Another year, another Christmas, another opportunity to be thoroughly conflicted about Christmas Carols.
There are some that I love and others that want me to stuff my ears with mistletoe. A few weeks ago, I was sitting in a Starbucks having a great but intense conversation with a student. We were going to pretty deep places in our conversation and things were getting emotional, then all of a sudden this God-awful version of “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” played that was about 20 decibals higher than the previous yultide hipster crap (some of which I rather like I should confess, but it does not change its destination as Y.H.C.). My student didn’t notice the awful sounds emanating from ceiling, but I did, and it took every once of my focus and concentration, not to mention my my deep staffworkerly compassion to focus on the conversation taking place.
But anyways, that was another painful reminder that Christmas brings about some beautiful music for the soul, but also so heinous crap for the toilet. (I’ve touched on this subject before, but it’s worth revisting.)
One thing I am pretty sure of is that the bar for listening to music is certainly higher than the bar for singing along to music. This is a universal principle that has its roots in tribal dancing, gregorian chants and karaoke. For example, if somebody decides they want to cover “All I Want for Christmas Is You” at a club where you paid a $10 cover for, chances are it will be a cringe-worthy disaster even if they are good. The potential for sounding contrived and overly-sentimental is too great. But take that same music and that same singer and put them in a small Chinatown karaoke bar with a bunch of their close friends and some good food, beverage and glow-in-the-dark tambourines, you have a rick-rollicking good time, particularly if the music really bad!!! I don’t know if I’ve ever heard a version of “O Little Town of Bethlehem” that I enjoyed, but I can honestly say that it is one dang good hymn to sing in Church.
Anywoo, I led worship at church last Sunday the 26th and it was an opportunity to explore this idea of Christmas Carols…
- “O Come O Come Emmanuel” as performed by Sojourn
- “O Come All Ye Faithful” my arrangement
- “His Hame is Jesus” by Fred Hammond
- “O Holy Night” an arrangement with solos, maybe somewhat Mariah Carey-esque, or at least we tried!
- Offertory: “Light of the World” by Matt Redman with a poetry reading, “First Coming” by Madeleine L’Engel
Some of the things that came up:
Attempting the Theatrical In Worship
My grand grand vision for the morning, imagine with me: it is Christmas Sunday, after an advent season spent waiting for the savior, we start the service off in darkness, mystery and tension as we anticipated the savior. 10:00 AM hits, congregation is gathered, there is a hushed anxiousness in the room. A light piano begins playing and a lone voice (me) sings the well-known verse:
O come, O come, Emmanuel,
And ransom captive Israel,
That mourns in lonely exile here
Until the Son of God appear.
I wouldn’t say anything to the congregation, but just sing the song and let the congregation sit and do what they will. And the song would gradually transition from minor to major, from subdued to celebratory, from lone voice to chorus, and exploding into the joyous march of “O Come All Ye Faithful” and THEN I would finally greet and acknowledge the congregation– we would give the congregation a trip in the Christmas story, from darkness to light, from waiting to receiving. I would then invite them to worship with us. It would have been beautiful… if that’s what happened.
But that’s not what happened. Let me tell you:
10:05 AM hits, 10 people are scattered throughout the pews. A blizzard is coming down outside. Most of the congregation are family members who are more likely here for the first time. There is no hushed anxiousness, just awkward laughter and isolated congregation.The light piano begins playing and the lone voice (me) sings the well-known verse. But unlike my vision, its kind of weird… it doesn’t have the same effect, I panic and decide to greet the congregation and break the third wall, which ruins the effect (which was probably already ruined anyways).
What did I learn from this? I think overly-theatrical worship moments may work in large groups but in a small, intimate gathering, they come off as silly contrived and inauthentic. If you are in a crowd of 500 and try some theatrical things, the excitement of the crowd moves people forward in the experience, but with 10, you might as well go around and do individual introductions. I did not realize this!
On another note, you should check out Sojourn Music.
They are a church worship team from Kentucky that does amazing arrangements and original worship music. You can even buy their Advent album (where I got the arrangement for “O Come O Come Emmanuel”) here: http://www.sojournmusic.com/albums/advent-songs/
His Name is Jesus — Taking your time with Gospel!
So “His Name is Jesus” is a FANTASTIC Christmas song by Fred Hammond that our church has been doing just about every year that I’ve been at the church (7 years now…). Its an anthemic Gospel carol with beautiful melody, great lyrics, and something to groove out to all season long.
But its also not easy. It has some tricky chord progressions, but the hardest thing I think is the TEMPO. It feels upbeat but its pretty mid-tempo, which I think are the hardest songs to play, especially if you want to groove hard.
In the past when we’ve played this song, the temptation was to always take it faster and make it almost feel more Hillsong like.
