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GUEST BLOG: "Today’s Prelude - Church Chit-Chat" by Thomas R. Vozzella

       Just prior to the start of most worship celebrations, there is always some kind of music. This music has historically been used to center our hearts and minds on worship, and to introduce music being used in the service.  Often times this music is viewed as a form of elevator/background music for chit-chat, a time to catch up with each other since the last time we gathered for worship, talk about last night’s hockey game, etc.  However, this music is truly an offering to God just as the spoken word, praise and worship music, hymns and other parts of the service, for which we give our full attention. 
       One of the first “Worship Wars,” The Reformation (1500-1599), kicked off the regular use of instruments in worship.  Around the 15th century, the regular usage of the organ in worship was introduced to the Western Roman Church. Prior to the 15th century, the organ was used sparingly in worship.  Between the 10th and 12th centuries the organ was used in processions and calls to worship (earliest example is the hydraulis used in Roman coliseums). The organ never seemed to gain ground in the Eastern Orthodox Church, and, to this day, has not. On the flipside, the Ethiopian and Coptic churches were using percussion instruments. Lutherans used a mixture of accompanied and un-accompanied music, while the Calvinists preferred un-accompanied music.
       However, it was the Lutherans and their master organist, Johanna Sebastian Bach (1685-1750), which changed the landscape forever. Through the choral prelude, based on newly composed chorales or hymns (as they are now known), Bach transformed music in worship. There were earlier composers of chorale preludes, yet, Bach alone composed 371 chorales and over 150 chorale preludes based on popular chorales of the time.
       Chorale Preludes introduce the congregation to music being sung that day. This is when worshipers heard the melodies being used in the service (song books/hymnals were sparse as they were written by hand), as only printed texts were available. In Bach’s case, he had to compose the music and then learn it. Today we have prominent composers such as Paul Manz, Michael Burkhardt, Joseph Martin, Mark Hayes and numerous others that compose hymn preludes (chorale preludes), based on popular hymn tunes and songs used in church.  Most organists/pianists plan preludes/voluntaries based on the hymns or themes for each worship service, as did Bach. Additionally, this music has taken many hours of preparation. 
       With this in mind, can we consider ways in which we can assist those that do not want to listen to the prelude find more productive ways to prepare for worship other than idle chit-chat? Here are a few examples, shared recently by my pastor, Rev. Jeff Kintner - using the time to pray, read the bible lesson(s)/reading(s) for the day, meditate on hymn texts of the music being played, sit silently with eyes closed, and many others. Are there ways in which your congregation appreciates the prelude? 
on November 12, 2013 8:15am
This isn't really about the music. Even the organ isn't playing, there should be silence for meditation, not gossip. During some seasons (such as Advent or Lent) preludes could be omitted in order to encourage a meditative silence. 
The bad thing about this is that it's asking for a change in overall church culture, but the good thing is that it wouldn't be an initiative from the music staff alone; the pastor(s) and the worship committee might well be on board with the idea of encouraging meditation before service. Newsletters could talk about the sanctuary as a "sacred space" and ask people to do their chit-chat outside (weather permitting) or in the parish hall or narthex. Signs could be added at the doors to the sanctuary asking that the sacredness of the space be respected. This is likely to be more effective than making a rule about preludes, because people have control over when they walk in the door, but not when the prelude starts.
Applauded by an audience of 1
on November 19, 2013 1:22pm
This is assuming you want a quiet start to worship. Who says? Maybe your parish doesn't want to prepare for worship in this way. Are they sending you a message?
I play the music before worship with verve and power. No wimpy, weepy preludes with tremulant wobbling the solo clarinet. Yes my parish is gathering in a spirit of fellowship and exuberant ‘chit-chat’. A loud prelude, maybe Bach’s Toccata in F, the finale from Widor’s #6, or Wills’ Fanfare summons everyone to a seat and the call to worship is proclaimed from the back of the church right on time and the procession begins.
Things change a little in Advent or Lent but not much.
There is several times for personal and corporate prayer in the worship service but to “insist” that it happens at the beginning of worship as the congregation comes together is not what my parish wants. It would be different if we celebrated Evensong or some other evening service but the main service on a Sunday is a celebration at my church.
Long ago I adopted this practice and have steadily ramped up my preludes – playing what my colleagues typically play for postludes to an emptying church.
Oh, I usually improvise on the last hymn in the given mood of the service for about a minute as the second time of fellowship begins for the congregation immediately after the Blessing and Sending Forth.
All the best.