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:


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!


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?


What kind of songs, pray tell?

‘Joy’ and ‘victory.’


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…




I wish I knew how it would feel to be free

The song “I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel To Be Free” was written by Billy Taylor in 1954 and became one of the most popular songs of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1950s and ’60s. Nina Simone covered the song on her 1967 album ‘Silk and Soul’ and is probably the best known version though this tune has been covered and recorded by over twenty major artists. The tune is also well known as the theme music for BBC1’s Film programe (something I used to wait up to listen to every week JUST to hear that song extract) and, I understand, also used over the opening and closing credits for the film Ghosts of Mississippi (which I have not seen). As a schoolboy, playing this piece was one of my favourite party tricks…

Here are the words:

I wish I knew how it would feel to be free
I wish I could break all the chains holding me
I wish I could say all the things that I should say
say ’em loud, say ’em clear
for the whole round world to hear.

I wish I could share all the love that’s in my heart
remove all the bars that keep us apart
I wish you could know what it means to be me
Then you’d see and agree
that every man should be free.

I wish I could give all I’m longing to give
I wish I could live like I’m longing to live
I wish that I could do all the things that I can do
though I’m way overdue I’d be starting anew.

Well I wish I could be like a bird in the sky
how sweet it would be if I found I could fly
Oh I’d soar to the sun and look down at the sea
and I’d sing cos I’d know that
and I’d sing cos I’d know that
and I’d sing cos I’d know that
I’d know how it feels to be free
I’d know how it feels to be free
I’d know how it feels to be free

So, this is definitely a gospel-influenced song – and one of my party tricks as a schoolboy was to play this song for my non-Christian friends. If one did not know the words, one might be tempted to think that this WAS a gospel song!
There is a similar situation to the song,”We Shall Overcome.”
There is a huge amount of room for a typically lengthy post that we seem to do here at the theomusically blog that takes us back into the history of Negro spirituals (now better referred to as ‘African-American spirituals, in case you did not know!!) and their origins in the antebellum South. We can also discuss the theological ramifications that emerge through some of the twentieth-century theories that have emerged concerning the true spiritual significance of these spirituals. We could talk about the fact that black gospel music’s founding father lived hand in glove with secular music throughout his career, and so the fact that a secular song about freedom has strong gospel music stylings is absolutely inevitable, and what that says about the appropriation of spiritual elements for secular artistic purposes in general.
But this morning I have been seriously wondering why more Christians who say that they are ‘free’ live such limited and desultory lives. Some think that their lives are rich and positive, but they have learnt their Christian life practice from their brethren, who may themselves never have actually experienced true spiritual freedom, but because the way their limited Christian understanding has worked for them, and because in so many cases the external fabric of a Christian lifestyle is more positive than what they had before, they think that what they have is freedom…
And for many conservative, Bible-believing Christian, there is such a huge emphasis to avoid certain elements of Christian life practice that are associated with ‘charismatic’ Christianity (etc), the benchmark for spiritual freedom becomes a set of (often unwritten) rules by which one’s standing in the community will be maintained. So the benchmark for spiritual freedom is not the personhood of God working in human life (the natural) through the Holy Spirit – even if this is claimed. It is whatever man-made criteria they use what whatever church you find yourself at where that’s how things roll.
Praise God, not all churches are in this quagmire. But too many are. Too many.
After a week of observing some deeply saddening church politics at very close quarters, I am more convinced than ever that the pursuit of true holiness is more lonely than most Christians will ever understand. Our first priority for true freedom is not the approval of others – it is the approval of God, who does not work like human beings – something which we know, but then abuse. How can we pray to God while abusing the very grace that allows us to still be alive and breathing?!
This morning/afternoon, as I see what ‘freedom’ has cost some people, I am renewed in my conviction that the only freedom that matters is that which the Holy Spirit gives.

2 Corinthians 3:17

New International Version (NIV)
17 Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.
How badly do you want to be free today? And are you ready to give up everything for a freedom that no human being can ever take away? How do you think Paul was able to be denied his physical and legal freedom and still write ‘Rejoice in the Lord always, and again I say, rejoice?” (Philippians 4:4) If you have accepted Jesus, are you looking to Him as the Author and Finisher of your faith, or have you been distracted by trying to keep up with your friends in church?
And if you have so far rejected Christianity because of what you don’t admire in the Christians you have encountered so far in your life – what are you rejecting? The external flaws of persons whom for all you know may never have met Jesus for themselves? Or the only truth that can set a person free forever – which you would never know if you did not choose to investigate it for yourself?

Is Controlled Worship Keeping Churches from Fulfilling the Great Commission?

‘Controlled Worship?’ Surely a contradiction in terms…!!!

Yes, it is. But at the same time, no, it really isn’t. Not in practical terms – i.e. how many worshipping communities organise themselves. This blog post has beaten me to the punch on a subject on which I have some very strong views, and so why not re-post this for others to read? The subject matter could not be more relevant, and the timing more appropriate. While I work on the next post on prayer, this can provide something for all of us to chew on…

Is Controlled Worship Keeping Churches from Fulfilling the Great Commission?.

