Thursday, August 9, 2018

What "The Church" Produced: The Disappearing Bass

I have vivid memories of growing up at my childhood congregation that bring me an overwhelming amount of joy and an overwhelming amount of wistful nostalgia.

One of the most vivid memories is how the men in the congregation used to represent during the songs and praise.  The men whose voices were naturally in the lower register were trained well by our worship leaders to sing the bass section of the songs. But there were two brothers that knew more than what they were taught. One had a booming, melodic voice that resonated throughout the sanctuary. The other one was to me a bass savant - flowing with syncopated runs and "flatted fifths" that I have not heard from ANY man singing bass in worship service before OR SINCE.

Those two brothers were my master class in singing bass and my initial introduction into music theory. I received a master class in leading the music of worship from them as well, but I focus on the bass for a reason. I learned in my childhood that the bass voice in the assembly dynamically sets forth a sonic spiritual picture of strength, solidarity, godly manhood, and readiness for spiritual warfare.

Fast forward to today. When I sit in worship, I wonder where all the bass singers have gone. Even in a recent service at a sister congregation, one of the worship leaders during a particular song had to blurt out, "This is a battle song, brothers...where are you at?"

And that's where we are in 2018: having to sound out a call for brothers during a song to see who is ready to fight musically and (if at all possible) harmonically.

This is not an isolated issue, as the typical choir in Protestantism houses and highlights soprano, alto, and tenor voices...but rarely, if ever, bass ones. That's where the instruments kick in to fill in the dead time...or become highlighted themselves with guitar solos. Even as my voice changed to a much lower register when I was younger, I wrestled with self-acceptance through my self-proclamation of being "a tenor in a bass' body". The reality was that I wanted to do both tenor AND bass. That's not a bad thing. But my own experience helped me to understand more clearly the dominant presence of the song/worship/praise leader.

There is a cause-and-effect dilemma that I would like to introduce. This might not be universally true, but the latent truth of this statement is undeniable: as the song/worship/praise leader's influence tends to increase, the bass voice tends to decrease.

What some men who sing bass in worship sometimes feel like...
that is if they don't have a mic.
Most every brother has at some point secretly wished to be gifted/anointed vocally to lead a congregation in song, much like most every brother has at some point secretly wished to be gifted/anointed to preach a sermon that generated successive choruses of amens. It's the human side of happens. For those who are the vocally gifted ones entrusted with the leading of worship music, there oftentimes is not enough wherewithal to nurture and train men in the lower register to understand the necessity of their voices in the congregation. Not only that, but these gifted ones are often oblivious to any potential to help their brothers appreciate how their voices can harmonically blend in with the others.

But this is only a microcosm of our musical quandary with song/worship/praise leaders. As YouTube is propagated each month with videos of brothers possessing sick runs and mesmerizing range, and as their names are bandied about to secure their services across the country in near celebrity-like fashion, the emphasis to elevate the musical abilities of the not-so-gifted somehow gets lessened. The natural byproduct of this is more brothers trying to hang with the song/worship/praise leader and parrot what he does, instead of (to borrow slightly from Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson) knowing their roles and opening their mouths. Or worse...the song/worship/praise leaders leaving segments of the congregation the bass.

Let me get down to brass tacks. Making a case for praise teams, bass mic(rophone)s, or multiple and individual song/worship/praise leaders is not what the issue is here. The issue is when praise teams, bass mics, multiple song/worship/praise leaders, or even individual song/worship/praise leaders believe their own hype (and yes, it DOES happen), get caught up in their own praise (and yes, it DOES happen), and make assumptions and draw conclusions about the quality and/or follow-ship of everyone else's praise...yet fail to directly assist in the musical participation of all in the assembly. Those who sing in the bass register are usually the first to get kicked to the curb and the first to get called on the carpet.

Kicked to the curb, you say? Indeed so. When the bass leader beat-boxes, improvises on the fly, or even hits ridiculously low notes that James Earl Jones would envy, how can the brother who has not even come close to mastering the original or colloquial arrangement of the song keep up? If he is not even remotely inclined in a musical fashion, he may end up lost, confused, fending for himself in off-key ways, or simply being a passive "participant" listening to everyone else...which is what praise teams, bass mics, multiple song/worship/praise leaders, or individual song/worship/praise leaders are supposed to be there to prevent.

The truth of the matter is that the average member runs the risk of getting caught up in the rapture of musical or vocal "excellence" to the point of valuing talent over corporate purpose. And what is the corporate purpose? To foster and facilitate a mutually shared, mutually invested, and mutually inspiring worship experience through song.

