Why should the Presbyterians have all the good music?

January 24, 2016

It’s been a while since I wrote about Christian music, but something this morning really made me pause and think.

Horatio Spafford is known for a few things, principally as a chum of great evangelist Dwight Moody and the writer of “It is well with my Soul” – a hymn inspired by the tragic loss of his four daughters in a shipwreck when crossing the Atlantic to holiday in England. The hymn, published by Sankey to a tune by Philip Bliss, is a standard in traditional protestant Christian churches, an inspiring message that whatever the world throws at a person God’s love and grace are sufficient to meet the challenge. It’s a hymn strong on key Christian themes, and recognised and sung across the English-speaking world.

Which is why I’m rather disappointed that Matt Redman nicked the chorus to shore up one of his recent compositions. Read the rest of this entry »


The three reasons I see no reason to vote in 2015, and the reason I will.

January 23, 2013

It’s OK ladies and gentlemen, do not adjust your set, David Cameron is addressing the nation in a Party Political Broadcast. He’s laying out the “facts” with a “vox pop” in a tastefully styled advert for keeping his party in power. Read the rest of this entry »


Currys – shopping made simple, customer service made more tricky.

July 24, 2011

What I had to write to them today – Currys the fantastic white goods retailer have let me down and I feel like a rant…

Dear lovely customer service folks,

This e-mail might sound a bit harsh. It’s basically a complaint because what you sold me as a service policy seems to have been downgraded since I bought it, so now the big promises on the paperwork aren’t actually being delivered. It’s like buying a comprehensive burglar alarm, only to discover a guy in your kitchen one night helping himself to your beer because the wiring that detects the back door opening has been disconnected at some point since installation. Read the rest of this entry »


Writing songs with Bite

September 3, 2009

I’ve been asked to write some songs for Turnstyle, a little company of thespian bods including my brother. He’s had the ridiculous concept of a panto including a vampire. I am supplying awful puns, garlic jokes, and hopefully tuneful ditties to sing along with.

The only problem I face is the character and history of the vampire. Count Dracula (or Count Wampyr as he would have been in Bram Stoker’s earlier notes) is a deliberate excommunicant. He intentionally sets aside his Christian faith to pursue other aims. In fact, he is not able to deal with Christian symbolism or symbols.

In literature, the vampire has been presented more recently as a vicious blood-sucking thug with a human side. In original tales, the vampire was more human and less thug, but with the need for human blood still prevalent in the darker aspects of their character.

This is a worrying set of values and images for a Christian to deal with, surely?

I feel (and so does my Christian brother) that the story need not be a total disaster in terms of moral and spiritual corruption. I am unlikely to suddenly develop a taste for blood just because I am currently reading Dracula as source material. What many forget is that despite the undead (implied immortal) nature of the Count, he ends up defeated in the book and in the myriad film representations which it has spawned. In fact, there are no tales of vampires taking over the world. We like a narrative where the normal human wins. Whether it is by strength of character, human cunning, religious weaponry (see the film Van Helsing for comic but adrenaline pumping reference) we see the vampire defeated and if not killed (you can’t kill people in a panto!) at least defeated, banished, vanquished, or otherwise disposed of.

So, with a little care, I think I’ll be OK, and not too displeased with the result. Just because I am a Christian doesn’t mean my entire output has to be overtly Christian. That fact that I have Christ in me allows me to write material which will poke some minor holes in this legend of evil incarnate, and possibly poke a lot of fun too. Hurrah!

Better get it right though, the stakes are high.


Scansion

June 10, 2009

No, it’s not a Swedish truck company, or a bar code printer.

It’s the way words read or sing back when you have them in a song or poem.

And, scansion is the big bugbear of my life at the moment.

I freely admit (again) that I’m not the world’s authority on worship music or what’s appropriate for a song, but please can we have something that uses the same rhythm in the lyrics for verse one as it does for verse two?

Keith Getty, you are my hero. You write hymns that scan and have meaning. GK, you similarly are wise and well versified, even in the more recent stuff.

The one who gets my hackles raised in anguish (as opposed to my hands in worship) will go for now unidentified. He is responsible for appalling changes of emphasis, and the one that set me off this Sunday involved a ten syllable line delivered quickly over three beats. Not a sin, but when it follows a three syllable line that lasts a couple of bars, you need a bit of warning to change gear!

I’m not going to rant forever, but leave you with this poem which I wrote.

music is great

but how I hate

lyrics that grate

and kill the music by forcing a compromise to deal with poor scansion.

