Too much information

by vernsanders on March 25, 2009

At one time or another you might have used the phrase “too much information.” I tend to use it in the context of medical conversations, because, as my friends know, I don’t do medical conversations very well. First time I was aware I had a real problem was in summer school one year when I was trying to take a high school “science” class to avoid taking biology. Subject got around to the body’s circulatory system, and I found myself on the floor wondering why everybody was looking down at me (even as I type this I experienced a bit of the weak knee…).

In any event, I think that we are in an age of too much information…and it is not just because news about the latest celebrity failure, or surgery, or compromising picture is higher on society’s personal internal google than the arcanity of reasons why hedge funds got us into this economic mess and AIG is the linchpin around which our long-term financial security rotates…

Let’s talk about church music, can we? I can see, from my desk, a pile of choral anthems waiting to be reviewed that, conservatively speaking, is several feet high (not at the moment, because that’s not my filing system…but I’m sure I’ll get to that in another post). A lot of that music is good. Some of it is dreck. But there is no way to know which without someone I trust taking a long, hard look at each and every single tune, and making a decision. Do you see the irony here? There is no way we can keep up. It is no longer humanly possible for one person to have a life, and look at all this music at any level of detail.

So we (you) depend upon “experts” (like me) to look at this stuff and decide what is good and what is bad–in Bob Seger’s terms “what to leave in and what to leave out.” That makes me, with my reviewer hat on, in essence, a lobbyist, and isn’t that what got us into trouble in the first place (economically speaking)?

I hate to sound like the recurring scene of Carrie Bradshaw typing, but at what point do we take responsibility for our own repertoire choices? Do church musicians read music any more?

The combination of work overload, family responsibilities (even if that “family” consists of a single tabby), and…can we talk here?…paperwork, have made the “learn by recording” a seductive road more taken. Can I get a show of hands to see how many church musicians really (really!) sit with a piece of music and hear it in their head?

This isn’t altogether new, you know…in essence that’s what Mozart did as a child…show off his tunes by presenting them in public. Once other musicians heard them, his (in a manner of speaking) ASCAP royalties went way up. But really, now…is a car the most ideal place to make a decision about music to lead people into a worship relationship with the God of the universe?

I’m just thinking out loud here…

It’s on my mind because the next issue of Creator ( has, as the feature article, a conversation with a number of music publishers, and it is a great look at this moment in church music publishing history. We’re running a 198o interview with Don Hinshaw in the same issue, and the contrast is striking, and yet it is not.

The struggle between new and old music in the church has raged since at least the Ars Nova of medieval times. And I’m beginning to wonder if the kernal of that struggle has (continually) been intellectual curiosity, or the lack thereof. I know I have been guilty, from time to time, of “I don’t want to learn or teach anything new the next few months.” But I’ve also been a long-practicing excitable boy around “you’ve/we’ve got to do this new piece,”  and that has gotten me into trouble too.

And, in the meantime, I’ve avoided delving into the new anthem pile for another few minutes…

{ 8 comments… read them below or add one }

Shelley Reel March 26, 2009 at 4:46 am

Yes, I admit it! I use the recordings, but to be fair….how many of us, full or part time, doesn’t matter, have the time to sit and look at every piece that comes out? With the number of publishers of church music, every season comes with piles of new music. Now, I’m not about to glean through that pile and toss a composer I might not like, or take every piece of a composer I love without listening. Frankly, I can tell from the first few measures of a piece whether or not I want to go further. And yes, I can go back later and listen again and maybe hear something I didnt’ before, or even decide I didn’t like that piece as much as I thought. On the other hand, some of the choirs I hear, their pronunciations, sliding around pitches, is something less than desirable!(Shawnee Press—get a real choir, not Disney voices!!!) so, considering that pile you’ve got there Vern, do you have the time to sit and study each piece? If you do, you’re a better man than I am! With multiple choirs, multiple services, introits, service music, benedictions, special ensembles, drama, need I go on?–there’s no way I can check them all out. In fact, I put those recordings on as background music and sometimes something pops out to me. And Vern, I hate to do old music…I’d have a new anthem every week and actually, I do more new than old anyway. I say, those recordings are invaluable to me. So,I’ll just be a piker and take the easy way out.

vernsanders March 26, 2009 at 12:55 pm

I’m all for easy…but (you knew that was coming, didn’t you) I’ve heard enough bad demos to know that sometimes you have to look beyond that to find the real music in the tune, and I’ve bought some anthems based upon recordings that turned out to be…umm…let’s say “thin” in real life. No easy answer is there?

And…I want to be clear that I understand expediency and practicality…I do it myself all the time….

