For the last two weeks, I have had the chance to talk with many of you about the role that music, and particularly singing, plays in our worship. In the adult formation class, we talked about the history of hymn singing and about reformers, lyricists and composers who contributed to the hymns we sing in worship. In the Episcopal 101 class, we learned that the English Choral School tradition made music a very important part of Anglican worship, and that some elements, like singing Psalms to Anglican chant and service of Choral Evensong, are uniquely ours.
One question that I was asked by several people after both presentations was, “How does the music for our services get selected?” The quick answer is that choosing music for worship is part of my job as Music Director. Thomas and Miriam certainly have the final say in what happens in our worship, and they occasionally might suggest a hymn that they think would work well with something they are preaching about, but nearly all of the music you hear has been planned by me.
I actually love this part of my job and take this task very seriously. As I plan music for a Sunday, I start by looking at the lectionary passages for the day. I read through the passages and begin to write down themes that I see. Sometimes a hymn or anthem immediately comes to mind because the words might have been taken directly from the passages appointed for the day. Other times, it takes a little while to look through hymn texts and find the words that I think will work well for a particular day.
There are many hymns to choose from as we draw from the Hymnal 1982, and two supplemental sources, Wonder, Love and Praise and Lift Every Voice and Sing. Thankfully, our denomination has asked some very knowledgeable people to come up with some recommendations for hymns on any giving Sunday. I look at these hymns as a place to start. Sometimes I find hymns on those lists that I think are perfect. Other times I am less satisfied and go searching for other ideas. In the end, I narrow the choices down to a handful of hymns.
At this point, I begin to ask myself several questions. “Are any of these hymns new to the congregation?” I try not to have more than one new hymn in a service?" “Is there a hymn that is joyful and would be an inspiring way to start the service” “Do any of the hymns have a more contemplative nature that might work best in the middle of the service?” “Do we have a variety of old hymns that we love and new hymns that will challenge us?” By the end of the process, my goal is that scripture, spoken word, and music will all work together to inspire us to take what we have learned out into the world.
The hymns we sing can be powerful ways for us to internalize what we believe. Setting words to music helps us to remember them. Hymns can also bring back memories of events, people, and emotions from times past. Hymn texts are often poetry, and as such, they have many layers of symbolism and meaning. All of this is really why we sing so much of our service. I think the first verse to one of my favorite hymns from our Wonder, Love and Praise hymnal sums up why our singing is so important.
As newborn stars were stirred to song when all things came to be,
as Miriam and Moses sang when Israel was set free,
so music bursts unbidden forth when God-filled hearts rejoice,
to waken awe and gratitude and give mute faith a voice.