So how do we begin to resolve this quandary that could, like the Jedi in Star Wars, signal the return of the bass register in full force and, like The Force, bring balance to the musical reality of the Kingdom?

Have Bible teachers and preachers undergo an education on the theology of the music in worship...AND teach their members on it. For decades, specifically in the African-American "fellowship", there has been a void in importance of understanding why the music of worship should be taken with great care and in all seriousness. It can and should go much further than the age-old "war of the worlds" on whether to have or not to have instruments in worship, or the relatively new contention between traditional and contemporary. How about tackling the idea of waging spiritual warfare musically, just as David did with his psalms (Psalm 91)? Or celebrating deliverance through music, much like Moses and the nation of Israel after the Red Sea crossing (Exodus 16)? Or perhaps the indulgence of a joyful spirit, reflecting the words of James (James 5.13)?

Music is a powerful medium for all humans, and God designed it so that worship and music are virtually inseparable. Preachers and teachers must understand how dynamic music worship can bring about dynamic life-changing results long after the closing prayer. But more importantly, they must set this idea forth in the minds of their flock so they will not only appreciate this God-given emotional and intellectual vehicle, they will anticipate new spiritual heights before walking into the assembly on Sunday morning (and, if it still applies, Sunday evening).

Stress the need for vocally gifted song/worship/praise leaders to be educated in (a) music appreciation, (b) music theory, (c) vocal training...well, all of the above and MORE. The parade of ill-equipped, unprepared brothers having to put the brakes on a hymn halfway through a refrain, for example, has run its course for way too long. But what has been unforgiveable in my humble opinion is the enabling by church leaders, offering misguided statements such as, "He's doing the best with what God gave him"...or the more reprehensible defense, "We covered that in training class." If church leaders are not musically equipped (yet under the delusion that they have some rudimentary technical background) or fail to position a brother to improve on what his current personal best might be, then the larger message to the brothers in the congregation - and the entire congregation for that matter - is that inspiring worship is not a priority at all.

But for the vocally gifted, riding on ability alone is just as subpar. With the wealth of music resources available within secular and spiritual circles at the virtual tap of a finger, not having basic music principles or fundamentals is simply inexcusable. Church leaders should strongly encourage men who function in this worship capacity, be they gifted or not, to seek instruction on pitch, tempo, musical terminology, time signatures, vocal dynamics, vocal care, and public speaking, just to name a few.

Better yet, church leaders should commit a certain portion of the church budget for this purpose and...wait for it...send these men to a worship seminar or music workshop where they can acquire, implement, and sharpen their skills. In real time. With honest criticism and expert feedback. I can honestly tell you that the women of the congregation will thank you later for the focused financial investment into your song/worship/praise leader(s) today.

The late Melvin "Blue" Franklin of The Temptations...a true subterranean bass.
Avoid the temptation to self-promote or self-anoint to the point of forgetting your corporate purpose. I saw a flyer from a congregation announcing a revival in which they had invited had two guest "psalmists" to lead the worship music. The last time I checked, a psalmist is one who composes or writes psalms. Forgive me for being blunt here: I would estimate that 95% of the song/worship/praise leaders in the Kingdom do not qualify (and I'm being conservative with that percentage).

A psalmist can definitely be a song/worship/praise leader, but a song/worship/praise leader is not, by definition or function, a psalmist. Holding a hymnal/reading a projector screen and starting a song is the surface being polished. Freestyling vocally just because you can doesn't get you any closer. And carrying a manufactured air about you in either position when a label is misapplied only makes the atmosphere around you stifling and unbearable.

In certain communities (specifically the Black community), those who sing well in churches are given what I'd like to call "church cred". They may get prestigious invitations throughout the brotherhood, be welcomed as a guest vocalist on recordings by singing ensembles, or even become a sought-after commodity to "teach" congregational singing to churches. If a brother in this situation is not humble or grounded, it will lead to him expecting a higher level of "church cred" - often exposing itself in manufactured swag, grandstanding, and presumed Black Card-level entitlement or handling. I've run into those individuals many times. YouTube only further inflates his head to the point that psi measurements become pointless.

Don't misunderstand the point. What I'm not suggesting is that it is inappropriate to post YouTube clips of your music leadership during worship services. That is a wonderfully helpful way to use technology to inspire or encourage people on a global scale to worship (or enhance their worship) outside of the sanctuary. Nor am I suggesting that you should turn down invitations to be a guest song/worship/praise leader. What I am suggesting is to keep your well-meaning or not-so-well meaning spiritual siblings from putting you on a pedestal so high that you can't climb down, especially if a congregation that is "less than the least" seeks out your ministry to aid them in some musical way.

