Monthly Archives: July 2010

Thoughts on the Journey

I was practicing the double fugue from J. S. Bach’s Passacaglia in C minor today, and suddenly felt a pang of nostalgia.  As some of you may know, I took a rather unconventional path to a career in church music, one that led through 15 years in the vinyl siding business.  My older brother Charlie owned the business, and I worked for him during my high school summers.  When I graduated, I went into vinyl siding full time, eventually becoming his partner.  Ours is a blue collar family, filled with auto mechanics, union laborers, carpenters and factory workers.  No one I knew had ever made music their career, so I never considered it an option. 

It was the mid seventies, and Charlie had installed an 8-Track Player in his pickup.  He was a child of the 50’s, raised on Elvis, Buddy Holly and the Coasters, but by this time he was listening to a varied repertoire of tunes, Mountain, Cream, Uriah Heep, Yes, Chicago etc.  One day, he popped in a home recorded tape, and I heard the opening fanfare of Bach’s Toccata in D minor, played on a pipe organ at ear splitting volume.  The recording was “Heavy Organ” by the great Virgil Fox.  At the time, Virgil was working for the Rogers Electronic organ company, touring the country with a four manual electronic pipe organ, 144 speakers and a professional light show.  (Search Virgil Fox on YouTube)  He played all the major rock concert venues, including the Fillmore East, where “Heavy Organ” was recorded.  He also used the concerts to promote Bach’s music.  A consummate showman and a brilliant player, audiences loved his evangelizing sermons about Bach and his music.  The Passacaglia is the final track on the recording.  I heard it once and said, “Man, I’d love to be able to play that stuff.”  It took almost 30 years, but I’m finally there, thanks to Charlie and Virgil.

Charlie lost a long battle with multiple sclerosis and passed away in March of 1998 at the age of 56.  I played the organ at his funeral, including a setting of “For all the Saints” by Leo Sowerby, which I dedicated to him in thanksgiving for introducing me to organ music and unknowingly planting the seeds of my future career.  While he probably wasn’t familiar with the hymn tune, I’m sure he appreciated the volume level.

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Live Jazz on the Library Steps

 

The St. George Jazz Ensemble

We’re back from a great show last night at the downtown library.  The St. George Jazz Ensemble plus  the St. George Voices played on the steps of the Headquarters Library on Caroline Street with several hundred people in attendance.  The heat moderated a bit for us and the audience, who got to hear some fine swing, latin grooves and ballads.  The Voices opened the show with the National Anthem, in a jazz flavored arrangement by Darmon Meader.  The band followed up with Shoshona, an up tempo Latin Jazz tune by Mark Levine.  Great solos by all, including a percussion duel with Slam on drums and Marion on congas.  Tunes followed by  Duke, Henry Mancini, Mongo Santamaria and Herbie Hancock, the Voices filled in with a nice bossa by Darmon Meader and Peter Eldrige, then the band ended the set with tunes by Frank Sinatra and Dizzy Gillespie.  The audience was very appreciative.  One person commented: “What a wonderful gift to the community.”  We played a Sonny Rollins blues tune, “Sonnymoon for two,”  for an encore and called it night.  

 

Many thanks to the players: Rob, Lisa, David, Nathan, Earl, Stephen, Becky, Alan, Slam, Tres, and Marion.  We’re having some fun now you betcha…..  

Thanks also to the Voices, Mary, Cindy, Abbey, and Todd.  Great tuning under less than ideal conditions.  

Special thanks to Slam, for filling in many times for our regular drummer Brian, currently on assignment in Afghanistan.  We expect him back in a few weeks.  

The St. George Jazz Ensemble has been around for close to five years.  There’s been a lot of great music and even more laughs.   Several years ago at a rehearsal in the gallery, I mentioned that we’d just played some pretty hip stuff, which made us all “Jazz Cats.”  Brian the drummer replied: “Well if we’re all cats, then this must be the litter box.”  I love my job……. 

For a slide show of the event: http://picasaweb.google.com/105544391348192369115/StGeorgeSJazzEnsembleOnTheLibrarySteps#slideshow/5498879399114161266

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Sacred Jazz

People often ask me how we get away with playing jazz during a church service.  I don’t think that we’re getting away with anything.  In my opinion, beauty is beauty, regardless of musical genre.  Bach wrote a lot of secular music for organ, preludes and fugues for example, that were and still are played in many churches every Sunday, since that’s where most of the pipe organs are.  (I’ll be right there with them when our new pipe organ is installed in a few months.) We’ve been listening to them in church for 350 years and there’s nothing sacred about them.  We do , however, associate them with the prelude before the service and look on them as a cue to get our spiritual house in order for worship.   At St. George’s, we’re using instrumental Jazz to achieve the same end.

