Category Archives: Engaging worship

Forget those hippie drum circles…

…I wanna hang out with Bombshell Boom Boom, which is an “anti-venue marching sound collective, stemming out of the little known grassroots marching band movement happening world wide.” I met Sean, the director of Bombshell Boom Boom, while singing in San Diego this past Sunday. Sean explained that first the participants make their own instruments, and then they go play at the San Diego Museum of Art, or, as in the video below, at Mardi Gras:

Can you imagine doing this in your Unitarian Universalist congregation? No? I guess you’re right. Our congregations are not exactly open to sound art, even when it’s fun and light-hearted like this. Yet sound art could fit in very nicely with an alt.worship service, or in emergent-type services that deliberately incorporate everything from spoken word performances, to installation art, to conceptual art.

You’d think that Unitarian Universalists, with their leftward-leaning theology, would embrace leftward-leaning art forms like jazz, new music, or sound art. Instead, the highest ambition of many Unitarian Universalist congregations seems to be to get a praise band, which to my mind is pretty far on the conservative side of the liturgical spectrum. The difference, I guess, is whether you want liturgical music that transcends your day-to-day world, or whether you want liturgical music that sounds just like what you hear when you shop at Trader Joe’s.

P.S. Did you notice that in the video the average age of the people in Bombshell Boom Boom is maybe a third of the average age of your typical Unitarian Universalist congregation?

More from sound artist Sean.

Chant workshop to feature renowned singer

In the Dept. of Shameless Self-Promotion, here’s a press release for the upcoming chant workshops here at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Palo Alto:

Marsha Genensky, a nationally known singer with the classical music group Anonymous 4, will lead a free workshop on singing Gregorian chant on January 31 from 7 to 9 p.m. at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Palo Alto (UUCPA). Anonymous 4 is a critically acclaimed a capella group that sings early music.

Participants in Genensky’s workshop will do more than just sing together. Jack Owicki, one of the four organizers of the workshop, says the workshop will be an opportunity for spiritual practice as well. “A flourishing spiritual practice requires a good balance of head and heart,” Owicki said. “I already get plenty of intellectual stimulation in my religious community, but I could use some more direct emotional connection to others and to the world as a whole, and chanting will help with that connection.”

Genensky will be returning to the Bay area to lead the workshop after Anonymous 4’s December East Coast tour.

“Singing chant in unison is a challenge, but a wonderfully rewarding one,” she said. “As we sing these beautiful, single lines of music together, the group will seek and find a ‘unity of musical intent.’ It is in the seeking and finding of that unity that communities that sing chant form deep bonds and rise to higher spiritual experience.”

Continue reading

Old Joy, old Hark

At the Christmas Eve candlelight service, we’ll be singing “Joy to the World.” We decided to keep the words as they appear in the 1937 Unitarian Universalist hymnal, Hymns of the Spirit, substituting only “Let us our songs employ” for “Let men their songs employ” (that is, using inclusive language for all humanity, but retaining the masculine gender for Jesus and God). I made up sheet music with all four parts of the traditional Lowell Mason harmonization, sized to fit a typical 5-1/2×8-1/2 inch order of service. I’m including links to the PDF below, in case someone else might find it useful. Also included is “Hark! the Herald Angels Sing” as it appeared in Hymns of the Spirit (and which is not in either of the current hymnals). We substituted “Born to raise up those on earth” for “Born to raise the men of earth”; and in the second verse, we kept the Unitarian “Sun” instead of the more orthodox Christian “Son” found in other denomination’s hymnals.

PDF of “Joy to the World”
PDF of “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” 

Post-Boomer spiritualities

On his UU Growth blog, Peter Bowden provides a link to a couple of interesting essays on “Faith Formation in 2020” on the “Lifelong Faith” Web site, with links to one essay on “Thirteen Trends and Forces Influencing the Future of Faith Formation in a Changing Church and World,” and to another essay on “Four Scenarios for the Future of Faith Formation in 2020.” I’ve done a preliminary reading of these two articles, and while I have my doubts about some of the material I also found plenty to think about.

In the “Thirteen Trends” essay, some of the usual trends are mentioned — the drift away from organized religion in the U.S., the increasing diversity in the U.S. population, the growing willingness to identify young adulthood as a separate developmental stage, etc. It’s nice to see all these trends collected together in one place, but mostly I didn’t see anything really new. However, the section on “The Rise of a Distinctive Post-Boomer Faith and Spirituality” was quite good, drawing on research by Robert Wuthnow, and work by Richard Flory and Donald E. Miller. Flory and Miller define “four emerging forms of the post-Boomer spiritual quest”:

Innovators are those who represent a constantly evolving, or innovating, approach to religious and spiritual beliefs and practices. Many of these are newer, less established groups that are affiliated with the “emerging church” movement, while others are established churches and ministries that are innovating within their own traditions. Innovators demonstrate a desire for embracing the emerging postmodern culture, and within that context are engaging in a spiritual quest that by definition is one that must change and adapt — innovate — to meet the changing culture currents.