In other words, check your  "church cred" at the door...and lose the claim ticket.

The bass singer's "secret sauce": the mixing board with an equalizer.
Stress the importance of congregational "four-part" harmony without becoming a church music legalist. Four-part harmony is nice to have but takes work to get...and it's worth it. The overwhelming problem is churches don't work hard enough to achieve and maintain it. Learning music takes time, but it also requires an effective approach. And the most successful approach to learning songs is repetition. From the studio to the car stereo to the front row to the front pew, this is a universal truth. But here's the rub: once you learn a song wrongly and repeat it to the extreme, it becomes a laborious challenge to undo the damage.

So there needs to be the patient yet strategic approach to help a congregation learn songs in their natural vocal range. What Keith Lancaster has done with the Praise & Harmony Workshops is proof positive that those with no vocal or musical background can know what to sing and how to sing it if shown what to do and how to do it. With this and other effective methods, we can better outfit men to sing in the powerful bass register instead of having 50 men creating an echo chamber by mimicking or copying what the song/worship/praise leader does, note by note.

As an aside to this point, I stumbled across one of our brethren offering his Siskel-and-Ebert-styled critique on church hymnals. He stated in one of his songbook "reviews" that a particular one was too heavy on "one-stanza numbers having a set of seven, often touchy-feely, words sung eleven times to a new age melody"...songs which, in his opinion, are "useless for congregational worship". With this rationale, I wonder if Paul and Silas were able to remember every "stanza" in the songs they were singing at midnight, and whether their time was useless. Oh wait, that wasn't "worship service"...and they didn't have what...were...they...singing...?

Surprisingly, many churches and leaders don't even know what this piece of equipment is. (Spoiler alert: it's an amplifier...)
But does it matter? The point is for the assembly to sing...not to sing with superfluous conditions attached to the activity, conditions that are based on a dominant (or predominant) ethnocentric influence or perspective. In other words, no one segment of the church population has the authority, and should not have the audacity, to prescribe something "useless "when it actually has more impact and relevance than some songs written in near antiquity. That includes the ultra-conservatives among us. This is not to say that older songs lack meaning; in fact, some have more relevant significance than some newer ones. But it's not about the age of the song; it's about whether that song has the ability to inspire the assembly to worship, draw near to God with their entire being, and serve the Lord authentically - starting with the closing prayer.

So for those who want to legislate on the "usefulness" of a song in a hymnal or on a screen - especially when questioning its scriptural basis - take heed lest you become so rigidly self-justified in your stance to where you forget or distort the purpose of the assembly coming together. And if you want to offer reviews, at least use an acceptable and divinely-guided standard that is not biased by some subjective, carnally-driven preconception.

Say what you want about least they have that one nailed down...minus the divinely-guided" part.

Realize that worship innovations improvements upgrades are not (and should not be seen as) the end-all and be-all of corporate praise. Let me be clear: I believe there is a place for praise teams in the church. The concept is over 40 years old, but is just now making inroads to certain congregational environments. However, regardless of how new or fresh a particular approach is or appears to be, that doesn't make that approach the hands-down best thing since "moving pictures" with sound.

I recall the first time I witnessed a praise team in person. The leader of the team made it crystal clear that their purpose as a team was to teach new songs in each person's voice more effectively. I appreciated that statement because one of the most challenging things to do in ANY church is to introduce new worship songs. So praise teams have their place. And to be even clearer, the place where the praise team can effectively be used is to teach new songs outside of Sunday worship so that they can be sung in Sunday worship and other gathering times. "Teaching" songs during Sunday worship will open up the Bermuda Triangle for more brothers to vanish...and that's just for starters.

Although I believe there is a place for the praise team in the capacity of music training for Sunday worship, there is still another hurdle. There isn't enough lasting repetition in a praise team "session" for people to overcome delayed memory recall for the next time the team chooses to sing that particular tune. So if the praise team is there to allegedly teach songs in corporate worship, yet the songs can be more effectively taught outside of worship with strategic repetition (read: compact disc, mp3), and the success rate for melody retention (I just came up with that) is at an arguably higher percentage using strategic repetition than the sporadic occurrence of the same song by the praise team, then what purpose does the praise team serve inside of the worship service? Or better queried, what is there left to teach or lead? I'm just asking questions here...

