Jessica Banks (mommymonster) wrote,
Jessica Banks

Musical Wallpaper or Musical Message?

For those who don't know, I got hired this summer by my church (relax, old friends--I'm a Unitarian Universalist, I didn't get hit in the head or anything) to direct the choir. I verified that they knew I had no formal musical training whatsoever; seems being in good choirs long enough qualifies me more than I thought.

So I'm an opinionated sort, and pretty early into the job, I decided to take a stand on a couple of what I considered to be definitional issues that had to be sorted if I was going to have any chance of growing the group past the current 5-singer (with another 5 or so occasional Sunday morning jump-ins who can't attend regular rehearsals, but sightread pretty well). I figured the best place to make my arguments was in a column in the monthly newsletter, and I'm managing an average of one column every other month. Not great, and nobody's really responded to them (at least with comments to me), but I'm articulating thoughts and standards I've had embedded in me by years of experience, but never really verbalized.

Since my dear friends, especially in FacebookLand, have been really good about posing thoughtful questions and comments, I thought I'd post these columns this way for broader exposure. Use/reuse/quote/scoff/argue to your hearts' content. This was November's column.

I can’t begin to say how exciting this month has been for the life of our church’s music program, though most of you won’t have noticed anything much yet. Our district’s ministers chose to include music leaders in their fall retreat at the Siena Center in Racine, and for two days we worked harmoniously to share strategies to improve the minister/musician relationship. Our goal was not only to open lines of communication wider and in new directions, but to build a foundation upon which both ministers and musicians can work to enrich everyone’s worship experiences.
Rev. Jason Shelton, composer and assistant minister for music from the 1st UU Church of Nashville, led our explorations. His energetic lecture style belied his southern roots, occasionally invoking an “Amen” from the audience, and we rocked the house with some barn-burning gospel hymns (it’s true—UUs can swing!). His unique perspective as both minister and musician helped foster discussions that built confidence in both roles. His central message was simple: Music can contribute a unique, irreplaceable perspective on the subjects we cover in services, and that planning is the key to making the most of this opportunity.
Jason led us through an exercise to demonstrate how the planning process can be turned on its head to great effect. Groups of ministers and a musician were given two choir anthems at random, then asked to design a service or two around the music. Letting the music guide the theme felt a little odd at first, but it didn’t take long for Linda and Rev. Armida Alexander of UU Church of the Lakes and I to start pulling threads together from our widely varied fields of experience. Before long, we’d found a way to connect two apparently unconnected anthems and develop a service that tied together mythology, psychology and social justice, complete with hymns and readings!
I came away from the retreat with new friends and fresh enthusiasm for the task before me, to help a bigger and better music program grow and flourish in our church. Most of all, I came away with a new commitment: to make our musical choices as thoughtfully-made and thought-provoking as every other part of our liturgy. Every act we perform in our meetings makes a statement about what we value. Our minister and the facilitators on our Religious Services Committee work hard to make this a reality every Sunday, but it can be difficult to juggle programming choices and subject matter, especially with guest speakers and special events! It’s going to be hard to keep, let alone grow, a choir if we just want them to “sing something pretty—it doesn’t matter what.” That statement, as well-meaning and appreciative as it is intended, effectively relegates music to the role of auditory wallpaper, adding no more to the service than the beautiful but mute banners we hang every week. Giving all our talented musicians a role in adding something unique to the week’s message tells them that their performance isn’t just a show, it’s an act with meaning.
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