Vicki: Today is Trinity Sunday. It is also our Choir Recognition Sunday – here at the end of our program year. It seems like a good time to reflect on the role of music in our worship, don’t you think? In order to help us do that, I have some questions that I hope you can answer for all our benefit. To begin with, when you plan music for our Sunday worship, what are the main elements you think about?
Alison: My first step in planning music for a particular Sunday is to read the Bible passages appointed for that day. I spend some time making notes about words or phrases that jump out to me. I work way ahead and plan seasonally, because it gives me lots of time to reflect on the texts.
Next, I look for hymns that complement the stories and themes of the day. I have several resources, as well as a brain full of memorized snippets of hymn text, that help me with this. I carefully consider many factors. Is the text theologically sound? Do I think people will enjoy singing it? Will it help the congregation gain a deeper connection to or understanding of the readings of the day? Does the tune complement the text and the season? Is the tune familiar, and if not, is it easy to learn? When was the last time we sang this particular hymn? I also choose service music (Gloria, Sanctus, Fraction anthem, Psalm) that will be sung for an entire season, which unifies the season and helps us keep our place in the liturgical year as a whole.
Spending time with the readings and hymn texts often leads me to ideas for choir anthems. When considering anthems for our choirs I think about many of the same things. I also have to think about the difficulty level of those pieces and the amount of rehearsal time we will have to prepare. I ask choir members to let me know as soon as possible if they will miss a rehearsal or Sunday so that I can plan for the number of people and parts we will have on Sunday.
Organ and instrumental music is the last thing that I plan, but not the least important. Sometimes they are based on hymn tunes that we will sing that Sunday. Sometimes I choose music because it is written by the same composer (or around the same time) as the choir anthem or other music in the service. Last summer all my postludes were from the same collection of Preludes and Fugues by Johann Krebs (a student of Bach). During Lent, all my postludes were works for the piano. I am always on the lookout for new and interesting music to begin and end our worship.
Vicki: Wow, that’s a lot to think about and weave together! Why not just choose everyone’s favorite hymns?
Alison: The simple answer is that we just don’t have time to sing everyone’s favorite hymn on one Sunday! Everyone has hymns that are particularly meaningful for them, that remind them of a particular event or time of their life and that speak to them deeply. I hope we will sing everyone’s favorite, so I need to know what they are. Please come and tell me about your favorite hymn!
Practically, the hymns need to be in one of our three hymnals or available in a way that we can legally reprint them in the bulletin.
My goal for the music on any given Sunday is that the congregation is drawn more deeply into the meaning of the day and the season of the church year. For example, “Joy to the world” would not help us honor the season of Lent, and “Jesus Christ is risen today” would not accurately reflect the themes of Jesus’ birth on Christmas Eve.
Let me use the example of our closing hymn today, “Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God almighty”, written by the English bishop and hymn writer Reginald Heber specifically for use on Trinity Sunday. The tune, written by John Bacchus Dykes, was named “Nicaea” after the council of Nicaea, called by Constantine I in A. D. 325 to formalize the Christian belief in the Trinity. The Nicene Creed, which we say together every Sunday, was the work of this council. We will hear this belief reflected in the poetry of the hymn. Each verse begins by repeating the word “Holy” three times. In one verse we will sing “Only thou art holy, there is none beside thee”- an assertion that all parts of the Trinity are equally divine, and none other. The hymn ends with the joyful proclamation “God in Three Persons, blessed Trinity!”
Vicki: So in our music we are really being drawn more deeply into the meaning of the service or the day or the season. But what’s the role of music in worship? Why not just speak all the words all the time?
Alison: Well, I’d be out of a job! Singing is fun, but there is much more to it than that. Communities that sing together bond in a unique way. Some studies have shown that when people sing together their heartbeats fall into sync. Singing together triggers the release of oxytocin, often called the bonding hormone, which is the same hormone that bonds a nursing mother and child. Singing together for early humans was literally a matter of survival - encouraging people to put the good of the group ahead of the good of one individual by creating a strong, unbreakable bond.
Last week I heard an interview on All Things Considered with renowned opera singer Renee Fleming and Francis Collins, director of the National Institute of Health. They collaborated on a program called “Sound Health” last weekend at the Kennedy Center, which explored the connections between music and science, particularly brain science.
The section of the interview that really stuck with me was when Renee Fleming said that human beings had music and singing before speech - we were singing before we were speaking. As part of preparing to do the program, scientists imaged Ms. Fleming’s brain in an FMRI scanner while she was singing and speaking. They found that different areas of the brain are used for speech and singing, and realized that the brain would not have gone to the trouble of separating speech and music if there wasn’t a benefit. Francis Collins believes that is an indication that humans have had music as a central part of our experience since the beginning. [Here is the link to the eight-minute conversation http://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2017/06/02/530879198/the-soprano-and-the-scientist-a-conversation-about-music-and-medicine ]
For me this means that using your singing voice taps into your deep, instinctual self. Singing is a way to connect the deepest, most intimate part of you with God, and by doing that leads you to a deeper connection to those you are singing with, strengthening that bond of friendship and making us a stronger family.
Vicki: From what you are saying, it is very important for all of us in the congregation to join in the singing. What if someone is shy about their singing, or feel that they don’t have a good voice or can’t carry a tune?
Alison: I think everyone feels nervous about singing in public. The important thing to remember is that singing a hymn with the congregation is not a performance or a concert, and it is definitely not a solo! God does not care what your voice sounds like. Every voice is equally important and all need to be heard.
In my early childhood music and movement training through Musikgarten, I learned that all human babies are born with the ability to match pitch. It is a survival necessity - a baby needs to be able to recognize his or her parents’ voices to be safe and to distinguish sounds in order to learn language. Many languages of the world, such as Vietnamese, Mandarin, and Thai, are tonal languages, where the pitch of the word affects the meaning of the word. Somewhere around ages 3 and 4 that ability is overtaken by other major developmental changes, but it is still there to be developed and improved, even after many years. I believe that, in communal singing, musical skill is more important than musical talent. Skills can be learned, and improved with use and practice. So sing along with the radio in the car! Sing Happy Birthday along with the whole group! Sing with the children in your life any chance you get - kids don’t care what it sounds like either, they just want to hear your voice. Definitely sing everything you can at church! Maybe even join the choir - we would love to have you.
Vicki: So, in worship it’s all of us singing together and giving God our hearts and voices and praises, and the choirs and instruments support us in doing that.
You know, in the summer when I take a week to serve as the chaplain at a Royal School of Church Music choir camp, I often tell the choristers and adult participants that their breathing to sing is very important. You need lots of good, expansive breath to sing. But even more than that – the word in the Bible for breath or wind also means Spirit – as in the Holy Spirit. That’s true in both the Old and New Testaments: Ruach in Hebrew and Pneuma in Greek. So in a real sense, when you breathe in to sing, you are breathing in the Holy Spirit. And because you have to breathe more deeply and intentionally when you sing (as opposed to when you speak), you get more of the Spirit when you sing, and are enlivened by the Holy Spirit in a different way!
Thank you for this conversation, Alison. It’s good to spend time thinking and talking about such a central aspect of our Christian life and worship.
Alison: I am happy to have the chance to share some of what I do and what I believe about music and its role in worship and I hope it will lead to many more conversations. I am Music Director for the whole parish, not just the choirs. I am here to help everyone express their faith and find their voice.
Vicki: Thanks be to God! Amen. Alleluia!
Victoria Geer McGrath & Alison Siener Brown
All Saints’ Church, Millington, NJ
June 11, 2017