Jazz, when it was the dominant popular music in America,  was associated with the dance hall, supper club and tavern.  It was party music.  In todays musical world, it has moved into the realm of art music, a niche market with a solid fan base where the music is sometimes complex and difficult for the uninitiated to understand, or in the case of smooth jazz, a pleasant background sound for the 5 day forecast on the Weather Channel.  From our perspective, the average person in the pew on Sunday in not a music historian.  They might recognize the second movement of Mozart’s “Concerto for Clarinet”, or not. They might remember that the original recording of “Naima” by John Coltrane, was played on sax rather than a clarinet, which is how we perform it. Most people, don’t hear the genre or make a cultural connection, they just recognize that both are beautiful pieces of music.  The fact is that the music we program in churches is grounded in the history and culture of the community that we serve.  In programming Jazz at one Sunday service, we are pushing the cultural envelope a bit, but we are also educating people who don’t listen to or know about this great American music. 

“But what about the theology?”  “How can you justify using a piece of music that has no connection with the sacred?”

If the composer didn’t make one for you, make your own.  I once wanted to program an anthem for the choir at a previous church, a setting of the Robert Frost poem, “The Road Not Taken”.  I ran it by the Rector ,who replied: “The Gospels didn’t end with the Evangelists.  The Word of God comes to us anew through the inspiration and writings of those who followed them.”

Thad Jones, the great Flugelhorn player, wrote one of the great ballads of all time: “A Child is Born.”  It’s a slow waltz with a stunning solo melody on Flugelhorn, the more mellow cousin of the trumpet.  We play it every Christmas Eve at the prelude at our Jazz Service.  It is not a Christmas song and has no connection with the Sacred at all.  But every Christmas Eve, its sheer beauty  moves a lot of people, some to tears, as they contemplate the Nativity of our Savior.  We’re changing the culture, one tune at a time.

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Reality vs. Expectation

Dr. Tim Lautenheiser is a renowned motivational speaker for music educators.  I’ve heard him speak several times and have always come away feeling energized and renewed.  His presentations use humor and story telling to great effect in describing the place where music educators live .  He shares a story about a first year choral teacher at their first rehearsal, who discovers that the composition of his/her choir is less than perfect. “25 sopranos, 15 altos, 3 basses and 1 tenor????? What will we sing??? We can’t do the Messiah!'” 

The story illustrates what happens when expectation collides with reality.  An expectation of choral sound collides with a real live choir.  My suggestion: Start with the live choir and revise the expectation until there’s a good match.  Who are they? What are their abilities? How regular is their attendance?  Those of us who attempt to perform a piece of music while ignoring those details do so at their own peril.  A choir is an extension of the faith community that it serves, which is timely, since it takes an enormous amount of faith to surmount the challenges facing such an ensemble.  A church choir is expected to provide a changing repertoire of professional quality choral music every Sunday with only 2 hours of rehearsal, sometimes less.  While they may have a great deal of experience, most singers in these groups are amateurs.  They don’t have music degrees. Some have no musical education beyond high school.  Many don’t read musical notation well.  However, they uniformly love what they do and realize that singing in a choir is one of life’s great blessings.  How do they do it?

Someone once asked me why we don’t use paid professional choristers, so that we can be sure to have great music every week.  “If we pay them, they have to show up and we can all rest easy.”  I don’t agree.  A church music program is an extremely visible mirror of how healthy a faith community is.  No one would ever suggest: “Why don’t we hire a professional congregation to sit in the pews with us, and help out with the hymns and prayers.  If we pay them, they’ll have to appreciate the sermon and we can all rest easy.”   The energy of an all volunteer music group emanates from the community that it serves.  I worked at a large church in western New York State  for a few years before I was called to St. George’s.  I checked attendance records and found that in 1956, there were 1100 people at the principal service on Easter Sunday.  They had a large choir, many of whom were paid.  The congregation began to shrink during the exodus to the suburbs in the 1960’s, and soon the entire choir was paid.  When I arrived on staff, the congregation on Sunday morning numbered 20-30.  The previous director had continued to pay the choir until budget constraints. (they had been spending down the endowment fund),  forced him to stop.  He was convinced  that the paid choir was necessary and resigned rather than work without it.  Since there had been no visible connection between the choir and the health of the congregation, the remaining members couldn’t see what decline the community was in until is was too late.  They had great music every Sunday, and couldn’t understand why the pews were still empty.

A music program, no matter how professional or talented, cannot sustain a community alone.  Rather, it draws its energy from the folks in the pews.  So enjoy the anthem.  We couldn’t do it without you.

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The Children’s Music Page

We’ve set up an information page for our Music Programs for children.  It’s in development at the moment, but we’ll let you all know the minute it comes out of the oven.

At the moment we’re approaching the finale of our summer children’s music camp, which finishes tonight with a performance of an original play by Malanna Carey based on the story of  Jonah  and the Whale, directed by Carey Chirico, with original music by Becky Stewart, our director of children’s music.  It promises to be a fun event for all, and once again reminds me of how many talented and creative people we have at St. George’s, both on staff and off.

