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Church Music Reflections: Part 3

August 18, 2010
The largest church pipe organ in Europe with 1...

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The first two installments in this series have dealt with topics that can be learned in a classroom. This next installment deals with something that cannot.

A kantor must know his people. The importance of this concept cannot be over-emphasized. A kantor is not sitting in some ivory tower, playing the organ, as if there is no congregation present. Working in a congregation is a messy business. Musically, a congregation is not a group of trained singers who can sing anything on sight with no instruction or introduction. They are normal, everyday people who probably cannot read music. They may think you play too loudly (and let’s face it: you probably do play to loudly, at least occasionally), and they let you know it. Conversely, you may have some well-trained singers who like nothing better than to sing the music of J.S. Bach and love to sing a hymn with the organ thundering out the accompaniment.  And that is the great joy of being a kantor: to be able to bring all different kinds of people together to sing praises to God.

My congregation is very musical. There are more musicians (and good ones) than you would expect from the number of members we have. And they love to play. They will play whenever I ask them to, if they’re in town, and they do a great job. And there’s the key: I have to ask them. People don’t generally come up to me and say, “I play the trumpet and I’d like to play three weeks from today. Would that work?” It is my job to find out who plays what and get them involved. This is something I’m just now trying to implement better in my congregation and it has been well-received. Similarly, most people will not come up and say, “I’d like to join the choir. When are rehearsals?” It does not matter if I run notice after notice in the church newsletter; people want to be personally invited. And how can you personally invited if you don’t know your people? Now, I try to reinforce with my choir members that they can invite people as well, and it does work, but usually it is me talking to people. And just because they don’t come to your weekly choir rehearsals it does not mean they are not interested in singing in church. Ask them and see what happens.

It is especially important to know your people when you are playing a service. There are many little things a kantor needs to know, such as how the congregation is used to having a part of the liturgy introduced or how fast they sing a certain hymn. This is more difficult when a congregation has multiple regular organists, since they will each have their own style. Certainly, a congregation can adapt and learn how each organist will do specific things, but it may cause some confusion.

This difficulty is even more pronounced with a guest organist who has never played for the congregation before. For example: I recently was privileged to play for the ordination of a good friend. The liturgy for the service was Divine Service, setting 1 out of the Lutheran Service Book. Well, after the pastor chanted the Pax Domini, I introduced the Agnus Dei. Apparently the congregation is not used to having it introduced because they started singing, quite confidently. It was certainly an interesting train-wreck, since I was not playing along with them. We all came to a halt, I re-introduced the Agnus Dei and it was sung. There was no harm done, but my addition of an introduction certainly took the focus away from the Service of the Sacrament and put it squarely on the organist. They were very gracious and understanding, but that is one example where if I had been the regular, I would have known not to introduce it.

So, get to know your people, both as a congregation and as individuals.  Help them to proclaim Christ in the words of the hymns and liturgy, making a joyful noise to our God for all He has done for us.

Praise, my soul, the King of heaven; To His feet your tribute bring; Ransomed, healed, restored, forgiven, Evermore His praises sing: Alleluia, alleluia! Praise the everlasting King.

Angels, help us to adore Him; You behold Him face to face; Sun and moon, now down before Him, All who dwell in time and space. Alleluia, alleluia! Praise with us the God of grace. (LSB 793)

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