Wednesday Listening

Today I listened to the Symphony 7 by Antonio Dvorak for the very first time in my life. I had the opportunity to play violin II in the 8th symphony in All-State orchestra as a high schooler, and of course know and love the 9th symphony (New World). For whatever reason, however, I never have explored beyond those.

Folks, this is a worthy piece of music to invest some time in. IMSLP has several versions of the full score to follow along with – which is so helpful as an orchestrater to see how Dvorak builds and layers the colors he uses. Need examples of “dovetailing” between instruments? Here’s your piece.

The recording I listened to is a 1995 recording by the Czech Philharmonic that was available on Apple Music. Also on that recording is “Vodnik” – the Water Goblin. Beautiful and scary, and what a story… (Thanks to “That Classical Podcast” for the heads-up regarding Vodnik!).

God takes care of details

It’s amazing how perfect God’s timing is in medium-to-large issues as well as amazingly small details. This past Sunday in particular was one of those days where God’s providence stood out. Our wonderful drummer Alonzo was sick, but it happened to be a Sunday when my brother (a drummer and worship leader) was visiting with his family. Wow.
For me personally, I know that sometimes Sunday afternoon and evening can be a lonely time in the heart of church musicians. Was what we do effective, impactful, or not? Did it help to edify the congregation in worship? Is it even “ok” to wonder about that or is that my own pride and vanity coming into focus? (Or is it perhaps the lies of the Enemy looking for an place to take root?) Well… this evening I received two separate emails from members of the congregation – each with a word of Godly encouragement for the ministry of music that we provide in the worship services – never praising the music itself, but for the way that it lead us to hear, to sing, and to receive the Word of God in our hearts. This is encouragement for everyone involved in the CSPC music and worship ministry to hear!
I started this post thinking that supplying a drummer was the “medium” issue and the encouragement was the small detail… but now I think I may have had those items reversed. Either way, God has very practically reminded me of his timing, providence, and extra-personal “I-know-all-your-insecurities-and-still-choose-to-reach-you” grace abounding. The God who created the universe and breathed life into the cosmos cared deeply and personally enough to send a couple of emails and a drummer.

Book Notes: Marriage and the Mystery of the Gospel – Ray Ortlund

I recently finished reading Ray Ortlund’s book Marriage and the Mystery of the Gospel this week – and was freshly moved by Ray’s weaving together of the entire biblical narrative: God’s creation and Eden, the first marriage, the fall and our ensuing brokenness and sin, and the incredible grace of the Gospel. The second section, “Marriage in Genesis,” was particularly compelling to me – and I will be revisiting it.

I highly recommend this book.

Read my highlights here: Marriage and the Mystery of the Gospel – Kindle Notes

Worship Matters Quote…

This quote from Bob Kauflin’s Worship Matters struck me this week – I hope you find it helpful as well:

Although we never know exactly how people are going to respond during a meeting [time of worship], we tend to reap what we sow. If our leadership focuses on musical experiences, we’ll reap a desire for better sounds, cooler progressions, and more creative arrangements. If we sow to immediate feelings, we’ll reap meetings driven by the pursuit of emotional highs. If we lead in such a way that we’re the center of attention, we’ll reap a man-centered focus, shallow compliments, and ungodly comparisons. (Worship Matters, pg. 59)

Hymn: “How Sweet and Aweful is the Place”

How sweet and aweful is the place
with Christ within the doors,
while everlasting love displays
the choicest of her stores.

While all our hearts and all our songs
join to admire the feast,
each of us cries, with thankful tongue,
“Lord, why was I a guest?

“Why was I made to hear your voice,
and enter while there’s room,
when thousands make a wretched choice,
and rather starve than come?”

‘Twas the same love that spread the feast
that sweetly drew us in;
else we had still refused to taste,
and perished in our sin.

Pity the nations, O our God,
constrain the earth to come;
send your victorious Word abroad,
and bring the strangers home.

We long to see your churches full,
that all the chosen race
may, with one voice and heart and soul,
sing your redeeming grace.

– Isaac Watts. (Read more about this hymn at

Music Review: Let All Things Now Living, arr. Duane Funderburk

This arrangement by Duane Funderburk (mp3 and pdf sample) was our prelude for this past Sunday morning, and here are some takeaways:

  • The parts are well-written for each instrument – everyone playing will enjoy their contribution.
  • The parts are not for intermediate players – you need players who are advanced on their instrument.
  • You will need some rehearsal time to really achieve an ensemble with this piece – and it is well worth it.

