How to introduce new music in churches

I wrote this as a comment elsewhere, and thought it perhaps worth reproducing:

You can get congregations to sing new music, but it takes a bit of work and cooperation from your organist/music director/whoever.

1) If you have one, see if you can get the choir (or music group or what have you) to sing the new tune (possibly to old words!) as a Communion hymn or an anthem a few times.

2) In the weeks running up to the use of the new tune, ask the organist/musicians to play it as part of the processional or recessional voluntary (whichever people are more likely to listen to), or even a short verse after the reading of the Gospel if appropriate.

If people have heard it a few times, they’ll find it much easier to sing.

3) Having sung the new tune, don’t abandon it; use it again in a few weeks time, if possible. (Again, you might want the choir to do this with different words.)

If copyright allows, I also find it helps to include music notation for the melody in whatever the congregation are reading from. At our church we have a fair number who read music “a bit” but don’t sing in the choir, and between them and the ones who pick up tunes quickly by ear, it isn’t so terrible.

4) Try to get people to sit close together. If you are Anglican this is probably the hardest step, but it really does help.

I might add a few more points:

5) Try to make sure the first and last hymn or song of a service are tunes that people do know. I was taught that the first and last notes a musician plays will be what most people remember; this is also true of liturgy, and familiar, well-loved hymns at the beginning and end of a service will be less disorienting.

6) If the music is something people are going to be singing a lot (say, a hymn for Lent with different verses for each Sunday, or a congregational Mass setting), or if it’s a bit difficult (syncopation, changes between triplets and duple quavers, awkward leaps in the melody, changes in harmonic rhythm and so on), it’s worth offering a brief rehearsal at some point so people can go over the tricky bits. Try to make this short (ten minutes is plenty) and don’t expect to get things perfect. Make sure it’s at a time people can attend — after a service is usually best.

7) Try not to introduce new music alongside changes to the general format of services, and don’t introduce too many new things in quick succession, especially if it’s a long time since the congregation has had to sing anything new at all.

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Friday Evensong at St Paul’s-in-the-Camp, 6.15 for 6.30pm.

EDIT, FRIDAY AFTERNOON: It turns out St Paul’s are having Evensong tonight after all, but didn’t tell anyone about it until late morning. While I don’t wish to compete with them, I think we should go ahead and have Evensong outside anyway.
END OF EDIT

On Friday we will have Evensong outside St Paul’s. While the Cathedral has said they will be open for worship, I don’t believe they are having Evensong tomorrow, so I want to go ahead with this. It’s the day for St Simon and St Jude, apostles.

Meet at 6.15pm for 6.30; outside M&S seems to be a reasonable place for it, although we may need to move (especially if there are enough of us to obstruct the walkway).

You can print a copy of the liturgy from here ON THE DAY or from here today (Thursday). Alternately you can follow along online using the same links on a smartphone or using one of the various Common Worship smartphone apps.

The really simple way to do it will be to bring a Book of Common Prayer, though. I have a small number of spares. The Psalm will be Psalm 119.1-16. The Old Testament reading will be 1 Maccabees 2.42-66 and the New Testament reading will be Jude 1-4,17-25.

I did not choose these readings; I want to use the same ones that will be on the Church of England website, for ease of letting others follow along at home or elsewhere. Readers for the readings will be assigned when we meet.

We will sing the psalm and canticles from the Parish Psalter. If you have a Parish Psalter please bring it, even if you don’t sing! These are harder to get hold of than the BCP and I only have a small number.

Unless a conductor volunteers in the next couple of hours, we will stick to the ferial responses. Please bring music to these if you have it; it’s hard to get hold of online and I only have a small number of copies. I will cantor if there are no clergy there who are willing/able to do so.

We will use the same hymns as on Sunday and Wednesday. If you want to print the words to these yourself they are available in .pdf format here. If you want to bring a hymnal to sing harmony I prefer New English Hymnal (note that some of the words are different).

