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12 Things I’ve Learned from Church Music (Parts 7-9): Write Faster; Hear It, Change It; Churches Do Tons of New Music

12 Things I’ve Learned from Church Music (Parts 7-9): Write Faster; Hear It, Change It; Churches Do Tons of New Music

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Photo by Bin im Garten via Creative commons on Wikimedia

Say yes. A busy drummer I know—a busy drummer/band founder-owner/recording engineer/audio engineer/p.a. engineer/d.j./contractor/recording-studio-booker/instrument-renter and did I mention that he’s busy?—once told me that he just says yes, and figures out how to do it later. That’s how to get work, whether it’s composing work or any other kind. The people who are busy say yes. Figure out how to do it later, but say yes now.

Often, especially when we’re starting out as composers (but not just then), people come to us because they’re desperate. It may be their lack of planning, or their failure to get someone else. Maybe they’re cheap and they’re hoping that we are, too. Or maybe it’s because they’ve said yes and they’re just wondering if we’re part of the figuring-out part.

So we think about the finances, but the truth is, we don’t improve as composers unless we compose. Whether the job comes our way from desperation, friendship, or dumb luck, it probably has to be done right away. To get the work, we need to say yes, and to keep the work, we need to produce. But to produce, from what church music has taught me, we need to write faster, rewrite when necessary, and write for the people who actually want new music. If we do, our music will keep getting performed and performed well.

7. Write Faster

A deadline, like the hangman’s noose, concentrates the mind wonderfully, and churches have been helpfully suspending a perfectly knotted deadline each and every Sunday for a couple thousand years. Liturgical churches offer an ever-changing buffet of themes and sung texts each week, translating to a menu of deadlines for introits, psalms, verses, prayers, anthems, and instrumental set-pieces.

Repeated rehearsals, in an ideal world, are—what’s the word?—ideal. The director probably schedules four weeks of them for anthems. But smaller pieces will be run once at, say, the Thursday night rehearsal and just touched up on Sunday morning before the service. This Thursday/Sunday turnaround (and Sunday/Thursday to compose the next one) is an educational goldmine for the composer. Writing a four- or eight-bar verse, or a chanted unison introit over two or three chords, is efficient, practical, and a priceless apprenticeship. Writing it so that a choir can snag it in one pass, then polish it in one or two more, may go unnoticed by the choir, but will turn the director into a lifelong friend.

We love our ideas, but having ideas is not composition. Composition is slapping ideas onto paper and working them into a piece. The more we do this, the quicker we get past the idea and on to the piece, and the better at composing we become.
This is the genius of the deadline. We hope for a better idea, and the deadline snickers. It scoffs at chin-stroking, guffaws at rumination, and laughs at mulling.

But we get the last laugh. The quicker we turn out the piece—the more we hit Thursday and hear it Sunday—the quicker the ideas come, the quicker we discard them, and the quicker we slap the good ones on paper, which is where the composing happens.

8. Hear It, Change It

So we cherish deadlines, but what we need most of all are hearings. As a musician may overcome stage fright through repeated performance, we loosen up from hearing our music over and over. At first, we’re mortified over the squeak or the missed entrance or the page falling to the floor or the baby crying. But after we’ve been around the block a few times, we relax. (Okay, we begin to relax.)

This is not only good for our souls, it’s good for our composing. The more relaxed we are, the more we can ignore what can’t be helped and the more we can hear what can. The first-time symphonic composer who’s fit to be tied because the double basses don’t, oh, punch enough, soon realizes—or ought to—that double basses never punch that way. Changing an f to an fff or replacing an accent with a marcato hardly makes a difference. The fault is not in our stars, but in our orchestration, or in the piece itself, but we’ll never know it until we hear it (and sometimes, not until the fourth time we hear it). Hearing your Kyrie every Sunday for a couple of months, you see that the sloppy second eleison entrance (the one that will not fix itself) is—surprise—your fault. So you improve.

We also begin to relax about whom we’re writing for. We’re so trained to use our ears, to laser in on the precise combination of instruments to achieve an effect, that we dig in our heels rather than change our field of vision. But there comes a time when we get over it, and we get over ourselves. If Mozart and Verdi can rewrite, maybe we can run it up the flagpole, too. When the younger brother of the violinist shows up at church with his alto saxophone and the director comes to you because she has to rehearse the bells and it’s 45 minutes before the second service, what do you do? You grab a sheet of blank paper because that’s all that’s around, you draw staff lines on it, and you write out an E-flat part; that’s what you do.

And you know what? It’ll be fine.

9. Churches Do Tons of New Music

The plight of orchestras attracts attention. Perhaps we worry about their commitment to new music, but until we can agree if or how much we should worry, at the very least, let’s think about putting our new music in front of people who adore new music. I can’t think of any institution more committed to new music than the church. It devours reams of brand-new music every Sunday and has been doing this, around the world, for centuries.

Regardless of opinions on what kinds of new music churches do, or should do, the fact is, all churches agree that they should be doing it. They all proclaim, together with multiple biblical admonishments, that they should “sing unto the Lord a new song.” And they do.

Composers ought to write for orchestras, and for bands, and for string quartets in bars. We ought to be on the lookout for any venue in which we can utter our soul’s deepest cry of meaning within meaninglessness, of humanity within horror, of something within us and around us and above us. While we’re on that quest, let’s not overlook the one place—the church—that’s been looking for us. It says to us now, and has been saying, the one word we’ve been wanting to hear:

It says yes.

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4 thoughts on “12 Things I’ve Learned from Church Music (Parts 7-9): Write Faster; Hear It, Change It; Churches Do Tons of New Music

  1. Joan Arnau Pàmies

    “I can’t think of any institution more committed to new music than the church.”

    You might be right, but writing music for the Church leads to an implicit commitment to a particular religious ideology—and I would even dare to say to certain aesthetic approaches. I have a naive question: would the Church commission non-religious music? I suspect that Church-commissioned music would probably not focus on secular practices. Hence, the composer’s artistic freedom is constrained by an implicit set of beliefs.

    Reply
  2. Kile Smith

    Hi Joan, I don’t know what a “secular practice” might be in music, nor do I really know what religious or non-religious music is. If there is a style of music some church might not cotton to, its reason may not be any more ideological than those of barbershop choirs, wedding reception bands, baseball park organists, or, indeed, of any orchestra or string quartet. Anyone composing for a musician will balance artistic freedom with institutional assumptions. All composers do this, yes?

    Certainly there are religious *texts*; all of them I know have not only implicit but explicit, and varied, beliefs. Someone wishing to increase the chance of being heard in church would naturally consider using texts churches use. Many composers, among whom I count myself, believe in the texts they are setting. There are some who do not. Whether non-belief in a text is reserved for religious texts or is done across the board, I couldn’t say, as that’s a foreign practice to me. I believe in the texts I treat of St. Paul and of Paul Celan, of Ezekiel and of Elizabeth Barrett Browning. But I don’t speak for churches. So far I have received no commission to do that!

    Reply
  3. Pingback: From the Web: “12 Things I’ve learned From Church Music,” 7-9. | Teichler's Musical Musings

  4. Pingback: What I’ve Learned from Church Music | Kile Smith | composer

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