The crux of the issue is this: it isn't necessarily about a song being too "contemporary" or "traditional", or whether you do or don't have a praise team, but about having the proper method to teach the songs to the members so that the full import can be embraced by as many members as possible.

Now that I have your attention,'s not that kind of blog.
By "full import", I mean embracing it vocally and meaningfully. Spirit and understanding is how the Apostle Paul put it (1Corinthians 14.15). That can be communicated effectively through a praise team, a brother on a bass mic, multiple song/worship/praise leaders, or one song/worship/praise leader. It's not all about the method necessarily; it's about the purpose, preparedness, and spiritual impact.

Some may be reading this and feel that I'm targeting praise teams. That's far from the truth. I'm targeting future "sacred cows". If we haven't learned anything from the advent of the song leader - or any methodology that can possibly be perceived as "traditionalistic" - we should have learned that the ends don't always justify the means. We also should have learned that methods change with time and should be modified within reason, expediency, and adherence to theological principles.

Anyone becoming elitist or imperialistic about advancing the new worship developments should be warned lest they become the millennial or Gen-Y version of their early 20th Century predecessors who struggled with installing Radio Shack-quality mics on their pulpits. For these people, the advent of worship upgrades in this current worship season can become an idol, a crutch, or a thing to which people can be irrationally and/or emotionally attached. Just like the one-man "praise team" (read: song leader).

We're all striving to offer more perfect praise. So no one has arrived yet. Nobody has crafted the perfect worship environment. And no one should try to look at others who are not on their page of the worship mail-to-order catalog as backwoods, red-headed stepchildren.

And while I'm at it, here is something for free...for all of us...

Stop stealing. Another one of my vivid memories of growing up at my childhood congregation was the song pages pasted to the inside covers of the hymnals. Even at a young age, I remember seeing the © symbol (that means the song is copyrighted) with the phrase, "All rights reserved", at the bottom of every "sacred selection". Unfortunately, these songs were never sacred enough to scare church leaders and members alike away from the Xerox machine (or mimeograph, depending on which era you grew up in).

Church music piracy takes on many forms - illegally copying sheet music, illegally singing these works in public worship service, illegally creating projection slides, and yes...illegally recording the services with those songs being sung on an audio source or uploading them to YouTube. Whenever this is done, the composers, publishers, and artists receive less money from their creative work. Being a survivor of church music theft myself, it is a very distressing experience to have your intellectual property hard work lifted without your permission.

Yes, even YouTube draws the line at some point...
The argument from some people becomes, "Well it all should be for the Lord, and you should not be trying to make money off of churches for wanting to praise God with the music He blessed you to come up with. It's selfish and greedy to not share your songs for free." I'd like for those same people to tell that same fairy tale to Stanley Steemer when they want the sanctuary carpets cleaned, Guitar Center when they need updated sound equipment, and Costco when they need fresh rotisserie chickens for their potlucks. And some of the people providing these products and services are literally in the body of Christ.

That dog simply won't hunt. In a world where Max Lucado has earned millions for his written publications on Biblical topics, I'm quite sure no one has taken him to task for not shipping his books for free to every congregation that wants to read them. And those who claim that getting rich off of royalties is the issue behind the cries against ecclesiastical bootlegging are missing the issue and, dare I say it, turning a tone-deaf ear to the Word of God (1Cor. 9.7-14; 1Timothy 5.18). Pun intended.

Of course this narrative runs deeper, since many pious churchgoers have more than a few cassettes and CDs with the words Maxell, TDK, and Memorex emblazoned across, holding dubbed versions of albums by their favorite Christian artists. Making personal mixtapes for your own use is permitted when you bought the music outright; becoming your own pro bono music distribution company for friends, family, and the congregation takes money out of the pockets of those who created and produced the music. And it's illegal.

So what should every church do to keep from becoming "thieves in the temple"?

I introduce to you four letters: CCLI.

In other words, get a copyright license to make sheet music copies, sing songs in public worship without watching your back for the Library of Congress, and upgrade your EasyWorship repertoire. And CCLI is just the tip of the iceberg. That's the starter kit. There's much more to this than meets the eye. And if the eye can be trained to read shaped notes on top of this, an elevated musical hope has the chance to spring eternal...or at least a little closer to everlasting.

We as a whole just need to insure that, in the words of hip hop legend Rodney O, all of the bass voices in the congregation can have a similar everlasting that we "can't get enough of".


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