The Bible says, "Play skilfully with a loud noise" (Psa. 33:3). To assure excellence in the music of Temple worship, David appointed expert musicians to the Temple choir (1 Chron. 25). All belonged to the clans of Asaph, Heman, and Jeduthun—the three Levites who served as chief musicians. In succeeding generations, the same clans retained membership in the choir as their hereditary right. Thus, the descendants of Asaph, Heman, and Jeduthun knew from childhood that they would enter the profession of sacred music, and they underwent long tutelage by their fathers in all the musical lore of Israel.
The handing down of this profession from father to son assured that the music of worship would be crafted by careful professionals rather than by shoddy amateurs. It assured also that the rich musical life of the Temple would be sequestered somewhat from the world. Conditions were ideal for the development of a style of music that was both unworldly and highly refined. The music used for worship during the era of the First Temple has been lost, but many of the texts joined to the music have been preserved in the Psalms. From these we infer that the sacred music of Israel was capable of conveying subtle nuances in meaning as well as a profound range of feeling, from deepest sorrow to sublimest joy.
Also today, the church needs good music. A diet of good music helps a believer fulfill his Biblical obligation to think on excellent things (Phil. 4:8).
God does not call someone to service as a musician without giving him talent. Therefore, since assignments in the church should follow God's revealed will for each servant, the untalented should not be called upon to furnish special music.
*40. Rather than submit to a steady flow of incompetent performances, the church should create a committee of qualified musicians with authority to select performers, review pieces, and generally oversee the music program.
They should be instructed to conceive of the program as a ministry of called-out musicians rather than as an opportunity for family-style participation by all, talented or not. In any informal gathering, the musical offerings of the untalented can, of course, be enjoyed simply as an expression of the heart.
Yet the music committee must check any elitist tendency in the music program. God wants people with less than outstanding ability to use what they have. A few star soloists should not force them to the sidelines. If the church employs a range of talent, the best performers suffer less temptation to acquire an inflated self-image. Also, the skilled and less skilled can learn to help and appreciate each other.
If a music director fails to use someone with musical talent, divisive jealousy may erupt in the church.
*41. Everyone recognized as a musician called of God for a particular task (whether giving solos, playing an instrument, or song leading) should be used as much as possible.
A particular task should rotate among all the musicians who, in the judgment of the music committee, can discharge it competently. If a church has two good song leaders, and if both are willing to be used, let them share the task between them. If a church has twenty good song leaders, it has become self-absorbed to an unhealthy extent. It should send out some of its talent to new or less fortunate churches.
Although we desire excellence, we need not put the best up front in every service. No one whom the Lord has called to musical service should be relegated to idleness because he is marginally second best. Every musician in the church has a contribution to make that, in the Lord's eyes, is irreplaceable. Among the singers, for example, no two choose the same music or sing a given song with the same expression. Some may have better voices than others, but all together make a broader channel for carrying the counsel of God to His people than do a select few. When all are used frequently—assuming all are receptive to the Spirit's leading—the Spirit has the greatest freedom to fit their sermons in song to current needs.
Some exceptions must be noted here. The music program should feature musicians who are proven servants of God. Musicians who are young in age or in faith should be considered apprentices until they develop a sound philosophy of Christian music, until they have finished an appropriate level of training in their specialty, and until they have proved by obedience in lesser tasks that they are worthy of larger ones. They need not be kept in a closet, however. Some snobbish churches never give talented young people a chance to perform before the whole congregation. But frequent exposure to a large audience helps a fledgling musician learn confidence.
*42. In a large church, younger musicians should not be overlooked. An occasional service featuring their talents would be helpful.
A music policy favoring wide participation prevents gaps in the music program. If someone withdraws from a particular assignment or drops out of the music program completely, another person is ready to take his place. Consider the predicament of a church with only one song leader, for instance. What happens if he falls sick or leaves the church?
