Here are some links if you're interested:
For those who don't want to click on links, here's a short introduction to Paperless music: It started at St. Gregory of Nyssa Episcopal Church in San Francisco, a very hip congregation - open to experimenting and pushing boundaries. They wanted to do an evening liturgy lit only by candles, but discovered that holding a candle and juggling a book didn't work very well. So they commissioned a bunch of composers to write songs for the assembly to sing that did not require folks to hold paper. It's grown into a fairly major movement, especially within the Episcopal and Lutheran (ELCA) church bodies.
Obviously since no one has paper, the words and music are both relatively simple, and involve a lot of repeating. It reminded me of something I learned from C. Michael Hawn - church music can basically be divided into two groups: Cyclical and Strophic. Paperless music is, by its very nature, very cyclical. My brain works in a much more strophic way, but I know that many people get more out of cyclical songs; at my church I almost always have a Taize song for those people to latch onto. And some of the paperless music was quite complex - cyclical does not mean simplistic!
There are a lot of great things about Paperless music. Here is an incomplete list:
- Allows non-readers (kids) to participate
- Frees us from books and wordiness of paper-based texts
- We become more of a community when singing with each other. Papered music often feels more like singing in the same room as other people.
- We can move around - dance, even!
- Gives time for reflection on a text
- Far more room for improvisation (harmonizing)
- Easier for people that don't read music (or "don't sing") to participate, since Paperless music always has a teaching element built into it.
- Allows people who have no common musical lexicon to sing a song together (see St. Paul's Chapel, NYC)
- Awesome for use at outdoor services, meetings, processions, etc!
I think it's great stuff, and I hope to use some of their music at my church in the future. Here are some challenges to think about when using paperless music:
- Liturgical timing. Usually paperless music involves someone standing at the front of the room and teaching/leading the group in a song (at least that's how everything seemed to work at this conference). At my church, the traffic flow for communion means that there is no way we could do this during Distribution.
- Leading humbly (I'm looking at you, aging Christian guitar-player with more energy than skill) and competently (I'm looking at... well... more than one person). Humbly because 1) the leader is the only one who knows the music, since no one else can see it and 2)because in a liturgical setting, there is usually some action happening during singing that deserves more attention than a song leader.
- Finding a balance. I found myself longing for a 5-verse hymn at some of the services we did at this conference.
- Good text. This is an issue with all music in church. One example of a poor text at this conference: "Light and dark, light and dark, light and dark, light and dark". Also, the song "There is some kiss we want... on the body" made me uncomfortable (and yes, I do agree with the theological/anthropological point it's trying to make - it's still a little weird for this mid-westerner).
- Leading in a way that "normal people" feel comfortable. Scott Weidler did a great job talking about how to use the choir effectively for this - both so that I as a leader can practice introducing a song to the choir paperless-ly, but also placing them strategically to encourage the congregation and not allowing them to make up harmonies until the "normal people" are comfortable.
Some other thoughts about the conference as a whole:
- Lots of emphasis on teaching how to teach music. Which is great. But if you've ever had a reasonably successful Children's choir, you can do this. Echo-sing and showing pitch with the hand are two things that children's choir people really don't think about anymore. I was disappointed no one pointed out that the same techniques are used in Paperless music as in teaching kids. Kodaly hand-signals and Orff echo techniques are just more sophisticated ways of doing what everyone at this conference was already doing.
- No one talked about the history of paperless singing. From lining-out hymns to singing chants from memory, etc. - this is not a new thing, people.
- It was nice singing a cappella. But I got tired of it after a while. The organ came in on one or two songs and really added musical interest. I was thinking a lot about adding Orff instruments on the pentatonic songs.
- There was a lot of talk about emotions. I always get uncomfortable when church leaders start talking about stirring emotions in worship (I'm looking at you, woman who started crying when telling the story of the Prodigal Son). Is one of the great advantages of Paperless music its ability to stir emotions? Ok. But how does that praise God, encourage our Christian witness, or teach us about God?
- Perhaps most interesting to me: None of the presenters were really excited about how people love this style of singing, and how successful they are at it. Our leaders seemed to be always saying, "We sing this one pretty well." or "This is a 3-part song. After a lot of practice, my congregation can handle 2 parts."
- Lots of canons. I once worked with a priest who, upon being told that I wanted to sing a song in canon, said, "Why?" And I was at a loss to explain why. I wanted to say: "Because it's musically interesting." But is that the point of church music?