My last in-person rehearsal with my two youth choirs at Holy Trinity Lutheran Church was Wednesday, March 11. I did not know until the following day, however, that it would be the last time I’d see those singers for the foreseeable future. When I found out, my heart sank. Our youth choir program has been a thriving and committed community within our congregation for over 20 years. Friendships among children and their parents have taken root over Wednesday night meals at church and after-choir games of tag out on the lawn, and lifelong singers have been nurtured. I’ve always felt that this ministry is as much about building relationships as it is about making music. Faced with the dire predictions about the pandemic, I knew that it would be important to help us all maintain some sense of connection and continuity during this uncertain time. I wanted to make sure the children could still see their friends. I wanted to keep them singing. And I was already mourning the loss of the joy they bring to my life. I needed them as much as I hope they needed me.Read More > >
When someone asks me about the benefits of intergenerational choral experiences in the church, I think of Thomas, a college student majoring in music. Throughout his childhood and youth, he benefited from a variety of musical experiences at church, including singing in the children’s and youth choirs, and, as he grew, performing as an instrumentalist. He also participated in intergenerational choirs several times per year. As a child, he heard harmony around him for the first time. When his voice changed, he gained vocal confidence because he was able to sit among strong, adult male voices. Because the combination of choirs meant increased numbers of singers and the vocal security that brings, the anthem could be a bit more musically challenging.Read More > >
by Jonathan Kohrs
Even though the season after the Epiphany is considered part of “ordinary” time (ordered, or counted, as in “ordinal” numbers: the Second, Fourth, or Seventh Sundays after Epiphany), I’d like to share with you some well-crafted—but not too difficult—pieces for this season that are a bit “out of the ordinary,” especially regarding harmonic language and voicing.Read More > >
Zebulon Highben is a popular composer in the Augsburg Fortress catalog. In this interview, we learn how he got started as a composer, what he does today, and how he thinks about the writing process.
Could you tell us about your current job/vocation, outside of composing?
I am Associate Professor of Music and Director of Choral Activities at Muskingum University, a liberal arts college of the Presbyterian Church (USA). I direct the choral program there and teach conducting, choral methods, choral literature, andRead More > >
One of my favorite collections of songs for children is the book Sing the Stories of Jesus by John Horman and Mary Nelson Keithahn. It is chock-full of songs based on various stories from the Gospels, some well-known stories and some that are often overlooked. Several songs are simple enough to be used for Sunday School groups, but all are perfect for young singers in choirs. They cover events of Jesus' life from the angels' Gloria at his birth to Breakfast by the Sea after the resurrection. Instructions for teaching are included for each song as well as an accompaniment CD if you need it. Over time, I have taught and directed many of these songs, but I'd like to share the way I have taught, embellished, and performed four of my favorites from this collection.Read More > >
How many weddings have you provided music for over the course of your career? I stopped counting at fifty, but I would estimate I have played for over 200 weddings. Over the years, I have compiled a list of my “go to” repertoire, as, I’m sure, every church musician has done. In this post, I list tried and true piano pieces that I play often for wedding ceremonies. Some are easy, while others are more difficult. Consider adding some of these pieces to your own wedding repertoire, if you do not already include them. All of the sacred pieces are available for download through Prelude Music Planner. Most of the classical pieces are in the public domain and are available for free through the International Music Score Library Project (www.imslp.org). Hyperlinks are included to IMSLP webpages where you can print PDF files of the music.*Read More > >
A focused choral camp or retreat for young musicians is a great way to get a program year off to a healthy start. Consider a music camp Monday through Friday for 2-3 hours each day, or a daylong retreat on a Saturday before the school year resumes.Read More > >
“Poet, painter, music-maker, all your treasures bring …”
—David Mowbray, “Come to Us, Creative Spirit” (ELW 687, st. 2)
Throughout this anniversary year, many of our congregations have been invited into deeper engagement with aspects of the Reformation’s musical heritage, both in thought and practice. Venerable chorales have been clothed in fresh arrangements and gathered in collections such as Anne Krentz Organ’s Piano Reflections on Chorale Tunes and Karl Osterland’s A Wittenberg Collection: Lutheran Chorales for Organ. In the 2017 edition of Sundays and Seasons, Mark Mummert reminds us how the Hymn of the Day originated and why it remains central to the assembly’s proclamation. Those who participated at this year’s Institute of Liturgical Studies met around the theme, “Liturgy Serving The Life of the Church: How Worship Re-forms Us.” The Association of Lutheran Church Musicians will hear plenaries at their July 2017 conference about “Re-forming Congregational Song” and “Re-Membering the Role of the Cantor.”
