Friday 15 September 2017

Troubles with Trebles

And so to Harpenden, where the attitude of the "sharp elbowed" London commuter set, intent on standards of excellence, has apparently caused the choir master to resign.

And I am glad to announce this year's Beaker Award for Utter Naivety  in a Single Sentence for this cracker:
"The church choir is generally assumed to be a bastion of inclusivity, acceptance and love for all."
Has this woman never read Midsomer Murders? Hopefully she will be buying a copy of "Writes of the Church" when it comes out next week, for at least a hint of the organist - choir - minister - congregation dynamics that go on.

Let us consider some of the dynamics  in a typical church.

Inclusivity Versus Performance

People love their churches, and people love to worship. And people love to use music to worship.

But people also love to use music to perform.

So dynamic number one - inclusivity versus performance. Maybe this is the source of more choir and music group angst than anything else. We can accept there is a minimum level of performing ability for a choir or a musician to lead corporate worship. Broadly, somebody needs to be able to play or sing something that is roughly in time and tune. Anything less than that and you have the Beaker Quire, who are today busy trying to buy some brown paper for their kazoo.

But there is a tension when the music group decides they want to improve their performance. When a seven-minute guitar solo is introduced, it is often distracting to worship. Especially when singing "Abide with Me" at a funeral. If you introduce complex polyphonic singing, where does the congregaton sit? At the back of the church, obviously, same as normal. But you know what I mean.

I once had a Beaker Quire member (Buzfide, an ocarinist if I remember correctly) once resign because the Quire didn't "sound enough like Hillsong." I remember telling him - Hillsong has more guitarists than we have Beaker Folk. I can't train everybody in the Community on guitar. Not everybody has a guitar. Not everyone wants to play guitar. But he left, convinced I was disrespecting God with my low standards of worship. Then we had Gwyndolyn wanting the Quire to be "more like the Rend Collective." But that wasn't an artistic judgement. She just has a thing about blokes with beards.

And then of course, some congregation members actually want to hear high-quality music without the effort of joining in. The existence of cathedral choral evensong tells us that for some, it's enough simply to sit back and enjoy the space cadet glow. And that's fair enough. But it make it hard enough for those charged with pitching the music right.

Choosing the Hymns

Then there's the matter of who gets to choose the hymns. Options can include:

  • The minister
  • The "worship leader" for that service
  • The choir master / organist / music group leader 
  • The choir, changing the songs at the last minute when they decide they can't sing the ones the minister / worship leader has spent the last five days choosing.
  • The congregation at a "Songs of Praise" event, shouting out random hymns they hope the organist can play. Always beware the former Methodist who's always loved a 26-verse Wesley hymn in an unexpected meter.


Few things more potentially divisive than the time and format associated with rehearsing. When Buzfide was demanding Hillsongesque levels of musicianship, he was really asking for the Quire to practice together for 3 hours a day, every day. For about 10 years, in my opinion. Whereas some more relaxed modern music groups like to just get together on a Sunday morning and busk it, maybe with a quick half-hour run through first.

And then you get the conflict between the experts and the volunteers. Because to get the best out of the weaker members, you have to spend longer on the relative basics. And the ones who think they're better get bored. Imagine a music group where the rhythm guitarist is still having trouble finding the fifth chord, but the keyboard playing  has a degree from the RCM. Where's the attention going to be? Not on the wizard of the ivories. And what's the drummer going to do during three hours of the lead guitarist telling her less talented / experience buddy "no - you just have to wrap the little finger round a bit more to get the D#?" He's gonna be happily drumming, isn't he. Drummers have no concept of time passing, boredom or most of their surroundings.

The Artistic Temperament vs Control

Because this is where a lot of it boils down to, isn't it? This is where the battle lines are drawn. When the vicar sacks the quire in Hardy's "Under the Greenwood Tree", it's to gain control over the music. The previous vicar told them to "blare and scrape what ye will," but the new guy wants things orderly so gets an organist in - ironically.

The Artistic Temperament! How best to categorise it? When it's spotting the perfect chord, the classic segue between two songs, the precise time to pause on "The...." in the fourth line of "O Little Town of Bethlehem" then it's genius and spiritual blessing.

When it's insisting that the whole song is shifted three notes higher, because the possessor of the Artisti Temperament has such a perfect A above top E, that's a different matter. That's where artistry becomes vanity - and performance has replaced worship.

So I've got the perfect solution to balancing the Artistic Temperament with the leading of worship and the need for control.

I'm sacking the Beaker Quire. I'm investing in one of them barrel organs. You can't go wrong with a barrel organ.


  1. When you listed the peculiarities of the choir you forgot one of the most common of all, namely the big powerful voice which is a superb instrument at its best but is sadly, always just that little bit flat.
    Because the voice is so strong everyone else follows down the path to destruction and the whole thing (anthem or just plain old hymn) disappears under the bottom of the organ.
    At this point the organist stops playing and the sound (gradually) fizzles out.
    Oh the joys of church music.

  2. Not to mention the occasions when half the congregation (usually but not inevitably the male half) discover that they've set off in far too high a key and have hastily to relocate lower down or risk undignified squeaking.

  3. I'm rather surprised by the idea that the ability to play or sing in time or in tune are somehow required for church musicians. Generally it is considered that a slender majority (in either numbers or volume) should have such capacity but surely no choir is complete without an elderly lady for whom the ravages of time on some combination of ears, vocal chords and mental capacity have rendered such a performance impossible?

    1. Agreed. I did say "somebody" should be able to do this. The ideal choir should contain at least one person whose vibrato alone can encompass a half-octave.

  4. At risk of pedantry, it should have been "...26-verse Wesley hymn in an unexpected metre", not meter. My father was a Methodist.

    I must get out more.

  5. Then there are the tenors, baritones and basses. How their voices quiver and shrink at the temerity of the voluminous, would-be Birgitte Nilsson.

    Andrea, Minnesota

  6. We believe in a youth choir - which is great as childrens voices are so cute. It's when the spotty young boy, has a voice break that we get trouble. Do we banish them until they are suitable to be an adult chorister, or do we persevere with the cracked vessel until they grow out of it?

    We have a rota or organists, which varies from trained musicians to volunteer former Piano players, who've had a go and think that they know how to operate the keyboard (just like a Piano) but forget that the pedals are important to get the best out of the organ - this results in a medley of sounds, which resemble somewhat the needed tune, but could in fact, be one of many. To say the congregation is sparse when they know such a person is to play, would be an understatement.

    Church musicians and choristers can make and break worship between an experience you'd rather forget and an uplifting experience, by chance or good fortune.

    Time for a professional approach - have a requirement for all Clergy and Worship leaders to be musically aware and to pick hymn's that the congregation can actually sing, not just those sitting in the choir pews.

  7. Nitpick - it's not a pause. It's simply that the the two notes are both minims, rather than the possibly more usual dotted minim followed by crochet.

    (Pauses are the bane of my life. Why on earth put one in We Three Kings? Conversely, there are several older hymns which we're all used to putting extra beats into but which hymn book editors force into equal bar lengths. Then everyone knows that they can't expect people to sing a minim AND breathe AND come in on the next beat; but no-one wants to ignore the Sacred Print completely so you end up with a half-beat hiccup.)


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