But this year, with Carlton on the keys, we took it WAAAY down, even slower than how Fred does it.
When you take a grooving song and take it slow, it exposes your rhythm, or lack there of. As they always say, the beat don’t lie. And I think that initially made it hard to play, hard to sing and even harder to sing. But it was worth it. It was so fun to sing the melody and to really lean back and dig into the melody. I was even advised to stop playing guitar and focused on singing, which was enjoyable.
But my big question with this song is… is it congregationally friendly? (whatever that means) the verses are definitely more solos, but the choruses are great! I’m never sure how well this song does in our predominantly white and Asian congregation.
O Holy….. CRAP
This was the most dangerous song of the WHOLE BUNCH. Here’s why: One, its the biggest Christmas pop hit that’s overplayed everywhere, church, starbucks, domicks, etc. Two, it has a beautiful and “seemingly” easily singable melody that leads singers of all stripes and abilities to want to sing it (myself and my mom included… haha), when in fact the vocal part is kinda tough and has a pretty wide range. Three, its in 3/4 which when done in a modern pop-rock fashion can encroach very closely into karaoke territory.
But I think the biggest reason I saw this song as dangerous ground is two words: MARIAH CAREY. What irks me most about this song is how “O Holy Night” becomes an excuse for every singer to pretend that they Ms. Carey. If you don’t believe me, do you a youtube search for “O Holy Night Cover” or its pop equivalent “All I want For Christmas is You cover” a lot of these singers are really good, and of course some of them are really bad, which is like all covers go. Now, I don’t have a problem with covers, I really like doing them, but what irks me the most about Christmas is it is a non-stop cover fest, when bad renditions abound and the whole Church music community doesn’t just get the Christmas spirit, but also the spirit of American Idol.
So I was quite nervous about the hymn, i didn’t want to do a crappy version of a hymn everybody knew so well.
But the result was amazing! The worship team debriefed that it was probably one of the best moments of the song (with the significant exception that the lyrics for v2 were not on the screen). I had Jonette and Amy sing the first time as a duet with just acoustic guitar picking and then we sang verse 1 and verse 2 again congregationally. In retrospect, here’s some of the reasons why I think the hymn worked so well:
- Beautiful and TASTEFUL solos — both Jonette and Amy did a great job stylizing the solos. What sometimes happens with a song like this is people try to do their best Mariah impression and add vocal embellishments every over word and it comes across as incredibly tacky. Both women brought a lot of passion to the song but also freshness and I think what the solos did was create a worshipful space where people could LISTEN to the beautiful music, beautiful voices and beautiful lyrics, and then join in afterwards.
- Good key — we sang the song in “G” which is a little lower than usual, Mariah sings in “A.” The melody is definitely lower for guys, but in a great range for most women, which I think gave it a strong congregational feel. But what I think as a worship leader I was able to do, which I learned from Travis Cottrell does in his rendition of “Praise to the Lord the ALmighty” is to sing the melody an octave up or harmonize above the female melody, something that is done often in Gospel, but not that much in CCM, which is usually written in male-friendly keys. I think that actually made the song sound really neat from a vocal perspective.
- BUT MOST IMPORTANTLY, why I think the hymn worked is because in worship, a lot of the musical considerations become a little less important in the spirit of congregational singing and adoring Jesus.
The music is certainly significant and worth taking time in, but as we were singing the lyrics and enjoying the music, I think it mattered less what someones voice sounded like or what I was playing on the guitar, we were praising God with all that we have. And I think what I learned from us doing “O Holy Night” is that my fears and pet peeves about Christmas music are fun to think about and write about and make jokes about, but in the spirit of worship, a lot of those things of the things seem a lot less significant, at least compared to the object and subject of those songs.
So that wraps up another Christmas season for the worship team. I’m looking forward to the next year of carols, even the annoying, cliche, commercialized garbage, because even that stuff, as well as the well-intentioned, but poorly-executed stuff I and many other worship leaders will always do Sunday to Sunday; it all points to a God who dwelled with us now and forever more.
I’ll let Madeleine L’Engel take us out…
God did not wait till the world was ready,
till…the nations were at peace.
God came when the heavens were unsteady,
and prisoners cried out for release.
God did not wait for the perfect time.
God came when the need was deep and great.
God dined with sinners in all their grime,
turned water into wine. God did not wait
Till hearts were pure. In joy God came
to a tarnished world of sin and doubt.
To a world like ours of anguished shame
God came, and god’s light would not go out.
God came to a world which did not mesh,
to heal its tangles, shield its scorn.
In the mystery of Word made Flesh
the Maker of the stars was born.
We cannot wait til the world is sane
to raise our songs with joyful voice,
for to share our grief, to touch our pain,
God came with Love: Rejoice! Rejoice!