Monday, January 18, 2016

Music as a Meditative Practice

I went to the Taizé service that Robertson-Wesley hosted in November.
It was the first Taizé service that I had been to in a long time. And after the first chant, all the memories of why I love this style of service came flooding back to me. I used to attend Taizé services quite often, when I was in the midst of my undergrad degree. In those days, walking in to the quietness of the space, I brought in all the stresses and burdens of balancing school, jobs, and family. At the end of the hour-long contemplative service, I would walk out renewed, feeling a bit like a puddle – completely relaxed and lightened to start a new week with fresh eyes and a refreshed soul. 

What is it about a Taizé service that would achieve this rejuvenation in one short hour? Is it the dimness? The calm and quiet? The music? The heartfelt prayers contributed by anyone who wishes to pray aloud? The reading(s) in various languages? Perhaps it is all those things in combination? Of course, for a musician, the music plays a big part in any service. The simplicity of the Taizé chants, with repetition, often with a mélange of languages and harmonies is soothing for many. You can easily fit into the harmony, close your eyes and just sink into the text and the music in a different way than you can with a multi-verse, more complex hymn. I love complex music too, but this renewed experience of attending a Taizé service made me think again about the experience of music in worship. It got me thinking about other music for services which is simple but not simplistic.

Immediately a few centres that have created this style of music leapt to mind. Consider the short pieces of the Iona Community, many of which we have used at Robertson-Wesley in Sunday morning services. These minatures can act in the same manner that the Taizé chants do. They are short and carry a single message, can be used liturgically at specific points in the service, and can be easily linked to a theme, readings or sermon.

Thanks to Rev. Stephen Johann, a United Church minister here in Edmonton, I was recently introduced to the music of St. Lydia’s. This church was begun in 2008, and now meets in a storefront in Brooklyn, NY. It is affiliated with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and supported by the Episcopal Church. Some of the criteria for the music used in their services is that it is simple and can be taught easily, learned by ear, and can bear repetition. They also want to make sure that the music is communal, that it represents their theological language, and doesn’t require accompaniment to “work”. They have a song-book, and music is taught by a song-leader, but the congregation goes “paperless” to spend time sinking into the music and communicating with one another.

Gregory of Nyssa Episcopal Church is located in San Francisco, CA. While it follows some of the same parameters of the above worshipping communities, and most of the music is done without accompaniment of any sort, a variety of musical styles is intentionally chosen with a range of eras and styles in every service. They have a number of composers within their congregation that contribute to the repertoire of music used at St. Gregory’s. This is perhaps closer to our style at Robertson-Wesley. Any music, regardless of era or style is considered for use, as long as it fits with the theme, scripture, season or message of the service.

The conclusion that I came to in looking at all these centres for worship, is that there are many common threads in how they speak about music for worship. They all use melodies and texts from various parts of the world, and sing often in languages other than English. While some of these communities use longer hymns that carry more than one image, they all use shorter chants and repetitive pieces. They are all thinking deeply about language and theology, and how to involve people in communal music-making. Amen!

The next Taizé service at Robertson-Wesley will be Sunday, October 16, 2016 from 7-8 pm in conjunction with the Koinonia group.

For more information on each centre of worship:
Taizé -
Iona -
St. Lydia’s -
Gregory of Nyssa -

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