Saturday, November 29, 2008

Arranging Horns

It is a week and a half from our annual Christmas Celebration, and our choir director has asked me to have horns on a couple of the songs. This is one of the pleasures of working in a church community with a lot of talent-- when the time comes, we can add brass players to the band.

The first tune I am arranging horns for is one of my own, "Bring Your Praise to the King." I originally wrote the song with a swing feel, and the choir parts were rolicking and exhilarating. Two years ago, we did a custom recording with the song included, and our producer dropped the song back to a half time slow hip hop feel. Many of the vocals are the same, but the form changes significantly. In addition, the producer laid down some synth horns in the arrangement that had never been played by real brass.

Synth horns are usually played by keyboard players and in this case, he played parts that are higher than most trumpets play! Typically synth horns are unison lines, too, with a couple of harmony parts that are keyboard oriented.

Real horn arranging is more subtle, more varied, and better articulated. It is fun to write in articulations like staccato, accents, and ties, and hear them played correctly.

Also, pop producers frequently play synth horns in a Vegas style, and I prefer a dry, Steely Dan-style horn section that is closer to Memphis with a little Lee Morgan mixed in.

So yesterday and today I have been sitting at my computer with Finale 2008, arranging horns to go with Christmas tunes. Hundreds of music directors do this kind of thing, but I thank God we can all be working in our own congregations with musicians who love Jesus, and making unique praise offerings that are custom crafted.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

The Servant Song

"Here is my servant whom I have chosen,

the one I love, in whom I delight;

I will put my Spirit on him,

and he will proclaim justice to the nations.

He will not quarrel or cry out;

no one will hear his voice in the streets.

A bruised reed he will not break,

and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out,

till he leads justice to victory.

In his name the nations will put their hope."
--Isaiah 42: 1-4

The above passage comes to us from the prophet who perhaps has more Messianic prophecies than any other Old Testament source.

Jesus quotes this passage in Matthew 12 as he is healing people and telling them not to tell who he was. See how he fulfilled the phrase, “he will not quarrel or cry out; no one will hear his voice in the streets.”

As Christians we would do well to study more about Jesus bringing justice and the ultimate victory that justice will enjoy in the final day. In the spirit of Advent’s first Sunday, Jesus’ coming is a source of hope for the nations.

Millions of people in our world look to the skies each day and murmur, “Lord, how long…” There have been days when I felt that way. Life just isn’t fair in humanistic terms. Some folks get bailed out while others are allowed to die in silent misery. It is unjust.

Justice is a subtle aspect of the local church’s calling. Jesus the Messiah is come to bring the message of justice – he will proclaim it—and to actually carry out justice by responding compassionately to the broken and bruised.

In our music ministry, we are seeking to act justly, from opportunities to the content of our repertoire. Just actions are not always easy to appreciate, since some of us feel the effects of realignment, and we feel like someone is being unfair. And sometimes justice is realized over time, not overnight. Some day, it will be immediate.

I have been blessed to be able to write several Christmas anthems and this year the youth ensemble sings the Servant Song of Isaiah as a reflection on Isaiah’s message of hope. Merry Christmas, everybody!

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

It's a Good Feeling

Today is Tuesday, the first day of the work week for me, since I work all weekend in a church music ministry, and take Mondays off. Monday has become a day to recover from the physical stresses-- hurting feet, cracked hands from clapping, sore arms and legs, and the weekly headaches-- and to do the basic domestic tasks-- cut the grass, fix the stopper in the sink, and this week put in a new curb side mail box in compliance with the USPS.

It's a glorious time in Tennessee, with cooler daytime temperatures and pleasant conditions for working outdoors. One project I have been eyeing is a huge downed branch in the alley behind our house. It belongs to a neighbor, but it is gigantically ugly and has even partially blocked the walkway back there. I just need a chain saw for that. So the mail box was the outdoor chore.

But this morning I feel content and actually looking forward to going to work. It's a complex feeling based on randomly alligned factors.

1. The mailbox is installed and looking good

2. My headache is gone

3. I have finished my outline for the 1-day Institute I'm teaching next Wednesday in Miami before the Christian Community Development Association convention.

4. I'm not mad at anybody and, as far as I know, nobody's mad at me

5. Last night was my daughter's birthday celebration so she and her family came over and my grandchildren were in a great mood.

