Yamaha? Roland? A word about keyboard preferences

OK, time to make a few more enemies.

I am only vaguely jesting. This post was drafted a long time ago, but never sent. It happens that I live in a church community of British Seventh-Day Adventists at a time in which the standard of collective music-making and of technical musical awareness is abysmally low. I cannot go and fix all the problems that I see, but I can write something serious for those who choose to read. And as for those who choose not to read, that is not my problem.

So, this post is to a specific community of British keyboard players who attend the Adventist church in the British isles. But anyone else is free to scrutinise what I am saying. This is a public forum after all!

Let’s start by pointing out that we cannot tar everyone with the same brush. There is a wide continuum of skills, personal/cultural backgrounds, musical educational backgrounds and aesthetic preferences. Some of our keyboard players are quite articulate. Others less so. Some choose to say lots in public. Others less so.

Some know what they are talking about at times. Others have no idea, but some in that number genuinely fancy themselves as good musicians and wreak havoc in the liturgy every week. God help those churches!

Some don’t know that much, but want to be as good as they can be and will take any/every opportunity to learn.

Most don’t think with any real skill in conceptual musical thought – there is a classic ‘hit-and-run’ approach to both keyboard harmony and musical creativity in general. If this is all you know, then fine. But if you can know more, then why not try to do more?

Now we get to more complex categories. We’ve got some guys who are actually really good keys players in many ways, but virtually all of them simply do not think as musically as would be ideal. They make it more about where they are at rather than where the music is at. They listen to some of the finest music recorded and speak aspirationally. But the understanding of what would be needed to achieve anything in the direction of the world-class artists they admire – this simply does not exist. And the bad news? You could learn about the real standard by doing a degree course, but there are many music graduates who know less and are less intrinsically musical than those who have done no such advanced study! And in the SDA church, we have LOTS of those – which does not help matters.

So here’s the thing. In the final analysis, it simply doesn’t matter which make of keyboard you choose. You can either play, or you can’t. I don’t find the sounds on any of the more recent Yamaha keyboards especially inspiring, and I am decidedly underwhelmed by the Motif series. I remember the first Roland keyboard I really fell in love with – the old, discontinued RD-500. There was something totally glorious about the piano samples on that thing, and every time I played it I felt that everything was possible. The RD-600 came out and was nothing like it. The RD-700 SX and then GX came out, and eventually Roland devotees figured out the 700 series and that became a new industry standard. It took me a long time to get happy with the RD-700, but eventually I figured out that the Rhodes sounds and pads etc were better than the piano sounds and I should use those more. Since then, all is well!

But having thought that Yamaha could never produce a keyboard I really liked, I then had the opportunity to play an (again long discontinued) Yamaha S80, and I REALLY enjoyed playing that instrument. I found new things to play. When the S90 came out, I eagerly tried it out, but that wasn’t for me either.

But say the words “Yamaha S80” and I will grin broadly. And I’m a Roland man!

~

I say that, but the real truth is that I don’t care enough any more. Whatever it is, my job is to make it talk. And while I do everything in my power to avoid electric pianos these days so that I can focus on acoustic piano playing, whatever the keyboard at my disposal whenever I have to play one, my job remains the same.

I think that a goodly number of keyboard players have woken up to this reality in terms of the words. But we still want the technology to do for us what it can never do. We’re still fixated on our personal preferences and our egos still get in the way. We’re still light years from being able to witness to saving faith through our music, and our keys playing across the board is still stuff with learned vocabulary (runs and chords) and very little heart-felt and Spirit-led musicianship.

These days, when I see and hear people in church arguing about what is and is not the better keyboard, I know that there is usually no way for a balanced argument. Some keyboard players will read this and be confused. Others will be cross. Others will not care. Either way, classical and jazz musicians know that in the end, YOU are the sound. Only a handful of gospel guys have understood this, and gospel music remains spiritually weak and under-powered as a result. Wow, you’re a celebrity in the church! A church that celebrates choirs who don’t know the music properly and don’t blend, and whose praise teams are often not close to being musically on point, but where everyone is an expert. Secular people know the difference between gospel when people believe what they sing and play and when people don’t. But the church members? No idea.

Have you got a sound of your own? Or are you merely a shell of random notes, chords and runs? Does what you play actually mean something? Because if not, it doesn’t matter how fine your keyboard/s is/are – it means JACK DIDDLY SQUAT.

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In Memoriam: John Taylor

Being a theologically-conservative Seventh-Day Adventist and jazz musician has been the hardest thing – but it has also been a wonderful experience. Before I get to John Taylor, I think I’m going to go back to the beginning.

~

Sometime in the 1990’s there was an album released called The Glory of Gershwin – and a South Bank Show was made as a sort-of-documentary about it. A wide variety of artists were involved. Sinead O’Connor. Larry Adler.

And a young British saxophonist called Courtney Pine, playing an instrument that up to then I had only ever seen in books – a soprano saxophone. I fell in love – head over heels.

There’s more to this story, but I can’t digress. I went to my local library and checked out every single Courtney Pine album that I could find. And one piano player jumped out at me: Julian Joseph.

Nothing was the same after that. And so I am one of those British jazz musicians who plays jazz because of British jazz musicians. Later on, I would get to know what was at that time the only SDA professional jazz musician – Norman Clarke. I still have memories of Norman casually playing Donna Lee in F# in his house one night upon request (he told me that he’d learned the tune in all twelve keys, and when I asked him to show me in F#, he delivered. That’s the highest level of integrity I’ve seen from any British Adventist musician).