An end-of-year challenge to gospel choral directors

For two evenings in a row, I have been doing rehearsals with a composite group of singers from an incredibly wide array of backgrounds and personalities (but all from within the African-Caribbean racial/cultural bandwidth). We’re preparing for an end-of-year service at church.

One of the most important things I was taught as a ‘classical’ choral conductor was that it was essential to be ‘useful to your singers.’ However, this is much more clearly defined in classical music where for starters, everyone sings from the same score that the conductor has. In addition, there are obvious issues and protocols that define what singers expect of a conductor.

However, in gospel music, there is no such standardisation of ‘best practice.’

I have had the privilege of working with groups who were so unpromising at the start that almost no-one thought they would amount to anything. And I’ve worked with some extremely gifted singers who make their living from it. And all points in between. And the biggest challenge in gospel music – particularly in the black community (and that includes the church community)?


It was very nicely suggested to me that I used too many words last night. Now, upon reflection, I fully accept that as a valid criticism. Whatever genre of music and makeup of the ensemble, conductors and musical directors are usually prone to talking too much – and physically doing too much.

However, the REASONS for each conductor/MD who talks too much are never the same. Right now, much as I would love to give you a detailed breakdown what it is that I am trying to achieve when I talk to the singers I am leading, that subject (also) needs a separate blog post. What I will do, however, is highlight the fact that as a choral director, you may one day find yourself in front of a group of singers who simply do not share your musicianship values. They may not care about singing in tune. They may not care about singing in time. They may not be bothered about knowing the words, or even about the notes in their part.

They may not like the same type of choral sound that you favour.

They may not care one little bit about communication values in choral singing – as long as they get to do their thing individually. There is a real selfishness in the mindsets of many gospel choral singers – which is ‘anti-musical.’

These are serious challenges in a choral context where it is all about ‘music and singing’ in and of itself. But they are hugely magnified when one is in a church context where God is supposed to be the primary source of worship. And when the whole ensemble is not mentally ready to make music, how on earth is one supposed to lead them in praise – never mind worship?

Something has to change. And the bad news is that it usually needs to be the choral director. With that position goes far more personal musical and spiritual responsibility than many of us care to think about. Sometimes the skills that work so well for those of us who conduct professionally are simply wasted in local church settings. Nevertheless, I have my conducting teachers to thank for ensuring that I did not take a decision to stop conducting amateur choral groups at the lower end of the talent spectrum. Regardless of genre, I was taught that whoever my singers needed me to be, that is who I needed to be.

My singers in this group cannot deal with all the things I want to make happen. And no amount of well-crafted explanations using words will get them to that place if their capacity to deal with me and my use of words is not as developed as other ways of taking in information. So I have to accept this, and either throw my teddy in the corner – or humble myself and find another way through and re-think my aspirations for this group.

NOTHING in music challenges the self-identity (and self-pride) more than having to deal with the fact that as a choral director, one is not only a servant of the music – one is a servant of the singers. This is not about power-wielding, or alpha musicianship ideals, or about best choral practice. This is about finding different ways to help ordinary people do that most extraordinary thing of praising God.

Last night, I concluded once again that I cannot help most of the choir members in this group to connect to a way of thinking in music that is more than they can deal with. Only God Himself can help these people offer Him the best praise in song of which they are capable. Only He can help me to help them do their best.

As a choral director, it is never about you. It is always about the music – the message – and about others. However, eradicating self from anything is always hard. The singers do not ‘belong’ to you. The music does not ‘belong’ to you.

How can all of us be what our singers need us to be without compromising the most important things?

The answer to that will never be found between the pages of a book, or the notes from a course…

…but on our knees.

Freedom…part 2

The last post on freedom focussed on the thinking of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, best known for his role in the formation of the ‘Confessing Church’ in Germany during the Third Reich. Bonhoeffer would give his life for the gospel like so many before him, and as I read some contemporary academic analyses of aspects of his theological thought, I do sometimes wonder if those who are blithely arguing away have taken the time to think about the fact that less than a century ago this man actually gave his life for what he believed – in so-called ‘civilised’ Western society – as a Christian?!

Those of us who have taken religious freedom for granted may well have some work to do on our knees before God.

This post was (is) inspired by one text in Luke 14 that surfaced in another morning devotional. However, although I opened a Bible to the last section of Luke 14, my eyes fell on the beginning of the chapter – and then on  Luke 13 – at which point I realised I was being led. So I began to read from the beginning of Luke 13.

Dear reader, if you are any sort of genuine Christian who has been reading the Bible over a prolonged period of time, then you will be acquainted with the phenomenon where despite having read a passage of Scripture over and over several times, you STILL find new things in it that at times make you feel as if you never read the thing before in your life!! That was what happened this morning.

And the mad thing: it is happening again even as I type this post. I have just had to go before God before coming back to this, because I had been about to begin the main thrust of this post from Luke 13:2 – but as it is, I JUST connected to what is really going on in verse 1.