If you don’t have any of these bits of pieces, you can still come! Really. You can look over my shoulder, or someone else’s, or participate in a more reflective manner.

It would be helpful to have a rough idea how many people will be coming along, so if you are planning on it please do leave a comment here. Anonymous comments are fine.

If there are enough singers we might do an anthem — same one as yesterday — but be aware that if numbers are low this will be cut.

Summary:
6.15 for 6.30pm outside M&S, St. Paul’s-in-the-Camp
Liturgy here on the day.
Bring BCP, Parish Psalter, and ferial responses if you have them.
Further updates from @artsyhonker and @FlashEvensong on Twitter.

Multi-tracking chant experiment

This is a brief experiment with multi-tracking chant.

http://player.soundcloud.com/player.swf?url=http%3A%2F%2Fapi.soundcloud.com%2Ftracks%2F19235111 Creator lucis optime (English) by artsyhonker

You see, I’ve got this hare-brained idea about podcasting a sung Compline online, possibly in some kind of Whitacre-style virtual choir. That’s hard to coordinate, with chant: the pulse is directed by the words, so metronome markings are no help, for starters. But gathering together a little schola cantorum to come and sing with me in person once a week or once a month seems equally daunting. And I worry that singing Compline by myself is just going to sound a bit daft; there are too many responsorial bits, really.

So I thought I’d take something simple and see whether I can sing chant with myself, so to speak. In went the headphones and out came the hymnal to select something I’d not sung before. The results are… instructive, really. This will need a lot of work on intonation and timing before I’m happy to do an entire Compline. I did actually cheat and “mute” some sections of some voices in one or two places where the timing was just unbearably out of sync; I didn’t do any other fancy stuff, though. What you hear is what I sang.

I guess if I want an online Compline to be a recording of an actual prayer, rather than something that takes hours of editing and re-recording to get into acceptable shape for posting online, I need to find some people to sing with me, or get used to the idea of singing alone.

There are, of course, other folks who put this sort of thing online. Most seem to be regular “Compline choirs” in the US, who rehearse regularly, or monastic groups with their daily Office available as podcasts. I’m not entirely sure how what I want to offer would be significantly different, and maybe I need to figure that out, too. On a very basic level, I’d like it to be something that encourages people to join in. That means providing links to the text and preferably to notation with the text underlaid, not just an audio file as I have above.

Adventures in hymn selection

In the Common Worship lectionary there are two options for Eastertide. One uses an Old Testament reading, a reading from Acts, and a Gospel reading each week. The other uses an epistle instead of the Old Testament. The point is that Acts is required.

Somehow, I thought we were using the Old Testament readings, and chose hymns accordingly. So this morning we had a lovely reading from Acts, then a letter to Peter or someone, then a gradual hymn which was very much related to the Old Testament reading we hadn’t just heard.

Mix-ups do happen. I planned that we would sing “Allelyua, sing to Jesus” as the Communion hymn on Easter Sunday — what can I say? I like to get as much of that A-word in as I can now we’re allowed to say it again. When I had a closer look at it the night before, I realised that the words to verse two are very much more appropriate for Ascension, particularly “Though the cloud from sight received him when the forty days were o’er”. Oops! Thankfully I caught that one in time to change it.

I usually choose hymns in advance, about a month at a time, sending the list to the vicar for approval (canon law means the incumbent does have the final say). Occasionally we end up caught in the guessing game of trying to figure out which hymns the choir and congregation will already know, and then find out that no, it’s just us who think of some hymn tune as very well-known. I would have expected them to know NUN DANKET ALL for “Jesus, these eyes have never seen”, for example, but at rehearsal on Thursday that turned out not to be the case. We used another Common Meter tune instead, there are enough of them about that it wasn’t a problem!

The other thing that has happened sometimes is that I’ve chosen carefully, the vicar has given a thumbs-up to the choices, and then on Sunday morning we both wonder what on earth we were thinking! Sometimes I can follow the thread of my thoughts backward, sometimes not.

