Thoughts on Choosing Songs for Corporate Worship

Although I thought I would never find myself in a position like this, for the past four months I have been serving as the music director at our church, responsible for directing the adult choir and choosing not only choral anthems but songs for corporate worship. Readers of The Reforming Trombonist know that this is a topic to which I have given a great deal of thought, though I’m not sure I have ever succinctly laid out the process or considerations I would use—and now do use—when choosing selections for congregational singing. In theory, this is very simple, including only five items, listed in order of priority. In practice, of course, the choice of songs can become more contentious, but more on that some other time. Here are my five considerations.

1. The songs we sing must have orthodox, Biblically-grounded texts. The New Testament actually has very little to say about music in corporate worship, and when it does speak of music it uses words like “teaching and admonishing one another” (Colossians 3) and “addressing one another” (Ephesians 5). What does that mean practically? It means that music in worship is more than just a means of expressing our feelings about God, the church, or the gospel (though it can include those things), but is rather a tool for instruction in the faith. Music has a way of embedding itself in our minds and souls in a way that words alone do not—think of the stories you’ve heard of nursing home patients who speak little and seem to remember even less, but perk up and sing along when they hear the hymns (or other songs) they’ve known and sung their whole lives. God obviously intends that we use music as a tool to communicate his Word so that it becomes fixed in our minds and hearts even more deeply. It is therefore incumbent upon us to choose music that truly and rightly communicates that Word to us. In the Reformed tradition singing settings of the Psalms and other scripture passages has a long and rich history; this is a good model for our song selections even if we do not sing exclusively from the Psalter.

2. The songs we sing must be singable by groups of mostly untrained singers. There is one set of criteria that we might use for choosing music to listen to, another set when choosing music for a choir, and yet another when choosing music for a vocal soloist or small group. Even that is probably oversimplifying things, but in any case none of these are right for choosing songs for a big and diverse group of untrained singers. Most people have a functional vocal range of about a tenth (i.e., an octave plus two more steps), and going much beyond that makes a song inaccessible to them. A great deal of popular music today seems to center on the tenor/alto range, favoring that area where higher men’s voices and lower women’s voices overlap. That leaves the poor bass/baritones and sopranos struggling to keep up when singing songs written in that genre. Certain older songs have a somewhat different problem, extending higher in the range than is practical. Excessive rhythmic complexity can also introduce difficulties that should be taken into account; simpler rhythms without too much syncopation work best. In practice, I find myself choosing the best texts I can for the occasion (more on that below), and then the best melodies I can to go with those texts. Sometimes the most singable melody is an older one, and sometimes it is a newer one. So be it. The priority is to help the congregation to sing well.

3. The songs we sing should reinforce the sermon text or other items in the liturgy. Our church’s liturgy typically includes three hymns plus the Doxology or Gloria Patri. For the first selection, after the Call to Worship, I typically choose something that simply praises God for who he is and what he has done. Although we do not use a Psalter in our church, the Trinity Hymnal includes a number of settings of Psalms or paraphrases thereof, and I often favor these when choosing opening selections. For the other two I will choose songs that reinforce the topic or text of the sermon or one of the other scripture readings, and on Sundays when Communion is served I’ll choose one song that is appropriate for that. All of this creates a unity to the service that, I hope, enhances the instructional function of music in worship.

4. The songs we sing should include selections from the great hymns written throughout the history of the church. At this point, your response might be something like “Of course you like your old songs, Micah. You’re a classically trained musician.” Fair enough. I like the old songs, but my personal taste is not a good reason to choose anything. Honestly, determining the best age or genre of worship music is an area where we are largely left to our own wisdom, as Scripture doesn’t tell us much at all about the music we should sing; it just commands us to sing. Still, I think about passages like, say, Deuteronomy 31-32, where God commands Moses to write and teach a song to the people recounting his faithfulness to them and also admonishing them for their past, present, and even future sins. This song was not intended to be a “flash in the pan” worship song that they sang in the desert and forgot about within a generation; it was to be retained and learned and passed down. Songs like this and others found here and there throughout the Bible (and especially in the Psalms) used music not only to instruct the congregation but to ground them in a shared history and identity. Similarly, when we sing the same songs as our parents and grandparents and great-grandparents and great-great-great-great-great grandparents we join with past generations of Christians and rejoice in our shared history and identity and in God’s faithfulness to us over the generations. Giving that up would be a mistake.

