Words, words, words!

The conveyance of words by singers, particularly by choirs, can often take a backseat to beauty of tone and the mechanics of singing. I’m just as guilty as anyone of not keeping the story of our anthems at the forefront of our tasks as leaders in worship.

Church choirs tend to get a bad reputation as being lax in their music-making, mostly because of the constant turn-around of music we’re responsible for learning. Think of the numbers: We sing 51 weeks a year, generally 2 anthems, sometimes one—more on Christmas, Easter, Music Sunday, and other events. That’s upwards of 125 pieces of music a year, not including the hymns or responses. Divided by 36 rehearsals…that’s a lot of music to be learned or refreshed. Quite often, the learning of the notes and rhythms supersedes the text; we can sing it just fine. And you do sing it well. But, we have a story to tell and, in the words of the old hymn, “…a story to tell to the nations.”

Think of some piece of music or a hymn that moves you beyond all comprehension. What is it about that piece that moves you; is it the text, the sounds that the notes create when they are placed one on top of another, or something else?

The church I attended while growing up was a small Presbyterian church where my parents were charter members. The membership was probably 150 people, and we had good music, at least for the size of the adult choir, which was around 15 people. There was a choir director who also taught public school music, and an organist, who was probably self-taught, and only used her left foot to play the 3-4 pedals she could reach. Addy was a sweet woman, but she was about as wide as she was tall. She always let me play when I felt I was ready with something. John, the choir director, was a talented man, and we had a decent kids choir, but I could care less about singing because all I wanted to do was play organ. At one point, he pulled my parents aside and said “You know, Craig will never really amount to much, musically speaking, because he doesn’t sing.” Fortunately, my parents never told me that until much later in life. Fast forward to my first day at Interlochen Arts Academy, the arts school in northern Michigan, where I spent all my high school years studying music. After arriving, those of us who were in ensembles gathered in rehearsal to prepare for the Opening Convocation, where we would kick off the new school year. Everything was new to me, but I wasn’t really prepared for the life-changing event that was about to happen.

Dr. Kenneth Jewell, head of the choirs at Interlochen, always started his rehearsals in the same way. Crippled from polio early in his life, he would hobble to his conductor chair, smile and say “Sing ‘A’ “…..and something close to that note would come out of our mouths. It was then I started to realize I had something others didn’t, but I didn’t know what to call it. I’d later learn the term…perfect pitch. After we got our voices warmed up, we were handed a piece of music. Singing out of an Avery & Marsh songbook in Youth Club at my home church was one thing, but this was a real piece of music; Randall Thompson’s “Choose something like a star”, with a text by Robert Frost. Following our first read-through, I finally experienced what singing was REALLY like. Hearing 4+ parts around me excited me to no end. In 2 hours, we’d polished it enough for Dr. Jewell and a few hours later we all gathered in Corson Auditorium and each ensemble shared the fruits of their 2 hour rehearsal.

Those words have stayed with me like no others for nearly 40 years now. “At times, when the mob is swayed, to carry praise or blame too far; we may choose something like a star, to stay our minds on, and be stayed.” For me, that was the beginning of my shift from loving organ and its music, to vocal/choral music.

As a conductor, each piece of music I have conducted or sung has its own special place in my heart. As Christians, the music we share each Sunday should (and must) have a deeper meaning because of what we believe. Too often (and again, I’m guilty of this as much or more than anyone) we allow our words to be shared like we are reading a phone book or grocery list. Each person who took the effort and care of crafting the words which are used in a sacred piece of music probably penned them because of an event in their life, or in the life of someone close to them.

Take our upcoming anthem, “We shall walk through the valley in peace”. Allow yourself to think of the imagery of a valley, something lush with green trees, tall grasses, a place which is not cared for by landscapers. Or that valley of the shadow of death, a metaphorical place that we’ve all gone through in some of the darkest times. But then, as the author states, “there will be no dying there….for Jesus himself will be our leader…” Imagine what life would be like with no dying, with no trials, with no shadows of death. How would you approach this piece now? You’d probably sing it with a joy, deep-down energy, and enthusiasm that would be hard to contain, wouldn’t you? It might also be hard to sing without shedding a few tears, right? That’s ok!

