My 76-year-old father still sings, as did his father, and, I suspect, his father. Church music has been a backbone of my family for generations.
When I was young, my father’s side of the family would meet a couple of times each year on the family farm near St. Louis. These were working vacations, so we would tend to the animals, fix this or that, and help around the house. We didn’t operate on a tight schedule, but our days were spent on the farm, working or playing.
Sundays were different. We ate breakfast, piled into cars, and attended church as a family. No one said much about the importance of going to church as a family, but it was clearly understood. It was also clear how we were to behave. My grandfather taught us this by example: you dress well, you sit near the front, and you sing mightily!
From grades 1 through 10, my family lived in Hobart, IN, south of Gary, near the highly traveled intersection of I-94 and I-65. My father was the 7th and 8th grade teacher/principal of Trinity Lutheran School in Hobart.
Our school, like many small, private schools, didn’t offer general music education, though our classrooms had pianos and some of the teachers had basic piano skills. A common model for Lutheran schools was the hiring of a church organist/musician who would also teach at the grade school. Even then, finding an excellent organist who was certified to teach was rare. As our church and school struggled to find a long-term solution, we had a revolving door of musicians that each brought new ideas and opportunities.
Back then, I had no way of knowing then just how much music would serve as a foundation of my faith and professional life.
An Unremarkable Beginning
My own music journey began in first or second grade, when I started taking piano lessons from a neighborhood teacher. I was partial to playing sports, not particularly drawn toward practicing and preparing for lessons. Practicing an instrument is inherently difficult and isolating for anyone, and it was no different for me.
We rarely had music playing in our house, and it wouldn’t have occurred to me that people could like music, that people might go out of their way to hear it or perform it. To me, this was a pragmatic skill, like learning to swim or write in cursive.
I’ve read about people who attend a ballet at a young age then suddenly fall in love with dancing or the playing of the orchestra (“I knew the first time I heard it”). Others establish a life-long love of music after attending a single concert. Some might have been introduced to art through a visit to the art museum and, immediately, are smitten with color and texture.
I admire these people and their stories, but if I’ve developed strong appreciations for art, music, and dance, it developed slowly through repetition and thoughtful, patient guidance.
Inspiration from Others
My fourth-grade teacher, who moved into pastoral ministry shortly after I was in his class, would, on occasion, play the hymn, “God himself is present” for our class. The randomness is striking today, but at the time, his fast, boogie-woogie/rock performance was a giant hit with us students. We all knew the hymn, so it was clear that he was wildly embellishing on a fairly unadventurous tune.
He was sheepish about these performances (no pun intended, though his name was Mr. Lams), and I wasn’t sure if this was because he wanted to reserve these special performances to a couple per year, whether he felt that he was causing harm to the hymn, or because it wasn’t a polished performance (it seemed pretty fantastic to me).
Mr. Lams wouldn’t describe himself as a musician, but he inspired me in other ways. Trinity Lutheran church has a large sanctuary (with an outstanding 50+ rank pipe organ). As is the case with churches across America, people tended to sit in the same pews each week. Mr. Lams and his family sat a few pews behind us and he regularly sang the bass lines to the hymns with effective fervor. He had a low voice, and had tremendous resonance on low Fs and Es.
Wow, I didn’t know people did this sort of thing, singing harmony, but it opened a new world of sound to me. One of the great elements of the hymns from The Lutheran Hymnal (especially many of the German hymns) is the bass lines, either sliding step-wise or bounding up and down by fourths, fifths, and octaves. There are many exceptional bass lines and having them sung resoundingly and elegantly is like sitting in the bassoon or tuba section of an orchestra.
Exploration and Wonder
It must have been around the time I was a student of Mr. Lams that I started reading hymns at the piano. I specifically remember TLH#158 (“Glory be to Jesus”) and #370 (“My hope is built on nothing less”), playing only the alto and soprano parts (the right hand), and I may have played them a hundred times.
I’ll never know how long it took to learn these first two hymns. But in comparison, learning the first handful of hymns took exponentially longer than it took to learn the second handful of hymns. In a couple of years (maybe by 7th grade), I could comfortably read every hymn in the hymnal, even – to my delight – the ones with 4 sharps or 4 flats.
Joy in Simplicity
I’ve heard people say that the hymns all sound the same, something I would heartily deny.
Still today, I can turn the pages of a hymnal and find joy and intrigue in the mild or sharp contrasts in musical style that each hymn provides. There might be a rhythmic subtlety or a gentle, recurring syncopation that mimics refined and fashionable dance. In other cases, the tune begins moving by step before larger intervals intercede or begins with longer note values before cascading into faster notes (the tune Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern comes to mind).
Hymns are marked with simplicity, generally falling within a formulaic, symmetric design that appears deceptively easy to duplicate. And the tunes are inseparable from the rich, plaintive harmonic settings, which may have been what drew me to them originally.
Consider the impact of live worship music in your own life. Growing up, we didn’t attend the symphony or buy tickets for rock concerts. So, the principle form of live music in my life came from the church.
When I was in 7th grade, our congregation called a tremendously gifted and enthusiastic church musician to serve our congregation. Ruth Jelneck is a strong and commanding organist, and her commitment and enthusiasm for church music created a dynamic music program involving a lot of participants. The singing of the congregation, the harmonies of the choir, and the weekly preludes and postludes made up my earliest aural library, and predominantly, this music was centered on hymns.
I became enamored with the hymnal, appreciating the great diversity within each season. I loved the Advent hymns (mysterious and hauntingly beautiful), Christmas Eve (warm and intimate) and Christmas hymns (joyful and celebratory), the Epiphany hymns (noble and convincing), the Lenten hymns (warm and self-reflective), and, of course, the Easter hymns (triumphant and resplendent).
On festival occasions at church, Mrs. Jelneck would invite brass and woodwind players to play descants and add other embellishments to the hymns. We must have had access to timpani, too, because I recall seeing and hearing these played as well. Our congregation wasn’t blessed with a large number of accomplished instrumentalists, but their musical offerings had a large impact on me.
Even in reflection, these glorious ornamentations on something simple and well known still holds weight in my childhood memories.
My Formation Today
The word hymn comes from the Greek hymnos, meaning “song of praise.” Dating back to the ancient Jewish tradition of singing psalms in worship, there is a deep connection between church music and godly fellowship.
I’ve been blessed to teach music for more than 25 years, most of which has been guiding singers in choral performances. Clearly, my professional work was directly inspired by my early experiences with church music, often motivated by memories of my younger self anticipating with delight the music that might overpower me. I’ve been blessed to be a part of a host of wonderful music performances, and some of my favorite memories involved hymn singing.
I wonder whether in my grandfather’s generation and heritage, singing may have been nearly obligatory; when presented with the opportunity to sing, one sings! Looking back, now I know it was more than this. He was giving thanks, rejoicing, and participating in his community of worship.
Not surprisingly, this gift of singing is not only an earthly expression of joy. We’re created in God’s image, and He sings, too:
The LORD your God is in your midst, a mighty one who will save; he will rejoice over you with gladness; he will quiet you by his love; he will exult over you with loud singing. (Zephaniah 3:17)
May God encourage you in the ways that you are deeply inspiring the people around you, and may God bless you as you give Glory to Him through your singing.