Don Hinshaw’s quote from his interview comes back to me though…

“I’d like to walk INTO (my emphasis) a reading session with just ten pieces that I really think are super good. It would be much more effective than turning out a hundred…a year.”

vernsanders March 26, 2009 at 1:09 pm

One more thing…the original posit of the post was that it makes me somewhat uncomfortable being an arbiter of taste because I have/take the time to look at all this stuff (well, almost all…I am sure there are things being published that I don’t see…it is the nature of the business right now). I was reading a blog post this morning by Todd Billingsley at that touches on this a bit, to wit:

“The primary culprit here is ourselves––aided and abetted by our culture. We live life at a frantic pace, striving for accomplishment and significance. Author Michael Spencer explains this as American Christians’ inability to “separate their theology from an overall idea of personal affluence and success American style.” We are so uncomfortable with silence that we have the TV or radio on just to fill the void. We’re uncomfortable being alone and silent, which is exactly when God speaks. So instead of being still and listening to God, we allow others to do our thinking for us.”

Bottom line…I lament, at some level…without being a Luddite or wishing for the 18th century…that the speed of life and the fact that the publishing machine maw just continues to spit out product, makes it almost impossible for anyone to be a “generalist” any more, and I believe that high/over specialization can make for intolerance of other options. We turn to those with whom we currently agree to get an opinion about what we should now also agree upon…


here we go round in circles…

Cort Bender March 26, 2009 at 12:39 pm

The only problem anyone has with your choosing music is the same as it has been — where 2 or three are gathered…….What is true for this exercise is that each person who directs an ensemble owes it to that ensemble to listen to new repertoire, read through a lot and determine what is best for his/her ensemble. So many times a recommendation from another comes from a source that doesn’t really know your group. AFter awhile, an individiual conductor is, or should be, the arbiter of what is best of his ensemble.

so many pieces, so little time…..

vernsanders March 26, 2009 at 12:55 pm

ain’t it the truth…

Janice Timm March 26, 2009 at 7:56 pm

At the risk of getting into the conversation just at the moment that I *don’t* have a choir… I do all of the above. Like Shelley, I pop those CD’s into the car and listen to them on my commute (30 minutes each way!). Not always – and I often will save them up for a long driving trip and my husband laughingly says “Do we have bad choral music to listen to?”

And, if anyone knows anyone anywhere, get a REAL choir, for goodness sake!

At first listen, regardless of the recording quality, I know if a piece will even hold my own ADHD attention – that is the first step after all, isn’t it? How can we bring people into God’s presence with the music if they are not listening to it?

I mark things, and then save them up again for a second and maybe third look. I believe that it is not good stewardship on my part to spend money on something that I will only use once. For me, an anthem or service music is not disposable.

And as for that stack that is three feet high just waiting for me to get back to the states… that stack has already been purged of texts that are not inclusive (hear this all publishers), or that have a theological perspective that really doesn’t mesh with my current church. Or that, in my opinion, are just pretty bad in general. That particular stack is waiting for the 2nd look, and then sitting at the piano with it.

My opinion — if you are directing any kind of worship leading group, then it is part of your job to search out new music (new music to you, at least, regardless of the style or period) and words and ways of expressing the inexpressible. On the flip side, if an anthem is not worth repeating, is it worth buying in the first place?

vernsanders March 26, 2009 at 10:55 pm

Janice- hope you are enjoying New Zealand…

I couldn’t agree more…except I guess I just have tried the listening in my car thing, and it doesn’t work for me. Judi and I once went on a long trip with about a three foot high stack, and she got pretty good at saying “nope, not that one.” I just find that the recordings (I agree, get a choir, for aesthetic’s sake, but, having been a music publisher, there is a limit to what one can spend to promote a piece that, if a 50 voice choir buys it, you might make $35) begin to sound the same after a while. I’m glad you take that second step, which I think is critical. Careful study, with your own group (musicians and congregation) in mind.

thanks for the post.

Nancy Ginsburg May 27, 2009 at 10:33 am

Okay, I’ll bite into this one, too.
I listen to the CDs on the road and I review the music. I actually listen for the pieces that make me want to get off the road and listen again. There are usually one or two a season. (That’s a lot of listening for a very few anthems. But it’s worth it!)
When I don’t have a review copy, I purchase one for review. It’s essential.
I am grateful for the singers. It’s always necessary to listen and then determine if the arrangement is suitable for the choir with which we are working.
The greatest point of frustration, for me, is the lovely many-piece orchestra and orchestration that sometimes “makes” the piece and then has no relationship to the piano/organ accompaniment provided.

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