When we allow the words to speak to us, deep-down, to our core, we should be that emotional, whether tears or joy over-flowing.

I close with a story about a piece that some of you may know. Most of you will not have heard it before. It’s by Stephen Paulus, who wrote the piece we sang a few years ago called “The Road Home”. This past Sunday, I decided to head to Holy Trinity Lutheran at 65 & Central Park West. It’s the home of Bach Vespers, an evening service that this congregation has sponsored for 47 years. Each Sunday, from mid-October to May, they present a service of hymns, readings, homily, along with candles and incense. The cornerstone of the service is a Bach cantata. Being Reformation Sunday, the church was packed. They sang “Ein feste burg…” Cantata 80 “A mighty fortress…” But before the service began, the choir deviated from their normal routine of singing opening sentences to sing “The Pilgrim’s Hymn”, also written by Stephen Paulus, who passed away 10 days ago from a stroke he suffered in July 2013. Stephen never regained his health following that stroke. Sitting in the candle-lit sanctuary of Holy Trinity, the choir began to sing. Struggling between wanting to go into the city and wanting my usual Sunday afternoon, post-church nap, I knew I made the right choice with the sound of that first chord. The text spoke to me more than it had ever before, and the tears started to roll down my cheeks. These words are at the heart of Christianity and our relationship with Our Maker:

Even before we call on Your name

To ask You, O God,
When we seek for the words to glorify You,
You hear our prayer;
Unceasing love, O unceasing love,
Surpassing all we know.

Even with darkness sealing us in,
We breathe Your name,
And through all the days that follow so fast,
We trust in You;
Endless Your grace, O endless Your grace,
Beyond all mortal dream.

Both now and forever,
And unto ages and ages,
Amen.

Here is that performance from October 26. Let the sounds of this amazing group wash over you and touch your soul.

https://www.facebook.com/video.php?v=10152950807957150

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What is your typical day or week like, Craig?

The lives of musicians, probably any creative person, is a challenging one. One thing is for certain; I could not be a 9-5’er and sit at my desk doing what many of you do, or have done. My mind is too scattered at times, calls come in, emails show up in my inbox, and I get distracted. Just today, I had several phone calls, and 5 emails in a row within about 45 minutes that took me away from completing yet another email with all the bulletin details for this Sunday.

In the last few months, a few of these images have been floating around the internet. It sums it up pretty well:

Conductors

Each is often like the one before and the one after, with floating pieces that find themselves pushed into the next day if they don’t get done that day. There’s lots of score study – examining the details of each anthem a choir is singing, or hymn, or organ piece. Just relying on the knowledge that’s been accumulated over years or decades isn’t enough.

In order to keep singers fresh and engaged, I must evaluate every song as if I were approaching it for the very first time. How many breaths will happen in the course of a phrase? What does the text say to me after however many years I have been conducting/playing/singing this work? Is there something new that I can bring to the next rehearsal? What will it say to the congregation in the particular spot it’s placed in the service…does it fit between readings, or is it more appropriate during the offertory?

After over 35 years of playing regularly in worship services, finding new and creative pieces for the various parts of worship can be daunting, but energizing. When you’ve listened to that work and you know exactly where it belongs in that special service, it’s like that feeling you get as a child on Christmas morning….you can’t wait for that date to arrive or those rehearsals to start on that piece.

Because I and every artistic/creative type can’t just leave our work at the office, quite often I’m scouring the internet while I’m watching tv in the evening. Chatting with friends about their choirs, that song they’re working on for an opera audition, or prepping for a Broadway show, watching Youtube videos of what my colleagues have done in worship in the last few weeks. Finding those new warmups for rehearsals, or creating a descant for an opening hymn.

Of course, there are those meetings…weekly staff meetings, quick meetings with clergy about worship details, who needs pastoral care, budget considerations, music committee planning, and myriad other one-topic conversations for future program or event ideas. It’s what those of us involved in church work deal with on a daily and weekly basis. Would we like to do something else to make money? There have been times that I wish I could do something other than working for the church. Could I really do it? Probably not.