The Scriptural command to perform with excellence means that all musicians, whether apprentices or seasoned performers, must regard practice as a sacred obligation. They must see careless preparation for what it is—as a sin. Many chaotic performances can be blamed on either of two circumstances. The performer remembered his assignment only when it was too late to practice, or he gallantly served as a last-minute replacement for someone else.
*43. Churches should have a system for reminding performers of upcoming responsibilities. Also, for each assigned responsibility, a stand-in should be designated.
One of the more troublesome problems in church music is the poor discrimination of people in the pew. They tend to admire loud, high singing whether or not it is produced with good technique and to applaud a big flourish of notes on the piano whether or not they are played exactly right. The responsibility for ridding the church of overreaching musical performances lies with musicians themselves. They must remember that their first duty is to please God, and God is not overjoyed by a straining voice or by sloppiness on the keyboard.
*44. Singers should select a song within their range and should, in their delivery of the song, pay attention to proper dynamics.
They should strive for a riveting softness when appropriate as well as for a stirring loudness at moments of climax. Although pianists should not feel so inhibited by perfectionism that they avoid all embellishment, they should exercise restraint. Pianistic ethics requires, first of all, accuracy.
Members of the Levitical choir at the Temple in Jerusalem probably faced mandatory retirement at age fifty (Num. 8:25). An age limit for singers does not suit churches today, however. Since a choir needs any good voice it can find, the director must realize that a good voice ages gracefully and reaches an end of usefulness only when rehearsal and performance grow too strenuous anyway. Still, an aging voice undergoes changes that may require some adjustment in its use. It deepens, narrows in range, sounds thinner, and becomes harder to control.
*45. Aging singers should not assume that their upper registers in years past are still reachable.
They should consider moving down to a lower part or, at the very least, staying away from the highest notes in their former ranges.
*46. Older voices blend very well, and in a large church a senior choir is a very sonorous addition to the music program.
The uniquely mellow sound is maximized by using pieces stepped down one or two notes, perhaps in an SAB arrangement.
Many choirs, especially in smaller churches, suffer from the dominance of a strident or unmusical voice. Indeed, wherever ten people gather to sing, probably three should have stayed at home. The prevalence of unmelodious voices causes almost any small volunteer choir to sound bad. Yet the music director in a church with only a handful of members cannot tell someone that he is not welcome in the choir. Any effort to restrict participation to good voices could create ill feeling and strife in the church. The better solution is as follows:
*47. Smaller churches should not attempt a choir until they have enough good voices to make a full sound, masking the less desirable voices.
Until a choir is feasible, special music should be provided by good voices singing alone or in small combinations.
Voices that are actually off-key may be noticeable even in a large choir. Since eliminating them after they have entered the choir is difficult, they should be sifted out beforehand by an audition involving two or three simple tests prescribed by an official music policy. These might include a test of ability to follow a melodic line accurately; a test of range; and, if the singer will be assigned to a part other than soprano, a test of ability to follow someone who is singing this part while all four parts are simultaneously played or sung. The last test may be too stringent for untrained singers, but in my experience, any nonsoprano who cannot quickly catch the drift of his assigned part rarely perseveres long enough in the choir to overcome his deficit of training.
*48. Anyone desiring to join a church choir should be auditioned to determine whether his musical ability meets a minimum standard.
Someone who passes the tests may nevertheless have a voice that is disagreeably shrill, harsh, nasal, or gravelly. What should the choir director do? He cannot bluntly tell the person that he has an ugly voice. Such candor is about as loving as telling him that he has an ugly face. The kindest solution is to place the marginal singer in the bass or alto section of the choir, and to counsel him privately that because he has been gifted with a strong voice, he should sing softly for the sake of blend.
A choir director who forgets that he is first of all a minister of Christ and secondly a musician will contrive some way to exclude all unpleasant voices from the choir. But people are more important than music. Of what value is a beautiful choir if the price of excellence is a justly wounded soul?
© 2007, 2012 Stanley Edgar Rickard (Ed Rickard, the author). All rights reserved.