But full-time music and Sabbath-keeping don’t go together well financially, so Norman chose another path. But I wanted to try, and so I did – and he’s part of the reason why.

Jason Rebello had so much more to offer than the one amazing solo on Summertime that made him an international name overnight. He knew things on more levels than most musicians, and he was the first jazz piano teacher to actually scare me. It’s taken me a long time to absorb some of the advice he gave me, but that’s another conversation, and I will always be grateful to him for telling me the truth.

But before Jason, I spent a little time with the late Michael Garrick, who was a much better teacher than some have understood. He was gentle with me. And now that he’s no longer with us, I occasionally look at some of the notes he wrote for me and remember. He helped me believe that I could do something.

I’ve never had a lesson with Julian Joseph, but he would definitely have kicked my behind in a similar way to Jason. He knew that I had language issues and told me as such, but Julian was the first person to talk about the actual sound that I got out of the piano. [And that touch and concept do indeed remain some of the strongest parts of my playing.] But I’ve been privileged to watch Julian play on many occasions, and it has ALWAYS been an education. I owe him and the family a great deal.

Keith Tippett must also be acknowledged – I did seven years straight at Dartington and his jazz course was part of that. His entire oeuvre has been under-rated for many years but it is amazing to see the resurgence in his career. My first MA thesis was on his contribution to the European free-improvisation scene, and his support and encouragement of my (at times wildly-idiosyncratic) playing was massively important – at times, he would have been the only one who understood what I was trying to do as an improvising pianist.

I’m not sure how happy I feel about mentioning this, but I did have a few lessons with a jazz pianist and educator whom I regard extremely highly, but who saw the worst of me in that I was going through major life-crises when I was trying to learn from him, and as such, I was a quite terrible student. History would have been very different if I’d been disciplined enough to learn from him for long enough to get good. His name: Pete Churchill.

And how could I leave out Robert Mitchell, who taught and mentored me in a most unconventional way when I was at Kingston University (where I was also encouraged by Charlie Beale, who should be mentioned in the interests of fairness and integrity) and with whom I’ve been privileged to share solo piano events with, and whose music I’ve appreciated in so many ways?! Robert did one concert on January 5th, 2005 that may have been the biggest reason for me to not give up piano playing for good – that was the day when I realised, listening to him playing, how much this music meant to me, and how much I wanted to still play.

~

Some wonderful musicians are named above and yet, the jazz pianist that I would most like to emulate is John Taylor – with whom I had the privilege of being mentored for a number of very intense sessions back in 2011. It is amazing what one realises in hindsight. Even as I write this blog post, I realise that all my experiences prior to spending time with John helped me to understand what he had to offer me. John offered support and criticism in ways that related to that which I had received from others, but was also qualitatively different. He was both confused and respectful of my religious approach to this music, and offered some warnings which have been proven to be more accurate than I could ever have imagined. But this was not to dissuade me against my faith. It was to make me REALLY think about the enormity of the challenge that sacred jazz was going to pose to me – and up until then, I had not faced some of those questions.

John questioned EVERYTHING.

Everything.

Everything.

It was humbling. It was terrifying.

And then, one day, he picked up one of my own arrangements  and sat down to show me something that I wish I had recorded, but maybe it was not something to be recorded. It was a bonding moment – he played my own harmony and rhythms, and then did a cascading solo that burned a hole in my heart and mind – THAT was what I wanted to achieve, and the only two people who heard it were me, him and the wildlife outside the window of his home in Kent…

My life changed, right there.

But then we both knew that I was aspiring to something that was very, very far beyond my natural resources. And he told me stories and explained certain things about his career – about the influence of Kenny Wheeler on his work – and he showed me mind-boggling things that literally hurt my head to kingdom come and back. The sheer level of intellect that man possessed was surpassed by his non-religious spirituality. He was very strongly opposed to religion, so to have a mentee who wanted to play ‘sacred jazz’ was not going to be an easy experience. But it was the best experience.

*sidelight:* One of the best memories of my late sister was when I persuaded her to come with me to his solo gig at the old Vortex in 2002. Jazz was one the biggest things that she and I shared away from our parents, who had been raised to see jazz as the devil’s music and found it incredibly hard that their only son had become a jazz musician. She had originally seen things the same way, but as time passed, she had understood things differently. That night, John was monumentally inspired. As she said afterwards, “he was so good it was actually shocking…”

At the end of our time together, John gave me some stern advice before telling me in no uncertain terms how much he believed in me. That has meant more to me than I can say. John knew that the forms of contemporary sacred music would not be enough for the level of jazz artistry that I aspired towards, and four years later I know he was right. I will have to find new language and new understanding to write what is deep in my heart, but his music and that of Kenny Wheeler now needs to become even more of a priority for me as I seek to make sense out of how I am going to find my best level of improvising piano that combines the visceral power of my free-improv inclinations, the spiritual weight and force of my gospel concept, the multifarious assimilations of my understanding of modern jazz along with the world and folk traditions in my head and fingers to find something that is going to be several years in the making.

I had hoped to make him proud, but he won’t be here. However, the best thing I can do is honour his memory, and I am DETERMINED to do this – and to the glory of the God in whom I believe. Artists like him are exceptionally rare, and I am so grateful that I had the opportunity to be touched by his life.

Music is not enough: a strange tale of three musicians

Twenty-one years ago, despite my having strong support from the Head of Keyboard and the Head of Woodwind, Brass and Percussion, I was rejected by the Director of Music for entry into the sixth form (this is two years before university here in the UK) at Chetham’s School of Music. The name of the man who rejected me? Michael Brewer – currently serving a custodial sentence for the sexual abuse of some of his former pupils and stripped of his OBE.