The time between June and August is my planning time for the entire church year. I plan the entire year, as much as I can, for each anthem, each choir, prod and push the clergy to give me broad strokes for their topics for each Sunday. Ideally, I like to start the new program year knowing, as best I can, that each Sunday is accounted for, that each Sunday has a balance of music that supports the scriptures/topics, and vice versa. It doesn’t always happen. Honestly, the older I get, the more frustrating it is for me not to know what is happening as far in advance as I can plan. But, then I just have to let it go.

Then there are those moments we experienced yesterday during Tom’s sermon. Originally, I planned “King Uzziah” for September 28. I knew it was special in particular to the Saari’s, and a few of you. Reluctantly, I moved it around to accommodate schedules and thought “well, the text is speaking about a call to ministry, so let’s put it on the Sunday when Tom Stiers is here.” And when he said that that text was used in his ordination service, all was made clear. The Spirit was alive and working farther in advance than any of us can imagine. And that, my dear friends, is why I do what I do. Because I couldn’t ever do anything but be in music ministry…and I love sharing this ministry with all of you.

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A few days late…

This week was crammed with extra bits that distracted me from posting on my usual Monday. In light of the last few “heavy” posts, here are some videos to help get you through your day and week.

This song is one that has been sung at numerous coronations, weddings, and funerals for members of the Royal Family. It’s also one of my favorite pieces — Parry’s “I was glad”.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rtyFC2Nl_6Y

Another great, rousing work is the Requiem by Maurice Duruflé. His “Sanctus” is an absolute roof-raiser! (And sung by the Yale Glee Club down the road!)

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Y_CCmG2DWW4

One of the ground-breaking singers in American history is Marian Anderson, an African-American mezzo soprano, who made her Carnegie Hall debut in 1920.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uJIsCmHAbI8

Have a wonderful week!

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Why do we sing together?

Recently, two articles have been circulating on Facebook:

One bemoans the “death of church choirs” (see it here: http://www.religionnews.com/2014/09/17/many-church-choirs-dying-heres/).

Another counter-article states “9 reasons to keep the church choir alive” (see it here: http://www.theologyinworship.com/2014/09/23/9-reasons-to-keep-the-church-choir-alive/).

Singing with other people, whether at a ballgame, or in worship, or in the local community choir, is something that has declined in the last fifty years. I use fifty because, well, I’m in that age group now, and I’ve seen it decline over my lifetime. A friend and I went to a Yankees game a few months ago. When the National Anthem was played, I heard a few folks around me, but not many. It was sad. But, when the 7th inning stretch came, more folks were singing. Was it because the song was a more upbeat song, or that it was written less than fifty years ago? In any case, it was encouraging to hear more voices singing “Sweet Caroline.” At least they sang!

Societal trends are the primary reasons our musical education has diminished in recent decades. More iPods, mp3, CD, DVD, satellite radio, and any other source of music you can think of, have broadened our musical horizons, exposing us to sounds we probably never thought we’d hear unless we traveled to China, the inner reaches of Africa, frigid Russia, or sunny Hawaii.

Musical education has changed, too. In many places, the arts have been eliminated completely from public and private school classrooms. Where do people of all ages go for exposure to the arts? Where do they learn to sing? Who will teach them?

The church has, for centuries, been the epicenter for arts in community throughout the world. In some large churches, choir schools were created for the musical and academic instruction of their boy choirs. It’s only logical that choirs have survived for hundreds of years in these places. Closest to home, St. Thomas Church on 5th Avenue has a choir school that is nearing its 100th anniversary. Begun in 1919, they have been the foundation for worship life in this historic space. And if you haven’t heard them before, go. I give you permission (just not all of you at the same time!) to attend a worship service on Sunday morning, or at one of their Evensong services on Sunday afternoons.

For the most part, churches throughout the world have choirs that gather weekly for a rehearsal, and share their talents on Sunday mornings. Those who are part of a choir often remark “I was looking forward to staying home because I was exhausted. Realizing that others were relying on me, I came to rehearsal anyway. After it was over, it dawned on me I was energized and feeling great that I made the decision to go to choir.”