I am responsible for my feelings. Sure, there are factors that govern how I feel, but I cannot blame anybody else for the way I feel. Many times I have negative feelings because I have unresolved relationships, or my feelings are based on powerlessness to change my circumstances.

So many times, I feel bad because I have not done something to support feeling good. Often I feel bad because I have forgotten the promises of God that are mine in Christ, and I am afraid of the forces around me that militate against my happiness.

My feelings are not the ultimate truth of my life. God's word and his sovereign reign over all is the foundation of truth for what is true. My feelings are my reaction to a relative comprehension of how that truth aligns with my shallow perception, and various physical constraints mixed in. Thank God for a good feeling this morning, and the variables that have contributed to it.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Brothers and sisters

Then he looked at those seated in a circle around him and said, "Here are my mother and brothers! Whoever does God's will is my brother and sister and mother." (Mark 3:31 - 35)

I have been thinking more and more about the relational part of my job, and how much I need the folks in my church community.

Back when I was travelling a lot, I would leave town on a plane and be met by a stranger or a distant acquaintance. For the next several days, I would eagerly interact with all kinds of people, old friends, young kids, and generally fans.

When I returned home, I had this feeling of escaping from the inordinate attention of adulation, and I re-embraced the close nuclear family that was my own. When I went to New City for church, I was helping out with the music program, and often people would come at me with a barrage of requests for more music, more ideas, more performance. I developed an attitude of defensiveness to others.

Now I am a music drector in that same church, and we are providing many of the services that folks used to clamor for. But we don't do it without people. Lately, some of our leading volunteers have been moving on in their lives to other priorities. I am realizing that new people must be recruited for the key positions of song leader, lead tenor, and text operator. We must get on the phones and recruit.

I have received phone calls from my alma mater or from the local fire and police association, asking me for support and for participation. I receive emails from community organizations looking for my involvement. I am now getting Facebook invitations to come to art openings and wine tastings. Is this what we need to do in the church-- have phone campaigns?

The church is, to some degree, in competition with the rest of society for the energy and talent of our volunteers. On a bad Sunday, I'll think, "what do people think, does worship grow on trees?" Every fall at this time, I can plan on some of my youth choir disappearing until the school play is over in early November, or until soccer season is through.

So the relational aspect of music ministry is as important as the music itself. People need to be valued, to be respected, to be loved. I'm about to go to work now, and may God help me not to resent people but to seek them out. I can spend all week on great music charts, but if the brothers and sisters and mothers aren't in place, I am a clanging cymbal. ( I Corinthians 13:2)

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

I am happy this morning after a refreshing and different weekend off. My pastor gives me 8 Sundays off during the year, and this was one on which I did not do any gigs, but Beth and I took a day trip to Nashville, 125 miles up the road.

There was a large craft fair in Centennial Park, and we spent the afternoon there. Craft fairs are pleasant interactions with people like us-- entrepreneurs who have a talent in some artsy field like jewelry (there was lots of jewelry), fabric or clothing, glass work, or wood.

I look at the craftpeople and evaluate their outlook on life as I walk past. Some have an earthy, hippie look, others are biker types with black tight clothes and tattoos. Some appear to be like us-- conventional in appearance, but obviously committed to a lifestyle of art and independence. They have invested in tents, dispay materials, beautiful backdrops, and photos to make their products appealing. They have a passion for selling their work far more than I ever did when I was touring.

In the evening we checked into a nearby hotel-- it's always nice not to have to drive home late at night when you are tired-- and then went to City Church of East Nashville. This is a congregation in the Presbyterian Church in America that I have visited before, but it was a couple of years ago. Their band was top notch, and the group was mostly young adults. We were pleasantly surprised to see Brian Terpstra, whom I had recommended this church to, and we also saw a new friend named Chioma, whom we met last month at a music symposium at our church. She is in Nashville doing her physical therapy internship.

I had recommend this church to both these folks, and Brian especially has cast his lot with this church, joining a small group led by the house drummer, and he told me this congregation was a "confirmation" that God was leading him to Gallatin, TN and his new job in the Nashville area. For Chioma, it was her first Sunday there, but this church is a lot like her home church in St. Louis, New City Fellowship.

The message was on crime in the city and the Christian's response. After the message, the preacher opened the floor for Q and A. There followed maybe 30 minutes of interactive discussion in a congregation of maybe 125. People brought up all kinds of angles, including personal stories and dilemmas.

