We have listened to a lot of Christmas music over the past couple of months. I have performed a lot of it it too. In that time certain elements have become obvious to the current performance of Christmas music.
For one thing, in many places the performance of the traditional carols are fading away. The traditional Christmas songs continue, but the carols disappear. The items that refer to Palestine and the events there some 2000 years ago get featured less and less in the popular culture. You have to go to religious settings to see more of those.
Then there is a divide in the music into two types: those that anyone can sing, and those that only the featured artist can.
In his video “Scribbling in the Sand” Michael Card made this comment, which I think applies to the musical situation:
In my book there are two kinds of geniuses: Geniuses that you see perform and you tell yourself ‘Oh I could never do that.’ They sort of shut down your creativity. Then there are geniuses that draw you in and fire you up to go to be creative and to write songs and to play.
Card was writing about other artists, those that inspire him to create, and those that shut him down. But I think the same could be said of performance artists, and how they encourage or discourage the music within their listeners. I hate to use the term performance artist with church musicians, but there is a definite analogy. One of my biggest concerns about modern church music is the way it discourages congregational involvement.
When people go to a concert, and buy a ticket with their money, they expect to find someone doing something better than they would normally do on their own. But that shouldn’t be so with church musicians. As a music leader you might be able to do better, but your leading should encourage the congregation to do their best, not listen to you.
Contrary to that, I have been in large congregational “worship” experiences where the music prevented singing. The music was unfollowable, and the electronics that amplified the stage isolated you from the person next to you.
My chief musical venue, besides church, is Madrigalia Bar Nonne/Carolers of Note. I think one of the things that makes the group stand out today, is not that we have a schtick and style than is so unique and unobtainable that no one would think of copying us, but that we sing things is such a well-done, traditional way, that people enjoy and want to join us in our singing.
That is more obvious in the carols, which everyone knows, but is even true with the Madrigals. One of the best parts of our time at Ren Fest doing madrigals is when members of high school or college choirs are there, and we get them to join us in singing the madrigals — and they have this revelation moment that they aren’t the only one who does and enjoys this stuff, that others do this too.
It is has been an unconscious part of my musical focus to do the simple things well, not to try to just do more and more complex things. I think I’m beginning to reference my recent blog on Musical Ratatouille. There isn’t a need for more singers offering new renditions and exhibiting their virtuosity with all sorts of different trills and pauses and improvisations. What is needed is more people who can sing clearly in tune, with good vowels and a pure inflection to encourage everyone to sing, to join in the song.
Let me urge to join with me, join with us, it taking back the music for the people.