Monday, September 28, 2009


The weekend was spent with the Chancel Choir - or a good portion of the Choir, anyway. I'm always surprised that people will give so much of their time for Choir, and then give above and beyond at a Retreat. And stay cheerful. And then be thankful for it. It is a reminder of the greatness of this work - the church choir.

Reflections on why this is so might be apt and timely, but today I am simply thankful, and here is what for:
  • A great workshop on choral musicianship, by voice professor (and bass singer in this choir), Gerard Sundberg. His overarching theme - why shouldn't a group that sings together week after week, year after year, be getting better? What a novelty! By way of introducing two of our retreat octavos, he helped us raise our game on Accuracy, Diction, Musicality. For me, it was like attending a conducting workshop.
  • A nice new anthem introduced by its arranger (and bass singer in this choir), Greg Wheatley. His setting of the Welsh hymn "Here Is Love" (William Rees) with a Robert Lowry tune (Hope Publishing) is a lovely gospel gem.
  • New octavos for Christmas - From Alice Parker's triptych Shepherds and Angels, the carol "Behold! the Grace Appears." And from Malcolm Archer, on a Timothy Dudley-Smith text, "Gold for a Manger Bed." These became instant choir favorites, and for some I think they made the weekend worth the trouble!
  • Good refreshments, a great lunch, and a chance to hang out together without the press of a late night or a huge agenda.

Now, there were also some planning blunders. In my typical fashion, I put too much repertoire on for the event. We will do two extended works for the Christmas Festival, each about 12 minutes in length: Pergolesi (Durante?) Magnificat and Conrad Susa A Christmas Garland. They are well within the choir's reach, and we have an ample 10 more weeks to work on them. But in retrospect, I should have introduced only one of them (and it could have been either one) - and spent more time on that one, with the result of making more obvious progress on something big, rather than giving a sense of - oh, I don't know, dread? - at the end of a fire hose. I wouldn't change the way either piece was introduced, I just should not have introduced both of them.

We did have two familiar Christmas pieces which provided excellent balance, relief, and sheer pleasure. In addition to learning the earlier mentioned new octavos, picking up these old favorites "rescued" our Saturday repertoire session: "What Child Is This?" (Hal Hopson, Hope Publishing) and "All Is Well" (Smith/arr. Huff). And because of the raising our game workshop, coming back to these old friends was like hearing them anew. What fun!

For many in the choir, the highlight of a fall retreat is our service of commitment and prayer. We gather in the loft, sing, read, pray and wait in silence, and incorporate our new general anthems into this service. What a rich experience, with women and men who make each weekly rehearsal an act of worship.

Monday, September 21, 2009

The last Sunday night service in town?

I was at a social gathering about a month ago, enjoying the chance to catch up with friends from New Zealand. Guy Jansen had covered my duties during a sabbatical 5 years ago, during the academic year in which he was also covering 2 choral sabbaticals at the Wheaton Conservatory. He and Judy became good friends with many in the area, and as they were passing through town a barbecue was planned so we could all catch up with them.

Also present was a church music colleague who commented that "College Church is now the last church in Wheaton with a Sunday night service." Whether or not that is technically true, it is practically true. And this friend was simply informing me that his own church had decided to stop limping along with a struggling Sunday eve concept and attendance. (Strangely, the decision to cancel the service was made while he was out of the country! Not that he seemed to mind...) I do know that only a few years ago, when Wheaton College surveyed the colleges with which they have some relationship (staff or students or alumni), of over 100 churches in the area only 7 reported having regular Sunday night services.

I'll say right here that I have long felt it would be OK by me to be called to serve a church that does not have a service on Sunday evening. Especially if that church had multiple morning services, even in one "style." I'm not looking for a job change, don't get me wrong. But there's many a Sunday afternoon when I wish I did not have to get back to prepare and lead the evening service. (On the other hand, there are a very, very few services when I regret having done so. For which, read on.) At the same time, my Karen and I found ourselves surprised about the Sunday evening option, on sabbatical in 2004.

Our top priority while away was to be in a place where we could enjoy gathered worship, and spend Sunday evenings at home, with friends, family, and in fellowship with others in our sabbatical church home. So, imagine our surprise when from the very first Sunday away, we were drawn back to an evening service, thoroughly enjoyed our time there, and ended up in that pattern for the season. Naturally, for us, the experience was very different because we did not have responsibilities and duties in and for the service. What a rich summer we had at St. Andrew the Great, the Round Church, Cambridge, Summer Sunday evenings, 2004!