5. The songs we sing should include newer selections of high quality. At the same time, people did not stop writing good songs for worship around the year 1900. Now, the vast majority of new hymns and songs being written lack the enduring quality that makes for a truly great worship song. Do you know why I know that? Because the vast majority of old hymns and songs lacked the enduring quality that makes for a truly great worship song. The difference is that time has a way of vetting the songs we sing, and those that lack staying power gradually find themselves disappearing from the hymnals. That places us at a disadvantage, of course, because we have little way of knowing which newer songs will be able to “stick” in the long term. Still, new songs with good texts and singable melodies are worth trying, not to replace the old hymns of the faith, but to add to the collective witness of generations of Christians. This is as it should be.


At the end of the day, I really think that if we choose good texts, with the best melodies for congregational singing, most questions of age or genre will melt away…if we let them. There is a certain hubris that says that every song written before 1990 doesn’t “speak to” the modern generation, and a reverse hubris that says that every song written after 1990 (or 1950, or 1900) is contemporary “trash.” If we can move beyond style preferences that reflect our preferred listening habits and instead learn to see congregational singing as a tool for instruction in the Word and for grounding us in our history and identity as Christians, maybe worship music won’t have to be so divisive.

Tomorrow at College Hill we will start with a Psalm setting from 1912, followed by a choral anthem from 2006, the Doxology (text from 1709; tune from 1551), a song from 2005, and end with an old hymn from 1545. Are the styles different? Yes, but if you focus on the melodies themselves and especially the texts, there is a fundamental unity present, one that allows us to join not only with the local congregation, but with generations of Christians in singing God’s praises. That’s the goal, at least.

Posted in Church, College Hill Presbyterian Church, Liturgy, Music, Music and Theology, Music and Worship, Worship | Comments Off on Thoughts on Choosing Songs for Corporate Worship

Glide!

Now that I am just a little bit into my third decade of college low brass teaching, I have long since discovered that my uses of pop culture references to illustrate concepts often fall flat. While at the beginning of my career I was close enough in age to my students that we could identify with a lot of shared references, now that I am much closer to their parents’ age (sometimes older!) I usually have to explain myself when trying to use some pop culture artifact to convey a musical or technical concept. Often I decide that this isn’t worth the time and find some other illustration, but recently I had an idea that, while it required finding the clip online to drive the point home, was very effective.

Miss Congeniality is a comedy from 2000 starring Sandra Bullock and Michael Caine. Bullock plays Gracie Hart, an FBI special agent who agrees to go undercover to investigate a terrorist threat to the fictional Miss United States pageant. Caine’s character, Victor Melling, plays a washed-up pageant coach who is hired to turn the tomboyish Hart into a beauty queen. Melling is disgusted with Hart at their first meetings, noting that not only Hart’s frumpy appearance but even her plodding gait are utterly unsuitable for the Miss United States pageant and must be remedied if she is to be believable as a pageant contestant. He admonishes her to “glide” as she walks in the humorous scene here.

Of course, in miraculous movie fashion, Hart learns—more or less—to walk, talk, and act as a beauty queen just in time for the pageant, saves the day, arrests the terrorists, and even strikes up a romance with her fellow agent Eric Matthews (Benjamin Bratt). But how is all of this relevant to brass playing?

The longer I teach, the more convinced I become that many technical problems experienced by students are caused not by insufficiencies in embouchure, airflow, articulation, slide/valve technique, or any other easily identifiable technical areas, but rather by the failure to properly coordinate these in time. For example, when the air and tongue work in opposition to one another, the result is a heavy, explosive, and ill-timed articulation when the desired sound is delicate and graceful (yes, even on our large instruments). This requires a solid sense of musical time, and then the coordination of all the physical movements of playing in time—in this particular example, thinking of the air propelling the tongue and the tongue riding the airstream instead of merely interrupting it leads to an articulation that is much less harsh, more speech-like, and on the whole more pleasant.

In the movie, Gracie Hart begins to walk like a beauty queen when she learns to coordinate the movements of her body in a graceful and, I would argue, well-timed manner. In order to realize the best possible playing, we brass players must do the same.

“Glide!”

Posted in Alto Trombone, Articulation, Baritone Horn, Bass Trombone, Embouchure, Ergonomics, Euphonium, Music, Pedagogy, Performing, Playing Fundamentals, Popular Culture, Teaching Low Brass, Tenor Trombone, Timing, Trombone, Tuba | Comments Off on Glide!

The Brass Player as Singer

Remington singing while conducting a trombone choir rehearsal.

