Geoff Tennant - Promoting access to mathematics for all
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18/10/15: Christmas is coming...

Christmas is coming, and the carol service too,
The choir of St James' Church is in desperate need of you.
Rehearsals start on Friday and we'd love to see you there,
If you've never really sung before or if you have a flair.
Thank you!

At the Cathedral we're starting to get ready for Christmas, with plans for a traditional carol service on Christmas Eve getting going.  I'm getting involved, both as an established member of the Organist team for the English service, and also, crucially, planning to be here this year rather than back in the UK as I have been the previous two.  So church music is somewhat on my mind at the moment, hence this blog post.

Before I really get going, please excuse the indulgence of giving the words above to a notice I sang one year when Organist at St James's Church, Muswell Hill, North London, to the tune of 'Christmas is coming and the goose is getting fat.'  Certainly succeeded in getting a certain amount of attention, don't think the choir grew as a result.  Oral notices in church services, given that people can read the notice sheet, is an interesting area of its own but I'll restrain myself from going there today.

Two instances stick in my mind from my Muswell Hill days.  The first was in Advent one year, when we were singing, "Lo, He comes with clouds descending!" and we got to the line, "Deeply wailing, deeply wailing, deeply wailing shall our true Messiah see."  Well, I had at my disposal the resources of a most amazing Organ, quite exceptional for a parish church, it would have been respectable in a medium size Cathedral.  Particularly (and please gloss over the next sentence if it doesn't make sense to you) it had a 16-8-4 trumpet chorus on the Swell, with also a suboctave coupler, so facilitating 32 foot loud reeds on the manuals. Additionally being heavy on the left hand made for a really quite horrific noise, entirely in keeping with the idea of 'Deeply wailing'.  Oh, one other thing - the service was running late and the leader left out some of the verses, so that was how the whole service finished.

I look back on that with mixed feelings.  What was my motivation in playing in the manner that I did?  Was it to enable, through music, the congregation to reflect on aspects of God's character we perhaps neglect much of the time?  His might, His majesty, His holiness, His justice?  Or was it to show off?  Look at me, I can not only read music, I can even read words as well!  Was this matching of the words to the effect all a bit clever-clever, not really within the spirit of worship at all?  And what, I wonder, was the reaction of the congregation?  Did people make the connection between the cacophony and the words?  If so, did it facilitate a sense of reflection, worship and awe?  Or did it make people smile as if to some in-joke which only some people would get?

The other was the Christmas carol service shortly after I'd become Organist, we did the opening section of the Bach Christmas Oratorio, in English, "Christians be joyful, and praise your salvation."  Though I say so myself, the effect was electric.  With the help of a superb Organist, trumpeter and timpanist and a choir of 40 we came together in the most joyous sound.  And in reflecting on it afterwards, I came to the conclusion that first and foremost this came off because we got the basics right - knowing the music well, standing together, using the scores only to remind ourselves of what we already knew to be there.  After things calmed down a bit, I went through a minor crisis - where do we go from here?  Not being a trained musician all I could really do was try to maintain what had already been done.

So, how does this relate to music in church? I would incline to the view that, first and foremost we need to get the basics right, closely aligned in a professional context to one of my favourite lines, "Quality starts with compliance."  So what are the basics?  If leading a congregation, making sure that you set a speed and stick to it, and that the congregation knows when to start singing and when to stop singing.  This may sound obvious, but it's remarkable how often in my experience these basics are not adhered to.  This includes with bands in contemporary styles of worship who are technically very accomplished but have not, I think, adequately made the distinction between singing a solo and leading other people.  Putting it bluntly, it's difficult to let the music point to our crucified, risen and ascended Lord Jesus if you just don't know what you're supposed to do.

Few other things I would want to suggest.  A good principle of playing in public generally, not just in church music, is stay well within your technical abliity. If you're able easily to tranpose from one key to another, then used very sparingly it can be very effective, I particularly like it before the last verse of 'Amazing grace':

When we've been there ten thousand years,
Bright shining as the sun,
We've no less days to sing God's praise,
Than when we first begun.

(The mathematician in me can't resist pointing out that, in these words is a very neat definition of infinity).

Well signalled and played well it can be fantastic.  But if it sounds as if everything is about to collapse it is entirely counterproductive, please don't do it!

A couple of points about leadership if I may.  There's a fine line, I think, between giving a clear lead in facilitating worship on the one hand, and performing in a manner which draws attention to ourselves rather than our Lord on the other.  If leaders are aware of this then they can be prayerfully seeking God's help in being used in His service.  It's good also to have some 'critical friends' around, I think - people whose judgement you trust who will tell you what they think in a no-nonsense but supportive manner.

Leadership behind the scenes is also very important.  If you have a trumpeter, then a blast or two here and then can be fantastic, allowed to play right the way through everything - which I've come across more than once - things get very tedious very quickly with all music just merging into one.  And if the trumpeter (or anybody else for that matter) fails to turn up to the rehearsal then they don't play, it really is that simple!  If we believe in the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ then what we do in a church setting is at least as important as anything else we do in a personal or professional capacity.  If we wouldn't be late turning up for work, why are are content to be late turning up to church?

So, entering into rehearsals for Christmas, I've already signalled that it's not easy to get to the Cathedral by 5pm. on a weekday, if I do so and find that people drift in for the next hour I'm not going to be happy!  But this is not going to be easy, I'm aware I need God's help in promoting high standards in His service in manner which does not cause undue stress to me or to others.  I'll let you know how things go!

Meanwhile, I've previously mentioned the forthcoming general election, there's now just one week to go, polling day is next Sunday, 25th October.  So, only one service at the Cathedral rather than the usual three by order of the bishop, similarly at work we're considering the implications.  Please join with me in prayer that the majority will have their voice heard peacefully through the ballot box, rather than the minority heard in any other way over the next two weeks or so.

2 Comments to 18/10/15: Christmas is coming...:

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Carolyn Tennant on 18 October 2015 13:16
All I can say is I've very much appreciated your musical skill and experience in leading congregational singing both at our wedding and Julia's funeral. For me, having confidence in the musician allows me to concentrate on worship rather than wince and get distracted by incompetence! As for punctuality, I'm with you but mindful that Jesus was appallingly late for Jairus'daughter and Lazarus and he still pulled things round!
Reply to comment
Geoff on 18 October 2015 22:40
Thank you for your kind words, Carolyn, much appreciated. As to your last point, I would incline to the view that Jesus was making a particular point in not working to people's expectations generally rather than setting an example for us all in punctuality, but maybe we can discuss that some time!

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