December 2020 will be like no other holiday season we have seen in our lifetimes. Gatherings are limited, and singing is prohibited. We church musicians are accustomed to being extraordinarily busy during this time, often to the point of exhaustedly cranking out notes and crossing each musical concert or service off our list. This Advent and Christmas, my schedule is drastically reduced. Is this a loss? Yes, but could it also be a gift?
Paul Gerhardt’s hymn “O Lord, How Shall I Meet You” (ELW 241) comes to mind. How will I approach this season so that my music is a true gift to those who will hear it? This is an opportunity to be intentional in our music making. We all want our work to have purpose, but how often do we have time to think about it during this time of year?
Music does not need words in order to speak. Organ music can communicate powerfully, but without understanding, technique and interpretation by the player, the message falls flat.
When preparing a hymn, here are good questions to consider:
- Does the introduction invite people in? Even if people aren’t singing, they should be drawn in and be prepared for the mood of the text.
- Have I studied the text? Am I phrasing the hymn properly so that the musical sentences and poetic sentences make sense?
- Are my organ registrations appropriate for each stanza?
- Are there any creative enhancements I should add? While Prelude offers numerous alternate harmonizations, descants, and choral stanzas, consider both your current musical resources and for whom this musical gift is given. There is beauty in simplicity as well as in grandeur.
Organ voluntaries can connect the player and the listener in very meaningful ways. People will be comforted by hearing music that is familiar to them, but that doesn’t mean you can’t learn something new. I sometimes play two settings of the same tune, say one by Bach, Pachelbel, or Buxtehude, followed by one by a living composer. Perhaps this is the year to explore music from a certain country, by women composers, or by a local composer.
My gift to myself right now is restudying the Advent and Christmas chorales in Bach’s Orgelbüchlein. It is a devotional and musical practice that feeds my soul, while I remember my vocation as a church musician. Enabling the church’s song right now is different than it was just a few months ago, but with our intentionality, that song will go on.
O Lord, how shall I meet you, how welcome you aright?
Your people long to greet you, my hope, my heart’s delight!
Oh, kindle Lord most holy, your lamp within my breast
To do in spirit lowly all that may please you best.