and other similar projects, MuseScore aims to implement the features, file compatibility and user interface of the “big name” programs, while being free for download by any and all.
MuseScore screen shot

Of particular interest (for my purposes), there is a plug-in for MuseScore that permits easy creation of jazz-style lead sheets. This is a big improvement over lyric-and-chord sheets (the rhythms are explicit, rather than implied) and much faster to bash out than a full vocal line with chords.
MuseScore Lead Sheet Plug-in

So, if you’re a Sibelius user looking for an alternative, or a Finale user loathe to spend big bucks on an upgrade, you should look into MuseScore (or one of the other alternatives). In fact, if you haven’t been using music notation software for your band, the slash notation plug-in might be the “magic app” that makes it worthwhile to start. The price is certainly right.

Posted in contemporary worship | 2 Comments

they rock, and should know it.

This wasn’t made specifically for our musicians, but it could have been. I’ve shared it with my rocking UU colleagues – how about you?

Posted in contemporary worship | Leave a comment

how to encourage singing

I’m a big fan of Nick Page‘s “no-fault singing” principle, which is summed up (quoting Duke Ellington) “if it sounds good, it is good”. Put another way, I believe everyone can sing – can make a joyful noise – even if they don’t believe it themselves.

The following quote popped up today and I thought it worth sharing. It’s got familiar good advice for voice care, but the basic assumption should be examined, as well. And that is “anyone can sing and have a positive effect on those listening”. People who, for whatever reason, can’t carry a tune in a bucket can still convey emotion, make people stop and think, etc. I mean, why is Bob Dylan still touring? It ain’t his lovely singing voice, that’s for sure!

So, I encourage you to encourage everyone you meet to sing more. And as we know, the more they sing, the “better” they’ll probably sing.

How Not To Embarrass Yourself At Karaoke

“Warm up all day. Start by counting aloud when you wake. Later, laugh out loud; we laugh higher than we talk, so you’ll be activating your upper register.

Lubricate your voice, especially if you’re nervous (stress can dry out your vocal cords). Half an hour before you sing, eat a little bread soaked in olive oil.

Breathe from your diaphragm. You’ll generate the air you need to produce a melodious tone. Inhale through your nose and push your belly button out. Exhale and let your navel go back in.

Feel free to change keys. Even the pros sing in a lower register when their voice gets tired.

Sing with joy, from your heart, and no one will care how you sound.”

— Debra Byrd, vocal coach for “The Voice” and vocal producer for “The Next: Fame Is at Your Doorstep”, from the Huffington Post

(Disclaimer: the “bread and olive oil” trick was not familiar to me. I intend to give it a try, though. Sounds like a good breakfast to have before that 8:00 service, doesn’t it?)

Posted in contemporary worship | 2 Comments

what are our tropes?

I listen to a local Christian chain radio station (K-LOVE), for spiritual inspiration as well as for musical inspiration. I have found several really good songs that not only rock out, but also express an aspect of our UU theology. Thus, they’re just right for our worship band.

But, to be honest, the vast majority are songs I consider simply unusable for UUs. The reasons for this are the flip side: they’re musically and/or spiritually unexciting.

But I have learned something interesting from even the songs I’d consider “filler”: just like secular pop music, most contemporary Christian music relies heavily on tropes. Tropes are recurring motifs, that is, phrases or images that concisely express a common concept. They are shorthand words or phrases that capture a central aspect of the faith. If you know the “moon-June-croon” stereotype, or the Beatles’ “Love Me Do”, you have heard a trope-driven pop song.

The tropes in contemporary Christian music are familiar to anyone who knows traditional Protestant hymnody: the Cross, Jesus’ blood, the Name of Jesus, etc. They seem to make it pretty easy to whack together a song that will get radio play. And, obviously, they also carry deep meaning for lots of people. In many such songs, no story or lyrical progression is necessary. Just use “I turn to the Cross” in your chorus and you have a song — perhaps not a great song, but a song that gets the job done, reaffirming a core principle of the faith.

Now, what if you wanted to crank out a large body of UU inspirational music in a short time? You’d want to use tropes to help the job along. But what are our tropes?

If you page through our hymnals, you see very little of this kind of writing. Maybe our hymn lyricists hold themselves to a higher literary standard. Or maybe our theology is too vague to elicit these shorthand phrases that sum up a key theological point. Perhaps the closest we have is “Spirit of Life”, which has become a common circumlocution for God (i.e., a trope), and which has found expression as “spirit of life”, “source of all” (“Doxology”), the “oneness of everything” (Jim Scott), etc. All the rest of our theology — our principles, the fundamentals of Unitarianism or Universalism, our heritage — are pretty hard to find as commonly used and repeated phrases in our hymnody. How could those concepts be expressed as tropes, as pithy words or phrases that will elicit a deeper understanding of the song?

In fact, both “Singing the Living Tradition” and “Singing the Journey” are explicitly organized around our “sources of faith”. But I don’t see anything that could be repeated as a commonly recognized trope. (Except Spirit of Life, maybe.) Ignoring the vast field of our influences, what’s a commonly understood sound bite that encapsulates “Unitarianism” or “Universalism”?

The point of all this rumination is that we could be writing songs – a lot more songs – that reaffirm or promote our beliefs, if we had the words to make it easier. Is this possible? Do we have the theological depth and the accumulated language to identify our UU tropes?

So, I pose a challenge: what tropes can you find in our sacred music (i.e., how have past hymns succinctly expressed our core UU values in a pithy word or phrase)? Or, what concepts could we be using as tropes (what words or phrases can we identify that the next wave of UU hymn writers could use as shorthand to express a core value in worship)? Certainly, there must be vibrant language or images from our writings that will do the trick.

What are they, then?

Posted in contemporary worship | 15 Comments