Imagine: I would have been one of his former pupils; one of his protegés. And my heart goes out to all the many excellent musicians who really and honestly thought that he was a good guy; those who were given opportunities to grow and develop and fulfil their potential as musicians under his guidance – and especially at Chets. As it is, Michael Brewer is only a part of my story in the sense that his belief that I was not good enough to be with the other pupils that were going into his sixth-form that year meant that I ended up going to another school that I might not ever have considered – and my life has been so much better because I went there instead. My development as a musician would have been very different if he had said ‘yes’ – exponentially more focussed – but God has called me to do more than just be a great musician. But at the same time, He has also called me to be the best musician that I can be.Which adds to the strangeness of this tale.

~

In 1998, I took my very first trip to New York City for the sole purpose of spending time checking out the jazz scene. And I had the privilege of meeting a great number of my heroes in the music. One of them was the great piano player Kenny Kirkland – and I had no idea that four months later the ‘Doctone’ would be dead. It was not an overdose. It was not suicide. It was a complex physiological breakdown with heart failure at the centre. And this breakdown was due to the fact that he was a serious drug user – one who had refused medical attention despite the earnest entreaties of those closest to him in the music.

When he died, I went into mourning. And the hardest truth for me to accept was this: the music was not enough. The music was not enough. Despite having the level of artistry that feeds both heart and mind, he still needed dope, and did not see that he could ever be free.

~

Fifteen years later, the third musician of this strange tale took her own life after testifying against Michael Brewer. Her name: Frances Andrade, and she was by all accounts an amazing violin player. Raw and untutored, Brewer said ‘yes’ to her and his decision was vindicated. But it was not enough for him to be a teacher and mentor. He saw something in this girl that pushed buttons within him, and despite being married – and she being below age – and vulnerable in many ways due to the difficulties of her own earlier childhood – he followed his lust-fuelled sexual gratification and took the most precious gift a girl has – her feminine innocence – and gave her a tawdry substitute for affirmation and love.

For Michael Brewer, music was also not enough.

But for Frances Andrade, despite becoming a wife and mother of four children, and doing wonderful things as a violinist, playing amazing music with amazing musicians, the scars that were caused by the abuse inflicted upon her by Michael Brewer were just too much. But one of the worst things about her sad story (as far as I am concerned) is this: although she took her life two years ago, an investigation has shown that (yet again) the mental health services failed someone vulnerable and that her suicide was eminently preventable.

But as more and more people learn more and more about the healing propensities of music, the question can now be asked: surely, there would have been something therapeutic about being involved in such an amazingly emotive  – and spiritual – activity such as music?

Frances Andrade is dead – 35 years after she entered Chets thanks to Michael Brewer. She was two years short of her 50th birthday and now a family has lost its wife and mother.

Music was not enough to tame the savage passions of Frances’ abuser.

Music was not enough to heal and sustain Frances herself. It was not enough to keep her emotionally – and mentally. It was not enough to overcome the horrors of what she experienced. In my case, I was a 15-year-old who was not as advanced as pupils of that same age at Chets, and Michael Brewer said ‘no.’ For Frances, she was a 13-year-old who was not as advanced as pupils of that same age at Chets. Michael Brewer said ‘yes.’

Frances Andrade may well have been exponentially more talented than myself. I’m not getting into that. But I can only wonder – if Michael Brewer had said ‘no’ might she still have been alive today? Her gift for music opened a door for her. Michael Brewer – faced with the same type of decision that he had to make for me – gave her the gift of entering a music institution which recognised her talent and let her shine. But he took something essential away from her, and all those years later, even as she faced him in court, even if she embellished some aspects of how this abuse took place, the fact is that walking into Chets may have been the worst thing that ever happened to her. Without Chets, she may never have learned the Sibelius Violin Concerto or Ravel’s Tzigane. She may never have known that she could have been that good. But she may still have been alive.

Music was not enough to keep Kenny Kirkland away from drugs. It was not enough to live for. He refused to get help. Death came as a release. Whatever was in him, he was at his best playing the music. Only then was he free. But that ‘freedom’ was not enough.

~

I didn’t go to Chets. I didn’t get that musical education that I craved. And even after all these years, I have certain musical weaknesses that would not exist if I had been able to build a more solid foundation in terms of music education when I was still of school age. These days, I conduct the very music that Michael Brewer never thought I would, and for a long time I thought that I would give up jazz forever. As a result, I still have some unfulfilled business as a jazz pianist. I listen to Kenny Kirkland and realise how much work there is to do. If I live another decade, I will have lived longer than he did. But while he could never be a role model for young musicians as a wider human being, his essential faithfulness to his craft remains a rebuke to many of us jazz musicians.

I don’t have the baggage of Class A drug addictions. I don’t have the baggage of having had a patron and mentor who turned out to be such a terrible human being. But I know that not all of those who have been good to me have done right by other people in their lives. I have made many mistakes in my own life. God knows. Musicians know. People know. But for all the problems, there has been so much positivity and so much joy. And yes – success too, if not in ways that everyone would understand.

~

The most important lesson I have learned is that the music is not enough. BUT – the greatness of the God who has saved me from each of the fates that have befallen the three musicians in this story now means that I must leave no stone unturned to become the best musician that I can be – in the context of being the best version of me that I can be. That is the greatest ‘thank you’ present that I can give to God, and that He gets to be part of making it happen is even more special.

