Friday, November 22, 2013

Thoughts about themes and subjects for Christmas music

The story of Advent and Christmas is rich with meaning. As music ministers, we can find many themes and subjects to inspire choices for Christmas music to use in ministry. Even some songs that were not written with Christmas in mind can be beautiful expressions of the spirit of the season.

Here is a list of topics that are related to Christmas. For each one, I have a few suggestions of songs that fit, and I hope these inspire you to think of other songs as well that relate to the same topic that would be great for your choir or group.

These are major subject themes that relate to the Christmas season:
(And for each category, I added an Amazon player so you can hear excerpts from all the songs.)
Baby songs. “And they came with haste , and found Mary, and Joseph, and the babe lying in a manger.” – Luke 2:16.

Everybody loves babies, and songs about Jesus as an infant inspire feelings of love and tenderness that are a beautiful part of “the Christmas spirit”.
  • Christmas carols like What Child Is This and Away in a Manger.
  • Mary Did You Know? (Lowry & Greene)
  • Sweet Little Jesus Boy (Mahalia Jackson and lots of other artists)
  • Jesus, Oh What a Wonderful Child (Traditional)

Songs about beholding and adoring Jesus. “And when they were come into the house, they saw the young child with Mary his mother, and fell down , and worshipped him:” – Matthew 2:11.

These are different from the “baby” songs because instead of focusing on Jesus himself, they focus on our own feelings and acts of worship toward him. This worship is what all of the visitors did when they were in the presence of Jesus, and these songs encourage us to do the same. There are lots of songs that are not actually Christmas songs that would be great in a Christmas service because they fit in with this same theme of reverent adoration and intimate worship.
  • O Come All Ye Faithful / O Come Let Us Adore Him (Christmas carol)
  • Emmanuel (Norman Hutchins)
  • Now Behold the Lamb (Kirk Franklin)
  • Here I Am to Worship (Tim Hughes) – “Here I am to worship, here I am to bow down, here I am to say that You're my God.”
  • Turn Your Eyes Upon Jesus (Hymn) – “Turn your eyes upon Jesus, Look full in His wonderful face, And the things of earth will grow strangely dim, In the light of His glory and grace.”

Other events from the Christmas story.

Along with the birth scene, there were other events that were a part of the arrival of Jesus – the prophecies to Mary and Joseph, the journey to Bethlehem, the shepherds on the hillside, the treachery of Herod. Songs that recreate these happenings are an important part of keeping the Christmas story alive.
  • Carols: The First Noel, While Shepherds Watched their Flocks, We Three Kings, the Coventry Carol
  • Rise Up Shepherd and Follow (Traditional)
  • Go Tell It On the Mountain (Traditional)
  • When Christ Was Born (Joan Hall). This one is an original song of mine. You can hear the whole song here –

Songs about the Advent of the Savior. “ . . . and he shall send them a saviour , and a great one, and he shall deliver them.” – Isaiah 19:20.

This is the reason WHY we needed Christmas. There was no one who was able to save mankind before Jesus came. Songs that deal with the Old Testament prophecies about Jesus or songs about our need for a Savior remind us of the hope that Christmas brings to our lives today.
  • Carols: O Come O Come Emmanuel
  • Still the Lamb (Mary, Mary)
  • Hero (Kirk Franklin). While there are some lyrics in this that are Easter-related, the main message, especially in the opening verses, is that we needed someone to come on the scene to be our deliverer. That's Christmas.
  • Choruses from Handel's Messiah: And He Shall Purify, For Unto Us a Child Is Born

Songs about “the light of the world.” “The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light: they that dwell in the land of the shadow of death, upon them hath the light shined . . . For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given . . .” – Isaiah 9:2,6. “In him was life; and the life was the light of men. And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not.” – John 1:4-5.

Songs about the light of Christ are a part of the Christmas story and also fit in with the “look” that we associate with Christmas (the lights on the tree, the lights on the houses, all that pretty stuff).
  • Carols: Silent Night. Pay attention to the lyrics of “Silent Night”. There's a lot about light shining in darkness – “All is bright round yon virgin”, “Glories stream from heaven afar”, “love's pure light radiant beams from thy holy face.” I think this song is more about light than it is about babies.
  • Walk in the Light. Either the regular version or the Christmas version –
  • Jesus Is the Light (either the hymn or the Hezekiah Walker song)

Following the example of the angels – corporate praise. “And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying, Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men. – Luke 2:13-14.

This is different from the intimate personal worship that the wise men experienced. This is worshipers coming together to make a joyful noise of praise. This includes songs about the angels, songs that use the same words the angels sang (in Latin, it's Gloria in excelsis deo, et in terra pax hominibus bonae voluntatis.”), or any other proclamations of praise.
  • Carols: Angels We Have Heard on High, Angels from the Realms of Glory, Joy to the World, etc.
  • Rockin' Jerusalem (Traditional spiritual)
  • Glory (Joan Hall). This is another original one –
  • Oh Bless the Name (New Jersey Mass Choir)
  • Worthy Is the Lamb (Daryl Coley)
  • Choruses from the Messiah: Glory to God or the Hallelujah Chorus

Keep Christ in Christmas” songs. “Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar's; and unto God the things that are God's.” – Matthew 22:21

In the ungodly, materialistic world that we live in, these songs remind us where we as Christians need to keep our focus during Christmas. Yes, it's true that the winter solstice celebrations are older than Christianity, and I'm OK with secular people doing the holidays whatever other way they want to do them, but we who believe in Jesus can be at peace with the secular world and still have a holy holiday of our own. These songs are not trying to tell other people what to do, they're reminding US of what WE want to do. It's especially important for our children to hear messages like this so that they will remember that even if the rest of the world sees Christmas as a time of “gimme, gimme, gimme”, we are focused on the Lord.
  • Jesus Is the Reason (Kirk Franklin)
  • The Real Meaning of Christmas (The Winans)
  • No Christmas without You (John P. Kee, Kirk Franklin)

My hope is that these suggestions will give you ideas to broaden and enrich the Christmas repertoire of your choir or singing group. May you and yours have a beautiful and blessed holiday season, always with a song in your heart.

Friday, November 1, 2013

For gospel choirs -- Taking the next musical step

Church gospel choirs are known for singing one type of music, and we do it very well. But how do you expand from there? Does your choir want to do other styles? Jazz? Spirituals? Classical? What do you need to learn if you're trying to branch out into any of those areas?

I made a video that starts to talk about ONE aspect of this – the music theory part of it. There's a particular format that most gospel choir music uses to put together the melodies and harmonies, but other types of choir music are not put together the same way. This video starts the conversation about how typical gospel choir music is structured and the ways you would need to grow from there in order to do a greater variety of music with your choir. There's a lot to say about this subject, so this video is just the beginning; I'll be getting more into it in future videos.

Don't worry if you've never studied music theory before. We're going to approach it very gently.

Here's the video: