Posted 2 years 56 days ago ago by Vern Sanders 1 Comments
A Peer to Peer Report on What Worked...and Why...
As this is written, Easter Sunday is on the horizon. Many music ministry programs close down for the summer directly after Easter, and some after Pentecost. Even if your program goes year around, I think it is useful, at the end of every “season,” to take stock of what worked, and what didn't. I also think it is important to keep a record of what you've learned, so that you don't continue to make the same mistakes.
Whether your ministry is a “short season” or you never get a week away, whether your church is affluent or or your program is financially limited, every weekend in our churches is a potential learning moment fraught with possibilities to work toward meaningful, excellent worship. That's why I've always been a fan of peer-to-peer conversations about what works and what doesn't. Sharing what we've learned not only helps each other do ministry better, it increases our corporate knowledge base for the next generation who will inherit the fruits of our labor.
In that spirit, I'd like to tell you what I learned over this past few weeks.
I was able, this year, after two full years of “English only,” to introduce, and have my choir conquer, singing in latin and German in successive weeks. That is a bit of trial by fire, but I don't control the pastor's preaching topic schedule, and the two pieces – O Bone Jesu by renaissance composer Loyset Compere, and Patience and Simplicity (one of the movements of Psalm Cyklus) by contemporary Canadian composer Leonard Enns – just “fit.”
The practical tools part of this is that by singing in latin, and a cappella, the choir was able to spend a significant amount of time working on unifying vowels. The Compere piece also allowed me to show and tell (and work on) the concepts of arsis and thesis, and that had an immediate impact upon the choir's ability to sing long phrases musically as well as textually. The Enns piece juxtaposed English and German, which meant that we were able to discuss “telling the story” even when it was not in a language that people would immediately understand.
The week following the foreign language sequence, we sang Come, Christians Join to Sing by Mark Hayes. It's one of those great pieces that alternates a syncopated setting of the hymn with an interpolated Alleluia which feels quite classical in contrast.
The practical tools part of this is that working on syncopations is always helpful in order for a choir to be able to sing more contemporary music. At the same time the contrast between the two styles needed to be very clear, which meant the choir could work on flexibility of switching tone to match style.
Without warning the choir, I asked my rhythm section to play with me on this anthem, and got to solve a couple of other practical problems at the end of the rehearsal process. First, it gave me a chance to work with the bass player and drummer on playing together (with the keyboard) as a unit – synchronizing the kick drum with the bass and my left hand, for instance. It also meant I could work with the players on changing feels for the Alleluia section – we settled on opening up the drummer's left hand from punching the syncopations to playing on beat 3 only, and had the bass play only one note per measure, which lightened up the texture and allowed the choir vocals to ride over the top as opposed to being a part of the rhythmic ensemble.
On the choir side, it meant that the singers needed to adjust to a new blend and balance reality. As a result, among other things, I could work on bringing the articulation point of their sound to the front of their face in order to deliver the text clearly. It also brought them an entirely different kind of joy than the one they had experienced by singing a latin motet in tune.
We are doing (did, by the time you read this) a lot of music for Easter: Easter Introit by John Ferguson, Raise Your Joys and Triumphs High, which is a setting of Christ the Lord is Risen Today, arranged by Mary McDonald, A Hymn of Resurrection by Gwyneth Walker, and Joel Raney's large scale arrangement of Because He Lives. This latter piece is set for piano and organ, brass, and bells. The choir doesn't come in until about measure 120. The rest involve everything but the second keyboard, and the Walker piece does not include bells.
The practical tools part of this is that because we don't have an organ, I've asked my guest pianist to bounce back and forth between the two keyboard parts in the Raney piece in order to maintain continuity. Plus, although I knew it would be great, after hearing it in rehearsal, and because of where it was to be placed in the service, I knew that the congregation needed to sing during the piece. So between the dress rehearsal (10 days ahead of time because of Maundy Thursday – there's another practical tip – and Easter, I cobbled together choir/congregation parts from several hymnals, so the choir has had to figure out where to enter by listening and getting a cue. I told them it was a lot like working in a recording studio...nothing is ever done until it is done (mea culpa Joel, but I think it works well). I bought the Ferguson and the McDonald pieces in part because they were in the same key, and by overlapping a measure, could go directly from one to the other. That taught the choir about drama and timing in terms of their communication of the message of the two texts.
Having the brass and bells with the choir also meant that we had to work on the practicality of the logistics (follow the baton, don't worry about whether or not it seems like it is together where you sit...it is my job to keep it together for the congregation, and you'll have to trust that I know what I'm doing...just stay on the stick...) as well as balance issues.
There's one more thing that needs to be said. Although it may seem like it, I'm not bragging about the size of my program. I don't have a choir of 200...instead on most Sundays it is one tenth that size. I don't have a big budget...the elders needed to take a leap of faith on the costs of hiring the brass. So if you are thinking “I could never do that at my church; we don't have the resources,” I would ask you to think again. Practically speaking, people can accomplish great things when they are shown how to do so (see The Conductor as Educator), and when they are presented with a vision that challenges them. The key component to growth, in my experience, is the attitude and preparation of the leader. It's a cliché, but I've found it to be true: if you think you can or if you think you can't you're right.
Vern has served in some form of church music and worship leadership for 40 years in a variety of denominations both in the US and in Canada. He is currently Director of Music at First Presbyterian Church, Templeton, California. He regularly consults with churches and church leaders. Click on his name above to email him.
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