God will do that for you too – if you will let Him…

An (overdue) open letter to my fellow (non-SDA) professional musicians

I’m not sure that all the folks who need to read this will be able to read this, but for ten years I have wanted to write a letter to those (mostly but by no means exclusively) UK-based musicians who were a major part of my life between the years 1996-2004.

Some of you are still in my life. Not in the same ways. Others of you are not.

Some of you have seen me at my best. Others of you have not.

I never did drugs. Never drank. Never smoked. Never had sex. And after some very early struggles, lots and lots of people knew that I never played/directed secular music during the 24-hour period from sunset Friday to sunset Saturday. Some of you will know that this was (and still is) because I was (and still am) what is called a ‘Seventh-Day Adventist’ type of Christian, and so we go to church on Saturday, not Sunday. [Yeah]. We say ‘SDA’ or ‘SDAs’ (plural, of course) for short – or we say ‘Adventist.’

I talked about God more than lots of other people. And in more ways than I can say, I did my best to make God look good – through my life.

But the truth?!

I did believe. I do believe. And it’s true that I tried to be a Christian. But we are supposed to grow in our faith, and I have been wanting to acknowledge that during this time period, I lived a life that was essentially cut off from my own church community. When I came to London from the North, I struggled badly in the London Adventist churches. A handful of people looked out for me. A handful of people in my own age group treated me like a brother. But I basically spent the entirety of the period from September 1996 to March 2004 estranged from Adventists (that’s the name of my church).

And so, I fell into what became a seriously-messed-up way of life where I was trying to do what SDAs were (and are) supposed to be doing, but I was cut off from fellow SDAs socially, spiritually, and even culturally. I had more affirmation as a black person from Sunday-keeping black people, and then from secular black people who were more respectful of who I was and was trying to be than my own fellow black Adventists.

But the folks who helped me keep my spiritual life going were mostly white evangelicals. I never left the Adventist church, and only God knows why and how. But for a long time, I needed those Sunday church services, prayer meetings and Bible studies nurtured and fed me and kept me going in ways that it has become clear most UK Adventists cannot begin to comprehend. And yet, I never learned anything about the Bible that made me convinced that I had the wrong church. Quite the opposite. I believed and still do believe in the doctrines and principles of my church. And when I finally become a doctor of theology, I will still be an SDA. But I totally hate how good my church is at talking a good spiritual fight and how weak we are at living in a way that actually makes a difference in the world. You guys can’t come to us, because we are not ready to receive you. Tragic, but true. [And for the SDAs who think I should not say this, be very careful before you open your mouth or start typing on this subject to me. T6, 371. You have been warned.]

So, you want to know the peer group that truly treated me like a human being whilst respecting and even championing my right to practise the faith of my childhood – and who was there for me when I was broke – and who has supported me in ways that you would think church members would support each other (after all, no-one talks about families more than us!) – and more?

Secular white people – and prominent amongst them, some wonderful musicians who are now doing amazing things.

And at this time, I want to offer a special shout to two groups of people:

a) professional jazz (and session) musicians from London, Manchester and elsewhere – who have been more there for me than many of my own. I don’t think I know how to express how hard it has been that my own community effectively rejected me on a social level, but you guys did the opposite. You never encouraged me to deny my own faith, and you never supported me in any wrongdoing. Some of you kept away from me when you didn’t want me to see what you were doing.

I’m so sorry that I was not always a faithful or a consistent witness or even a good friend.

[For example: I got scared sometimes and told lies to escape pain and loss of face. I’m glad to say that it has been a long time since those days, but it’s something I’ve carried guilt about for a long time and today I’m setting that burden down. So I get angry when my fellow Christians are less-than-transparent, but I don’t judge them, because I know my own story. I will tell all those reading the thing I hated about church then (and now): the fact that as church members, everyone had their little (or not so little) vices, but no-one would ever call you on your hypocrisy – because that way they were buying the right to remain part of the church whilst not living the life. And now that I’m in ministry, it has become clearer than ever that we cannot ever be credible, but the spiritual ghetto in which too many of my church members have chosen to live is a disgusting parody of the true faith to which Jesus has called us. So we’ll remain the reasons why many of you will say no to Christianity!]

I wasn’t always organised and as on top of things as would be ideal. I have decided not to write a detailed list of all the sins and shortcomings of my life, but I want to unambiguously acknowledge that those first years of my adult life were not lived to the highest standard – even when they looked extremely impressive on my best days.

[SDA youth, this is why I have been so tough and uncompromising about certain things. I see you guys at 17-25, and I see where this is going to go if things don’t change. However, I can’t inspire you guys to become more – and especially not in music. I can only hope and pray that you guys find something spiritually less bankrupt than my generation.]

I talked a great fight and then tried to live that out as if my only job was to make God look good and impress everyone with my spiritual life. I know now that you would have known that I was no ‘super-Christian’ – and while some people may just refuse to accept that there was anything good in my life, others of you took a saner, more realistic view and saw me for who I really was at times when I was lost and closer to the edge than most of you could have known. You knew that I had not suddenly become a genius on my best days, and that I had not suddenly become the worst musician ever on my worst days – sometimes I played when I was not musically and mentally ready to play, and I did damage to the music and my own credibility. I have carried the guilt for this for a long time and tried really hard to atone for it in other ways – but today – I am finally letting it go.

