Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Common Bad Practices in Church Music

By Robin G. Jordan

I originally posted this article last summer. Improving the quality of the music of the church services is a perennial concern in most Anglican churches. Avoiding common bad practices is one way of doing so.

For a number of years I was involved in all aspects of planning the music for the liturgy on Sunday mornings at the Episcopal church where I served at various times as cantor, chorister, precentor (leader of congregation’s singing), senior lay reader, worship leader on the church-planting team, and worship ministries coordinator. I am one of those persons who, when they undertake a ministry, take it on with the seriousness that I believe it deserves. Consequently I immersed myself in the literature as well attended workshops on church music and worship. I learned to recognize a number of the bad practices in church music for what they are—bad practices. These bad practices are found not only in Anglican and Episcopal churches in Canada and the United States but also in other liturgical denominations in North America. A number of them are also found in so-called non-liturgical churches where the pattern of worship on Sunday mornings is local.

Due to the influence of the Liturgical Movement and the newer service books the central act of worship in most Anglican and Episcopal churches in North America is a weekly celebration of the Holy Communion. Thoughtfully selected and well-planned music can greatly enhance this celebration. It can provide brightness to the service that otherwise might be lacking. Music in the liturgy, however, is more than an embellishment of the service or an aid to worship. It is an integral part of the congregation’s prayer. Unfortunately clergy and church musicians loose sight of this important consideration. The following discussion of common bad church music practices in celebrations of the Holy Communion is drawn from an occasional paper, “Let the People Sing,” which I prepared for the Commission on Liturgy and Music of the Episcopal Diocese of Louisiana a number of years ago.

One of the most common bad practices in the music of celebrations of the Holy Communion is to sing two or three stanzas of a hymn to occupy the congregation while the priest is preparing the Table or performing the ablutions and then to abruptly cut off the hymn as soon as the priest has completed whatever he is doing. This practice treats the hymn as filler, and not as prayer. A priest would not abruptly end a prayer part way through the prayer.

A second bad practice is to end every hymn after the third stanza. This practice and the preceding one mutilate the sense of the hymn, leaving out stanzas that are vital to the meaning of the hymn. If a hymn must be shortened, it should be carefully edited so the stanzas that are used preserve the meaning of the hymn. Some hymns cannot be shortened. They must be sung in their entirety or not sung at all.

A third bad practice is to sing one or more stanzas of a hymn before the reading of the gospel and then one or more stanzas of the hymn after the reading. This practice not only mutilates the sense of the hymn, it draws attention away from the gospel. The hymn acts like the birds of the air that gobbled up the seed in the parable of the sower.

In churches in which the practice is to have a procession with the Book of Gospels to the place where the gospel is read, a short hymn that links the epistle and gospel or introduces the gospel should be sung before the reading of the gospel. The gospelier moves to the place where the gospel is reading during this hymn. Only instrumental music—a reprise of the tune of the hymn—ought to be played as the gospelier returns to the sedilla. Alternately an alleluia and verse may be sung before the gospel instead of a sequence hymn, in which case the alleluia may be sung as the gospelier returns to the sedilla.

A fourth bad practice is the selection of a hymn for use at a juncture in the service without consideration of whether its words, length, and tempo are suitable for that juncture in the service. A long or slow hymn may be used at the beginning of the service so that the service drags from the outset. A hymn more suited to the beginning of the service may be used at the conclusion of the service, and visa versa.

A fifth bad practice is to use several long or slow hymns in a row. This practice quickly tires the congregation and can have a depressing effect upon the entire service.

A sixth bad practice is to not take the time to introduce new or unfamiliar hymns to the congregation and to not give the congregation an opportunity to learn and master them.

One of the dangers of not immediately recognizing and correcting bad church music practices is that they quickly become church customs. Once they become church customs, they are even more difficult to correct. Good church music practices may take longer for the congregation to accept. However, once the congregation becomes accustomed to them, they will definitely make a difference in Sunday morning worship.

You may have run across other bad church music practices. You might like to share them with Anglicans Ablaze readers.

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