Friday, November 4, 2016
Canned music. . . we have gotten used to it. . .
This parish had long used the CD versions of hymns and liturgy provided by our church body for those who find themselves without a suitable organist or parish musician. They were by and large content with someone pressing a button to fire up the music to support chant, song, and hymn. They did not miss the presence of a live person on the organ or piano bench. In fact, they found this choice salutary and effective for them. They did not have a choir or instrumentalists but were wholly satisfied with these CDs.
Second was that this was not only a choice but a reflection of their values -- especially when it comes to money. They were happy to spend money that might have supported a parish musician on other things they valued more than a live person to lead their Sunday morning liturgy and hymns. They found a person costly, not always reliable, and too much trouble. The CDs were, in comparison, easy, cheap, and reliable (unless technology or electricity failed them).
They were shocked and surprised when I mentioned that a parish musician was one of our highest priorities -- both in staffing and in financial values. We paid the price not as a cost but as a reflection of our desire to have the best "live music" we could have on Sunday morning. Although they equated this choice with size (we are three times larger than this parish), it was not at all related to size in our minds. When we were much smaller, we spent even more effort to find a parish musician. Although we have come to enjoy the blessed musical gifts of a cantor for many years now, it was not always so. We advertised and searched for someone when none was readily or easily available to us.
In addition, they were not sure that this congregation was paying any price by not have a parish musician or choir or music program of any kind. They figured that if the new people visiting them wanted that kind of thing, they would go somewhere else and it was a consequence of their decision they were willing to live with.
Finally, I was struck at how much their choice stood out against the backdrop of music that typically plays a very large role in church today -- even contemporary services using music that mirrors the sound of pop songs their folks listen to on the radio. What these folks were saying is, in effect, that music played little or no role at all in their Sunday morning services -- except the obvious role of providing a melody to support their singing. As is no surprise, they were not what I would call a "singing" congregation. Even if they were, the abundance of carpet, low ceilings, and sound absorbent materials was working against a good atmosphere to support congregational singing.
In the end I was sad that this congregation was content with something designed as a last resort. They had a university in town and student musicians should have been available to them. They were not too small to employ a parish music nor did they lack a recent vintage electronic organ and a fair upright piano. They would have focused their energy and some of their financial resources into the pursuit of a parish musician. They choose not to do this. I wonder how many other smaller parishes have given up and decided that hitting play is an equal value to having a parish musician lead them. More than I want to know, I guess.
Is it no wonder that interest in and appreciation of the liturgical services of the church has waned when we no longer value the musical component of the whole experience? Is it no wonder that we find ourselves left with only a canned music option when we are unwilling to give music or a musician budget priority? Is it no wonder worship music that sounds like Christian muzak has become popular since we cannot count on strong liturgical leadership from the organ bench? Let me be blunt. How much of the shortage of organists is due to our own neglect of the music of the liturgy, budget priority to honor the place of music Luther once affirmed without question, and of the cause of congregational singing? Maybe some of us had better get even more accustomed to canned music on Sunday morning if we remain uncommitted to the value of a good parish musician and the role of music as handmaiden to theology.