Appropriators refer to those churches and ministries that seek to provide a compelling and “relevant” experience for participants, both for those in the audience and for those who are performing in the service or event. In this, both churches and independent ministries seek to create these experiences through imitating, or appropriating, trends found in the larger culture and ultimately popularizing these through their networks into a particular form of pop-Christianity primarily oriented toward an individual spiritual experience.

Resisters refer to what are primarily Boomer-initiated efforts intended to appeal to Post-Boomers by focusing on the “recovery of reason” and resisting postmodern culture within Christianity. They hoping to reestablish the place of the written text and rational belief as the dominant source for Post-Boomer spirituality and practice.

Reclaimers are seeking to renew their experiences of Christianity through the history, symbolism and practices of ancient forms of the faith, such as those still found in the liturgical traditions, thus reclaiming the ancient symbols, rituals and practices of these traditions for their own spiritual quest. Reclaimers demonstrate a quest that takes them on a journey to ancient Christian traditions in small, family-oriented congregations through which they pursue their desire for spiritual development.

Obviously, this has been written for a Christian audience. But you can find these four trends within Unitarian Universalism:–

There are a few Innovators within Unitarian Universalism, though they mostly get forced out of the mainstream of our methodologically and liturgically conservative congregations. We have a few Appropriators within Unitarian Universalism, although most of them are trying to appropriate white middle class Boomer culture (e.g., the new hymnal supplement), which means that they really don’t represent post-Boomer spirituality. There are a few Reclaimers, who often meet in smaller groups for worship and service — UU neo-pagan groups meeting for rituals, UU Christian groups meeting for lectio divina or communion, UU Jewish groups, etc. There are also the Resisters — Post-Boomers who are being encouraged by older humanists to adopt an agenda of strong rationalism, with a heavy reliance on written texts (not scriptures, mind you, but rational texts), as opposed to visual arts, music, movement, etc.

The question is whether or not we Unitarian Universalists have really engaged with post-Boomer spirituality at all. What do you think? Outside of the Sunday school and youth group, is your Unitarian Universalist congregation engaging with post-Boomer spiritualities in any significant way?

Why do we sing in worship services?

So why do we sing in worship services? My Unitarian Universalist tradition comes out of Calvinism, and we started singing because John Calvin said we should sing the Psalms — you know, sing because it’s in the Bible. Well, now we’re post-Christian, and some of us are very critical of the Bible, so why do we sing in worship services?

I think many Unitarian Universalists sing in worship services because it’s a chance to promote their favorite theological doctrine. Shades of John Calvin! The humanists in our midst like to sing songs that extol the virtues of humanism, and they pout when there are songs that mention God. The theists and Christians in our midst want to hold on to the tradition of Unitarian Christianity and Universalist Christianity, and they pout when they have to sing songs that don’t mention God.

Maybe this is why I like to sing with the Pagans and the New Age types. They just sing, and it’s powerful, and changes the way you think and feel. They know that “sustained singing is an ancient technique for creating altered states of consciousness through hyperventilation, elevated blood oxygen, and cranial and somatic vibration” (Marini, Sacred Song in America, 93). They know you don’t have to be a trained singer to get all these benefits. And the Pagans know that you when you sing about topics like birth and death and the ultimate meaning of life, you will be transformed. I also like to sing with Sacred Harp groups for exactly the same reasons. Not because I am in complete doctrinal or theological agreement with Pagans, New Agers, or Sacred Harp singers, but because I want to sing with people who don’t care what you sound like and who know that singing is supposed to transform you.

A recent article in the Portland Oregonian makes this point eloquently. Read it and — well, yes, read it and weep. I did. I wish typical Unitarian Universalist hymn singing affected me like that….

Participatory singing

So how can we get congregations to sing better? I’m not a very good musician, but I’m a pretty good teacher, and if you think like a teacher the obvious thing to do is to teach your congregation how to sing. Once you have that big, broad goal, you can break it down into manageable chunks. Now I admit that I have never taught a congregation how to sing well enough that they spontaneously sing in harmony, but I have taught smaller groups how to do so, and there’s an obvious progression of steps to take:

(1) Learn a core group of songs/hymns so that everyone knows them well. You choose the core songs for their theological relevance, singability, and beauty. It helps if they are easy to memorize.

(2) Sing those songs repeatedly until most of the people in the group know them well.

(3) Teach simple harmony parts for the core songs. Singing the songs with minimal or no accompaniment helps everyone to really learn the songs and harmony without relying on the crutch of a piano or guitar.