Another thing I appreciated, because of my walk with God right now, was a time of confession and assurance of pardon. This is a Presbyterian tradition that our church does not feel necessary, but as the one who plans our services, I was intrigued as a worshiper by the impact of this liturgical event.

Much the same as when one prays, the confession occurs early in the service, but after a praise song and call to worship. This church uses a printed prayer in the bulletin and a printed response, but a song could be used as the response, making the confession part of the music.

Thank God for times of refreshment in our journey. We come back to our same lives and concerns, but we see them differently on the other side of worship and and forgiveness.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

"Failure is understood, forgiven, and does not disqualify me." from Lessons, Prayers, and Scripture on the Faith Journey by Pete Hammond.

It is hard to recognize weakness in oneself, and to identify areas for improvement, and to still be buoyant and confident. I have realized that I must change my behavior in an area of my life, and it is making me pensive and wary. What happened to my breezy cheerful wry humor? Well, it seems to have been blunted by the disappointment of human failings, both mine and others.

So I'm running back to the Father today, and asking for his righteousness to cover my sorry rags. But even before that, I repent of the sin in my life that has brought me to this point. As Pete Hammond says in the above quote, failure is understood. I see it, I identify it, I don't just feel bad because things have shifted away from mindless habit. But, look! Failure is also forgiven. I can stop groveling and look up at the smiling face of Jesus, who says "my grace is sufficient." I am so thankful for forgiveness as I look around at the broken pieces of my life and my work, which I have clumsily dropped in my effort to keep 6 balls in the air.

And finally, it does not disqualify me. In the Kingdom of God, we are not on the bench just watching the action because we couldn't play ball right. We are still on the field, sweating, kicking, and passing the ball. I am still going to work today with tasks and duties and relationships to be received with gladness.

There is no metaphor that accurately describes this, except God's own Word-- he is our father, and the perfect parent with no blind spots or weaknesses. How can a child or brother or sister be disqualified? How can a son or daughter be put out of the family?

"Come ye, blessed of my Father. Inherit the Kingdom prepared for you."

Wednesday, September 24, 2008


I am happy to write that yesterday went pretty well with my work. My associate, Michelle Higgins is very talented as a singer, choral director, rehearsal director, and has a good work ethic with daily tasks. I prepare a memo each week for her to follow, and she chases every chore to its furthest conclusion.
Sometimes, though, we get sidetracked in our planning meetings, and end up singing or hamming it up, which I expect to happen in a music department. After all we are wired to entertain and perform just about every 20 minutes! But it is in this context that there is sometimes some inappropriate conversation about people in our department and opinions we have or things that have been said. I think I need to tighten up this part of our ministry, and be extra vigilant to protect the personal reputation of every one who works with us.
Then we had staff meeting under Randy's direction. He is a masterful and humble interpreter of the scripture, and sometimes he walks in, sits down in his place at the table, and briefly scans a scripture passage. After an opening prayer, he thens proceeds to conduct a deductive Bible study in a discussion format with the staff.
After 5 years of teaching at Chattanooga Christian School, I learned how to prep for a discussion from the guidelines for teaching, and sometimes our pastors would benefit from this approach. They can put the staff in an intellectual head lock, like, 'no, that's not what I'm looking for' and it becomes juvenile sometimes.
But yesterday, Randy chose Psalm 127-- 'unless the Lord builds the house, they labor in vain who build it.' During his discussion, I could hear Randy using the poetic language of my song, "Consider the Lilies" and sure enough, he asked that we sing it at the end of the meeting.
Singing a song is not unusual at the end of staff devotions, but "Consider the Lilies" is rarely sung at out church anymore, and the staff does not know it. So it becomes a performance of the song by Randy and me!
During the study he asked the staff to talk about ways that we felt inadequate to do the work of building God's house. Numerous struggles were mentioned and written on the board. I was touched by the common feelings of the staff, and how articulately they expressed a need for God's presence and oversight to accomplish anything at all. Of course, in my own discouragement, I heard God speaking to me through my colleagues. I am very thankful for these weekly studies.
But what follows the studies is a discussion of staff events and planning. This is one of the low points of the week, because Randy proceeds to conduct a meeting with a blend of fact, issues, and his own vision for the church. He is an incurable visionary who seems to get up in the morning thinking about something new that you could be doing in your program. Of course with 10-15 staff members, you only get hit once every 2 weeks specifically, but every week in these sessions. A couple of years ago, I began to realize that I should not say much, if anything in these meetings. It always seemed like Randy would cut me off or rebuke me for some typical excess in my delivery (see the entertainment every 20 minutes above). Now, I only speak after raising my hand, and I usually bring a list of specific points. The random chattering during this part of the meeting is tedious, and he doesn't seem to cut the others off. I think our years together has created a relationship that is more sharply defined.
Although I pray every week for the attitude of submission to the ones in authority over me, I am frequently frustrated that I never take time to think about my own goals and vision for my work, so the vision of our music department is defined by the pastor. This is one of the greatest struggles of my job.
But in the evening, we had our Tuesday choir rehearsal and we had a good number turn out. There was laughter, 3 pieces rehearsed, and generally what is supposed to happen at a rehearsal. It always leaves me thinking, "all right, this is what I am here for!" I only had to apologize for my excessive antics only once, to a new choir member who is not used to my loud arm waving.
Music performance takes so much emotional and physical energy, that we usually feel that we have done significant work just to do our regular job. There is interaction with people, thinking about musical and mathematical detail, and vigorous singing, clapping, swaying, and talking. I wish my boss could come and experience just 1 month of our department's work before he thinks up another project for us.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008