Musically, this is an exciting arrangement that manages to stay true to the meaning and the spirit of the text. It also ends beautifully with a recap of some of the earlier musical episodes, finishing in a graceful andante. When used in a service of worship, this softer ending helps to defuse the tendency to applaud the skills of the players, and it instead helps the congregation to consider what the song is about, rather than how well it was played.

Mr. Funderburk has several other arrangements in this same series, and I look forward to working on them and using them in upcoming worship services.

Being articulate. >

For the last week, I have been working on the closing sequence of music for our upcoming Christmas program at Cedar Springs Presbyterian Church. The music for the program is celtic in style and is borrowed at least in part from my father’s 2003 album, “Irish Christmas.

When working day in and day out on arrangements, taking ideas and bringing them from the mind into notation, playing the audio on the computer and on the piano over and over and over again, it is so tempting to push towards the end and finish the piece! However, I have learned two valuable lessons as an arranger:

  1. Sometimes it’s best to walk away, rather than force a creative issue. I am not saying that creativity should only flow from us, and that it doesn’t require work. However,  we sometimes get stuck in a bubble and need to regain the perspective of the bigger picture. That means we give ourselves permission to say, “that’s one idea, and it might be fine, but I reserve the right to not commit to it at this point.”
  2. I have been living and breathing this music, but nobody else can hear that mental soundtrack. Getting the notes written on the page isn’t the end of the work. That’s like framing a house, wiring some lights and slapping some plumbing together and saying, “done!” It is now time to think through each part, considering the idiosyncrasies of each instrument, and communicate the details necessary to bring the soundtrack to life.

You might skip this next list if you are not an arranger – here are my steps to finishing the parts using Sibelius 7, and I do them in order to prevent having to fix things that I already fixed:

  1. Set the title, copyright info, composer info, and other global text items.
  2. Assign the rehearsal marks that would be the most helpful in rehearsal.
  3. Assign dynamics, slurs, and articulations for woodwind instruments. It is usually best to not use the “simile” indication – besides, it is trivially easy in software to assign articulations to large swaths of music. Use the Keypad to assign articulations, not the Symbols chart. Trust me.
  4. Now assign dynamics, slurs, and articulations for the brass and percussion parts.
  5. Now assign dynamics, slurs/bowing, and articulations for the strings. Match the depth of bowing information to the abilities of your players and the time you have for rehearsal. Generally, the more advanced the players, the less bowing info they will need. However, the more limited rehearsal time you have, the more bowing information is helpful. This assumes that you know what you are doing when it comes to bowing. If you don’t, it’s time to learn or find a string-playing friend.
  6. Would the parts benefit from a few well-placed cues? If so, go ahead and put those in now in the full score. (Home Ribbon: Paste as Cue)
  7. Go to the Parts ribbon and set the default Part Appearance page margins for All Parts – I typically need to give the bottom margin more space on the first page to accommodate the copyright text.
  8. Now open up each individual part and clean it up: Adjust the positions of the staves to minimize problematic page-turns and minimize the number of pages needed if possible. Watch for collisions and awkward spacings. If the stave spacing is jumping around in a part in a way that you don’t like, go to House Style: Staves: Justify when at least 100%. That will basically turn off the automatic spacing.
  9. Now go back to your full score and make it look the way you want. Feel free to “Hide empty staves” when you need extra room on the page. Think about page turns, upcoming instrument additions, etc, as you work through the layout of your full score. It is going to be your only tool in rehearsal, so you better think through the rehearsal process itself and what you are going to want to see at each moment in the music.

Good, articulate communication conveys information in an efficient manner. Mark Twain was quoted as writing, “I didn’t have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead.” When we musicians who are working as messengers of the Gospel give time and attention to detail, we are doing several key things: We are working hard to be faithful stewards of our own musical gifts, we are being respectful and considerate of the time and the talents of the musicians we are working with, and we are communicating the creativity, power, and joy of excellence when used for worship of God. It’s so much more than accents, slurs, up and down bows – it is our refined craft, and the knowledge that it is an offering of our heart to God, who deserves and demands our very best.

Download: The Church’s One Foundation

Here’s a new arrangement of the hymn “The Church’s One Foundation”, text by Samuel Stone, tune “AURELIA” by Samuel Sebastien Wesley. This arrangement was written for guitars/bass/drums, piano and organ. We sang it at Cedar Springs using the four stanzas printed, although you may choose to use different stanzas.

Click to download a PDF of this chart

Now for some background on this hymn, courtesy of the excellent book “The One Year Book of Hymns” published by Tyndale House. Samuel Stone’s ministry work during the mid 1800’s was located in the outskirts of London, near Windsor on the Thames. He was regarded as a fundamentalist and stood in opposition to the liberal theological tendencies of the day. He was also very protective of the people in his congregation, many of whom lived under the threat of violence from local crime gangs. Samuel was not afraid to take them on in order to shepherd his flock.