(4) Sing the core songs with their harmony parts until most of the people in the group know them well — well enough that as soon as you start singing one of the core songs, the people who know the harmony parts spontaneously start singing in harmony.

I’ve outlined this as a neat and tidy progression of teaching tasks, but in real life it’s not that neat and tidy. You might start by teaching one song and immediately adding harmony parts; then gradually adding other songs, some with harmony and some without. The exact path you follow will always depend on the teacher’s abilities and the chemistry of the group being taught. But in every case, the goal is the same: to have the group learn a core group of songs with harmony parts.

Such a plan would not do away with choirs, soloists, and/or professional musicians — choirs and soloists can help support us ordinary singers, and sometimes we like to just sit and listen to really good musicians. I also think such a plan would help us damp down the fights over church music style — when you’re sitting and listening as a passive consumer of music you have every right to be picky about the style of music you are being forced to listen to, whereas when everyone’s singing together we are more likely to understand that all musics are created equal (as Peter Schiekele used to say).

What would this plan look like in the actual worship life of a congregation? Continue reading

Singing in harmony

We had our teacher training here at the Palo Alto church this morning. There were 25 people present, and at one point, partly as an experiment, I taught the group a simple Zulu song, “Thula” (available in The Folk Choir Song Book). I am neither a trained choir director nor a particularly good musician. Our group today had some people who are good singers, but most of the group probably only sings at karaoke and campfires. Yet in five minutes, I had the whole group singing in three-part harmony. We sounded fabulous.

Some of us were talking about this after the training. We agreed that society at large trains us to understand ourselves as consumers of music product. We do not have the sense that participating in music is a normal part of human life. And even our churches have become places where the music is produced only by professionals (and trained amateurs), while the majority of us have become passive consumers of music. We don’t even have church karaoke, for Pete’s sake.

Mostly, I think — at least mostly in Unitarian Universalist congregations — no one takes the time to really teach congregations how to sing. We let the professionals do the music for us, or we let the trained amateurs sing for us, and we sing limply along on the hymns (hymns which are rarely in keys suitable for our untrained voices). Sometimes the music professionals do things like offering hymn sings before the worship service, which increases the volume a little bit but does not make the congregation sound fabulous. Sometimes the ministers choose hymns which are fun to sing, rather than choosing hymns where the words fit the theme of the sermon, but still the congregation doesn’t sound as fabulous as they could.

Singing harmony in a large group can cause beneficial physiological changes in people; it can induce transcendent experiences; it can cause little children to dance and sway in time to the music. Why do we settle for anything less than singing so we sound fabulous?

Read the follow-up post.

Sunday morning

The choir I just joined, the Labor Heritage Rockin’ Solidarity Choir, performed “A Musical Biography of Pete Seeger” at the First Unitarian Universalist Society of San Francisco this morning. We were the main event in their worship service. After being introduced by their choir director, we filed up onto the stage at the front of their worship space, dressed in our black t-shirts and black pants. This “musical biography” combines narration and semi-staged dramatic vignettes, with songs which Seeger either wrote or made famous.

About ten minutes into our performance, the congregation applauded one of the songs. I was a little surprised; I could hear the bass section well and I knew we had not been at our best. But from where I stood I couldn’t hear the rest of the sections very well, I had no idea how the choir as a whole sounded. Then came the dramatic vignette where Seeger goes before the House Un-American Activities Committee, and when he is asked if he ever joined the Communist Party, he pleads the First Amendment, saying that he shouldn’t have to answer any questions relating to his freedom to associate. The congregation applauded for that, and I realized that they really liked what they were seeing and hearing.

I was a little surprised by this, because I kept hearing all the things the bass section did wrong — we fumbled some key entrances, we weren’t all singing in unison a few times, all the moments when we messed up. I was also all too aware of my own shortcomings as a singer — I don’t have the breath control I should, I’m not a confident enough singer that I can always stick to the written music when the singers around me are singing wrong notes, I sometimes lose my concentration. But the congregation didn’t care. They sang along with familiar songs like “Guantanmera,” and “If I Had a Hammer.” The soloists were very good; the speakers were moving; the message behind this musical biography was deeply moving; and, in spite our technical and musical faults, our section sang with feeling and power, and though I couldn’t really hear them I assume the rest of the choir did too.

The congregation gave us a standing ovation at the end of the worship service. That surprised the heck out of me, although that standing ovation wasn’t really for our choir as performers — that ovation was more for the power of Pete Seeger’s career as a singer and community activist, as captured by the script written by our music director, Pat Wynne. I shouldn’t have been surprised, of course. This kind of thing happens all the time in worship services and amateur musical performances in which an important message is delivered with genuine feeling. But when you’re standing at the far end of the bass section, and you can’t really hear, and all you can do is concentrate on singing the right notes when you’re supposed to, you may not be aware of what’s happening around you.