I didn’t get along well with my first voice instructor at Florida State School of Music. Don’t get me wrong; I liked him. He was an interesting fellow. He told me countless stories that made me chuckle; many of them centered around his marriage. He proudly told me how he had been married for some 40+ years and announced this:
“We never once considered divorce… murder a couple of times, but never divorce!”
An old joke, I know, but it was new to me at the time, and I appreciated his efforts to make me feel more comfortable in his voice studio. Our problem was that his teaching style and my learning style never quite “meshed.” I spent a semester in frustration trying in vain to connect with the pieces he gave me, and he spent week after week trying to get through to me. It was a frustrating experience for both of us, and I ended up switching teachers at the end of my first year.
Nonetheless, I am thankful for the time he invested in me, and I have a few memories that stick out to me. Here’s one.
In the midst of another frustrating lesson, my teacher takes a deep breath and pauses. He seems to be thinking as he gazes out the small window of his office door. He strokes his beard for a moment and then looks at me. I am looking down at the music stand in front of me, hoping desperately that the notes on the page will sink into my subconscious, and then flow out of my vocal cords with ease. No such luck yet. Afraid to meet his gaze, I bite my lip and continue to stare at the stanzas in front of me, pretending to scribble notes in the margins. He decides to change the subject.
“You sing in your church choir, right?”
“Are you doing anything special for Easter?”
“Yes. We’re working on our cantata for Palm Sunday.”
“Are you doing any solos?”
“Yes!” I finally meet his gaze. “I have two solos.” I had been listening to the rehearsal tape for weeks and had been diligently practicing.
“Why don’t you bring those in next week? I’d like to hear them.”
I break into a big smile. Anything to get away from the Nymphs and Shepherds song I had been trudging through for weeks with no breakthrough.
The following week I bring the music. My accompanist plays the intro (we had practiced earlier in the week and she had complimented me!) and I launch into it. I finish to the sound of no applause. I was getting used to that around this school.
He made a slight nod of approval. “Your voice certainly blossoms with a song you connect with.”
See! I think to myself. I knew I didn’t totally suck.
Then he frowns.
“What bothers me is how churches are performing this mediocre music.”
My heart falls. Mediocre music? What?
I don’t remember his exact quote, but it was something pretty close to that. And at the time, I totally didn’t understand him. I was just offended that my singing was not being praised. I thought he was being super harsh and critical.
Now I get it. Now I agree with him.
In his world filled with Bach cantatas and Mozart requiems, this cheesy little church cantata I was bringing to him didn’t even come close. And it couldn’t. It’s really kind of unfair to compare the two.
I cannot recall the name of the cantata or the title of my solos. The melodies have since left my brain. I’m sure the composer worked very hard on that cantata and I honestly couldn’t come close to putting together a work of that magnitude. But my voice teacher’s question lingers in my brain.
Why are churches performing mediocre music?
In a world where four chord songs reign, it’s hard to find worship music that contains real musical depth. And as a worship leader working with volunteer musicians (and being a pretty mediocre guitar player myself), I understand the need for those easy to pick up four chord songs. But does this have to be all we’re doing?
As much as I never thought I would admit it, sometimes I miss those difficult, sacred pieces I used to perform in music school. Those demanding melodies that required hours of practice and work. I spent hours upon hours perfecting pitch and getting tone just right. I can’t say I’ve ever done that for any worship song.
If worship is all about giving God our best, then why aren’t we doing that?