Emory Remington (1891-1971) was one of the twentieth century’s foremost trombone pedagogues. Over the course of several decades as trombone professor at the Eastman School of Music, he built a program that produced dozens of orchestral trombonists, performers in other genres, and university professors, including one of my teachers, Dr. Edward R. Bahr (b. 1941). Remington’s development of the “balanced daily routine” for playing fundamentals practice is so synonymous with his name that countless band directors and students refer regularly to “Remington long tones” with only minimal awareness that these exercises originated with a trombone professor. The introduction of the trombone choir as a pedagogical and performance medium is another important part of his legacy. But one aspect of Remington’s teaching that is perhaps sometimes overlooked is his emphasis on singing as a tool for teaching, demonstration, and conceptualization.

By all accounts, Remington rarely played with or for his students in lessons, and did not play at all during the last two decades of his life. Instead, he sang constantly, demonstrating tone, phrasing, and overall musical concept using his voice only. Dr. Bahr emulated this approach in large measure, though he employed a mix of singing and demonstration. That has been my overall approach, as well, though in recent years I have leaned more toward demonstration by playing rather than singing, despite referencing the importance of a singing-type concept in my teaching and writing. (See here, here, and here for examples.) There are good reasons for favoring demonstration by playing over singing. Some pieces of music extend well beyond the comfortable vocal range, for example, and many students who would play in tune with a demonstration on the instrument will fail to tune to singing in the same way. Nevertheless, I have recently begun to experiment with singing more frequently while teaching, thus far with very favorable results. Here are a few reasons why singing during brass lessons can be a most effective teaching tool.

1. Brass players must hear like singers in order to play effectively. Unlike pretty much every other type of instrument, with which the sound—the vibration—is produced using a part of the instrument, brass instruments produce sound by amplifying the vibrations of a part of the body, the lips. The signals from the brain that cause the lips to vibrate are similar to those that cause vibrations in the voice when singing, and just as one must hear the desired pitch in order to sing it, one must hear the desired pitch in order to buzz it.

2. Brass players must resonate like singers in order to play effectively. The effects of an excessively tense use of the body when singing are immediately evident: pinched sound, limited tonal range, intonation problems, etc. These difficulties are less immediately obvious when brass players are too tense, but they are there. We have to learn to breathe and vibrate in a relaxed and efficient manner to achieve a resonant tone, just like singers do.

3. Brass players must phrase like singers in order to play effectively. The best playing on any instrument can be described as songlike in quality, with the instrumentalist emulating the naturally expressive approach of a fine singer. For brass players, whose physical approach is already so analogous to that of singers, it should be second nature for us to employ a similar approach to musical phrases. That this is so often not the case—that our approach is focused on mechanics rather than music—demonstrates what happens when we fail to employ a singing approach to the instrument and model it to our students.

Given the positive effects of approaching brass playing more like singing, we as brass teachers would do well to model this effectively for our students. This includes not merely singing along, but taking the time to develop at least a reasonably good vocal sound, and sufficient pitch accuracy to provide students with effective models. Happily, the physical similarities between brass playing and singing mean that using very similar breathing and tone production techniques to those we use while playing will also serve us well while singing. Furthermore, we must encourage our students to do the same, not only employing singing in their individual practice but also paying special attention to skill development in ear training and solfège classes. Another eminent brass pedagogue, Arnold Jacobs (1915-1998), repeated the ear training course every year while a student at the Curtis Institute of Music. While Jacobs’s approach differed from Remington’s in a number of respects, the emphasis on emulating singers both mechanically and stylistically was a vital point of shared emphasis between the two.

Great brass playing is really a lot like great singing, except that the vibration is produced by the lips instead of the vocal folds. The more we can think and execute like singers instead of “brass machine operators,” the more beautiful and expressive our playing will be.

Posted in Arnold Jacobs, Baritone Horn, Bass Trombone, Breathing, Ear Training, Embouchure, Emory Remington, Ergonomics, Euphonium, Music, Music Education, Musical Interpretation, Neural Pathways, Pedagogy, Performing, Playing Fundamentals, Practicing, Singing, Teaching Low Brass, Tenor Trombone, Trombone, Tuba | Comments Off on The Brass Player as Singer

An Unexpected Apologetic for Adoption

I have been a Star Wars fan for really all of my adult life. As part of the “Star Wars Generation,” I grew up with a passing familiarity with and enjoyment of the original trilogy, but became more familiar with it as a teenager, first through video games and even a Dungeons and Dragons-type roleplaying game set in the Star Wars universe, and later through the Special Editions of the original trilogy released in theatres in the mid-90s. Since then, I have found the various Star Wars media—including movies, television, novels, and games—to be a type of easy escapism. They are not great literature, nor does the quality of the stories stand up to the intense scrutiny brought by a “toxic fanbase” that is looking for existentially significant experiences through popular media that are not designed to provide such. But again, as easy entertainment, Star Wars works just fine, and provides a break from my usually considerably weightier reading.