I don’t want to disrespectfully impose my faith, but I won’t hide the fact that I sincerely believe that God used you guys to help me when there was no-one else. And to those of you who played with me, thank you to certain of you who kept me honest in both the rehearsal room and the bandstand. Thanks to those of you who believed in me when I was playing well, and still believed when I was playing badly. You have shown more faith in me than my own, and I hope to live long enough to repay that faith without compromising anything that should not be compromised along the way.

THANK YOU.

b) The second group are a number of conductors who literally believed in me more than I did in myself. Some of you were very supportive and respectful of my decision to go into ministry – and one of you hoped that I would be able to make a change in the approach to music in my own church.

Sadly, this has proven impossible, and so now I am on a journey to become the best conductor of sacred music that I can be – without spiritual or musical compromise. I’d not be doing this at all if it were not for you.

THANK YOU.

~

In 2009, I thought I was giving up every form of secular music forever.

In 2015, I now know – after a wild, wild, rollercoaster journey – that my job is not to entertain my fellow SDA church members (whose musical values I generally reject forever, both now and in eternity. Quote me by all means!). I also know that there are very few Adventists with whom I can work (a point acknowledged elsewhere on this blog). But this is no disaster. God is bigger than we have made Him out to be – but He is still holy. He is the creator of music and the author of creativity, and so – as I reflect on the years when I was not as close to him as I am now – I am glad that despite being in physical pain and having other stresses, today has been the day in which I have been able to write and publish these words, and give this monkey on my back to Jesus, who died precisely so that I don’t have to be burdened down.

I am nervous and excited about the re-start of my jazz career, but I know that we will reach levels of profundity and spirituality as well as musicianship that will be all the greater because we are all older and wiser. We know that the music is bigger than us, and if my fellow church members have decided that they are bigger than music and that it must serve them, then they’ll have to do that on their own. I would quite like not to burn too many bridges, but I have tried to keep quiet about all this stuff in the hope that things can improve.

They haven’t. They won’t. And I refuse to be part of dishonest music and dishonest living and call it ‘ministry.’ So because I am going back to an arena that I thought I had left, I see that this is my chance to set the record straight in the sight of both God and man.

As one of my longest friends in the music once said to me, I am neither a secular musician, nor am I fully committed to only playing sacred music. I want a ‘third way’ and that is going to be extremely hard to find!

But there’s something that some of you who have kept in touch with me and know more about me from those days as well as now will know: I am both the same person, but I am not the same person. I have grown. I have learned. And now, I cannot wait to finally fulfil my musical destiny across all three of my genres. I’m further down the line spiritually than I ever imagined possible at one point, but I am not yet the finished article and I’m pressing on the upward way to higher ground…

…spiritually and musically.

And I look forward to being an increasingly faithful ambassador for my faith – and an increasingly faithful servant of the music. See you in a rehearsal before too much longer, and God bless you all!

The final response to Christian Berdahl – on everything

So!

Theomusicologist, you do realise that I’ve been waiting for the LONGEST while for you to pick this unfinished business up – but when we spoke on the phone, you said that this might not end how we’d both expected. Care to fill me in? Hang on, let me guess…

…is this by any chance along the lines of: you’re no longer sure what the point of this exchange actually is? Because I’ve come to wonder that myself…so if I’m wrong…

…wow.

Wow.

God is good!

Why do you say that?

Because you’re right!

Really?!

Absolutely.

So…can I get this in your words instead of mine? Sure. You have been – and will continue to be – a good friend and conversation partner. And you know that I have NEVER once tried to tell you what you are supposed to think for yourself. This is indeed true. Of course, I have expressed certain viewpoints very forcefully…

…that’s one way of putting it…

…but in the end, everyone is supposed to weigh evidence and think for themselves.

Sure.

Something has happened in our church that has caused me to realise that this type of explanatory endeavour is in many ways a complete waste of time. What exactly do you mean? Well, you know that we have been debating this whole business of women’s ordination for the last several years.

Uh-huh.

I have heard on outstanding authority that in the end, no-one on either side has changed their mind on the subject.

What does that mean?

Well, I could offer all sorts of answers to that question, almost all of which would make me deeply unpopular with most Adventists…

…since when has that ever stopped you, Theomusicologist?!

*wry smile* I own that, but this is the point: Jesus is coming soon, and we are unquestionably the remnant church of Bible prophecy. The biggest way in which I know this is that we have no biblically-grounded and fully codified theology of music and of worship. We have no worship concept as a church. And for nearly ten years I have been hoping to make a difference in this area of our church life, but in the short term, there is no point in trying to begin a revolution of thought when actual thought has essentially died in many of our churches. Now, before you say anything, I know that this doesn’t sound like I’m going soft, but I honestly tell you that this is a soft answer, and I’m now going to tell you how this applies to the ideas and concepts of our good friend Christian Berdahl.

Okay!

Have you heard the saying:

“A man convinced against his will

Is of the same opinion still?”

No, I can’t say that I have, but I understand it, of course.

Of course.

Wait… Go on! Well…what you’re saying is that no amount of argument will convince anyone who has made up their minds that whatever Christian Berdahl says is right that they are wrong and that he’s wrong – so there is no point in trying to make that point any more. Have I got it?!

Hole in one, my friend. The only people who are going to make a song and dance about this are Seventh-Day Adventists who have such a screwed, uneducated, weak, powerless, ignorant, confused and spellbindlingly naïve concept of the phenomenon of music that nothing and no-one except the Triune God Himself could change their minds, and with some, I think even He would struggle. The institutional myopia, the cultural blindness, the historical ignorance, the musicological bankruptcy – it’s too much to fight all that. Folks who have decided that all syncopation is the work of the devil, and who insist that true worship must look, sound and smell like only what they know have no real idea of what early pioneer worship looked like (EGW has some amazing testimonies), and no real idea how diversity and unity can co-exist in the Spirit without compromise. The biggest shouters against music are not the ones who have studied the subject thoroughly. They are ALL musicological laymen.