I reflect on that again today because yesterday was another of "those days." After a full, rich morning, what a pleasure it would have been to sit down to a leisurely dinner with others, no concern for the clock, no early trip back to church for the PM music rehearsal, to stay in blue jeans for the rest of the day, and to watch the sunset from our garden porch. And yet.

And yet, to work with musicians who are all about helping people sing. To stand in front of this congregation who love to sing. To hear a well-prepared sermon from someone who knows and loves God's Word and God's people. To hear and take part in the buzz of friendship and introductions after the service. To get back home with a sense that the day is complete.

College Church is the only church I have belonged to and not grown tired and disaffected with the evening service. It is the only church that has had a clear purpose for this service, and hewn closely to that purpose: gather, sing heartily, hear a well-prepared sermon, end the Lord's Day together. Not that the church at large "gets it" - we still only have about 15% of our morning attendance* back in the evening. But it is a cross-generational crowd, and man do they sing!

We may be the only game in town, but it's still a good one, and most Sundays when I get home - tired, retreating, and hungry - I'm glad we're still playing.

* To be fair, we do have another 200+ children in the building for choirs and Musikgarden classes. So that puts us closer to 30%, I suppose.

Monday, September 14, 2009


I have spent this afternoon tackling the mounds on my desk. Granted, they should not accumulate in the first place. But, given that they do, this is hardly the time to be sorting them out. Where did August go? Now with the fall in full early swing, this ought to have been long done.

A tidy desk is definitely one of those unattainable but oh so attractive objectives in my life. I admire a tidy desk. A desk that gleams when the door is locked for the night, that is a beautiful thing. But it is not my desk. As I sit at my keyboard now, to my left are the stacks of music in progress or in waiting - guitar concertos for an upcoming afternoon concert, Christmas music, anthems to be filed away, a student composer's string quartet. To my upper right (NE, so to speak) - CDs that I have just played, intend to play, or tried to play and could not. Just beyond them, phone central, behind which is a short bookshelf with things I (supposedly) need to put my hands on often and quickly: hymnals, bibles, reference books, Sibelius users manual, "Introduction to Latin" (wait, what?), and a growing stack of CDs I am unlikely to open, much less listen to, but you know, I might, I might. Atop the shelves, publishers' recommendations. (Thankfully, I am on very few of those mailing lists.) To my immediate right, the desk blotter, and now I can see its entire surface; even that much, I am ridiculously proud of, when I walk out at night and my blotter is free of paper. Continuing to the far right and behind (SE, you might say) are the working vestiges of my afternoon organizing.

Some time ago, someone helped me deal with the paper blizzard (thinking in that metaphor, it must have been in Minnesota) with the acronym TRAF: Toss, Read, Act, File. It is important to get the acronym in the right order, for at least two reasons. The one I'll mention here is based on the old saw, "the quicker you file something, the longer it takes to find it." I think I know what that means, but the practical side of that is that paper piles up on my desk! So, one does not start the process - and definitely not the acronym - from the Filing end.

Toss - this is my favorite. My recycle basket fills up fast, and it looks like I'm accomplishing a lot from the get go. I rarely have regrets about things that get tossed. If they are overdue, they generally were not that important. I hardly ever find something that makes my heart sink with regret. One of the few perqs of procrastination.

Read - my first pile, on my left, and the last one I'll get to at the end of the process. Things I should read, whether they will take a minute or hours. I'm not going to sit down now and read them, but I know at the end of the day what reading is ahead of me.

Act - this is my "oh oh!" pile. As in, "oops, I should have done this by now." It may also include things that are on my own, self-imposed, long-range projects list. It is a pile that has to be got to, though not necessarily urgently. I may be able to dispatch the Act pile right away, but in any case it will be my work cut out for me.

File - finally, what is left can be put away. Today's Files went into my choir resources (Stuff that had accumulated for rehearsals, newsletters, and my own choral development), into general files, and that sweet folder "encouragement."

Now with everything sorted, I have a clear(-ish) desk, a better handle on the resources and materials at my immediate disposal, and an agenda for getting at some important work matters. My Act pile turned out to be smaller than I feared, and my Read pile more interesting than I dared hope. (Much of the Read pile is music, it turns out. Yippee!)

So, today was TRAFic control, and a timely exercise it was. I have just ordered my autumn weeks to provide blocks of time for a weekly definition and pursuit of goals, for a protected time monthly to keep up with my professional reading, and for a quarterly session off-site - an afternoon and morning "retreat."

Now to press on, in hope ...