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“Becoming a Better Bach”: The Joel Osteen Book I Would Read

October 12, 2009

Lately I find that I’m having a huge case of Bach envy.  I’ve been listening to his cantatas and am just astounded by how great they are, from the musical craftsmanship to the theology shown by how he portrays the texts.  Bach was a serious theologian, as well as a spectacular musician.  In fact, he was a Lutheran Kantor (see All for Hymn for a description of that).

This leads me to suggest a new book for Joel Osteen: “Becoming a Better Bach: Seven Steps to Change You into the Kantor from Leipzig.”  They say that geniuses are born, not made, and that may be true, but if we can come up with a seven step program, I’m sure it can happen (*sarcasm alert*).  So while I don’t know how many steps I have, here are some suggestions for becoming a great kantor like Bach:

1. Study the Bible. Bach was a major student of Scripture.  In fact, Concordia Seminary in St. Louis has his annotated Bible.  (You can even buy a book with photos of various pages so you too can see what Bach wrote.  And I believe that a facsimile of Bach’s Bible is scheduled to be printed in the near future.)  Bach took his theology very seriously and good theology must begin with study of the Bible.

2. Study the Lutheran Confessions. The Lutheran Confessions are not the Bible, but they do accurately express the theology found in Scripture and thus are well-worth studying.  This can begin with the Small Catechism, moving through the Large Catechism, the Augsburg Confession and its Apology, and onto the Smallcald Articles, the Treatise on the Power and Primacy of the Pope, and finally the Formula of Concord.  These Confessions are Christocentric, just like the Scriptures, always presenting Christ as the answer for our sins, and denying anything that would detract from His work.

3. Study the Hymnal. For many LCMS churches these days, that hymnal is the Lutheran Service Book, which is a fine hymnal.  The name “hymnal” is misleading, because there are not only hymns, but also liturgies, Psalms, prayers, and even Luther’s Small Catechism.  I believe Paul Manz once said “You can never know the hymns too well.”  So study those hymns, both text and tune, and dig into how the poetry and music work together to proclaim the Gospel.  (This includes studying the hymns for each Sunday before-hand, to decide how best to play each stanza.)  That is the work of a Kantor after all: the proclamation of the Gospel through the music of the Church.

4. Be born into one of the greatest musical families of the century and, arguably, of all time. This one will really take some work.  I think this one is probably beyond any human control, and as such, offers a great excuse if you do not end up becoming a great Kantor like J.S. Bach.  So keep this one in your back pocket :-)

5. Receive proper musical training. By this I mean learn your music theory and all that, as well as your instrument, which will probably be pipe organ.  I know, there are many churches with the “Lutheran” name that use bands in their services, but let’s face it, the organ has been the instrument of choice for Lutheran church musicians for several hundred years and it is continuing.  I’m not saying that it is not possible to do a reverent, historical Lutheran service with other instruments (Bethany in Naperville, IL is an example), but it is still the fact that the majority of Lutheran churches that use the historic liturgy use the organ as the primary instrument to accompany congregational singing.  The pipe organ just works well in that capacity.

6. Learn improvisation. This does fall under the previous heading, but it is so important that I gave it its own section.  This can be an intimidating topic, but you do not need to be able to improvise full organ symphonies (like Marcel Dupre) to use it effectively in a Divine Service.  Improvisation is important because a Divine Service is not like a concert, where the performer is in control of all that happens musically.  A Kantor music be able to adapt to the congregation, whether it is a short improvisation to introduce a hymn or canticle or altering the hymnal harmonization to bring out the text.  I learned improvisation from Jeffrey Blersch at Concordia University, Nebraska (but don’t blame him) and he taught us to prepare a “bag of tricks.”  I will not go into all of them, but they go from using pedal-point and biciniums (two-voices) to toccatas and counterpoint.  The more you use what you’ve learned in improvisation, you will discover what tricks work best for you and you will become more comfortable and confident.  As Charles Ore once told me, “In improvisation there are no mistakes; just unexpected notes.”  Improvisation has made me much more relaxed at the bench and untied me from the hymnal harmonization.  I am not a great improviser by any means, but I think what I do works (most of the time).

7. Carry a sword. Bach did and that is just awesome!  (He even got into a fight with his bassoonist because Bach called him a “Nanny-Goat Bassoonist.”)

8. Play the music of other great church musicians. There is a great Lutheran tradition of church musicians, as well as ones from other denominations.  So learn chorale preludes by Bach, Buxtehude, Brahms, Reger, Distler, Willan, Peeters, Manz, Blersch, Hildebrand, and many others.  As an added bonus, the more you expand your musical horizons, the better your improvisations will be.  And by all means, learn the great organ performance literature (much of it written for church use) by composers such as Franck, Gigout, Vierne, Widor and Durufle.

9. Have fun. Being a Kantor is a great responsibility, but it is also a very rewarding and enjoyable profession.  You get to lead the people of God in the Church’s song; what a great calling!

  1. Rachel Beethe permalink

    The best one…carry sword. I can probably get you one if you need it!

  2. This improvisation thing can really add life to the hymn.

    You can hear Southern Lutheran Kantor’s organ improvisations at, starting with Episode 27 or so.

    When you do, have your hymnal in hand so you can follow the words and listen to the organ at the same time!

    It was in Episode 29 featuring “At the Name of Jesus” that I commented, “I think I felt hell assailing me while listening to verse 3.”

    I would also commend the improv in Episode 34 featuring “I Walk in Danger All the Way”. Close your eyes and just listen the first time. Then go back and listen with the words in front of you. This is my favorite one to date.

    On the lighter side, the title of Herr Osteen’s book might be, “Your Best Kantor Now” or “Be All that You Kant Be” or “I Kant Therefore I Am” (also a good title for his philosophic writing) or even “Set Your Kantor Ablaze!” :)

  3. Steven Goodrich permalink

    Number 7 is Awesome. That will keep people from making fun of you.

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