Today I am beginning this journal in response to my first counseling session. I am thinking today about the work I need to do in my department at church to restore joy and excitement in praise. Right now I have several folks who are spiritually troubled, and it tends to cloud the atmosphere. I don't know if it is responsible for a diminished willingness to participate fully, but I hope to find out, by God's grace.
Having people that I know in various degrees of spiritual turmoil or brokenness leaves me feeling sad and melancholy. I want to help them, but I am afraid of all the tension, confrontation, and anger I may encounter. It almost always is a reflection of some other problem, which I will then have to turn my attention to.
It seems like this job is less and less about music, and more and more about spiritual battle. When I left college, I went straight into performance music-- booking myself, recording albums, writing songs, and doing solo performances. Beth and I were happy that way, and I had minimum relationships to maintain. I was also not employed by Randy at New City, but I was free to come and go, as time and performances would allow. Now I am locked in most weekends when others are relaxing, going out to eat, going to movies, or leaving town for quick trips. Not that I want to do all those things, but it is still a feeling of restriction.
This week I will get Sunday off, and Michelle will be in charge. I'm thinking of visiting City Church in Nashville if Beth is willing to take a trip.

Friday, January 4, 2008

Happy new year

I had the opportunity, for the third year in a row, to play a New Year's Eve party at the St. John's Restaurant. This gourmet address is owned and operated by Daniel Lindley and Josh Carter, two high school classmates of my daughter.

They love jazz in their restaurant, and each New Year's Eve they have Jim Crumble and myself bring a 4-piece group in to create an atmosphere.

This time, Dexter Bell played bass, and we called Alan Wyatt of Lee University in Cleveland to play tenor saxophone.

Suffice it to say that playing live jazz is an avocation of mine, since completing a master's in jazz at the university of Tennessee in 1996. I say avocation because it continues to be an active interest but I am unable to practice and focus on jazz improvisation to the extent that a real jazz performer should.

This time, though, Alan made the evening different. He is probably this area's finest reed player, and is also a former classmate at UT. Twice during the evening he said, "this is a fun gig," and at the end he shook my hand and said, "we'll do this again."

I came home with the unusual sense of both accomplishment and of growth. Most of my musical performance experiences now are those of being a band leader or mentor. In this case Alan clearly had the strongest chops and yet he still enjoyed himself, if we are to believe him. The sense of accomplishment was that I am able to cut this gig and come home not feeling like I have embarrassed myself.
Getting my jazz degree was one of the smart decisions of my whole life. It unified our family around something cool, just when our children were teenagers. It answered some abiding questions about musical structures that I had had for years. And it gave me a new hobby for the rest of my life; Marian McPartland is 90 years old this year. That's she above.

About Me

My photo
I am a person who is perceived as youthful, although I am in my late 50s. I play and sing music, and it tends to keep me in the culture, like a lot of young people do. I am a "high I" on the DISC Behavioral Test, which means I'm optimistic, enthusiastic, a team player, and I motivate others toward goals. I don't like exercise, but I have a high metabolism, so I don't tend to be overweight at this time in my life! I have recently been doing moderate exercise and physical therapy for a shoulder condition.