In the great congregation I will praise…

Though my diocesan cathedral in Chelmsford is a bit of a trek for me, I’m privileged in London to be within easy travel distance of both St Paul’s Cathedral and Southwark Cathedral.
Yesterday, partly out of curiosity and partly out of a desire to attend a service that I couldn’t mess up by playing the organ in the wrong place, I attended the Chrism Mass (actually called “The Renewal of Ordination Vows and the Blessing of the Oils” on the order of service) at Southwark Cathedral. In the Church of England, this is the service at which Chrism oils are blessed and at which clergy renew their ordination vows. It was a good service, and I’m glad that I went. The Mass setting by Langlais was perhaps a tad inaccessible, but if you can’t sing Latin and some crunchy harmonies when you’ve got several hundred clergy who all know what the words mean, when can you sing them? Certainly there were bowed heads when the Sanctus came around, so I’m sure the vast majority knew what was going on.

Accessibility was also my concern with the Psalm. The choir sang their verses of Psalm 23 beautifully enough that, at first, I wondered whether my previous disdain for responsorial psalmody might be unjustified. I don’t know whose setting it was; it isn’t the one in the only book of responsorial psalmody I own, and by the time I’ve looked it up anywhere else I’ll probably have forgotten it. It was simple, the text was clear, and when the choir broke into four-part harmony for the last four lines it was simply sublime; I think it was some of the best choral singing I heard during the service.

Why, then, interrupt this with a congregational response? The response itself was interesting enough, but I struggled to remember it correctly after hearing it twice and singing it once. Perhaps I’m just getting too dependent on having dots in front of me! But switching from unmetered chant to a metrical response without some sort of indication of tempo is hard in a small congregation and even harder in a large one. I felt like an unwieldy, oversized ox in a specialist china shop for dolls. I value congregational participation in the psalms, but given the nature of most of the congregation — ordained clergy and the odd “church geek” layperson such as myself — I think that just the chant without any congregational singing might well have been participatory enough. It would have been better had the response had some sort of metrical introduction, but even that might not be heard clearly in an echo-y cathedral with an organ. I was too far away to see the musical director well enough to follow any directions given to the choir.

(The psalm was also labeled as Psalm 133 — a wonderful psalm to use at a Chrism Mass, given the focus on unity and the imagery of oil — but the psalm they sang was definitely Psalm 23. I can only attribute this to a clerical error!)

By contrast, I absolutely loved the hymnody; there is something about singing hymns with several hundred other people singing their hearts out that is just too good for words. I was disappointed we didn’t make it to the end of “Lift high the cross” (which I’ve sung so seldom I didn’t actually remember the tune) and none of the hymns were real favourites of mine, but there was none of the lumbering uncertainty I felt during the psalm. Ordinarily I prefer good metrical hymnody in full parish churches to cathedrals, for some of the same acoustic, aesthetic reasons I didn’t like the psalm response: in a big echo-y space, chances are you’ve got to go slowly enough to spoil the line, and if the place isn’t absolutely rammed (and even sometimes when it is) people tend to sing quietly under their breath so that the general effect is that of an indecisive jellyfish; I usually end up listening carefully for the organ and choir and trying to stick with them while people around me mumble into their hymn books, and I really struggle if there’s a tune I don’t know. But in this instance everyone was singing, the tempo was on the whole right for the space without being too slow to get through a line in one breath, and it was all quite wonderful. I really enjoyed being able to sing without feeling like I had to take the lead for twelve people sitting near me who had no idea what the tune was, and being able to let my voice follow others when I didn’t know the notes. Maybe this is what hymns were like, or could be like, when there was more general enthusiasm about singing. Maybe this is what hymns can still be like if people can be convinced to sing! It was one of the best experiences of congregational singing I’ve had for a long time.

Psalm 130 to Cheshire

This past Sunday — Passion Sunday — was not an All-Age Service, or anything else requiring exceptional liturgy, and so it was back to metrical psalms with a congregational response.

