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.

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.

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!

The scariest reason why we don’t sing in church

Growing amounts of words have been and are being written on the question of congregational singing – or lack thereof –  across denominations. It does not appear that the ‘charismatic’ traditions suffer from this problem in anything like the same way other denominations and movements do. All sort of interesting theses have been put forward; as ever, these vary in cogency, rigour, cultural savvy and theological/Biblical literacy.

As a humanities geek who now crosses the divide between both philosophy and theology, I’d usually have a lot more to say about this. But I have come to type this straight from my devotional this morning. Have a look at this:

The voice of rejoicing and salvation is in the tents of the righteous; The right hand of the Lord does valiantly.

That’s Psalm 118:15 in the KJV. That’s not necessarily going to get you to the import of the text. Try this:

Songs of joy and victory are sung in the camp of the godly. The strong right arm of the LORD has done glorious things!

Now that’s the New Living Translation – one of the many that is berated by various ministry-types and while on one hand I could never recommend it for non-basic Bible study, I refuse to kowtow to the conservative-Biblical mindset that dumps on all but the handful of approved versions. I’m more literate than many people and I grew up with the King James (aka the ‘Authorised’) version and I love literature, but I had to get away from the KJV in my twenties to get back to actually reading the Bible. So I say: any Bible you can and will enjoy reading is better than an excellent translation that you don’t read.

This is relevant because I love Psalm 118 but had never read it in the NLT, and here’s what jumped out at me: what do we hear in the ‘camp of the God-fearing and God-believing?

Songs.

What kind of songs, pray tell?

‘Joy’ and ‘victory.’

Hmm.

I have to ask myself when last I went to church and I could describe the singing as manifesting ‘joy’ and victory.’ I know that people are trying to get people to sing louder – with varied results. I know that people are trying to get people to be more ‘lively’ – with varied results. But far, far, far too often, I am not at all sure that the praise teams or song leaders – and this is before we even consider the pastoral team and the congregations at large – are convinced by what they are singing. You can tell when ‘they like the song’ – but this is now about aesthetics! People like the beat, the flow, the melody, the words (and you can like the beat without there being a drumkit in sight, by the way). But that’s not the same sound as when you are singing out of the depth of your own experience!

I once went to a football (soccer) match. It was set to end in a draw…until the very last minute of the game, the home side scored a winner. I was one of the home fans, and I had the unforgettable experience of standing to my feet with thousands of people and singing the following charming ditty (to a tune that was essentially based on the ‘Bread of heaven’ chorus of the hymn ‘Guide Me, O Thou Great Jehovah):

You’re not singing,
You’re not singing,
You’re not singing any more;
You’re not singing any more!

That was as HEARTFELT a singing experience as any I’ve been part of. Perhaps the use of a religious hymn contributed to that… Anyway, here’s a final translation – this time, from The Message:

Hear the shouts, hear the triumph songs in the camp of the saved? “The hand of God has turned the tide!

Interesting how it is put in the form of a question-and-response. Let me now give you my personal paraphrase of this verse:

“Can you hear the shouts of joy [Psalm 32:15 is a very sobering text on the question of those who are qualified to ‘shout for joy’] coming from that church over there? Can you hear the songs of deliverance? God has done something for these people, and you can hear it in their praise!”

The scariest reason why we don’t sing in church?

It’s not because “we had a bad week.” Or because “we don’t know the song.” It’s not even because “I don’t like this style of music” (or, to be more ‘Christian’ about it: “this music is unholy and not fit for the house of God”). And worse yet, it’s not even because “I know that the keyboard player is having an affair with the first elder’s wife.”

It is because we have not experienced victory over sin and self in Jesus Christ.

You ain’t going to sing about what you don’t know unless they’re paying you or you’re auditioning for X-Factor (or something else in that dimension).

We’re not QUALITATIVELY different to anyone else. So we cannot get too close to God in praise and worship, because coming into the presence of a holy God would mean we’d have to change.

So the football fans and the rock concert attendees are freer to worship than we are, because they’re not playing the same game we are. Their game does not involve worshipping one’s own existence whilst pretending to worship God…

 

 

 

Concentration first, perspiration second – and inspiration as a bonus

What can we musicians learn from our sporting colleagues?

The title of this post comes from a sentence in a BBC article on the new England football coach – Roy Hodgson. Here is the statement in full:

Hodgson is not the type of manager synonymous with the boom and bust of England’s hopes past. The small improvements that have been on show in Euro 2012 have not been a product of tub-thumbing or inspirational man-management, but of endless drills on the training field.

