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Musing on Music

Hymn BooksWhen I lived near Media, Pennsylvania, I joined a Gospel choir. We practiced for several weeks, did a concert in a local church, and then dissolved until the next year. It was joyful and packed full of praise. Gospel is a distinctive genre of music — sung unaccompanied, with a call and response style, and hand clapping the rhythm.

I was energized by the experience of getting to know people from other faith communities, and by learning a new way to make music. But I was also stressed. I had to unlearn so much that my body knew: a different rhythm and downbeat, and different harmonies.

Above all, I was at sea with no musical score or printed words. How would I memorize the words? How would my ears and brain and mouth work together if I had no visual script? From elementary school singing lessons to my aunt’s unsuccessful efforts to teach me piano, to singing in the church choir, it was all of a piece: the ears, eyes and mouth worked in harmony to give me a voice.

Sheet music comes out of a tradition that is very different from that of enslaved Africans. Like folk music, Gospel is completely portable, based on a community listening and learning together. By joining the Gospel choir, I was entering a tradition that was about much more than music.

In the Friends meeting where I have served for the last eighteen months as interim pastoral minister I have been part of two recent conversations about music. One was about inclusive language. The compilers of Worship in Song: a Friends’ Hymnal updated many hymns to remove exclusively male pronouns for both God and humanity. Sometimes wording was changed, and sometimes hymns were dropped completely. That is the hymnal that the congregation has used for the past twenty years.

Since January the choir has been practicing The Whittier Service, a collection of New England Quaker John Greenleaf Whittier’s poems put to music by John La Montaine. We were preparing for Choir Sunday at the beginning of June, when it was to be the basis for the hour’s worship. You probably know at least two of the poems: ‘Dear Lord and Father of Mankind’ and ‘O Brother Man, Fold to thy Heart thy Brother.’ How would the congregation feel about all the male pronouns? I wondered.

Here’s my take: Whittier was a man of his time. His poetry has integrity and shouldn’t be messed with. For a choir to sing his poetry is similar to actors performing Shakespeare. I am OK with it. But having a hymnal chock full of non-inclusive language would be an issue, because for me, congregational singing is a form of community prayer, and it’s important to articulate what we believe, and pray as inclusively as possible.

Music in worship is like an iceberg. It’s not just about the words and the music. It’s about the underlying memories, joyful and painful, that we bring along.

The other issue that came up recently was that of using hymnals or sheet music, versus having words projected on a screen, or being taught choruses by ear. The conversation got quite emotional, and to me it reflected both the practical learning issues and hidden symbolism.

Most of us who learned to sing using a score or a hymnal need to have that. We take in much of the information visually and, like me in the Gospel choir, we are lost without it. Those who learn mainly by ear are probably content with just the words, unless they want to sing one of the parts. In our discussion, those of us who had worshiped with Friends in Africa or Latin America had a higher comfort level with learning and singing choruses, alongside other more traditional hymns.

On a practical note for those not used to it, projection on a screen is effective for words, but you can’t see the notes at a distance, so trying to project a page of a hymnal simply won’t work. Projection on a screen during worship also carries with it a huge bag of emotion for those who associate it with the Pentecostal or Charismatic movements.

This is a particularly tender issue for us in the Midwest. Some of us remember the creeping introduction of ‘Contemporary Christian Music’ during yearly meeting sessions, and how, by the time we left, the former sensitive balance of hymns and choruses that respected the diversity of congregations in the yearly meeting had been abandoned in favor of choruses that reflected a theology that wasn’t noticeably Quaker.

Music in worship is like an iceberg. It’s not just about the words and the music. It’s about the underlying memories, joyful and painful, that we bring along. Part of our diversity includes our past experiences. Trying out different things can be a breath of fresh air, but being aware of our individual and collective histories, and taking the time to ask about them, will make us stronger. It’s important to listen beyond the surface discussion to the deeper issues and feelings involved.

Good News Associate Margaret Fraser has just completed service as interim pastoral minister of West Richmond Friends Meeting, in The New Association of Friends