I was pleased with this setting of Psalm 130. The tune I chose is one that we’ll be using on Palm Sunday and which is not terribly well known in the congregation, so sneaking it in as the psalm is one way of getting people used to it. I’m also very fond of the harmony. That said, the dotted rhythms mean it does need to be taken quite slowly in order that the words don’t get swallowed up.

I did stumble at first over the beginning of the last stanza:

“And plenteous redemption
is ever found with him.”

At first glance this doesn’t seem to have the right number of syllables. There should be eight in the first line and six in the second, right? But I know from singing other music that pronunciation has changed; the word “redemption”, which most people now pronounce with three syllables, would have had four. The choir were happier to sing it with four syllables than change the rhythm of the music to make it fit, so that’s what we did.

Here’s the response, taken as usual from the last line of the melody:


And if you want the whole thing, you can download a .pdf file. I played the verse first, then the choir sang the response once through, then the congregation sang it. This seems to work well.

Starts with P and that rhymes with T

Lent approaches fast and, at St Andrew’s at least, this will be a time of penitence, prayer, purple vestments and psalmody.

The latter is my concern. During Advent we tried adapting the Common Worship psalter to a simple plainchant melody from Palmer’s “Manual of Plainsong”. It worked well for the choir, who could rehearse, but the congregation struggled to join in. Even when using the same plainsong melody for the whole season, fitting unfamiliar lines of varying length to the same tune was either too difficult or too unclear.
I feel strongly about congregational participation in church music in general, and psalms in particular. While there is an argument for reverent, contemplative musical worship where a choir sings the psalms on behalf of the rest of the congregation who participate silently, I think that kind of vicarious liturgy is more suited to Choral Evensong. The psalms are a dialogue, a means by which human feelings can be honestly explored and offered to God, and I feel there is something to be gained from very direct participation in sung psalmody.
So this Lent I’m trying another approach: responsorial psalms. The term “responsorial” is a bit of a mis-nomer, I feel, but refers to psalmody in which the main body of the psalm is sung or said by cantor, choir or reader, with a refrain repeated by all present.
A lot of the chanted responsorial psalmody available today is in a particular style of simplified, interpreted Gregorian chant. Murray’s settings of the Grail psalter are by far the best known of this type of recitative chant; and for the Grail translation I understand they work very well. Copyright issues abound, however, and I can’t quite be having with a paperwork fight. New Psalms for Common Worship, compiled by Colin Mawby, also uses this style of responsorial psalmody — and also has copyright issues, as the publisher, Kevin Mayhew, do not take part in the Christian Copyright Licensing Initiative, so I cannot photocopy the chants for the choir to learn or the response for the congregation to read. In addition, the text of the Common Worship psalter, like the beloved Coverdale psalms used in the Book of Common Prayer, was not really designed to make chanting easier, and hard-to-sing accents on the last syllable of the line are common. That might eventually be okay if we had sung or chanted psalmody every weekday or even once a week on Sundays but as things stand, it only has a place during the penitential seasons, unless I get particularly insistent. This is unfamiliar stuff to the majority of the congregation and so it needs to be very easy to pick up. Besides that, I don’t want to limit myself to just one translation or one musical style. There is a rich heritage of English psalmody upon which to draw, and I don’t mean just Anglican Chant, lovely though it can be.
I’m taking a slightly different approach. Several months ago, I attended a RSCM-led psalmody workshop in Salisbury where the director suggested combining Anglican Chant with the refrains of the responsorial psalmody. Writing a refrain certainly isn’t beyond my abilities and having the congregation sing the same refrain, after hearing the choir sing it once, makes it more likely that they’ll be able to join in.
If we can do this with Anglican Chant, why not do it with other styles of psalmody?
For Ash Wednesday, Dr Francis Roads (who also conducts the London Gallery Quire) kindly furnished me with copy in Sibelius of a metrical setting of the first half of Psalm 51. The music is by Playford, set for SAB, and the text is from Sternhold and Hopkins; you can download the manuscript from the International Music Score Library Project. But while the metrical text and regular tune make this easier to learn than chanted psalmody, it’s still a bit much to ask of a congregation with no warning and no rehearsal — or so they would have me believe every time I introduce a hymn someone hasn’t heard for a while! Since I already had a shiny Sibelius file I transposed the entire lot down a tone, and modified the alto part to be less awkward. I also made this response:
to be sung in unison. That line of music, plus all the words, with the refrain in bold type, will be printed in the pew slips for the congregation to follow. As the notes are the same as the last line of the verses, I’m hoping it will be reasonably easy to follow, and that Playford is not turning in his grave.
Of course, the trouble now is that the vicar would quite like the words to all the rest of the psalms for Lent as soon as possible, so I need to find suitable settings and write responses for all of them in a bit of a hurry! I’d like to include a mix of plainchant and metrical psalmody, sticking for the most part to better-known tunes for the latter, but I might go for a chanting tune or two.
So of course this afternoon I’ve been blogging about it, instead of getting on with the actual setting. Next up is Psalm 32.