Hang on…are you saying that ONLY those with a college or university degree are qualified to talk about music?

So glad you asked. Not at all. Think about all the most effective speakers we have who are untrained. Is there evidence that they have done some hard reading and studying? Yes. And the Holy Spirit has helped them. But watch this: David Asscherick, no less, has come to a position on music that contravenes the standard ‘conservative’ position on music, and folks don’t know what to do with that. The very fact that a rumour has started that GYC won’t ask him back tells us that regardless of the truth of the rumour, there is no security in the notion that a person’s thought can evolve to something outside the archetypal Adventist party line and that there is still room for a diversity of opinion on an issue such as music when on the most important doctrinal questions we have no reason to doubt his commitment to this cause.

Wow…so you’re saying that despite a lack of a formally grounded theology on music, there is still an unwritten position that – if you don’t espouse – you might never be viewed favourably in certain high-up circles in our church?!

Another hole-in-one. You see, there is a whole massive literature on the phenomenon of music. There are so many disciplines in music it is crazy. Here’s a quick list:

  • Musicology (historical)
  • Musicology (critical)
  • Ethnomusicology
  • Music philosophy
  • Music psychology
  • Performance Studies (academic)
  • Music Performance (practical)

I didn’t realise that music could be studied in such an extensive way…what’s the difference between the those last two? How can ‘performance studies’ be academic?

So glad you asked that too. You know, there is a whole academic sub-discipline that looks very critically and very analytically into the metaphysical dimensions of musical performance – but that is not the same thing as learning how to play and sing to a very high standard – which we call ‘music performance.’

And how many of these have you studied, Theomusicologist?! Don’t say all of them…

…erm…

….okay, really?!

…yes, really. Each one of those disciplines is something that I have learned about and invested time into understanding. And that’s exactly why – as a theologically conservative Seventh-Day Adventist – I now spend my time triangulating between classical music, gospel music and jazz.

Yeah…and I know that you’ve tried to say very little about that in church, but can you just summarise for me how that works in your spiritual life?

Gladly. As I’ve said elsewhere, I regard jazz as the greatest creative challenge in all of Western music, and because of that it is a monumentally spiritual challenge. Creativity is one of the ways in which we know that we are made in the image of God, so as divine gifts go, that one has a huge threshold of responsibility. And the sad truth is that of late I have returned to certain forms of secular jazz for no other reason than the fact that these musicians and this music has more integrity than nearly everything we do in church. No-one wants to change. We keep the status quo. But most of what I play is sacred jazz, and that is a phenomenal blessing.

So what about gospel music? Is that not creative?! Yikes. It can be, but the biggest issue with gospel is that it has become all about ‘celebration’ and weak paradigms of praise. And the weak ways that gospel singers and instrumentalists try to appropriate jazz is frankly appalling – but that’s ignorance, and it remains bliss. The harmonies are frequently trite, clichéd and conceptually surface-level – and that’s why secular people love gospel music – especially commercial gospel – because too often, it offers no true sustained spiritual challenge to an unbeliever.

WOW!

So the gospel I do is questioned by some inside and outside the church, because it’s not ‘American’ enough or ‘loose’ enough or ‘hearfelt’ enough. I love this music, but I hate what it has become for too many people. I do gospel music my way and leave others to do what they do. I believe that God is as much a God of the groove as He is the good of non-syncopated beats. The devil did NOT invent music and there is NO beat or rhythm that belongs to him alone. Now, that doesn’t mean that I’d bring trance or trip-hop into church, but won’t be afraid of syncopation either. If I told you that there were studies that showed the power of drum therapy, you might be shocked – but no amount of serious empirical research in auditory perception that proved that syncopation could actually have a healing effect on the emotions at certain times would ever be enough for Christian Berdahl and his followers. Ivor Myers and Dwayne Lemon and lots and lots of others have also gone south on this matter, but they preach other things very well indeed, and I am determined to see the big picture and not get bent out of shape.

Sure! And classical music?

Well, what would you say if I told you that jazz was a classical form?! Don’t answer that – classical music is the greatest intellectual challenge in Western music. And it has wonderful abilities to heal in more ways than I could express. I love Bach, Handel, Brahms, Bruckner, Stravinsky and Messaien – but I can tell you that at certain moments when my faith is weak, I need Fred Hammond and Donnie McClurkin. And when I’m confused and nothing makes sense – jazz helps me put the pieces back together. And when I need to knit my mind together, classical music is the one. They ALL play a part in my ongoing sanity and spirituality.

I…I need to go away and think about all of that…

I understand. For a good Adventist brother, that’s just too much…

…I didn’t say that…

…true, my bad, sorry. What I meant is…

…I know what you meant. And I understand. I understand. And I get enough to totally agree with you that no-one who has made up their mind on this subject is going to let anyone change it easily. But are you going to continue to work in music and theology?!

You had better believe it. But as the SDA church in the UK has largely rejected what I would offer, this blog is now the main forum for my work in the theology of music and worship. And I’m planning a book!

Really?!

Really. By the end of 2016, it will be finished. Watch this space!

Wow, that is going to be one explosive read… You betcha. But you know the most important thing about all this?

