Happy New Year, St. Andrew’s!
Yesterday I was leafing through my hymnal, looking for hymns to program for the New Year. I sighed as I looked through it, and caught myself thinking, “Now we’re back to the regular hymns.” But I didn’t want to approach hymn playing with such a lackluster outlook, so I set about looking for some interesting new ones to program for January.
Well, I got through three quarters of the hymnal and stopped short. Where were all the “interesting new” ones? Either I knew all of them already, or the unfamiliar ones didn’t seem as great.
At first this puzzled me but then it started to make sense. Of course all of the interesting hymns would already be familiar, since St. Andrew’s not only values traditional music but also values active congregational participation in it. Of course all of the best hymns would be utilized to encourage this!
It turns out that the combination “interesting and new” to describe a hymn rarely exists, unless you’re like my nerdy composer classmate who, instead of writing a cutting-edge 21st century mess of noise like the other composition majors, writes a hymn for his final project. And interest in hymns in a modern music school is a rarity, let me tell you!
I gazed out the window and mused on the common problem church musicians and clergy face today: How do we gain interest in old traditions when the culture at large doesn’t value maintaining tradition? How do we enliven things so that people’s interest is captured? Will people feel coerced by our efforts to get their attention, as if we’re trying to advertise to them like a franchise? Is it necessary to enliven things and “make them relevant” as the popular phrase goes? And more importantly, is there a cost to changing old, beautiful traditions, perhaps at the expense of that beauty?
I haven’t arrived at a straightforward answer to these important questions. I don’t think other church musicians and clergy have either, as the tension between old traditions and modernity has never been greater. However, it’s definitely worth pondering.
To bring my hymnal leafing turned existential crisis back to hymns, I do think there’s some practical things we can do in the midst of pondering this question. From my end, I attempt to engage the congregation by playing around with familiar hymn tunes such as Old Hundreth or Kingsfold when I improvise during the Sunday prelude.
From your end, I’d like to ask you: what are YOUR favorite hymns, and why? If you have the time, I’d love to hear from you personally. Email me at email@example.com to tell me which ones you like and what they mean to you and I’ll talk about them in my next article. In the meantime, I’ll try to capture your ears by exploring old favorite hymns during service, so you can listen with a fresh ear!
Your Choir Director,