Imagine what worship would be like without a choir. Think back to the days when you were younger and heard a great choir in worship; how did you feel? Was it inspiring? Depending on our upbringing, it might not have been the best choir (or perhaps the worst choir you’ve heard!), but the passion and dedication from those singers have probably been passed on to you. How did you learn those new hymns? The choir was helping the congregation learn new hymns and supported the voices around you in the pews.

A 2009 survey by Chorus America found that a staggering 42.6 MILLION people participate in one of more than 270,000 choirs in America. And that’s just the number of those who actually responded to this survey — it could be higher than that. Here’s more on that study: https://www.chorusamerica.org/publications/research-reports/chorus-impact-study

I won’t comment on either article above, but I will say this: we are a singing congregation. In last week’s article I stated that “The choir is not the leader of worship; they are enablers. And that hymns belong to the people….the congregation, and not to the choir.” Choirs will continue to exist. Some will thrive, some will fail. In church, and in the community. But a church with a vision and a focus on quality worship will have a choir, if they chose to do so.

Not every church has to have a choir. But we do; five choirs, in fact, and we are blessed to be part of an amazing history of music in this little corner of Connecticut at First Congregational Church in Greenwich. And it is because of your dedication and love of singing that we have outstanding music each Sunday.

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Singing psalms, and hymns, and spiritual songs…

When we gather as a choir on Thursdays and Sundays, our voices join together, in unison, in two-parts, four-parts, or more. Sometimes, it’s good enough to just hum a simple melody like “Jesus loves me” or “Amazing grace”. Our vocal chords vibrate with the sounds our brains tell it to make. Sing high, sing low, sing in the middle. Our voices are one of the wonders of creation.

But what happens to those folks facing us in the pews? What sounds do they make? Do their sounds matter? The most common response from the folks who are asked to join a choir is “Oh, I’m not any good. My voice isn’t good enough to do what YOU do!”.

One of the biggest shifts in my thinking came decades ago, but is one that I too often let leave my mind. The choir is not the leader of worship; they are enablers. And that hymns belong to the people….the congregation, and not to the choir. We should poke, prod, enable, and support the congregation. Most often, we do a great job at that. Occasionally, I need to remind myself that we need to do more with hymns, and do more to encourage congregational singing.

As we begin another year of ministry together, one of the main areas I am focusing on is hymn singing and education, both in worship for the congregation at-large, and in our Sunday school. Rosemary and I have been in conversation about how we can bolster the Sunday school curriculum to do more singing with the kids. In worship, this may involve more singing and “rehearsing” hymns at the beginning of worship; something I did a great deal when I worked in the Catholic churches.

Being raised in a musical church (albeit a BAD music church!) I quickly understood the importance of music in worship, and even more, the importance of singing in worship. Hymns help us ground our faith and, as the sayings go, “help us express what the spoken words fail to express.” For every hymn sung in worship, I’m responsible for choosing it, for good or for bad. Each (well, 98% of the time!) hymn that we sing in worship is chosen with a great deal of care. What does it say to us in the context of the other elements in any particular service? How can they help weave together the scriptures, the other parts of worship, our anthems, into a more cohesive and meaningful experience? Does the text reflect the other elements of worship?

When choosing hymns, text is primary, and music is secondary. That’s the way I approach hymn choices. Hymns begin life as a story, or a poem. Composers will tell you that it’s usually the text that speaks to them when they begin writing a hymn or other vocal music. I’ll take into account whether we know a particular tune or not, but generally, if the text fits which topics or themes are being stressed in any given service, I’ll choose it. Because the Chancel Choir is a strong musical presence, I don’t always steer clear of tunes we don’t know, because I know you’ll sing with gusto whatever I put in front of you! Some, to be honest, are just downright awful, and I won’t even consider going near them because of poor vocal lines (too many jumps/skips) or the music doesn’t really reflect the text. But that brings us back to the congregation and unfamiliar tunes. More rehearsal and enabling them to get new tunes into their repertoire.

