Thursday, December 27, 2012

Advice for Worship Leaders—from a Neopagan

On Christmas, Santa brought me an African sistrum, a kind of rattle, this one made with flattened bottle caps. 

Not having any experience with sistra, I turned to the all-knowing Internet and learned that these rhythm instruments are used in both pagan and Coptic and Ethiopian Orthodox ceremonies. Ethiopia’s falasha Jews also use the sistrum in their synagogues.

I found an instructional video by Sharon LaBorde, a Kemetic neopagan (km.t being the native name for ancient Egypt). In addition to demonstrating the proper wrist action and the ancient rhythm patterns for playing the sistrum, Ms. LaBorde had this sage advice. Experiment with your own rhythms if you want to, but practice them to get them right. “Nothing screws up a ritual ambience,” she said, “like missing a beat.”

There’s a word of wisdom for us who lead music in worship.
Spontaneity in music can be a wonderful thing, but when it goes awry it can “screw up a ritual ambience.”

I once attended an improvisation workshop led by the great organist Gerre Hancock (died 2012). He told us, Even the greatest improvisers practice their spontaneity. Improvise enough—by yourself or in ensembles—and you’ll begin to discover the things that work musically among the multitude of things that simply don’t. Improvising in groups helps to provide the feedback loop you need. You can sort out the moves that create a pleasant surprise in others from those that throw them off track.

Remember: worship music is about the congregation. Its purpose is to deepen the worship of the assembly. It is not about the emotional state of the musical performer. Thus, the need to stay predictable, seasoned with little surprises.

The right kind of surprise breaks the boredom of a seven-verse hymn without feeling intrusive. Such surprises must feel both fresh and inevitable, not shocking or out of place.

All this takes practice. So learn from the neopagan Ms. LaBorde. Whether your instrument is a simple rattle made out of bottle caps or a complicated set of whistles like the pipe organ, practice your spontaneity—and don’t screw up the ritual ambience. 

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