This hymn, and many others, was written when he was 27 years old as a part of a collection of hymns based on the Apostle’s Creed. Two years later in 1868, Anglicans gathered from around the world to discuss theological issues that were tearing the church apart. They chose this hymn as the processional for their historic conference.

– Adapted from “The One Year Book of Hymns” – August 15 devotional.

Just As I Am

Sunday’s music in worship was interesting – and not necessarily in a good way. We were having sound system problems and I got frustrated to the point of pulling out my fancy in-ear monitors and deciding to watch our drummer and listen for the pipe organ to get any sense of what was happening sonically.

Going through my head halfway through the second verse: “Ugh. This is not going well. I bet the choir is not happy. I bet our worship leader is about to explode… and why shouldn’t he? This is a mess. I can’t worship like this.”

And that’s when it hit me – I actually in the midst of a worship service, helping to lead a congregation, and I am allowing circumstances as meaningless as the operation of microphones and speakers to dictate whether or not I will worship and glorify God. “I can’t worship like this.” Those words stung and convicted. What in the world is my problem?

You could say that I simply want to offer my absolute best in worship – and while I certainly hope that is true, that was not the foundational problem this time. That would be a generous pat on the back to make me feel better. But I know better.

I want things to be right, because on some level, I want to be why they are right so that I can offer that “right”-ness to God. Then, maybe He will love me and be proud of me. I want other folks to experience something done well and know that they know I had a part in bringing it about. This is the ugly, jealous, and sinful heart of pride, and as a church musician, I am particularly vulnerable.

I am thankful that my experience in worship yesterday included enough problems to expose and convict me of my prideful heart, but not so many problems as to affect our congregation. I looked out and saw a congregation giving of themselves freely in worship, singing praises to God. Seeing them and the faces of the worshiping choir members helped bring me back to a place where I could again lift up my own heart to God, knowing that He loves me.

God convicts us just as we are – not so that we may remain broken, but so we may be emboldened by His love and power to put our whole trust and faith in Him rather than trying to fix everything on our own. God loves me, but not because I can offer anything or do anything special. I have nothing to offer except what He has already given me. As John Wesley says in his covenant prayer, I can be “used for Thee or set aside for Thee” – but in either case, it is to His glory. We are loved by God, and it is not because we have done anything to earn it. His love is simply extravagant. It is the cup that overflows.

Soli deo gloria – to God alone be the glory.


Passive-Aggressive Worship Wars

“I don’t like the electric guitars…(or the pipe organ)…”
“Oh, he’s preaching? I guess we will miss this Sunday…”
“I like it when she leads worship – she’s better than that other singer…”

“I follow Paul…”
“I follow Apollos…”
“I follow Cephas…”

For the past six weeks our pastor, John Wood, has been preaching through the opening chapter of 1 Corinthians. I encourage you to listen to or watch those sermons, starting with August 7, 2016, at

First, let me be clear: Paul is addressing the church in Corinth; he is not writing about the worship wars of the American church. He is talking about the foundational and counter-cultural message of the cross of Christ. As a prelude to this message, Paul has denounced the dividing of the Church that happens when people declare their allegiances to different leaders due to their particular gifting in rhetoric, personality, or other attributes. This is still happening today, and it is still frustrating and heart-breaking.

The other day I received a note in my box that complimented me personally on the music for the worship service the previous Sunday, and then noted that part of the reason it was better that day was that the electric guitar player was absent and “the voices could be heard.” In other words: I follow you, not that other musician. To get even deeper, I believe that the writer meant: I “worship” better when I get what I want.

While this is an isolated incident, it’s not nearly as isolated as it should be. It also points to the need for constant vigilance against division in the church, especially in the area of music. We all have our personal likes and dislikes about music, but the thing about our personal likes and dislikes is that they don’t matter.

Passive-aggressive attacks disguised as compliments reveal our hearts. They show us when we have taken music and made it into an idol. My very livelihood consists of serving as a musician of the church, but hear me say: do not worship the music, the organ, the guitar, the gifts of the singers or the style of the songs. Encouraging those who lead worship is a wonderful thing, but it is turned to evil when it contains words truly meant for division.

We are to work for unity in the Body – setting aside our personal preferences (which tend to be like a child who only wants to eat their familiar favorites) and embrace a larger vision of God’s kingdom. Music can be a wonderful part of worship, but it is never to be worshiped itself, nor are we to use it to split the congregation into factions. When we preach Jesus Christ crucified, we gain an eternal perspective and abundant joy, abounding in power and truth. Let that be our focus, and let that be our life.

Soli Deo gloria.