It was a hot and humid July afternoon in Washington, DC. I was so glad to hide in a cool, vast, neoclassical sanctuary of the National City Christian Church. Not only me. There were over a thousand of us, church musicians, members of the American Guild of Organists. Church musicians are typically trained to take care of all aspects of musical life in a church: playing the piano and organ, conducting vocal and instrumental ensembles, teaching music to adults and kids, singing, arranging, composing, planning music, etc. The majority of us who came for the National AGO Convention chose to participate in that particular event at the Christian Church that day. Why? Because it was a HYMN Festival. We do so many things at our churches, but we rarely get to sing as congregants. And we all miss that.
Bruce Neswick, one of the finest church musicians of our generation, along with the National Brass Quintet, a handbell ensemble, percussion instruments, and approximately a 50-piece choir, led a sing-along of some of the best hymns ever written, interspersed with sacred compositions and well-suited fragments of Scripture. I knew it would be good. We all did. But what happened next transformed my life as a church musician.
The full house of trained musicians (standing room only), led by the choir, organ and brass ensemble, sang in unison the first verse of "Christ is Made the Sure Foundation" (to the tune of Purcell's Westminster Abbey). I got butterflies in my stomach. Next, we divided into 4-part harmony, perfectly executed. It brought tears to my eyes. Then only women sang. Then men. Then we reunited in unison for the last verse. My whole body was overtaken by an overwhelming tremble. For over an hour I could not stop my emotional and physical response to what was happening. I was transformed. For the first time in my life, I felt that I fully, wholeheartedly, and physically understood what it means to SING A HYMN.
From then on I have not stopped striving to recreate this experience in my own hymn playing. Leading a hymn from the organ or piano requires good preparation, experience, knowing the lyrics of the hymn, understanding the room and its acoustics, etc. But there is one more variable that changes every time. And it is YOU.
When I start playing a hymn I want to make sure you understand what it is going to be about. Are we singing about the glory of God, a particular event from Christ's life, His Love, Wisdom? Are there darker verses in the text? Is there a story line? Where are we going to start and how should we feel when we end? The opening hymn every Sunday is to collect you. To bring you from whatever you were doing all week and unify your voice. The closing hymn is to collect you again after you listened to the sermon, prayed and pondered on life. You are ready to be unified again and to be sent off to the world. This is a blessing, until-next-time, and Good Word for the week. A reminder that you are a part of something larger, that you are not alone.
And now to the variable. YOU. When I prepare the hymns before every Sunday I decide on the sound combinations and musical ideas I want to use. But I often adjust my playing to the "temperature" of the room. There are days when I feel that you need extra energy, and I provide it if needed. And there are days when you sing so powerfully that you lift me and the organ up. The way a hymn is played and sung is not arbitrary, rather we all partake in its creation. I lead and you lead - we have a conversation, the energy floats in a continuous loop between us. You and the organ are a vessel - we let the Holy Spirit fill it up.
Since I started working at Pinnacle, there were many times when I had that sense of something happening, energy shifting, Holy Spirit dancing in the room during our congregational hymn singing. I live for these moments.