No service is completely and fantastically crafted from top to bottom that everything and everyone is precisely coordinated and on the same page. Sometimes, that little bit of non-cohesiveness comes together on Sunday morning with some word in a sermon or a prayer. Or in an event that happened to all or one of us during the week before. In those special moments, or even the not-so-special, God is there…working through each of us.

Hymns are why I chose to do what I do. Or, as many might say, “It was God who chose you, not the other way around!” I can’t think of anything I’d rather do than sit at a piano or organ and play hymns for anyone who wants to sing them. When I’m stressed or panicked, I subconsciously find myself singing a line from a hymn: “Sing them over again to me, wonderful words of life.”— “No storm can shake my inmost calm, when to that rock I’m clinging; since Christ is Lord of heaven and earth, how can I keep from singing?” — “When Christ shall come, with shouts of acclamation, and take me home, what joy shall fill my heart.” Line after line, hymn after hymn. These words comfort, encourage, strengthen, and uplift, carrying us through another week of exhausting and tiring work and tasks.

And I hope that our corporate worship will do the same for anyone within earshot of our Meetinghouse. (A side note…one of these fall days, we WILL open ALL the doors and windows of the Meetinghouse and let our voices flow out into the neighborhood! Wouldn’t you be drawn to a place where you hear great music being sung and played?)

So I urge you to consider the stories we are responsible for sharing each week in worship. Don’t allow yourselves to blindly sing that hymn you’ve sung for “fill-in-the number” of years. Make it come alive – lift it off the page and give it your voice, your breath, and your special treatment. Words make all the difference.

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Awake, my heart!

It’s been well over 2 years since I’ve done anything with this blog, and I realized as I browsed our church website that it’s been too long. So, permit me to enter into a short time of reflection and confession.

Since 2012, it is obvious we’ve all been affected by the events of David Young’s departure in a variety of ways. Whatever stance, thoughts, or views are yours. As Mark Montgomery has pointed out during a number of sermons, one of the great tenets in the UCC is the right of private judgement. Our Silver Lake Camp and Conference Center states on their website:

We worship, learn, play, serve and work together, respecting the right of private judgement.

Throughout the past few years, I have allowed myself, for better or for worse, to lapse into a “holding pattern”; waiting for the settled senior pastor to arrive in order to put the past behind us. Your constant dedication and encouragement has enabled me to continue on when, at many points, I felt like giving up. The challenges we endured over the past 24-plus months has pushed many of us to limits we didn’t think we could handle. For me, it was truly the most challenging time I’ve had to face in my nearly 35-year career in church music. But, our weekly rehearsals and Sunday mornings together kept that fire burning in all of us. Through God’s grace and all our faithful work, we have persevered.

We all breathed a collective sigh of relief when Rick Derr announced in June that a candidate had been selected and his Candidating Sermon would be delivered a few weeks later. Even more sighs were shared after the unanimous vote to extend a call to Rev. Richard DenUyl, Jr. that morning. That light at the end of the tunnel was closer than ever before.

Now we find ourselves just past that newly opened door into the future. What does it hold? No one knows. One thing that is certain: we have been given, yes blessed with, so many great opportunities for our future growth, energy, and potential. In Acts 2 it states,

“…God says, I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your young men will see visions, your old men will dream dreams.” 

Everyone will need to see visions, to dream dreams. What will First Congregational Church look like in 5 years, or 25 years? As our 350th anniversary draws closer, we have a myriad of chances to make an impact on this community just as our founding members did in 1665. They stood firm on the promises that continue to be ours to share with the world around us.

I intentionally chose “Awake, my heart” as our anthem this morning because of the limitless opportunities ahead of us. We have that faith, that source of energy, that fountain of life which renews us.

Awake, my heart, and render to God thy sure defender, Thy Maker, thy preserver, a song of love and fervor. Confirm my deeds and guide me: my day, with Thee beside me, beginning, middle ending, will all be upward tending.

Truly, our hearts are re-awakened with a new day before us. Let our deeds be guided by God, and let our songs be filled with love and fervor.

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Beautiful Savior

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