philosophy of sacred music
A strong, well-defined sense of purpose guides any effective church musician: We first learn to love God, then God’s people, then we are compelled to serve. All people are called to give their sacrifice of praise, and a church musician serves to assist his congregation in that offering. For this reason, a church musician must view everything he sings, plays, conducts, or writes as both a personal act of worship, as well as an act of worship on behalf of the congregation. I believe that this idea must pervade even the solitude of individual practice time, and rehearsal with fellow musicians: It is all a service, and it is all a sacrifice.
Whether dazzlingly elaborate or poignantly simple, it is the purpose of both music and liturgy (in their respective, distinct, yet cooperative capacities) to elevate the people’s expression of worship beyond words. The congregation’s work is their song, their posture, their genuflection; it is as close as we can hope to perceptibly come, in this earthly existence, to what we desire to express through the Holy Spirit in the court of Heaven. This is why, rather than playing, singing, or conducting at worshippers, it is so important to effectively perform for them. In the same way that the very architecture of the space may seem to point toward the ethereal unseen, effective sacred music and liturgy orients everyone in the room toward God.
And if the congregation’s work is elevated through the use of fine sacred music, then God may use those same channels to commune with us, and we with one another, in a more transcendent and rich way. To highlight both the complexity and importance of this concept, then, we may look at specific musical disciplines:
Consider organ music, for instance, and the role of the organist. Why invest in a fine pipe organ? Why recruit a well-trained musician to play it? Your church makes these investments, because they themselves are sacrificial offerings of worship. Not everyone in your congregation may be able to articulate precisely what it is about the organ, or the way it is played, that assists their worship in such a special way – but everyone can sense when it is being done properly. There is a unique set of skills required of an organist in sacred music, because the power of the organ in worship does not come from how loudly, rapidly, or flamboyantly the organist can play large amounts of music. The power lies in the player’s ability to convey a sense of spiritual empathy with the congregants. It lies in how harmoniously the music keeps step with the liturgical action, in how clearly and synchronistically the pipes “breathe” with the singers – thus, in how truly and intimately the essence of the given worship theme is able to resonate with the congregation, moment by moment. A truly gifted church organist understands this as its own unique craft, distinct from any other musical sensibility required in any other venue.
Choral music is another channel through which church musicians, whether singers or conductors, carry out the people’s work. Truly, refining beautiful choral repertoire in rehearsals is very hard work, all for the congregation! We must rehearse and perform on their behalf, and choir members – whether salaried or volunteer – must understand and embrace that directive. While the relative simplicity and clarity of great congregational hymns allows the entire assembly to musically “march” as one, a beautifully intricate, carefully-performed choral work gives the congregation an opportunity to pray with all the more expressiveness – and praise with all the more splendor! A conductor who comprehends every line of both text and music, and is trained to effectively translate those concepts and articulate instructions, can then cultivate the rich gifts of his singers and deliver the profound truth and beauty of the music, to the delight and edification of all who hear. It is especially important to spur volunteer choir members with this crucial sense of responsibility and dedication, as volunteers in any context tend to credit their job too little. What a lofty yet vital goal, to make effective choral music for worship! An excellent musical standard must be set in accordance with the abilities of those singing, and thereafter, not be compromised.
Apart from these specific disciplines that have historically been so closely tied to the worship traditions of the Church, there are obviously many others, but any gift brought forth in worship carries with it the same responsibilities and importance. We must ask the same of all aspects of worship leadership and sacred music: Is it sacrificially offered? Does it serve the people and honor God? These questions govern my work as a church musician.