The Volunteer Organist

Last Sunday I rolled along to Christ Church Wanstead as I often do for Evensong; it’s usually quite a small service and I enjoy turning up, singing, and going away again without having to worry about messing anything up. Evensong doesn’t have to be all cathedrals and choirboys and processions and Stanford; it can be an intimate, quiet occasion, comfortable like an old coat — even if, for me, it’s an old coat I’ve only recently acquired, somewhat by accident.

It wasn’t quite like this Victorian parlour song, but I arrived to find the organist was absent, and somehow I ended up volunteering to play.

Thoughts:
The minister’s decision to say rather than chant the psalm was the right one, given that the congregation was also small that day. I don’t have enough experience of chanted psalmody to be able to do this without at least being able to play through the chant a few times. The canticles were okay though, because the text is more familiar.
My sight-reading isn’t as bad as I thought! But, it isn’t good enough yet that I’d really be happy to do that for a “main” service. I didn’t do myself any favours with tempo and I might have taken things a bit more slowly, especially as at previous services there I’ve found the hymnody leans toward a more stately pace. On the whole I think I would be better off playing the first line or even just the starting notes and then singing: people would likely find that easier to follow than an organ or piano. In fact (and I did discuss this with the minister afterward) there’s a strong argument for two-note chanted psalms and canticles, and unaccompanied hymnody, with so few people and without the usual organist.
Next time, it would be better to spend more time rehearsing the unknown hymns on the electric piano and less time trying to work out how to turn the organ on… and I really should get around to doing some practice at Christ Church, as a change from the instrument I’m learning on at St Andrew’s.

A Response to that "CCM praise songs we can’t stand" meme:

“There are two musical situations on which I think we can be confident
that a blessing rests. One is where a priest or an organist, himself a
man of trained and delicate taste, humbly and charitably sacrifices
his own (aesthetically right) desires and gives the people humbler and
coarser fare than he would wish, in a belief (even, as it may be, the
erroneous belief) that he can thus bring them to God.

“The other is where the stupid and unmusical layman humbly and
patiently, and above all silently, listens to music which he cannot,
or cannot fully, appreciate, in the belief that it somehow glorifies
God, and that if it does not edify him this must be his own defect.
Neither such a High Brow nor such a Low Brow can be far out of the
way. To both, Church Music will have been a means of grace; not the
music they have liked, but the music they have disliked. They have
both offered, sacrificed, their taste in the fullest sense.

“But where the opposite situation arises, where the musician is filled
with the pride of skill or the virus of emulation and looks with
contempt on the unappreciative congregation, or where the unmusical,
complacently entrenched in their own ignorance and conservatism, look
with the restless and resentful hostility of an inferiority complex on
all who would try to improve their taste – there, we may be sure, all
that both offer is unblessed and the spirit that moves them is not the
Holy Ghost.”

