Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Sound and silence

In my role as the Music Editor of Gathering Magazine, a national United Church worship resource, I write an article for every quarterly edition on a topic pertinent to that edition. The most recent edition I was working on was about words and silence, and that led me to some musings on musical sound and silence.

It seems in society today there is always noise, and then we make more noise to compensate for and cover over the existing noise. Some examples could be: talking during the previews at the movies, or visiting at social events while there is background music, or playing music really loudly in your car to muffle the sounds of traffic. With instant communications these days, people don’t think twice about answering their cell phones in public places and carrying on one-sided conversations, or not being present to the moment, but being distracted by technology.

So, how does the issue of sound and silence apply to church services? For many people, coming to church is a social event. They see people they often haven’t seen in six days or more, therefore there is some catching up to do, there are always pastoral concerns to be addressed, and business discussions. But, when are these things most appropriate? In the foyer before the service? In the sanctuary during the prelude? During the sharing of the peace? After church at fellowship time? Where should there be sound and where should there be silence? 

For many musicians, talking during instrumental music can be a real pet peeve. Although it often bothers the musician, it may also be distracting to those who are trying to listen to the music. Talking during music seems to happen in various denominations in many parts of the world perhaps because there are many places where it is permitted or even encouraged to talk over the music. However, there are many places that talking is not encouraged, yet sometimes audience members seem oblivious to the cultural rules. What about at a symphony concert? Or a choral concert? An organ concert? Or a musical? Once, a friend told me about buying expensive tickets to a musical she really loved, only to have the experience totally ruined by two people “catching up” on personal news during the entire performance as if they were at a coffee shop. In a massed-choir concert, I also witnessed two participating choristers who had been attentive to the conductor and to the Master of Ceremonies, decided to talk through an engaging organ solo played by one of the best organists in Canada. Why does this happen?

What about those musicians who work very hard at the instrumental music for worship services? Is the offering of their gifts an essential part of worship? Anything we offer to God should an offering of our best. What can we do to encourage church attendees to recognize this offering of musicians who are following their call to musical leadership? One non-United Church congregation I played for in Montreal moved me to a whole new level of expectation of what instrumental music could be during a service. They were an ethnic-based congregation and were wonderfully outgoing people until they reached the door of the sanctuary. Then, it was time for quiet while preparing themselves for worship, taking some moments for prayer, and they let the music help them in their preparation and inspiration. That congregation also expected me to write a half-page of music notes about the hymns, instrumental music or choral/solo pieces of the day. They were really attentive and really desired to honour the gifts of their musicians. Up to that point, I had never worked so hard at all the practical parts of a church position! I am so pleased that I’ve been encouraged to continue the tradition of writing music notes here at Robertson-Wesley. The notes are meant to assist with worship, education, and help people understand how the music fits into the liturgy. I write about the composers, background information about hymn texts, explain terminology, thank additional musicians, and write about anything else that might be pertinent to the music. I hope people who read it are able to better appreciate the selections of music that day, and I certainly know I learn much in writing the notes every week!

At Robertson-Wesley, I am really fortunate that many people feel the music and the liturgy go hand in hand to create meaningful worship experiences. Does that impact how we think about sound and silence here? 

Tammy-Jo Mortensen, M. Mus.

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