Posts Tagged excellence
This weekend, we’re putting on a big show. I know there’s a lot of folks who will shudder at the use of such crass terms. However, I want to be clear that musicians have to prepare for a worship service in the same way that we do a recital or a concert. We have to strengthen our voices, to train our hands, to focus our minds. Artists are given special gifts by God to do amazing things, but those gifts manifest themselves in ways that look just like learning to read, write or speak. We have to discipline our minds and bodies to produce skilled music expression. So for the musicians who lead God’s people in worship, the first and most important preparation for worship is to actually practice your part. Maybe that seems un-spiritual. The truth is that music is work and work takes…work. You have to invest time and energy in order to do it well. If you opt to spend your Friday night in prayer and fasting, you will have a mind focused on God’s wonderful grace and power, but it will not make you play the guitar better on Saturday. For worship musicians, practicing your instrument must become a spiritual act of service and devotion.
Here’s another way to think about it: loving your neighbor is expressed in action not in “spiritual” thoughts. If you see a neighbor in need and you don’t take action to help them, then you are not loving them. Faith and love are nothing if they are not expressed. Practice and preparation for worship is an act of love and faith. It’s love because you are putting the needs of your neighbor ahead of your own. Your preparations are not for your benefit but for the benefit of your neighbor who needs you to lead. If you are ready to go, then by all means sit down and rest, but if you know that you have work to do, then get in the wood shed and practice – out of love. Practice is an act of faith because you are acknowledging that your work is not in vain. Investing time in the work of worship is expressing faith that the kingdom of God is real and that Jesus is Lord. We can give our lives away as living sacrifices because we know that our lives have been redeemed for the purposes of the kingdom.
The battle is not ours to fight. Well executed music does not change hearts from self-worship to God-worship. My pastor has been sharing with us about the book of Joshua and it’s got me thinking about our job as worship musicians. Joshua is a book about the conquest of Canaan. In most historical writings, a book of conquest would include battle strategy. Reading the Iliad, you get lots of descriptions of people’s heads getting split open and the glorious power of the warrior. In Joshua, you read about the glorious power of Jehovah being demonstrated. The battle strategy of Joshua is stuff like, march around for seven days and then blow a trumpet or make the sun stand still in the sky. Joshua’s army had to be ready to fight with training and equipment, but they were God’s instruments being used to win God’s victory. After you are practiced and prepared for battle, be ready to see the glory of God demonstrated in ways you can’t even imagine or prepare for. God’s called you into this act of service, but the movement of his kingdom is one that will proceed whether you are ready or not. It’s a miraculous demonstration of power that envious, self-obsessed, vain, fearful, cynical, melancholic, and boastful musicians can be redeemed for the purpose of serving at the front lines of the Lord’s army.
This past weekend, I was conflicted about the tune, “Bless the Lord (Son of Man)” and the Satriani-esque solo that I had to play. I wouldn’t have played it if it wasn’t from the encouragement I received from the rest of the team that the tune required the solo. I normally don’t have any qualms with ripping out a solo when it’s appropriate, but for some reason this tune made me a little uncomfortable. After church, I got a lot of good feedback from people who really appreciated the solo and the skill that I displayed. So what do you think? Is skill something that should be celebrated and displayed in worship music? Or is it “distracting” to have someone play with any level of virtuosity? I was encouraged by my former Pastor, Randy Nabors, to play my guitar aggressively because that was the expectation in Gospel music. It’s true that singers and instrumentalists in Gospel music perform at a high level with great embellishment and virtuosity.
Last month, our choir shared “For Unto Us A Child Is Born” from Handel’s Messiah. We had the privilege of Vera Parkin, who plays piano for the St Louis Symphony Orchestra being our accompanist. Vera also share a few pointers about proper phrasing, timing, and other tips about how step up the quality of our performance. I could sense that there were several new singers in the choir who were not accustomed to the process of rehearsal and the process of pursuing excellence in performance art. As Vera began to share about how you should sing “fo” instead of “for” or that we should sing the phrases with a light touch like an oboe, I could tell that some folks felt uncomfortable with injecting excellence into “worship” which should be more free and grace oriented. “Performance” and “excellence” become a bad word in the context of grace. If drawing near to God in worship was contingent on the excellence of our performance, then no one would ever be able to bridge the gap of God’s holiness.
I decided to admonish the choir that mediocrity is not a value of the kingdom. God’s new creation is not characterized by a bland equalization of skill and a white-wash of all craft, talent and skill. Instead, just like the exiled Jews in Babylon, mediocrity is the effect of hanging up our harps and mourning. New creation believers have been given the freedom to pursue new vast and delightful expressions of worship through the reconciling work of Christ because we can now draw near to the throne of mercy with confidence.
Excellence can also be corrupted by sin. Excellence can become the excuse for spending millions of dollars on enormous buildings, sound and lighting systems, and professional artists. Read through the prophets and you’ll find many examples of why this is a problem (start with Isaiah 58, Amos 5, Micah 6). Excellence can also become ethnocentric or defined by class values. Excellence can also become defined in human terms and result in an form of knowledge that is void of wisdom (see 1 Corinthians 12 and 13).
So how do we pursue excellence in a worship performance without falling into the traps that our flesh so easily slip into? My admonishment to our choir and what I constantly return to is the kingdom value of love (again, 1 Corinthians 12 and 13). Love means that I spend the time and energy that is required to prepare a song for the fellowship of believers. It’s like inviting a guest into your home; you prepare a delicious meal and clean up the mess in order to demonstrate that you care about this person and want to communicate respect.
When you perform a choir piece that is in the complex and rich Baroque style, it requires a little more time to work out the polyphonic parts and to articulate phrases with clarity which would otherwise be lost in the mix. A sloppy performance is a selfish thing. It’s not any benefit to the listener. It’s only a self-gratifying opportunity for the performer to be in the spotlight.