CHOIRS, COMMUNISM AND CONSOLE BLUES

Why have a church choir?  To lead worship; to offer the congregation time to reflect; to allow people to share their talent for the greater good.  Let’s face it, even the Psalms of David exhort us to praise God with music – so you’d think a church choir would be totally uncontroversial, wouldn’t you?

the_church_choirWrong!  The choir, being human, would like the congregation to LISTEN to the anthem or whatever other contribution they’ve spent several evenings practising.  The congregation, on the other hand, would rather chat, or go and have coffee.  It has been suggested to me that some of the congregation resent the choir getting more chances to sing, over and above the hymns that everyone sings.  There is an easy answer: come and join the choir, then you can sing more, too!

But this seems reminiscent of Russia’s most diehard Communist days, when orchestras couldn’t have conductors because that was elitist.  (Fancy!  Waggling a stick to keep time is elitist?)  Next thing we know, churches won’t want choirs because they would rather do all the singing themselves, and any musical talent held by either the choir-members or the hapless organist will be regarded as ‘showing off’, rather than sharing their talent to enhance worship.

I’m all for democracy, but to dismiss musicality in worship is about as daft as telling a tennis-player not to win matches because they’ll draw attention to themselves!

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Opportunities are Always There – and They Come in Threes

Another Door Opens …

This week, I’ve offered to write an article about an aspect of our musicology research project, for a librarianship Door opensjournal.  That’s a win-win opportunity, because not only does it benefit the research project and my CV, it also covers both musicology (my research interest) and librarianship (my profession)!

I expressed interest in a librarianship social event – and was invited to write an article for that group, too.

Today I committed the work-life balance cardinal sin of checking my work emails on a Sunday evening.  Well, it’s a good thing I ‘sinned’, as my inbox contained an invitation to contribute to another encyclopedia.  As before, my initial reaction was, ‘Is this me?’  Since it was plainly more ‘me’ than the last encyclopedia, there was no excuse – I had to look at the list of topics still awaiting authors.  In for a penny, in for a pound – I expressed interest in five articles, so I look forward to hearing which, if any, I get asked to do!

So there you are – three unexpected opportunities. There is the risk I may need to take a few days’ holiday to meet my deadlines, but we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it.

Oh, and I submitted an article to another librarianship journal about a week ago, too.  Well, you never know!

Mutiny at the Manuals: What Goes Through an Organist’s Mind

“Seated one day at the organ, I was weary and ill at ease …”

So begins Adelaine Anne Procter’s poem, “The Lost Chord” of 1858, popularised by Arthur Sullivan’s song of the same name.

The lines came to mind this morning.  With informality key, our congregation sits and chats merrily before morning worship.  Quiet reflection?  Best do that at home before you set out!  The choir does not process in, and neither does the minister: instead, the Bible is brought to the front of the sanctuary with due dignity during the first hymn.  However, this presents a problem.  How, when the organ is being played quietly and reflectively, and there’s no other signal to the congregation that the service is about to start, do you notify the congregation that things are about to start.

Today, before the welcome or the first hymn, we began with a prayer.  As the first word was uttered, “Lord”, I almost wondered if it would be followed by, “Lord, how can we get Your people here to settle down and stop talking?!”  Fortunately, it wasn’t!

Now, the organist has several choices in the twenty minutes before worship commences:-

  1. Play quietly and reflectively.  If you can’t hear yourself play, make sure it’s simple enough that you won’t play mistakes for the acute of hearing to pick up on later!
  2. Start the way you mean to go on.  Loudly, but leaving the very loudest stops for a crescendo in case of emergency. Trouble is, the congregation invariably crescendos with you.
  3. Start quietly and get incrementally louder.  Has the same effect as 2.
  4. A development of 2 and 3.  Once you’re playing quite loud indeed, cut it back to pianissimo.  Embarrassment hushes all but the most hardened chatterboxes.
  5. Think pink, and adopt a beauty-parlour style of music. (No, not the swishy, watery rain-forest soundtrack!)  Slow, fairly quiet, S-L-O-W, s–l–o–w–e–r.  This isn’t as stupid as it seems.  Slow, thoughtful music is definitely calming. The longer the gap between chord changes, the more calming the effect.  So long as people can hear the slow thoughtfulness that you’re sharing with them!
  6. Stop playing.  A non-starter.  (If you take your bat away, no-one will ask you to play.)
  7. There is one last tactic, combining 4 and 5.  Play fairly loud, but the VERY INSTANT someone rises to come forward and begin the service, cut back to a few bars of something quiet and slow.  You have about eight seconds in which to achieve this, including the closing cadence before the speaker begins.  “Lord, …”  Maybe I should compose a series of pieces, eight seconds long, specifically for congregation-calming?  We need a new title for such micro-compositions – I suggest, “Reverences”.  Watch out for future developments.  There could be original Reverences, and arranged ones.  Imagine solemnly playing the closing strains of, “Scots, wha hae” – you might even get people wishing they’d been quieter so they could have heard the rest of the piece!

You Only Have to Offer: How I came to author Two Encyclopedia Articles

When my professional organisation forwarded a call for contributors to a new encyclopedia, I glanced very briefly at the email then closed it. Music in the Social and Behavioral Sciences?  Surely I was hardly qualified to write for an encyclopedia in which only one of the subjects meant  anything to me?  But then curiosity got the better of me.  Should I not look to see WHAT they wanted contributors to write about, before ruling myself out?

