This week, Jane Knappe, Augsburg Fortress Event Coordinator interviews David Cherwien, Cantor at Mt. Olive Lutheran Church, Minneapolis, MN, and music director for the National Lutheran Choir.
Jane: What keeps you doing what you do?
David: Who knows? The spirit of God, I think. One thing - is the parish I currently serve. Everything we do is so deeply meaningful to them it really makes me want to work harder. It's also very rewarding to know that the efforts I put out are greeted with such intense understanding and meaning. Paul Manz called it a circle of energy (and I think of it more as a spiral). I present to them thoughtful preparations, they receive and use them, which comes back to me and energizes me more and the spiral grows.
What do you do different today than 10 years ago?
It's funny how recent 10 years feels to me now. 10 years ago I was exploring more various musical styles for congregational song. It's what we were supposed to do. I find myself retreating from that a bit, and encouraging, nurturing, blessing the cultures from which I and many come which seems to be less popular right now - particularly European and Western classical music. That's not to say that I don't enjoy other styles, or music of other cultures - those are also important for us to participate in, and to learn about - but I find that we tend to look over the fence first before nurturing and blessing the side we're already on. I also felt that things were often more novelty and entertaining than true expression, although that isn't something I would say is always absolutely the case. It just was where I was.
What are simple ways to grow a worship and music program?
I believe it starts with two very important approaches:
- Use the resources you have WELL - which usually translates to doing less, and doing that better. The greatest limitation church music has is preparation time with the church's volunteer musicians - but if we plan for less, and plan the amount of time needed to adequately prepare better, they do better, and that is more enticing - both for its effectiveness, and for "recruiting."
- The other: Bless memory - even if their musical/spiritual/worship memories are not what particularly twirl our turbines. When people feel their memory is blessed, they are more open to receiving encouragement to grow into new. If we plan on singing "What a Friend We Have In Jesus" once in a while, they may be far more open to learning "Alabare."
Tell us about a worship event that made a difference in your life as a worshipper - one that was relevant, transparent, translucent, etc.
That’s an easy question to answer - it was a hymn festival by Paul Manz. At the time I was playing in a rock band - and had had pipe organ lessons, but had not yet discovered how those two backgrounds would converge. I heard this synthesis in what happened - Paul improvising, projecting deep meaning from the texts, and with music that was much more mature and deep than the stuff I was playing five nights a week. And the people were energized and responding from deep within them. Then we'd go back to the band, and pray someone would "break the ice" and dance. Oddly, I can remember many of the hymns from that ONE night, and can hardly remember any of the songs we performed night after night in the band. But at the hymn festival I saw in an instant that the improvisation and freedom from the band, translated into classical music of hymnody - and that people were responding with their souls and not out of a thirst for entertaining themselves away from reality.
How has the role of the choir changed since you have been directing (church) choirs?
I started out when LBW came out - 1978 - at which time we were encouraged to foster a liturgical role for the choir - leading the song, singing the propers, etc. But this was new to many of the singers - they were used to imitating the college choirs by singing big anthems, which were actually not something they could do well. The new role seemed more appropriate to me - we could custom design music that fit their capabilities like a glove - which is why I started writing things for them - week after week, and then I'd throw it away. Want to add one very important thing!!! I must include the choir's role as leader of the assembly's song as the most important thing. It's really the leader of song and not the presenter of the big anthem that was different when LBW came out - and that the propers could also be custom composed.
How has the role of the organ changed - or not?
I think Paul Manz revolutionized this as well. Now days more and more organists are approaching their work as organists more creatively as song leaders rather than being historians, through the organ literature played, and placing little emphasis on the hymnody and liturgy. I'm grateful for this shift, although I am grateful for the academic knowledge some are passionate with. I find more interest in being creative because that's my brain type.
What's the most frustrating element of your work?
I'm thinking it's safe to venture a guess that the one thing most church musicians will not miss once we retire is wondering who's going to show up for church choir the next week. And we have to grin and bear it. "Hey - look who came tonight? I'm so glad you're here! I remember when you came last year!" . . . . . Folks are busy, and choirs are not huge like we perceive they once were so when people are gone it really can hurt the sound. It's hard for us to have a consistent roster of singers to develop. But that's also the challenge - I usually find a direct connection between attendance regularity and the amount of work and preparation I put in myself. When I'm "winging it" during my own busy times, the singers get less interested. When I put a lot of effort into musical preparations, they tend to be more regular.
What do you wish someone had told you at your first church position?
To be more patient, to bless memory more, and not feel like the weight of the entire realm of God rested on getting support for my latest idea of what would be best for them. They're intelligent people (congregations), we should trust them more.
What do you get out of leading seminars, traveling to different events etc?
Seeing and experiencing what goes on in other places. Invariably, we’re all experiencing the same issues over time. In sharing that, we can find a lot of support for our trials. I also love meeting people. Some of my best friends I encountered in these kinds of contexts. I also love hearing stories of others' parish experiences.
What does a musician need that they probably won't learn in school?
All the things you just asked!