‘Nuff said?


What sort of church music do you want?

May 16, 2009

I have no problem whatsoever understanding why my musical tastes aren’t universal.

I like John Cage, Dire Straits and Igor Stravinsky. This is a heady combination best approached with care and if possible while slightly under the influence.

However my tastes in church music, or should I say music used in collective worship within church, are more narrowed. It’s not that I exclude a large swathe of church music, but that church music itself seems to be quite a narrow field. Consequently my eclectic church music tastes appear somewhat restrictive if compared to the rest of my musical sensibilities.

I have just finished listening properly to a new worship song which has been recommended to me. The CD track is great, with enthusiastic support from the congregation (/audience) and accomplished music from gifted musicians. However, I do not recognise the relevance of this song or this musical style to my own church.

Last week I moved from the piano in church to the guitar for part of the service. During Holy Communion the drummer and I moved to less instrusive instruements, we turned the microphones off and we jammed in the name and spirit of our Lord God.

OK, so our music was inaccessible to the deaf memebrs of the congregation using the Hearing Aid loop. We didn’t take into account the desire of some people to sing along and others not to. We blatantly enjoyed ourselves playing laid back music in praise of our God. We explored our musicality gently and effectively through the simple process of actually doing it.

It’s not a criticism of other things that are out there, but I think the reason I found it personally so fulfilling is very simple. Rather than listening to a CD of someone else making the music and trying to adapt that to our circumstances, we took someone else’s material and totally claimed it for our own. We sang in canon, we reworked the underlying rhythmic hook, and we had a damned good time doing so.

Do I want up to date music, or traditional music, or modern music, or Mission Praise music? This is a pointless question. I seek music from the heart and soul of the musicians, and if I can’t get it I respectfully request we sit in silence for a time.

Is this harsh? Probably so, but I’m not sure that I’m entirely wrong. Maybe you would consider this stream-of-consciousness rant when you ask the same questions of yourself and your own situation.

And if the heart and soul of your church musicians aren’t quite what you’re used to listening to in church? Compare it to the wide wide range of stuff out in the rest of the world, and see if you can find a niche for it there.


How to make friends and influence congregations

March 4, 2009

It seems to me there are a few common traits to band leaders (or worship leaders) in the guitar-oriented part of the Western Chrsitian church.

Whether you like it or not, there are striking differences too.

The issue is best exemplified in a cheap joke:

Q. “How does a worship leader change a light bulb?” A. “He sticks his hand up and the world revolves around him.”

The simplest hand signal of peace and surrender – the open hand – is corrupted from a sign of goodwill and love from a person to their God. It becomes something to ridicule. Why does a guitarist stick her hand in the air? She certainly can’t actually bow down wearing her guitar, and she presumably feels the need to express physically the state of her heart. One hand must steady the guitar, and the other can be used to signal to God. Fine.

How about confidence? Some worship leaders lack confidence and mumble their way through even the singing bits of their leadership. We criticise those for lacking conviction and needing skills in leading people. Those who are full of confidence but don’t engage the congregation are proud; those who engage the people but lack musical skill are upstarts to those who love the music and organist-antidotes to those who don’t.

Why must we be so quick to judge the people leading the worship? Because they stand at the front of our church and we can’t read their minds.

I know of two worship leaders (one personally, one from a distance) who suffer with nerves and spend significant portions of their time wracked with self doubt. This cannot be what God intended for them as a permanent state of affairs. They are keen to disprove opinions about their own pride and self importance, but fail to see that these opinions are based only on what the accusers see, not what they understand.

When we look at a worship leader, balancing the fine line between singing the chorus again and bringing the song to a gentle close or trying to remember what the next chord is, or trying to engage with the congregation, bear in mind that God looks at their heart and knows their nature. After all, they’re in His house, serving His people. Our judgement of their outside appearance or behaviour need not be accurate.

By all means question my musical judgments when I lead, or tell me how you feel something could have been done better (or not at all), but please don’t judge motives with the same ease. After all, I’m in no position to guess yours.


Christian + Musician =

March 1, 2009

Can I be a musician and a Christian, and not relate the two directly? No, I cannot. As much as I believe in my heart that I was designed, that somehow God chose how I would be and who I would be, I have to believe that when I create things I am following my God.

Like a child mimicking mowing the lawn or holding a tea party, an act of creation on my part is simply me trying to follow my creative heavenly Father, and display some of the attributes I see in Him.

