Thoughts on worship, congregational song
and the life of the church.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Now, if they had been inserting eschatological adjectives, I would have been really impressed.

A few years ago I volunteered to put on the children's musical It's Cool in the Furnace at my home church of Trafalgar Presbyterian in Oakville, outside of Toronto. Trafalgar is blessed with a large number of children for a church of its size – the Sunday morning children's song and story time in worship sees the front of the sanctuary swell with some twenty-five or thirty-five young people of different ages. It was my first year out of university and, as I was working part-time in the office of a mailing machines distributor, I was anxious to fill the rest of my time with some kind of artistic and constructive activity. I thought with excitement of the grand production we could put together with a church school of that size. I made announcements in worship, put flyers in the weekly bulletin and spoke to families encouraging them to sign up their children. However, I had underestimated the toll that activities such as hockey, skiing, and dance lessons would take on my enrolment. When my big sign-up day came, I had barely a dozen young people able to participate. However, those who did want to be involved were very excited, so we went ahead and I planned for the first rehearsal.

It's Cool in the Furnace, as one might guess, tells the Old Testament story of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego and their foray into the fiery furnace at the hands of King Nebuchadnezzar. The setting by Buryl Red, though now somewhat dated, is really well-written and conveys the story for the pure joy of telling it, with colourful and varied musical numbers. The title song is a slick jazz number in twelve-bar blues form: "It isn't hot in the furnace, man... yes it's cool in the furnace, man, this furnace is cool, cool, cool." I had grown up listening to a tape of the musical at home, and couldn't wait to share the story with the young people at my church.

On the day of our first rehearsal, I travelled by GO train to Oakville. The minister's husband, Pat, picked me up at the station and brought me to the church along with two of his children who were going to participate in the musical. He stayed to watch part of the rehearsal, then went home, called my mom, and said "Hilary is going to need a drink."

Pat's assessment of that first rehearsal was fair – even generous. I don't want to say it was a total disaster – however, honesty forces me to do so. The kids were silly, wrangy, inattentive, and disinterested. They seemed incapable of sitting in a circle on the floor, which was less a case of geometrical ineptitude and more a matter of wilful disobedience. My next strategy was to move them to the pews, at which point they began balancing on their hands and vaulting off their seats. I tried to play a name game with them, and they started inserting scatological adjectives in front of each other's names. We were a long way off, it seemed to me, from making artistic and spiritual progress.

But the biggest problem from my perspective – and one which I would become more and more aware of as the weeks progressed – was that the children did not know how to sing. Admittedly, this was in large part a failing in my assumptions going in to the project. I had pictured that these young people would come to me having a basic idea of what a rehearsal is, what its goals are, and how to respond to my teaching. I assumed that I would be able to sing them a line of a song and they would sing it back. However, deficiencies of attention aside, the children were plainly not accustomed to shaping their voices to the contour of a given musical line. Even basic pitch matching was an issue for a number of them. Having grown up in a singing household, and having attended an elementary school with an excellent music programme and devoted music teacher, I assumed that young people have a basic aptitude for singing that is universal.

In some ways, this is absolutely true. We are all natural singers from the moment we are born. John Bell, author of The Singing Thing, attests that in fact we are all singers until some careless soul informs us otherwise. "If any group of people is asked, 'How many of you cannot sing?' one in four will raise their hands to confess tone-deafness, no sense of pitch or some other musical deficiency," he writes. "When this quarter of the company are asked why they cannot sing, nearly all will say, 'Because someone told me.' And that 'someone' will inevitably have been a person who was in a position of authority over them or who was in close friendship or kinship with them."[1] Over many years of international experience as a song leader and speaker, Bell has I'm sure amassed hundreds of stories about individuals whom he's tried to rewire, to reconvince that they can, in fact, sing.

However, the issue with my young friends was somewhat different. Their musical self esteem was, I'm happy to report, quite intact. However, on later reflection I realized that they have been growing up in a school system with extremely low regard for the arts. In Ontario, we are struggling through the after-effects of a Conservative government in the mid-1990s which did its best to rid the provincial budget of such frills as after-school programmes, funding for libraries and government-run community centres, and qualified ESL, library, visual arts, drama, and music teachers in our public schools. Since very few families sing together at home, this puts the major onus of teaching children to sing on musically inexperienced, overtaxed classroom teachers, and Miley Cyrus.

A word about these teachers: I say the above without any accusation. If I, armed with my education in music history, music theory, and acting, were placed in a school and told to teach science, math and phys ed, I would likely run screaming. However, the result is that many classroom music sessions consist of the teacher putting on a CD of "All Star" by Smash Mouth and having the children growl along with it. In the best of situations, teachers will sing with their students, but will pitch their singing in their own (low) adult range, which is ill-suited for children to sing in, especially when learning.

A word about Miley Cyrus: this is a related problem. Children are growing up in an iPod generation in which they are constantly plugged in to music of their own choosing. If a child takes their singing cues from a Disney pop star, the result as I see it is twofold: 1) Children learn only to imitate a pop sound, which is most often pitched very low in their chest voice and involves more pouting and groaning than actual singing. Children naturally sing best and strongest in their head tone, and to never learn to use it is a shame; 2) children become accustomed to a heavily processed, amplified, packaged kind of singing sound that bears little resemblance to the natural voice. They sing along with this music and think they sound great, because they never hear themselves without Miley (or Britney, Vanessa, or Avril) pasted overtop.

My point is, there is a great difference between singing to your hairbrush and projecting your own voice to convey a musical story. My alarm over this situation, however, had less to do with the musical I was trying to put together (though at the end of that first rehearsal I did have a sense of impending doom) and more to do with the fact that this did not bode well for congregational singing. If children such as these do not discover their real, soaring singing voices now, and do not learn to enjoy singing together (without amplified gloss, for the joy of it), who will sing the Church's story into the next generation?

My twelve-voice production of It's Cool in the Furnace did not single-handedly save congregational song (shocking, I know). However, as I continue to write about the process I went through with my young friends – of working to inspire in them both a love for a great story of our faith and a love of singing together – I hope you will find some ideas for fostering a similar love in the children of your community.

I can say for now that I was not driven to drink after that first rehearsal. Not quite.

[1] John Bell, The Singing Thing: A Case for Congregational Song (Chicago: GIA Publications, 2000), 95.

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