Concentration first, perspiration second – and inspiration as a bonus.

I read that, and at once I remembered reading the words of the famous inventor Thomas Edison: “success is 99% perspiration and 1% inspiration.” But as a music leader and educator, I spend a great deal of time pushing music ensembles of all stripes to greater, more intense levels of concentration. As this grows, I push people technically and musically – the ‘perspiration’ – and then and only then do I open the door for ‘inspiration’ on their part.

This is not a fixed way for every situation and context – but there is much in it. Suddenly, the England football coach and myself have something in common…

I spent today working with some lovely but mentally indisciplined high school children (or junior high in the US), and the hardest part was getting them to concentrate. But when they did, they began to do great things.

Alongside Roy Hodgson, two other sporting managers have inspired me this year. One is the England Rugby coach, Stuart Lancaster, who by all accounts is an exceptionally hard worker. And the newly appointed coach for Liverpool, Brendan Rodgers, gave up the chance to go to Euro 2012, because he is already pulling seriously late shifts at his new club, preparing for the new season and the monstrous, high-pressure challenges that lie ahead.

I’m no sports professional, but I am certainly more knowledgeable than some members of the general public. I understand these sports enough to know that success in these arenas is not achieved by mere fluke. Teams, individual players, tactics, systems, infrastructure, forward planning – this is very hard work indeed.

So to those working with musical ensembles inside and outside the church, here’s my challenge: if sporting professionals work this hard with these values, then why do so many of us try to use God as a shortcut to musical success in church? If we sought the Lord for our endeavours on every level, and then worked hard to be ready for each and every rehearsal and performance, the standard of what we do would rise and keep rising! As has already been said elsewhere on this blog, inspirational conductors are very hard-working indeed! What has made so many of us think that we can get away from genuine hard work in terms of our musical offerings to God?

More to follow in future, but for now, just something to think about…

One of my heroes speaks about the St Matthew Passion

James MacMillan is someone very, very rare in the professional music industry. One of the most successful living composers that we have, he is also a very devout Roman Catholic. And while there are excellent historical reasons for the Protestant Reformation and the ongoing commitment of many Protestants to Protestant theology, I have now learnt that as a very serious conservative, Bible-believing Protestant it is possible for me to have more in common with genuine and orthodox RCs than many liberal Protestants. That is very uncomfortable for many people, but it is nothing but the truth.

Here is an extract from an interview he did in 2008:

“The campaigning atheists, as opposed to the live-and-let-live variety, are raising their voices because they recognise that they are losing; the project to establish a narrow secular orthodoxy is failing.”

He added that the religious must carry on expressing their beliefs in the face of growing opposition.

“A smug ignorance, a gross oversimplification and caricature that serves as an analytical understanding of religion, is the common intellectual currency. The bridge has to be built by Christians and others being firm in resisting increasingly aggressive attempts to still their voices.”

He concluded by saying that our lives will become meaningless unless the “mists of contemporary banality” are penetrated and the idea of the sacred is restored.

“I believe it is God’s divine spark which kindles the musical imagination now, as it has always done, and reminds us, in an increasingly dehumanised world, of what it means to be human.”

What an absolutely monumental idea! It is a concept that I intend to return to in more ways than one as time passes, and it is also something which has contributed to my own conviction that the creative work of the composer/arranger/songwriter of sacred music is a work of incredible importance to both humanity and divinity. Both the theologian and the musician in me are getting fired up even as I write this…

But for now, I would like to point you towards some more writing by MacMillan, and this time he talks about a recent experience of listening to the great St. Matthew Passion by J.S. Bach – a work which if you are any serious sort of Christian musician, you need to try and listen to at least part of if you have never heard any of it!

On Tuesday night [April 3rd, 2012] I sat in King’s College, Cambridge, listening to a powerful performance of Bach’s St Matthew Passion. Presented by the Chapel Choir, other Cambridge choristers, the Academy of Ancient Music, a squad of first-rank soloists and conducted by Stephen Cleobury, we were once again confronted with one of the greatest artistic achievements in history.

Why do the Bach Passions still speak to modern man? And why was the death of Jesus – rather than His joyous resurrection – the prime motivation for these masterpieces? St Paul writes, “if Christ be not raised, your faith is vain”. With that in mind, what is it about his death that has so gripped our culture?