I can’t, however, subscribe to the view that everything I create must be entirely for the service of God’s church or wider people. I’m not a church worship musician because I’m a Christian, but because it’s something I have a knack for and enjoy. If I write music without words or even purpose, that’s still viable creation. I have no need to validate it all. I made it, and I can see that it is good/average/poor/bad/shocking/X-Factor.

I have friends who make lovely music but put it in the mainstream to see if anyone bites. They don’t need to be playing in church to demonstrate their faith and the positive effect God has on their lives. They play and live in the world, and show by their actions and attitudes who God is.

I don’t expect my children to be perfect, but I’m constantly impressed by their behaviour outside the home. In the same way that their behaviour makes us look good as parents (or bad – they’re not perfect, after all!), our lives can make God more apparent to the people we meet as much as we can turn people off from Him if we make poor choices. That criticism is a familiar one to all who have heard the opening phrase, “That wasn’t very Christian…” and cringed.

So, to be a Christian musician for me is to live and work in the knowledge that my God is quite capable of dealing with me wherever I am, proud of my successes and able to deal with my failures, and most of all, that the equation in the title above is pointless. We don’t so much add these things up as mix them together and work it out as a whole. Each one, like each of us, uniquely mixed and presented.

You may have other ideas. By all means comment or e-mail me.


Why do we play recorded worship in church?

February 23, 2009

I sat in church last night listening to the band (we’re a bit liberal in our music) working through a number of songs. The songs were the usual Christian Evangelical type. The last song in the set had only three lines of text, and line two was line one repeated. We sang (excluding instrumental interludes) this verse eight times. In that time, the song was built up in terms of texture, volume, enthusiasm and slightly in terms of tempo. I’ll freely admit that’s not my preferred song structure, but it can be very effective.

The prayers during the service had been prepared by some young people who had requested the sound desk play some recorded worship songs during the prayer time. This same song was on their list, as performed by David Crowder, Chris Tomlin and others. It sounded great. It was obviously recorded live, with a massive responsive crowd and lots of cheering and crowd noise in the mix.

By comparison, our earlier efforts as a congregation now sounded a bit lifeless. Maybe that’s too harsh a word, but it’s quite true that as a congregation we weren’t raising many rafters last night. The crowd on the recording, however, were ecstatic.

Why play this stuff in church?

It’s not a rhetorical question. Let me break it down:

1. What is the purpose of this recorded music as used in church?

2. a. Could that purpose be served by the live talented musicians you have at your disposal? The band are experienced and talented.

2. b. Could that purpose be served by music which is not a contemporary congregational worship song? i.e. Christian music recorded as a pop song rather than a church worship song; or music which is not overtly Christian but suitable for the purpose.

3. How are we to relate this recorded worship to our own experience? That is, assuming the song is the same, are we (or how are we) to compare the two renditions? If we are not, how can we avoid involuntary comparisons?

Please don’t assume I’m knocking the song (I would, but it’s actually quite catchy) or the style. I’m knocking the unfortunate side effects of publishing this stuff for people to listen to and emulate live, and then finding the recording in a church service when I think there are viable alternatives.

Also, please don’t assume I’m knocking the choices of the people who set up the prayer time and chose that song. Maybe some forethought would have indicated checking their playlist with the band leader was a good idea, but that’s really all. The prayers were well thought out and useful. These people did their job properly. I’m really only nit-picking the principle and using their efforts as an example.

They could have picked worship songs that weren’t being used by the band, but I think my questions still stand.

This new song I wrote isn’t for a congregation to sing, but was designed to be hummable. It was deliberately conceived to be accessible and meaningful but suitable as background music in a church service if it was required. I don’t really want people to sing it in church. I want them to sing it in their kitchens or hum it in the shower, and for it to mean something to them on a personal level.

That way I get a big ego trip every time they tell me how great I am. But as a really nice side effect, they get a bit of themselves hooked up to a line of thought or tune or both that helps them connect to God. After all, that’s what the whole thing should be about.

So, if we’re able to sing them to a band (or organ), why do we play recorded worship in church? There’s so much other stuff out there and I think we need the wisdom to find it.


“Please do not take this as a criticism of your work…”

February 19, 2009

The kind but slightly odd words of a publisher politely declining to publish one of my Christmas carols included a phrase indicating their refusal isn’t criticism.

I realise they have a duty not to drive the hopelessly optimistic to suicidal self-loathing, but do they need to tell such a bare-faced lie? In an attempt to avoid comparisons with less kind feedback, have they simply pushed beyond the meanings of the words they use? Read the rest of this entry »