But that doesn’t mean that there are never moments of particular poignance in Star Wars, and one of these came during the finale of Obi-Wan Kenobi, which was released a few weeks ago. While the initial focus of this episode is on a duel between the titular character and his former apprentice and friend Anakin Skywalker/Darth Vader, after Kenobi defeats and abandons Vader the focus shifts to the desert planet of Tatooine, where Skywalker’s young son Luke is in danger from Reva, a fallen Imperial Inquisitor determined to somehow exact vengeance upon Vader by destroying his son. (Ignore for the moment that Vader is at this point in the story unaware that he has surviving children, and will not become aware of this for over a decade.) Kenobi realizes Luke’s danger and rushes back to render aid, but is too late to be particularly effective.

Happily, in the meantime, Luke’s adoptive parents, Anakin’s stepbrother Owen Lars and his wife Beru, mount a heroic defense of their home and nephew. While they are no real match for Reva, they are able to delay her long enough to allow Luke to escape into the desert. Reva finds him, but thanks to a change of heart on her part (and the ironclad “plot armor” provided by the necessity that Luke survive to take on his role in the films and other media that occur later in the story’s timeline), she returns him unharmed, and all is well.

My point in writing today is the touching heroism of Owen and Beru Lars. That couple initially occupied a minor role in the story, and meets a violent demise in the original Star Wars film (which takes place about ten years after the events of Obi-Wan Kenobi). That their roles and their relationship with Luke are more fleshed out here is a nice addition to the story. Though Luke is not a blood relative of theirs, they not only gladly took him in as an infant, but they are clearly prepared to defend him at all costs, including at the risk of their own lives. In this context, Owen’s opposition to Luke undergoing Jedi training becomes not just a reactionary resistance based in his own conservatism and desire to “keep his head down,” but a well-intentioned desire to keep him safe. Put simply, Owen and Beru think of Luke as their son, and treat him as such. One cannot imagine there being any difference in their relationship if Luke were their own “flesh and blood.”

As an adoptive parent, this part of the story resonates deeply with me. Not only can I not imagine that our relationship with our son would be any different were he our biological child, I really don’t think about this very much at all. He simply is our son, and we are determined to love, teach, provide for, and defend him as we would had he been our biological child. While the particular circumstances of the Lars homestead might be different (i.e., we do not have caches of weapons strategically placed in our home in case of invasion), the self-sacrificial love that they are willing to show is, I’m sure, familiar to just about all adoptive parents. Most of us have heard the occasional “adoption horror story,” of course, but the “adoption love story” is much more common. While every adoption story brings with it some degree of pain and loss, our stories bring a much greater degree of love, joy, and fulfillment. Seeing that little subtext at the end of Obi-Wan Kenobi brought just a bit more depth to an already enjoyable series.

Posted in Adoption, Parenting, Popular Culture, Star Wars | Comments Off on An Unexpected Apologetic for Adoption

“Due North” Complete Performance Recordings

This past March I presented a recital of music for trombone, euphonium, and tuba with piano by Scandinavian composers. Entitled “Due North,” the program highlights some lovely music by composers that are perhaps “off the beaten path” a bit, yet from a part of the world that has produced some very fine low brass music over the years. This was the first complete solo program I had performed since 2019, as pandemic restrictions prevented my doing so for over two years. The program went relatively well and was well-received, the only disappointment being that I did not receive the recordings until this week! I’m happy to share this live performance, “warts and all,” with readers of The Reforming Trombonist.

Trygve Madsen (b. 1940): Euphonium Concertino, op. 123

Vagn Holmboe (1909-1996): Trombone Sonata, op. 172a

Axel Jørgensen (1881-1947): Romance, op. 21

Arild Plau (1920-2005): Tuba Concerto

Posted in Arild Plau, Axel Jørgensen, Doubling, Euphonium, Music, Performance Videos, Performances, Tenor Trombone, Trygve Madsen, Tuba, Vagn Holmboe | Comments Off on “Due North” Complete Performance Recordings