I have just received John Butt’s book Bach’s Dialogue with Modernity. Here he examines the Bach Passions in the context of modern man’s fascination with glories past. Such masterpieces provide a firm challenge to the contemporary conceit that the modern world is always improving. The growing popularity of hearing the Bach Passions leading up to the Easter season in our “post-religious” culture is an intriguing and exciting one.

The ritualistic recitation of Christ’s crucifixion probably began in the 4th century, and the singing of the Passion narrative has been going on from the 8th century. Singing has always been central to the Church. St Augustine said that those who sing pray twice. The “song” of the Church, Gregorian chant, can be traced back to the songs of the Temple and synagogue. It is an amazing feeling, knowing that people have been singing the Passion for at least 1,200 years.

It wasn’t until the 15th century that more complex versions of a sung Passion began to emerge, the earliest example of a so-called motet Passion being attributed to Obrecht. Later there were famous examples by Byrd, Lassus and Victoria. After the Reformation, Luther’s friend and collaborator Johann Walther wrote responsorial Passions which became models for the Lutheran church. Within this environment the development of the “oratorio” Passions of the 16th and 17th centuries paved the way for J S Bach.

Before I encountered any of the great Bach Passions, I was aware of the crucifixion narratives. I’d heard them recited every year as part of the Church’s liturgy. On Good Friday we would hear St John’s account. Sometimes there would be a participatory aspect to the recitation, with the words of Christ delivered by the priest while other characters would be read by deacons or lay readers.

I have taken part in chanted Passions since my undergraduate days. Nowadays I am well used to singing the Narrator’s part in an English plainsong setting of the St John every year with a couple of Dominican friars in Glasgow, where my little choir interjects with the angry responses of the chorus. I am always awestruck at the stark, relentless nature of this way of doing it, and at the dramatic impact it has on the assembly as they relive the last hours of Christ’s mortal life.

To be honest, it is the spiritual highlight of my year, and I have real difficulty singing the final section. In the Catholic liturgy, at the words, “It is accomplished; and bowing his head he gave up his spirit”, the congregation fall to their knees and remain there in prayer before hearing the final part of the narrative, where the legs of the two thieves are broken and Jesus is pierced in his side. Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus then take the body away and place it in a tomb. Every year I wonder if my voice is going to crack at the final phrase, which, strangely, is the only one which blossoms into a little melisma: “Since it was the Jewish Day of Preparation and the tomb was near at hand, there they laid the body of Jesus.”

It is not just the Bach Passions that are in ongoing dialogue with modernity. The figure of Christ himself, in his death and resurrection, is in constant, uncontrollable interplay with the mind of modern man.

Last week in Cambridge, I was in conversation with academics, theologians and creative artists about the St Luke Passion, which I am now about to set to music. We all found it curious that the great historical settings of the Passion seem to fillet a portion of Christ’s life, separating it from his early ministry and the post-crucifixion story. There were liturgical reasons for this, of course – the resurrection would eventually have its own musical treatment a few days later. But Bach’s greatest music is about the destruction of Our Lord; his resurrection music is not so memorable. (This could perhaps be said about most composers.)

Modern man, now more detached from his liturgical obligations than ever before, may be able, paradoxically, to see the crucifixion in wider contexts. Can a modern composer, in setting the great tragedy of Jesus, include the resurrection, the risen Christ’s early appearance on the road to Emmaus, and even the ascension? If so, why begin the St Luke Passion at Chapter 22 when Satan entered Judas Iscariot?

These are not simple questions. The “greatest story ever told” began with a terrified Jewish girl saying yes to a heavenly manifestation which brought news of her pregnancy. Bach’s music proves that the Passion of Christ has deep beginnings and profound resonance, even for modern man: he opened up a window on the divine love affair with humanity. The greatest calling for an artist, in any age, is to do the same.

What an incredible concept. The greatest calling for an artist in any age is to open up a window on the divine love affair with humanity…

Whether you write supremely sophisticated concert classical music like J.S. Bach or James MacMillan, or you write simple Scripture songs for one voice and guitar, or honest praise and worship choruses that really mean what they way, or whatever else…that is what we are supposed to be doing as Christian music artists.

That’s why to merely play and conduct other people’s music is no longer enough – I may be no genius, but I need to write my own song and tell my own story as a composer and I am so grateful God is opening doors for me to do just that. We cannot all be like James MacMillan, but we can certainly be who we are.