– CS Lewis

In response to this meme.

As I’ve said in comments on Phil Ritchie’s blog, I do think that some modern music used in worship is pretty awful. So is some of the older stuff. But this isn’t really about “old” vs “new”; new music doesn’t need to replace more ancient offerings but can exist alongside it, with a bit of liturgical and musical sensitivity. I am definitely not a worship band kind of girl, but that doesn’t mean I don’t want to include as many people as possible. In addition, there are some real theological and aesthetic bloopers among older music, too. Some of it has been sifted out through decades or centuries of persnickety musicians and clergy saying “no more” but some of it is remarkably persistent.

There are significant challenges to anyone trying to create new liturgical music. These include the passive, consumer-oriented nature of many people’s primary musical experiences today, the huge breadth of styles available in popular music (so that emulating one style really won’t make more than a fraction of listeners feel “at home”), the deplorable state of many church instruments (organs are the main things allowed to fall apart, but church pianos can be pretty horrendous too) and the expectation by many churchgoers of not having to engage with anything that doesn’t fit them exactly.

These challenges are real, but they are not insurmountable.

I believe:
  • people will always respond better to good music, performed well and with some liturgical sensitivity, than to bad music that is not in context
  • there is a lot of really good music, old and new, that people simply don’t know about because they only ever experience what happens at their local parish church or at larger gatherings where the music is chosen for familiarity
  • the fact that people are complaining about the music at all, in any capacity, shows that they care… there must be a way to harness this enthusiasm!
So I ask:

  1. What is your favourite piece of music for congregational singing? Why?
  2. What is your favourite piece of music for performance by a group of specialist musicians within a liturgical context? This might be a worship band or a cathedral choir or just a very snazzy organist or something else entirely, but the point is that it is not congregational singing and it is live music in liturgy.
  3. What is your favourite piece of music which makes you think about God to listen to outside of your place of worship? Why? This could be secular music.
  4. What is one thing you like about the music at your usual place of worship? Have you told the musicians about this lately?

"Go quietly to bed"

Sunday evening, I had the privilege of singing Compline with the choir at St Mary’s Addington. I started attending services in the parish once in a while in order to visit a friend of mine who is Curate there, but the community — and especially the choir — has become a real resource for me. As an organist working in a C of E church but who doesn’t come from an Anglican background it’s been excellent to be exposed to some of the standard repertoire from the rehearsal side as well as hearing it sung in services and, eventually, joining in and even conducting from time to time; they also did me the honour of singing a piece I composed. I’ve always been made very welcome and if the journey from Leytonstone weren’t so silly I’m sure I would want to be there more often.

Anyway, Compline. I hadn’t ever attended a Compline service before, not even a said one, so this was a new experience for me, though I’m familiar with the general shape of the liturgy. I’ve had a bit of a brush with chant notation in other contexts, and it’s pretty straightforward to read if you’re already good at transposition, so that wasn’t a problem for me. I struggled a bit more with the psalm pointing but once I got the hang of it that was also straightforward. The service was by candle light, and very atmospheric. Choir and cantor sang well; that sort of unaccompanied unison singing is harder to do well than you might imagine, but the pitch stayed pretty stable throughout and I think the timing was good.
Compline is the last Office of the day and it is traditional to go quietly to bed afterward, without speaking and certainly without any cavorting about. I can certainly see how after singing the service in the cosy intimacy of St Mary’s, going home quietly and to bed without further ado would be quite welcoming even if it meant a fairly early night. That option was, alas, not open to me: my journey from Leytonstone to Addington had been by bicycle, then train, then tram, and so on the way back I did the same in reverse (well, I didn’t ride the bicycle backward, that doesn’t work…). I wouldn’t say I was cavorting, exactly, but even on a Sunday night in London one must keep one’s wits about oneself on a bicycle. Still, I’m very grateful for having had the opportunity to go.