Break a leg everyone!

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Ruminations on Growth

St. George’s Music Program has experienced steady growth in the past five years.  (Check yesterday’s post for a short description.) Here are some thoughts. 

Like many people in my profession, I’m a member of the American Guild of Organists, or AGO.  I tried the Northern Virginia Chapter when I relocated here, but couldn’t make any of the events due to the long commute and my full schedule, so I switched to the Richmond Chapter, which made for an easier commute to not attend their events due to my schedule conflicts.  I miss the collegiality of the organization, whose mission is to promote the pipe organ.  Since most of us have church jobs, there’s plenty to discuss: how many choirs, how many services, rehearsals, favorite repertoire, condition and size of the pipe organ, “problem children” and of course, what does the future look like for you?  For me, two things usually emerge from these discussions:

1. When I describe our program, most people respond with wonder: “I’m so jealous that you have all those great people to work with!”  or disbelief: “They let you play Jazz in church? How did you manage that?”

2. Fear. Organists working in the age of  Praise and Worship music and the growth of mega churches at the expense of mainline denominations are concerned that their way of life and the music they love will be pushed out by the contemporary, the great new musical things, which exist in copious quantity in our fast moving information age.

At St. George’s, we have embraced two different musical genres that don’t use pipe organ, Jazz and Celtic.  For some, that would mean that the pipe organ is slipping in importance in our community and will eventually fade away.  This is not the case.  In fact, a brand new 3-manual tracker organ will arrive at St. George’s in a few months.  What’s our secret?  How did we accomplish all this?

Step 1: We recognized that a church music program is a reflection of the faith community that it serves.  We began with our people, and organized our music program around them.  How many people do we have, what’s their level of ability, and what repertoire can we perform that will make them sound great?

Step 2: We kept the door open for people to share their gifts as often as they liked.  Our Handbell choir director met with me when I first arrived and asked how often the bell choir could perform.  I replied, “As often as you want.”  This floored her, as in previous years, the ensemble, 12 volunteers who rehearsed regularly, had to beg for a chance to perform.  They now perform weekly at alternate services.  One of my young singers asked. “Can I play my sax sometime?”  Six months later we had a Jazz ensemble playing Miles Davis and Coltrane at the prelude and postlude and morphing into a church orchestra for the hymns and service music.

Step 3: We value our volunteer musicians, expect them to behave like pros, and offer multiple education opportunities for them so that they can grow spiritually, personally and musically.  We have no paid musicians apart from staff.

Step 4: We never say no to an opportunity. We acquired conga drums, so we added Latin Jazz to our repertoire and trained one of our cellists to play them.

Is managing all of this complicated and sometimes difficult? Yes.  Is it worth it?  Definitely.  I once asked my undergraduate organ professor if she thought I had a future in this business.  She replied that I certainly did as a teacher or performer, so what would I like to do? I said, “A full time church gig is speaking to me.”  She replied, “That’s admirable. Just remember that a full time church job is an 80 hour week.”  She was being conservative, but it’s all worth it.

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Music at St. George’s Five Years Along

July 1 was my fifth anniversary as Director of Music Ministries at St. George’s.  When I arrived here in 2005, there was one adult choir that sang at the one Eucharist with music, a small children’s choir that performed occasionally and a Handbell choir that performed once a month. I had a mandate from the Vestry to add a second service with music, the only requirement being that I not use the organ for the new service.

Here’s where we are now, five years later: 3 Eucharists with music, three adult choirs, two of which perform weekly, a growing children’s choir that performs monthly,  a 10 piece Jazz ensemble and 7 piece chamber ensemble that perform weekly, a Celtic ensemble that performs weekly and a Handbell choir that performs weekly at alternate services.  In addition, over the past year alone, we offered free monthly Jazz and Chamber Music Concerts to the community, birthed a Chamber Orchestra, acquired a 2 manual harpsichord and hosted several nationally known choirs and ensembles.

We’ve added a part time music position and increased our volunteer music leadership by providing continuing education opportunities.  As we speak, our new pipe organ is nearing completion and I get regular inquiries for info about joining our music program.

All of this growth occurred despite being without our worship space and organ for a substantial period of time.  We at St. George’s have been truly blessed in our musical endeavors, a blessing that reaches out to others.  Consider this quote from a visitor :  ,”They must all be professionals down from DC, maybe members of the  Symphony…the clarinetist was extremely good… the  piano player was great… the cantor was excellent.” 

And this one from a regular attendee: “The prelude sounded like a recording! It was so beautiful.”

I’m extremely proud of and grateful to all the musicians in our choral and instrumental programs, who selflessly donate their time and talents to enhance our worship.  Working with these people is a gift that keeps on giving.  Onward and upward…..

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