Test Number Two: The Dum De Dum Test
Several years ago I found myself cycling alone through a deeply creepy deserted country lane, hundreds of miles from home, in the dead of winter, hoping to find somewhere to stay for the night. To keep my spirits up, I decided to sing one of the Christian songs that I played every week at church. My rendition went something like this:
“In Christ alone, de dum de dum, he is the dum de dum, de dum.”
I didn’t find it overly comforting.
What I discovered that day was that, after years of playing fiddle in the band every week, I had not the slightest idea what any of the words were for any of the songs we sang. I knew the first line of all of them, because that’s how we referred to them in rehearsals. And I knew the chord progressions, and the keys. For the ones we did the most often, I even knew the tunes. But the words?
Fair enough, you might think. I never got to sing them, after all. But there are two big reasons why failing the Dum De Dum test is bad.
Firstly, God tells us to sing to each other. I’m sure I’m preaching to the choir on this one. We all know the importance of singing – it helps the words of Townend dwell in us richly. I know this works, because when people overhear me singing “O Church, arise, and dum de dum de dum” they look at me as if I’m retarded.
If I’m not singing, then I’m disobeying God, and I’m starving myself of something which is of real benefit. In fact, perhaps it ought to disqualify me from serving in the band completely. We’re careful not to have people in the band who are modelling ungodly patterns of behaviour, yet here I am, week after week, standing in front of the congregation and setting them an example of disobedience. Tricky… and yet I can’t sing and play at the same time. Any thoughts?
The second reason this is bad has to do with the delicate balance between response and manipulation. As I’ve mentioned before, God’s truths need to be driving the music. We can easily manipulate the congregation’s emotions, playing on their heart strings, and I hope we are all agreed that this is something to be avoided. On the other hand, we can easily dampen their emotions, when God’s truths should be working powerfully in their hearts. How do we help the congregation to respond to the words, without overstepping our role and making them respond to the music?
Well, it’s clearly impossible if I don’t actually know what the words are. If I’ve got no idea what the congregation are singing while I’m playing, then there’s no way on earth I can be sure that I’m helping them to respond to it. In truth, what I’m probably thinking is “It’s the last verse, time to play as many notes as possible, I wonder how high up the fingerboard I can get before the band leader frowns at me.”
Of course, it’s just a violin. Pragmatically speaking it might not make a huge difference on the ground whether I’m thinking “They are currently singing about Mary weeping” or I’m thinking “The leader told us to play quietly this verse”. But, as part of the band, I should be helping to lead a response – and if I’m not responding to the words myself, then I’m helping to lead a response to something else. At best, I’m responding to the band leader, and he’s responding to the words, and the congregation are still being served. This is one of the primary responsibilities of the band leader. But at worst, I’m just trying to impress people.
If, like me, you are failing the Dum De Dum test, here are some practical steps which may or may not be possible in your situation:
● Don’t play every verse – and when you are not playing, sing! (You may want to step away from the microphone, depending on your singing voice…)
● Don’t play every week – and when it’s your week off, make sure you sing!
● Make sure you have the words somewhere you can see them, and, if possible, look at them as you play. (Band leaders – don’t just scrawl the chords above verse one, forcing your players to read the verse one lyrics five times over, instead of reading the lyrics for verses 2,3,4 and 5…)
● If all that fails, find out what the songs are in advance, get hold of the lyrics, and sing them in the shower.
As I said in the last post, God is gracious. I believe I’ve been of use to the church, despite the fact that I’m still not entirely sure how the second line of “In Christ Alone” goes. But the more I think about the Dum De Dum test, the more I think I need to repent of the way I’ve tended to play in the past.
Final caveat: Failing at the Dum De Dum test doesn’t necessarily indicate a problem – some people just don’t remember words very easily. And new songs may need time to sink in. Be realistic about what you should expect of yourself. But if, like me, you can recite almost all the lyrics to every Abba song, every Sondheim show, and every Disney movie, but still don’t know the words to “Speak, O Lord” despite playing it before almost every sermon for three years… well, maybe something needs to change.