Sunday, August 5, 2012

Christian Notes

Today's musing is about the Christian notes.
       I recently played piano during a church service at my home church. I was asked to play during the offering. My church often uses the time that the offering is being taken as a time to show off the talents of the younger generation in the church. Kids who can sing, play the piano, do a sketch, play the flute, etc. Will often get opportunities to perform in this slot. I am not a child, but it's not children-exclusive, it's just a time for those with musical talents to show them off and it keeps the congregation entertained while the offering plate is going around. I guess adults don't usually do anything because adults give up on their talents after they turn 18 or something, so all that's left is kids, and they're usually cute, so it doesn't matter how well they perform.
       I was asked to play (they approached me) and I asked what kind of piano solo they wanted. The lady who coordinates the music said just something interesting that showcases my talent was fine, and they wanted a piano solo. She said "just do what you do," which I would assume means, "I (or we) don't have that much of a preference, as long as it's something you enjoy and you think the congregation would enjoy."
       The piece I played is called "The Central Avenue Drag" by Pete Johnson. It's got a strong blues riff continuously moving in the left hand with right hand improvisations over it, and it's a really great piece. It's a piece I had worked on perfecting for the last 5 months or so, and I had performed it recently at the Steinway Piano Gallery in Milwaukee.
      The response of the congregation when I finished playing was wonderful, people were very impressed, and I got lots of positive feedback after the service was concluded.
       About 2 or 3 weeks later my pastor pulled me aside to talk to me after a church service, and in as gentle a way as he could, he told me that my choice of music wasn't appropriate. He said that jazz music isn't something that's "appreciated" at our church, and in the future I should pick something with more of a "churchy" feel.
       Up to this point, I think that he probably was just saying this because one uptight old person must have been superstitious about jazz music, and must have complained, so he was trying to keep everybody happy. And frankly, it's his church, if he doesn't want music that's not explicitly related to the church or to God, that's his preference. It would have been nice if someone had told me beforehand, but I would be happy to comply with his demands.
       Then he said something that really bugged me, he said: "Or, since the offering is a time when we can stray a little bit from the strict churchy vibe, even a classical piece from like Beethoven or Mozart or something like that would be great, it doesn't have to be a hymn."

.........That makes it personal, and I will tell you why.

       Now the problem is genre, and not content. Instrumental music is an oddity, because there is no explicit message that is plainly obvious to the listener in the music. There may be certain musical ideas and tidbits that can suggest certain themes, I will grant that. But, that piece I played did not portray any particularly explicit theme as far as I can tell. It's a fairly generic blues riff with the title (which no one ever knew until they asked me, by the way) of "Central Avenue Drag." It could be about anything. It could be about walking down an avenue looking for skanky whores a protagonist could hire for the purpose of prostitution, or it could be a song about strolling down the main road in a heavenly city, just feeling cool about basking in the glory of God. It depends completely on the imagination and interpretation of the listener.
       Because my pastor said that a secular piece by Beethoven or Mozart would be fine, says to me that he's not overly concerned with the content of the music or the message it might convey, he's concerned with the genre. Obviously it doesn't matter that Mozart's requiem before his death was about his great fear of the Almighty and what might await him in the afterlife because he wasn't a man of faith. It doesn't matter that Beethoven was very crude and risque, and was excommunicated from the Catholic church.
       All that matters is the centuries-old superstition of one of the members of the congragation that certain notes, intervals and chords are unholy.
       Honestly, when I use the skills of analysis I've gained through my knowledge of music theory to carefully inspect the differences between a Beethoven sonata and my Pete Johnson drag (something 99% of the congregation would have a very elementary understanding of at best), that's the difference. They use different notes, different rhythms, different intervals, and different chords and chords progressions.
       I am a person of faith, but I'm not superstitious. I don't believe that certain intervals or notes or chords are evil. One of my good friends has a saying he shared with me when he discusses this topic with people which I love: "If you can show me which notes on this guitar are the Christian ones, I'll be happy to oblige in playing only those notes."
       I believe that the Christian church today is plagued with overwhelming irrational superstition, in music and many other areas. I refuse to cater to or endorse that superstition, it's unhelpful, narrow-minded, and unbiblical.
       I'm not upset with my pastor, he has the right to run his church however he wants. But the next time they ask me to pick out a piece that reflects my tastes and abilities to play in church, I'm not going to play, because they clearly don't want me too. My love of music, and yes JAZZ music of all genres (does anyone still remember when that was a curse word?) is not unbiblical, and I refuse to compromise my integrity by performing music that supposedly reflects my musicianship but is essentially a lie, because I don't want to offend or upset anyone.
       There is a great superstition about musical genre, and MANY many other things in the church, and I think it's time we moved past superstition, and start living in the truth of God's word.

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