Tell me.

In the end, the music will tell its own story. It will tell listeners what you believe, and if you believe. And so I am leaving these public controversies along to spend more time on becoming a better musician – a better Levite – and a better human being and a more faithful Christian. And as philosophy grows in my life, so does my vision of God. I can’t tell others how to read, think, live or play their instruments unless I have the express authority to do so. But I can conduct, compose and play to a God-honouring standard, and use syncopation and abstruse harmony to the glory of the Triune God, without whom I would have no mind, no heart, and no hands.

Amen and amen!

Who is worship actually for??

So the question was asked – as follows:

How do you balance professionalism in music in worship but still be inclusive?

Great question. Important question. Here is what one of the most highly-regarded gospel choral directors working in the Seventh-Day Adventist Church had to say about this:

I’m going to throw in another perspective. The ministry in the Old Testament temple – the Levite ministry – shows us the way; when it comes to the worship service, you need to use experienced people who know what they are doing. Other services/programmes can incorporate musicians who are developing, but worship is an offering being presented to God, so we need to make sure it’s a presentable offering – not an offering in the making.

In the temple, students and teachers alike performed their services, so it wasn’t just the ‘graduates’ but the ‘undergraduates’ – but as they were students, they were being trained in the system, and no doubt were given things to do according to where in the system they were. If it was playing a cymbal, or carrying the cymbal case, (I’m just guessing here, so please do not take this as authoritative) until such time as they graduated, I am sure there was some organised way of taking them through the system. The underlying point here is that they were chosen for a specific purpose, and had to qualify for that role.

Conclusion: have an organised way of incorporating appropriate musicians for worship. Musicians not suited should not be given a responsibility for the worship, but can be included in other areas of church music life which [does not specifically involve worship services].

[note: some may say ‘it’s all worship’, but that is not the case. Again, the Old Testament shows this most clearly, as it is talking about a theocratic system. Within Jewish life there were ceremonies, temple services, and festivals. The Levite role was concerned with a specific aspect; in that system ladies were not allowed to perform certain roles (that was then, not now!); it’s possibly for that reason why tambourines, normally played by women, were not typically found in the temple services; however on occasions of celebration, such as Miriam / Deborah, the ladies led out; and there is the basis of my point: there are many parts of our Christian experience as SDA’s : Sabbath School, AYS, evangelism, etc…, but when it comes to the worship service; that which is being offered to God as an offering – it requires those who are called for that purpose.]

The sanctuary was not set up like a church. Your Bible / SDA Commentary will have diagrams of the sanctuary, and you will note that it is not set up as seats facing one way, and those leading out facing the other. The choir did not face the people; the choir faced the altar! Why? It was about worship, not performance.

The current set up we have (please set me on the right track if I am mistaken – I do love learning!!) is based on the idea of ‘teaching’. You can see how the buildings are big, ornate, and where does the priest/vicar/preacher stand? Facing the congregation, and very often above the congregation – which suggested the congregation – the laity was lower than the priesthood, (maybe it was so they could be seen by shorter people, but we know enough about Christianity’s history to know that priests were [often] seen as ‘rulers’).

The New testament churches were house groups – very practical, people oriented.

We have an expression in our churches where we talk about ‘up there’ or ‘at the front’; strangely enough (I say this in jest) the pulpit is seen to be the ‘front of the church’, yet the ‘front entrance’ is the opposite end of the pulpit. Just a throwaway comment – don’t take it too seriously.

So we have this mentality of the worship service being those ‘up there, at the front’; we watch/listen to them pray; we watch them sing – we give our approval by soft amen, loud amen, very loud ” A – MEN!!’ or applause; sometimes on the rare occasion ‘standing ovation’; they sing a ‘special’ item (let me say it in proper church talk, they ‘render a special’). We introduce the preacher, and give his/her list of credentials, a short biog about them!

So it all becomes performance, and not worship. Hence, we then want to ‘give people a chance to perform’ to include them in the service, because we are very much ‘performance minded’. We may even say ‘didn’t she do well’ after the performance? And we call this worship to God.


I am not advocating a cold church where people don’t encourage; that’s not my point; my point is based on the original comment which said ‘music is worship’ and not just ‘music in church’. My encouragement to us all is that we encourage a move to worship which dispenses with introductions of items and human beings, congratulations of human beings, and is just God focused – all about lavishing God with praise, and not sharing it with any other human being.

Use the Sabbath School – which is a more workshop/creative programme; AYS, which again is more free;, and other programmes to help develop and encourage talent, and when people are ready to have this awesome, even life/death responsibility of leading people to worship God. (Life/Death statement may seem a bit extreme, but Israelites were led into worship …. of a golden calf!) A worship leader has a frightening responsibility!

At some point there will be a follow-up to that post, but for a number of regular and not-so-regular readers of this blog, there is some serious thinking to be done…

Bach can change your life…

Five years ago, I made a bucket list of works I wanted to have conducted – in five years. I can only say that I had no idea what it would cost me to realise those musical ambitions – and if I had, I’m not sure I’d have kept that dream alive.

But this week, with my completion of my first-ever Bach passion now ticked off – despite a smogasbord of challenges that some of you could never believe – the fulfilment that I am now experiencing is hard to describe in words. But I’m not writing a happy-go-lucky post to say how wonderful it is to achieve goals and dreams.

I’m saying that it is only after you have completed what you set out to do that you truly discover if this was what you were supposed to be doing. And as an increasingly popular modern saying has it: we can spend our lives climbing a ladder only to discover that we put it up against the wrong wall.

