Tuesday, October 17, 2006

The Amen Factor

Perhaps you've noticed it, because I don't think it's just me. My sister and I affectionately refer to it as the "Amen Factor."

From my many years at the piano bench, I have observed a few patterns in the types of "Amens" offered after offertories or instrumental solos. I find it rather pathetic that in fundamental Christianity, where conservative Christian music abounds and people embrace God-honoring songs of worship, something as subtle as the Amen Factor exists. But I'm convinced it does. "So be it"--the phrase actually means, yet it seems that many who affirm "Amen" afer a special number in fact express something quite different. These observations I will attempt to explain.

First, there is the group I would term the Encouraging Ameners. These folks are just happy that the same old pianist isn't up there playing the offertory. No matter the outcome of the solo, the Encouraging Ameners belt out a loud affirmation. They are pleased, regardless of sound or message of a piece, for their most important concern is WHO is at the instrument. To them, the player is more important than the song that is played.

Second are the Wow-Factor Ameners. This group loves loud music. The more bombastic, the better. Especially important are running eighth notes in the left hand, full-fledged arpeggiated right hand runs, and Beethoven-like fortissimos throughout the piece, particularly near the end. Even if "The Old Rugged Cross" or "Silent Night" were played in this fashion, the group would undoubtedly chorus their hearty affirmation and, if acceptable within the church, break into hearty applause. To them, volume trumps all.

Third are the Toe-Tapping Ameners. Give them something with rhythm, and they're happy. A good old gospel song that gallops from start to finish proves particularly appealing to this variety. Speed means satisfaction, and satisfaction brings a hearty "so be it."

These, I feel, are the three most common categories of Ameners. One college professor of mine apparently noted a similar pattern, because when he was in college, he once played "Three Blind Mice," greatly embellished, for an offertory. His improvised version brought a united chorus of "Amens" from the listeners, who, duped by his incredible performance as a guest musician, merely accepted whatever he played for them. Perhaps the faded church pianist, from her perch in the second row that night, merely smiled inwardly, noting the Amen Factor.

Why is this the case? How can thinking people who pride themselves in taking a stand on conservative music "Amen" the performance or the performer? Are the Ameners in the house of God there to worship or to be entertained? Are they responding to truth or to feelings? "So be it" must be offered with the message of the song.

In my opinion, the listener who meditates on the words of the hymn, in his own heart offering an "Amen" as he reflects on the substance behind the song, is he who truly understands the spirit of "so be it." If all Amens were offered in this fashion, could we not all say "Amen"?

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Pride in the House of God: A Meditation on Playing the Piano in Church

Charles H. Spurgeon wrote in his Morning by Morning devotional for August 29, “We have need that the Lord should have mercy upon our good works, our prayers, our preachings, our alms-givings, and our holiest things….If mercy be needed to be exercised towards our duties, what shall be said of our sins?”

How often does pride hinder the work in the house of God! How frequently is that abominable sin employed in the instrumental music within the church! Does Pride, that sin which cast out Satan from before the throne room of God, also cause us to be offensive in His sight? When we play, “Holy, Holy, Holy” are we truly worshiping Him Who alone is thrice holy? Or is there a bit of self-worship within us that glories in an aesthetically pleasing sound which we are constructing instead of focusing on Him Who is the Creator of all that is good?

God resists the proud but offers grace to the humble. How much better to be one who has no musical ability, cannot sing on tune, is destitute of talent but who worships God truly from the heart than one who can play five instruments and does so in hypocritical pride! God esteemed the widow woman’s two mites; he valued the repentant publican’s prayer; He would have spared even Balaam’s donkey; but the rich men offered no real sacrifice; the Pharisee’s prayer was not heard, and Balaam, the prophet, would not have been saved had not his beast stepped away from the sword-holding Angel.

How needful for the child of God to be right with God when he offers worship to the Almighty! For pride is abominable in His sight and invites resistance from the God of Heaven. A humble and contrite heart, though, He will not despise, and mercy He will award the humble. So let us say, “Oh Lord, have mercy on the sacrifice of our holy things!”

When we are called upon to serve in God’s house, whether that be accompanying for a service, playing an offertory, singing in the choir, or completing some other sundry duty, may He sanctify our offering in the beauty of His holiness, for He alone is holy!

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

An Introduction to the Piano Teaching Ministry

I was fourteen when a middle-aged man in our church asked me, "Would you be willing to give my daughter piano lessons?"

I thought: "I'm not a very good pianist myself, but he wants me to teach her?"

I said, "Sure, I'd love to!"

And I really did want to teach piano. I loved children and especially wanted to teach. But piano? I'd barely practiced, and I hardly knew a stitch of classical music. But I loved to play hymns! That's why, two years before, when I was going into seventh grade, my dad (who was also the pastor of our small church) asked me:

"Heather, would you like to play for church--I mean, on Wednesday nights? Mrs. Conner isn't feeling so well these days and wanted someone to take her place on Wednesdays."

By eighth grade, I was playing for just about every service and loving every minute of it. Not that I was particularly accurate (especially below bass C). But I certainly had a fun time "playing...with a loud noise" (Psalm 33:3).

As a ninth grader teaching elementary kids piano, I'm quite sure I couldn't articulate my philosophy like I can today. But I did have one. It basically went like this: 1-They've gotta learn their notes. 2-They WILL practice (and I will check up on them, too). 3-I'm not making the same mistakes on them that my teacher made on me.

Well, seventeen years later, I am still teaching piano. Now, though, it's in a Christian school setting. We've done something a bit out of the ordinary at our school: that is, we've required all students 3rd grade and above to take piano lessons and play at a National Piano Guild audition in the spring. I have my one year at Ambassador Baptist College (Mrs. Christine Walters) and my four years at Maranatha Baptist Bible College (Mrs. Dee Thelen and Mr. David Ledgerwood) to thank for their help in the area of piano pedagogy.

But as in anything, those beginning years are like seeds that start to blossom and grow. Last year, I had the privilege of writing our school's piano philosophy. It reads:

Because we desire to perfect in our students Christ-likeness and a fuller understanding and appreciation of God’s world in order to be more fully equipped to serve the Lord, students at our academy are required to take piano, including completing 2 credits on the high school level, in preparation for life and ministry.

A certain number of high school guys have had their groans about this particular stipulation / credit requirement. But our administrator (my dad) reminds them of his goal for them:

"You should get your education PLANNING to go into full-time Christian work. And even if God doesn't call you, you're still PREPARED. Part of that preparation," he likes to remind them, "is perfecting your musical ability. All of you guys should be able to play from the hymnal by the time you graduate from here."

That's a "simple" goal, but not one every Christian piano teacher has. As my posts continue, I'd like to discuss some simple "how-to's" of hymn playing and later, open up the comment line for your ideas (as teacher or student) of some great hymn playing ideas.