Though this is a blog devoted to musical planning, we musicians do well to remember that a thoughtful anniversary commemoration should also engage the Reformation’s artistic heritage. In addition to musical decisions, many of us carry some responsibility for choices about visual art—bulletin covers, posters, Facebook banners, newsletter articles—seen by both lifelong congregation members and first-time visitors. While we like to cite Luther’s musicianship and his awareness of music’s pedagogical and formative power, we sometimes forget that he was equally attuned to how the Word is proclaimed in ways that engage the eyes. In Wittenberg, he was a close friend of the artist Lucas Cranach the Elder, 1472–1553, and heavily involved in the production of his writings by the Wittenberg presses. In 1518, after receiving proofs for one of his publications, Luther complained to a friend that, “it is printed so poorly, so carelessly and confusedly, to say nothing of the bad typefaces and paper”!(Andrew Pettegree, Brand Luther: 1517, Printing, and the Making of the Reformation, 140)
The print revolution of Luther’s time is not unlike the digital revolution of our own: decisions about the placement of words and images in blogs, e-newsletters, bulletins continue to require thoughtful care, for each offers an invitation to encounter the holy. In her 2004 book The Substance of Things Seen: Art, Faith, and the Christian Community, Robin M. Jensen reminds us that “no matter how we respond” to visual cues, we emerge from those encounters “slightly or significantly different” from simply having given them thought. In his 2007 book Graphic Design and Religion: A Call for Renewal, Daniel Kantor places decisions about visual elements alongside the monastic tradition of manuscript illumination. He writes that both illuminators of generations past and graphic designers of the present “teach us that the communications of one’s faith are still worth of our best efforts and brightest talents,” that “the hospitality of visual grace can become prayer for both maker and viewer.” (There’s also a great story about the physical design of Evangelical Lutheran Worship in Kantor’s introduction!)
Like our musical selections, we are blessed with an abundance of visual choices that assist proclamation of the gospel across Sundays, seasons, and festivals of the church year. As you prepare to enter the time after Pentecost, perhaps you can give thought to ways in which the Spirit has worked through visual art, be it oil paint on cardboard or bronze sculpture. These are not mere decorations, but essential tools for drawing focused attention to the central symbols in our midst and images in the lectionary. In addition to resources such as the Evangelical Lutheran Worship Graphics CD-ROM and Eileen Crowley’s A Moving Word: Media Art in Worship (a contribution to the Worship Matters series), you might consult some of the following books, articles, and websites in order to build a library of visual art that speaks best to your context. And if choices about visual art are not part of your “official” responsibilities, perhaps you can share these resources and begin a conversation with other worship planners and leaders in your setting. Like Bezalel and Oholiab, let all of us be filled with “with divine spirit, with ability, intelligence, and knowledge in every kind of craft, to devise artistic designs, to work in gold, silver, and bronze, in cutting stones for setting, and in carving wood, in every kind of craft” (Exodus 31:3–5). Or, as we sing in Evangelical Lutheran Worship, “in our worship and our living keep us striving for the best” (ELW 687, st. 4).
Books and Articles
- DeBoer, Lisa J. Visual Arts in the Worshiping Church. Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans, 2016.
- Jensen, Robin M. The Substance of Things Seen: Art, Faith, and the Christian Community. Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans, 2004.
- Kantor, Daniel. Graphic Design and Religion: A Call for Renewal. Chicago: GIA Publications, 2007.
- Ozment, Steven. The Serpent and the Lamb: Cranach, Luther, and the Making of the Reformation. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2011.