Wrong wall? Or wrong ladder? The intrinsic semantic specificities of that analogical framework are not our concern; I’m sure the point is made. For me, Bach has become something of a father figure as I look to grow who I am and how I want to work as a musician. Unlike his predecessor, Kuhnau, who was incredibly erudite and well-educated on a scary number of levels, Bach had an excellent formal education up to his late teens – but nothing beyond that. Having enjoyed more academic opportunities than many people – and being part of an ethnic minority community where ‘education’ is a passport to the promised land – what I call ‘Middle England’ (to be precise, I am referring to middle-class Anglo-Europeans) – I can see how all of that is supposed to work, but for my entire life I have looked at how people from all sorts of minority communities have used the letters after their names to demand status, and I am more appalled at this than I can say.

It gets worse – because this ‘worship of letters’ is all over the church. We should know better, but…

How does this relate to Bach? Well, he never really fit easily and comfortably into any of the places in which he found himself, and that astonishing period from 1723 to 1730 will remain an enigma forever as far as I am concerned. Kuhnau made an outstanding contribution to musical life in Leipzig and was a darling of the establishment for the rest of his life. But Bach was far, far too much for the ecclesiastical authorities, and despite the fact that his goal was nothing more than to write a ‘well-appointed church music’ – I am now going to make my own assessment of the reality – Bach’s music pointed to a God who was and is far bigger than the sanitised deity that archetypal liturgy had gotten used to. And those two monumental passions that remain will challenge conductors, soloists, chorus members and instrumental players for a very, very long time as yet.

Preparing to conduct the St John Passion has been the most formative experience of my conducting career to date. And it has changed the way that I think and work. It has forced me to confront the areas of my musicianship in which I am not as disciplined as I need to be if I’m going to work at the level for which I am striving. It has shown me that whatever I think I can bring to music and to early sacred music as an interpreter, I will receive more than I give if I am willing to accept that and be genuinely humble about it. It has shown me that my desire to make a difference inside the church walls is well and good, but the church is not about to become a more open and safe place for honest spirituality that is actually biblical – which means that the pursuit of truth in music will have to take place outside its walls. Bach is better loved, better understood, and better served by musicians who have no interest in confessional Christian faith, and I have one word for that:

SCARY.

It means that as a church (and this in the broadest sense of the word) we still don’t get it after all these years. I literally came apart at the seams trying to fight for better musical standards in my own church, and not understanding why God couldn’t just make it happen. But after conducting St John, I understood why God has let that door close.

The story of how this performance came off the ground is itself entirely epic. If it had not been for my best friend and project co-conspirator, it would never have made it. That person understood what this was better than my own parents who – 48 hours later – are beginning to realise just why I have refused to accept the standard and the attitude of church music-makers. My mother has believed for a long time that I have set my expectations too high, but the truth is more devastating – they weren’t high enough! And only in raising them have I now discovered more about who I am and how I am going to work.

This is not an end. This is now the beginning. And every single challenge, obstacle, doubter, hater, critic – and more – is something for which I want to publicly give thanks for. I have not become who I am because my life worked. I have become who I am because my life did not work and has not worked in more ways than most people can ever and will ever know. Sure, Bach had it worse than I did. He was orphaned by 10, lost his first wife, and buried ten of his twenty children. I’ve only lost my sister – but bereavement is bereavement and we don’t trivialise by reducing emotions to numbers.

My Evangelist was very, very unwell on the day of the concert, but by God’s grace he made it almost to the end. But his being indisposed at that point meant that I had to decide how we were going to end, and so I seized my vocal score (which I’d kept to hand on my stand just in case – previous experience) and read the final recitative – and the emotions I felt as I read those words were the most profound experience I’ve ever had onstage in a public concert. In that moment I was determined to become a better person. A more faithful Christian. A more exacting and disciplined musician.

Bach has changed my life. And now, I want to conduct (and hopefully record) as much of his sacred music as I can. But I’m more than a classical musician. I’ve always wanted to write a contemporary passion setting of my own but I knew I wanted to wait until I’d conducted one by J.S. Bach. And now that I have, I am inspired in ways I did not think possible.

But the only people from my own church who were present were my parents. And that’s okay. They now get it more than before, but the truth is that other people believed in me as a conductor and I had to somehow choose to leave doubt, fear and ignorance behind to press on with this journey of becoming a conductor. Last night I popped into a church to see if they were having a Bible study or something. Thought I might say hello to a few folks. But there was a choir practice taking place, and I just listened to it from a position where I could not be seen. 20 minutes later, the exact same verse had been rehearsed several times and was no better than when I had arrived. In the past, I’d have thought about trying to assist – particularly as I know the folks involved. But I left, knowing that having been very badly burned in my own church community with regards to music ministry, I cannot help these people anymore. I want to help – but they want the kind of help that takes no real regard for musical truth, and so it will never sound better. It will never be musical. After all the years of trying to inspire a higher standard of music-making, I know that what I did with this Bach performance eclispsed almost everything that I have ever managed to achieve with church people. And that’s one reason why Bach stopped writing sacred music – God was not less glorified in a second book of Preludes and Fugues, but only musicians can ever really understand how that works…

The greatest joy is ALWAYS as a consequence of the greatest sacrifice. This St John Passion project cost me – but it was worth it. It has been worth it. Oh, how it has been worth it. I hereby thank God, and everyone who played a part in helping this to come to fruition. And now, time for the next level…

As JSB himself would have said: Soli Deo Gloria!