Improv in Action: Guest Post from Marthame Sanders

1-faith-450x300I met Marthame Sanders a couple of years ago at an event at Columbia Seminary. Since then we’ve followed one another on Facebook and shared a mutual interest in improv and the spiritual life. Marthame was lucky enough to receive a sabbatical grant last summer which allowed him to study improv at Second City. Right now I’m working on a grant application for a similar purpose myself, but in the meantime, it’s great fun to see what Marthame and others are doing to encourage an improvisational “posture” in worship and think about how to expand those skills into the larger church. (Church of the Pilgrims in DC is also doing great work in this–see Ashley Goff’s blog for more.)

Marthame wrote recently on his blog about an anthem the congregation composed in the middle of worship. So rad. I especially love the acknowledgement that while there are many more polished, technically “perfect” pieces of worship music out there, there’s something powerful about creating something right in the moment. And it sounds like he provided just enough structure for this creative work to happen.

Thanks for sharing this inspiration, Marthame!!

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An Improvised Anthem–guest blog by Marthame Sanders

Pulling the weekly bulletin together is always an act of improvisation.

It rarely looks like it; after all, it is the planned order of worship that the congregation receives a few days later. And yet, there is always something that we hadn’t anticipated: a hymn we chose that’s unfamiliar; a special litany that needs to be included; a Scripture that doesn’t speak to the moment…There are always last minute adjustments. This past Sunday, however, stood apart.

Tim, our Music Director, was returning from a month-long sojourn in Europe. Our worship planning had gotten us through his absence, but we had not planned for his return. Tim and I agreed that the two of us would “do something”, and that was as concrete as it got.

Then it hit me: why not improvise? After all, I have been spending the better part of a year learning about the habits of improvisation; why not put some of that into practice? Using my own children as my willing improv guinea pigs in the days before (with different results each time), I hatched a process.*

Last Sunday, our Scripture was Psalm 146 from the Narrative Lectionary. During our time with children, I told them how the psalms were meant to be sung, and that Tim and I had nothing planned. And so we needed their help figuring out what it was we were going to sing.

I read the Psalm, asking them to say something like “I like that” when I read something that grabbed their attention. Then I told them we needed to figure out our key: I needed a letter between A and G and two numbers between 2 and 6. After one child asked if it needed to be a whole number, we got our suggestions: A, 3, and 5. That became the chord progression.

Tim and I began playing our three chords on piano and guitar; eventually, a melody emerged, which became a simple chorus:

I will sing my praise to God;

I will sing my praise to God;

I will sing my praise to God all my life.

The congregation soon joined in; I used the “liked” phrases to build verses. It took a while. The melody wandered on- and off-key, but we always returned to the chorus with full energy.

I have heard prettier and more interesting melodies. I have encountered more poetic lyrics. This was no Coltrane or Davis. And yet, there was something about this particular piece of music that “worked”. Along with everything else, the whole process invested the congregation in the anthem in a unique way. It wasn’t just Tim’s music or the choir’s music or my music; it was our music, our praise. Our shared creation had them “rooting” for the music in a new way.

We will definitely do this again.

One final note: our worship recording failed Sunday; so here’s my rough re-creation with guitar and voice:

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Marthame Sanders is pastor of Oglethorpe Presbyterian Church in Atlanta. His 2014 Sabbatical in Chicago focused on the intersection of Spirit, creativity, and improvisation, including classes at the Second City Training Center. Since returning to Atlanta, he has continued with classes at Dad’s Garage and has incorporated improv exercises into congregational leadership training. His website is www.marthame.com.

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