Sunday, December 31, 2017

A Good Report For The New Year

I would like to start the New Year with a praise report. Last summer I wrote a series of articles about worship in which I shared my concerns about some popular trends in church music production. I expressed my distress over the widespread use of various types of enhancement tracks and audio stems to make our singers and instrumentalists sound better or to compensate for a lack of preparation or time. Little did I know that we were only weeks away from getting a new worship pastor who would take us in a direction that is totally counter cultural. I realize now that God was preparing my heart, and hopefully using my writing to begin preparing the hearts of others. In no way do I mean to disparage any of the wonderful and godly church musicians and leaders I have had the privilege to work with, nor do I wish to take anything away from the wonderful Christmas services I have been a part of through the years. I, myself, spent years not understanding what a special privilege it is to select, prepare and present a Christmas concert or program. But mature Christians can learn and grow together from our shared experiences and in that Spirit, Philippians 4:8 tells us that if there is anything true, honorable, right, pure, lovely, excellent, worthy of praise or of GOOD REPORT then we should dwell on these things. We should think on them and live our lives with the encouragement that comes from them. So Here is my good report. 

This Christmas at NRH Baptist Church, for our program "Let Their Be Light," we used ZERO enhancements. There were no audio stems, no recorded tracks of professional instrumentalists or vocalists, no canned choir or orchestra, nothing pre-recorded, no sound effects. EVERYTHING heard in that program was performed live. And I believe that God truly blessed us. Here are some ways that we were blessed:

1. Musical Growth
It has been my experience that when enhancements are being used, rehearsals lose their sense of purpose and urgency. Trouble spots are let go and the ensemble does not receive the full benefits of preparing. The first time our instrumental ensemble rehearsed our Christmas music together with the choir, I was astonished at the level of musical growth and the quality of sound production in the choir. They have always been good, but they had improved so much in just a few short months that I was, quite frankly, amazed. Likewise, the instrumental ensemble rehearsed with more of a sense of urgency and attention to detail. We are all better musicians for the experience.

2. Saved Rehearsal Time
We eliminated so much frustration and wasted rehearsal time trying to coordinate our performance with tracks and figuring them out that we were able to use that time to work out musical trouble spots, and important musical moments. 

3. Musical Nuance
There is not, nor will there ever be found on this earth, a replacement for a good conductor. When you aren't trying to play along with a track, there is time to develop musical subtlety and nuance. At important tempo changes, song endings and meaningful moments, our drummer cut out the metronome clicking in our ears so that our skillful conductor could work his magic, and it was wonderful. With the time we saved in rehearsal we were able to focus our attention on dynamics and musicality. Without tracks to worry about, our director was free to create meaningful musical moments and to take charge of the performance to ensure that it went smoothly. Each time we presented the program, it became more beautiful and nuanced. We were able to express more emotion to better portray the meaning of the text. 

4. Comradery
Working together with a sense of purpose and mission is the best team building exercise I know. It is important for a group like a band or choir to feel a sense of accomplishment. Enhancements always make me feel guilty and ashamed and throw a wet blanket on the experience, but working together with other believers to present an authentic offering of worship is a great feeling. There was a noticeable improvement in the dynamics and friendliness of the worship department from the bonding that occurred throughout our months of preparation. Work is a good and God-ordained institution. Ephesians 4:2-3 teach us to be humble, patient, and gentle as we bear with one another in love and to carry on being diligent to preserve the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. Working together with integrity is one way to do this. 

5. Musical Excellence
Everything is bigger in Texas. It was quite an extraordinary risk to take, with a Texas congregation and their Texas sized expectations, to go cold turkey, throw away the crutches and cut all enhancements. The result was that we sounded tremendously better.

Technical Note: It is difficult to tune instruments to a track because they are altered and often full of effects which are sometimes pitched, but non-musical. Tracks are also mean tuned and good instrumentalists and vocalists use just intonation. (For example, we slightly raise the 7th scale degree in melodic lines because it is the leading tone). Intonation is always much tighter when we rely on either the natural abilities of the human ear, good training or both. There is give and take with the rhythm section of course. But what it boils down to is that our human ears are more sensitive and capable of making subtle adjustments that a computer cannot and a programmed track will not. Chords can be more carefully balanced and adjustments can be made to fit the natural acoustics of the hall or venue. 

The choir was so much easier to hear without all of the tracks muddying up the soundscape. A sound system can only handle so much and like soundwaves cancel each other out--so recordings can actually cover up the sound of a live choir. Every part of the performance was cleaner, better balanced and inherently more beautiful. It was better prepared, better performed and more enjoyable without the tracks.

6. JOY
It was so much more fun, less stressful and genuinely a pleasure to present this worship offering

7. Blessing
There was no Santa, no Frosty, no Rudolph, no Olaf or any other fictional characters in our church Christmas production. This was another big risk with an audience in an area that is accustomed to big celebrations that include both secular and sacred (worldly and religious) entertainment and traditions. But it was well-received. The standing ovation began before the last piece was even concluded and I truly felt in that moment that it was more of an affirmation of the content in the message than of anything else. It felt more like a hearty Amen than an applause. The most special moment was when the children and youth choirs sang 2 songs that were the center point of the evening, Beautiful Savior and We Have a Savior. In a culture that trends to assign children to sing secular songs from Christmas cartoons, there is nothing more precious than children singing all about Jesus. It was wonderful for choirs of all ages to join their voices and sing part of the program together. It was a heart warming and special evening.

8. The Good News
Because we didn't use tracks and relied on our conductor, we were able to perform the program outdoors at NRH city hall for a few hundred people gathered to hear the Gospel message. The performance went off without a hitch, even without a metronome click or any helps. I have never felt more confident or excited about presenting the good news of Jesus. I would have felt silly singing about Santa, but there was nothing awkward about playing for Jesus. It was such an honor and I was overjoyed and glad to be there. The message was clear and beautiful on a rare cold Texas evening and no one left early. The gathered crowd stayed until the end and received the message with enthusiasm. It was one of my all time favorite Christmas performances. Though, at this point, I should call it what it really was: A Worship Event. 

Here are the links to some of the other articles in this series that I mentioned above. The 1st is an article on the ethics of using tracks and enhancements. Tracks are ok to practice with and fine to use as necessary accompaniment. Tracks should not be used to deceive, only to assist. What is ok and what is not? The 2nd is on the use of secular Christmas music and characters in church. What is appropriate and what is not?:

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