Let’s read it in two versions, starting with the KJV:

1There were present at that season some that told him of the Galilaeans, whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices.

OK, let’s now try that in The Message (TM):

“About that time some people came up and told him about the Galileans Pilate had killed while they were at worship, mixing their blood with the blood of the sacrifices on the altar. ”

If you missed the actual import of what was said in the KJV, you could not have done so in the TM. The TM is not always clearer – I can point to other places where the KJV is in fact clearer than the TM. But on this occasion the TM really helps us. It seems as if although in strict historical terms Luke is the only writer who recorded this particular massacre, the famous Roman-Jewish historian Flavius Josephus (Josephus for short) refers to a number of other similar massacres perpetrated by Pilate and various others. The point: this kind of thing was not unknown.

So, these people have gone to offer sacrifices to God in the customary manner of a time when there had not yet been an ultimate sacrifice that would render the blood of bulls and goats unnecessary and irrelevant – and in the very act of worshipping God, they had been struck down by Pilate’s death squad. There is a real link between this situation and what happened in Nazi Germany where Christians who refused to get in line with what the state wanted were literally persecuted to the point of death. Would you believe, the Roman Catholics signed a treaty with the Third Reich in 1933 – the very year Hitler came to power. Three years later the Protestants followed. And those who opposed the new state religion were imprisoned.

The thing is – despite the fact that these agreements had been formally signed, there were still a great many Christians – and (more to the point) Christian clergy (both Protestant and Roman Catholic) who refused to acknowledge the ‘Fuhrer’ as he wanted. If you are not familiar with the story of Daniel 3, please go look it up asap!

Yes, it is true that the Jews were the greatest group of people to suffer loss under Hitler. But how many of you know that 2.600 Roman Catholic priests from 24 countries were killed under the Third Reich? As of yet I personally have no properly verified statistic for the number of Protestant clergy who also gave their lives, but as we have noted already, Dietrich Bonhoeffer was one of those. Famous Protestant survivors who went on to make a theological difference to post-WWII Germany (and beyond) were Martin Niemoller and Jurgen Moltmann. How dare any of us Westerners take the ability we have to publicly call ourselves ‘Christian’ for granted? It was here in the West that this happened!

Knowing the people that He was addressing, here is how Jesus responds to the shocking news of (another) Pilate-sanctioned massacre:

“Do you think those murdered Galileans were worse sinners than all other Galileans? Not at all. Unless you turn to God, you, too, will die. And those eighteen in Jerusalem the other day, the ones crushed and killed when the Tower of Siloam collapsed and fell on them, do you think they were worse citizens than all other Jerusalemites? Not at all. Unless you turn to God, you, too, will die.”

This message is every bit as pertinent now as it was then, given that so many Christians today are so obsessed by the blessing of God that they fail to even consider the fact that they are called to take up a cross – their own – and follow the Master. Worse yet, when the inexplicable happens to believers, many of us are quick to hold a theological inquest using the hermeneutical principles handed down from Eliphaz the Temanite, Bildad the Shuhite, and Zophar the Naamathite – no prizes for guessing who these Bible scholars are!

OK, for those who may have missed that, those guys are Job’s friends, who assumed that Job had to have sinned because of what had happened to him. It is one of the rare occasions in Scripture where God Himself speaks to say “you are wrong, and you need prayer, or else I will not forgive you.” Don’t miss the point – your theology MATTERS!

To think that it is enough to just agree to a set of doctrines and propositions is more erroneous than you may think. Remember, Jesus did not say that ‘a sincere heart’ will set you free – no, instead He said that the truth would set a person free.

That’s basically our conclusion, but there is a bit of work needed to bring this together with rock-solid coherence. Well, that’s what we are trying to do here at the theomusicology blog. Having just compared five different translations, we will once again pick the TM for our next passage:

“25-27One day when large groups of people were walking along with him, Jesus turned and told them, “Anyone who comes to me but refuses to let go of father, mother, spouse, children, brothers, sisters—yes, even one’s own self!—can’t be my disciple. Anyone who won’t shoulder his own cross and follow behind me can’t be my disciple.”

There are three clear principles that emerge from the passage from verses 25-35:

  1. Discipleship involves bearing a cross – one’s own, not another’s (vs 26-27)
  2. The actual COST of discipleship should be carefully counted (vs 28-32)
  3. All personal ambitions and worldly possessions must be laid on the altar of sacrifice (v 33)

From verses 34-35 we could conclude – given the passage as a whole – that spirit of sacrifice needs to be maintained permanently – if salt stops being salty, how will it (how can it) regain its saltiness?!

OK, so after this mini-Bible-study, what does this have to do with freedom?

Let’s go back to a verse that was alluded to earlier – from John 8:

31 Then Jesus said to those Jews who believed Him, “If you abide in My word, you are My disciples indeed. 32 And you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.”

The written word is crystal clear. The Incarnate Word has spoken.