- Potter, John. “Reformation 500: 50 Reformation Artworks.” Living Lutheran, 17 April 2017.
Databases and Collections
- Art in the Christian Tradition (Vanderbilt Divinity Library)
- Bowden Collections
- Sacred Art Meditations (John A. Kohan)
- The Text This Week, Art Index
- Cerezo Barredo
- Tanja Butler
- Mary Button
- Paul Granlund (sculptor)
- Laura James
- James B. Janknegt
- Rafael Lopez
- Libuse Lukas Miller
To you, God the Singer, our voices we raise,
to you, Song Incarnate, we give all our praise,
to you Holy Spirit, our life and our breath,
be glory forever, through life and through death.
~ When Long Before Time, ELW #861
When a choir sings together, it is united in breath, rhythm, and melody or harmony. When this choir’s primary function is to lead the song of the church, unity claims a spiritual dimension, an understanding of breath as the Holy Spirit at work among them.
Much of this understanding of God’s Sprit at work happens without comment; it is simply present in the texts of the hymns, psalms, and anthems the choir rehearses. At other times, you as choir director might feel led to unpack the texts the choir is singing, to root them into the biblical stories that have inspired them and to ground their ministry in a more intentional way.
This leads to the matter of choir devotions. Do you have them? What form do they take? When and by whom? What issues inform your decisions?
Why a devotion?
The benefits of including devotions at rehearsal are many:
- preparation and reflection on the time of the church year.
- creating an awareness of the themes present in the hymns and anthems you are singing.
- providing a prompt for regular prayer, especially for those not able to sing with you.
- establishing a reminder that the choir’s work is service done in and through the work of God’s abiding presence.
Including choir devotions can mean different things depending on your context and traditions. You may have noticed that Prelude offers a written devotion based on the Revised Common Lectionary each week under the Soli Deo Gloria section in the bottom right after you log-in. These are easily accessible for regular use to members of Prelude Music Planner.
You might consider a devotion based on a hymn you are singing that week. The Center for Church Music based at Concordia University Chicago has published devotions based on a number of hymns of the day.
Perhaps a devotion could be as simple as reading a hymn that you will not sing in worship because it is unfamiliar to the congregation. For example, O Blessed Spring includes the poetic and inspirational hymns of Susan Palo Cherwien.
Of course, a devotion could be written each week by the choir director or a choir member. This practice would be the most time intensive, but it would be a very contextual discipline that would regularly engage you in spiritual reflection for your particular community.
When and Where? By Whom?
Some choirs have the practice of setting the tone for rehearsal with a devotion before or after the vocal warm-up. Others prefer to end rehearsal with the devotion as a way to send the choir out for rest of their week. If you have a tradition of extended prayers following the reading of a devotion, you may wish to schedule devotions after rehearsal to preserve the flow. If choir devotions are newer to you, you may decide to read a devotion on Sunday morning before the worship service.
It makes sense that choir directors lead these devotions, as they have often spent the time with texts in their preparation. They also have knowledge of the background information of the hymns and service music. Yet it would also be a way to encourage the choir’s understanding and sharing of their role as liturgical leaders by having members of the choir prepare or read a devotion.
Other Issues to Consider
Finally, as you continue or begin a practice of praying or reading devotions with the choir, pay attention to your community and their needs. In some circumstances, you may have folks of different faiths singing with you. You may have people that sing in the choir but are loosely connected to the faith community otherwise. Some may find that praying together is a rewarding midweek boost; others might prefer music alone to be their prayer. Yet even in varied circumstances, this is a church choir, and as the director, you are invited to remind those who sing that it is a gift of God to unite our voices in thanksgiving. Soli deo Gloria!Read More > >
Choosing repertoire for church choirs is one of the most difficult, time-consuming tasks of all choir directors, whether they direct larger or smaller choirs. There are some unique challenges facing those who direct smaller choirs, though. To support you in your work, this blog has many helpful posts on the subject. Find some time to read any one (or all!) of the following posts for inspiration and ideas:Read More > >