Well, I’m glad I looked again. In fact, I looked twice – I certainly had plenty to say about bards, including much that I’d researched but not actually used, comparatively recently.  Things were looking up.  I got to the letter Z, found nothing more, and went back to the beginning.  Well, I never!  It had never occurred to me to write about arranging music, but I’ve actually arranged quite a bit – albeit on a small scale – and I’ve probably pondered about song settings and piano arrangements far more than the average punter.  Maybe I would dare to contribute something about that, too.

I offered.  They accepted.  No kidding – in the short space of a few hours, I was contracted to contribute two articles to a new Sage encyclopedia.

As is my usual modus operandi, a bit of time had to pass before I felt the urge to actually write my entries.  I had other projects under way, and I could see I would have to spend quite a bit of time on the encyclopedia entries.  I booked a week’s holiday, gathered a few armfuls of useful textbooks, and locked myself away.  The bards piece wrote itself.  I had a ball!  Then I turned to the arranging one.  With a sinking heart, I began to realise that there was much more to it than I’d expected.  Not to arranging, per se, but to arranging as a subject that I had undertaken to write authoritatively about.  How wide would I cast my net?  Well, there was piano, orchestral, choral … okay, I could handle those.  And then there was jazz.  I wasn’t going to go to work on my holiday, but I am a librarian, and I knew we had more books than I had brought home.  I sallied forth and borrowed a few more.  Eventually, it was time to sit down at the laptop and see what ended up on the page.  I returned to work the next week having uploaded my two encyclopedia entries.  Only one needed editing – and not that heavily, either.  I breathed a sigh of relief and pretty much forgot about the whole experience.

Last week, I was surprised to find that the encylopedia is now available for purchase in two big, fat volumes!  I learned I’d soon be able to logon and see my entries in print, and I’m entitled to books from the Sage catalogue to a reasonable value.  I’m still deciding which!  But there is a moral to all this, which is why I decided to blog about it.  It definitely pays to seize opportunities when they come your way.  If I had just deleted that email, I wouldn’t now have another publication (okay, contribution to a publication) to my name.  What’s more, it’s proof that you shouldn’t automatically decide you’re not cut out to do something.  Me, a social and behavioral science author?  I don’t know about that.  But I proved to myself I could pull the rabbit out of the hat when the need arose!

Music in the Social and Behavioral Sciences: an Encyclopedia

Music in the Social and Behavioral Sciences an Encyclopedia

Wrapping it up, without any string (the final conference paper)

Apple a day keeps the doctor away
An Apple a day keeps the doctor away …?

Writer's blockIs it professional death to admit to struggling with the conclusion of a conference paper?  Well, I’m not going to fall on my sword in public, but I do confess that this paper is resolutely refusing to come to a nice, tidy end.  I shall be giving it at the “graveyard slot” at the end of the conference, and although I certainly haven’t been given a brief to round off the proceedings – I wouldn’t be so vain as to imagine such a thing! – I do feel inhibited by the thought of so many as yet unheard papers before my own, final one.  What if they’re all much more brilliant than my own?   What if my arguments have already been expressed more coherently by numerous speakers before I speak?  What if they all express different views to mine? Worse, what if my arguments have effectively been shot down a dozen times before I stand up to speak?  And worst of all, what if there’s hardly anyone left to hear me at all?

This conference may attract a slightly different audience to those I’ve spoken at before, and that’s another factor to put me on my mettle.

Meanwhile, here I sit with 1,600 words and most of a PowerPoint presentation.  Stuck, with a cup of tea for company, and an apple in a vain attempt to avoid the biscuit barrel!

Teaching Artist Spurned, Rejected

Hours of preparation went into that presentation, but there was no audience.  A couple of drop-ins, one after the other, but a quick chat and off-the-cuff demonstration was more appropriate than giving the whole singing-and-dancing show.  I had blogged, emailed, sent a circular round … I guess the poor delegates were tired, even those who had said they would be there! Scott 14th birthday cakeSo, seriously, what does it take to get an audience for an e-resources presentation?! Cakes?  (If I’d known, I’d have baked some.)  Cleavage?  (I don’t have one.)  Tap-dancing?  (I have two left feet.  I can’t speak for my co-presenter!)   All we can do is turn to Plan B.  Watch this space!

Scottish versus English, Folk versus National, Tradition versus Revival …

I’m enjoying Maud Karpeles’s biography of Cecil Sharp.  It’s interesting reading about his folk song collecting, and how he was determined to get folk song back into the school curriculum so that children would get acquainted with their heritage.  He also got involved with Morris and folk dancing, and got quite hot under the collar about well-meaning people who were happy to get the dances DANCED, without being too concerned about the niceties of accuracy.  By all accounts he was an astonishingly dedicated and hard-working individual.

His definition of ‘folk’?  Something passed through the oral tradition, perhaps modified as it was transmitted, but certainly not a “national song” published in a book and henceforth preserved in aspic.  Something more fluid in form, then.

I began thinking about Miss Milligan, who did similar work with Scottish dancing for what became the Royal Scottish Dancing Society.  She, too, decided ‘how it should be’, and tried to set standards and codify steps and dance-movements. (My mother-in-law was her first pianist at Jordanhill Teacher Training College, as it happens.)

Does it not seem that both Cecil Sharp and Miss Milligan, having collected something that they feared would perish if it weren’t revived, then proceeded to try to pin down and ‘fix’ the very traditions that they were saving?  It’s as though each was saying, ‘this is what I consider the purest form of THIS song, THIS dance, and THIS is how it should be from henceforth.’  Indeed, my mother-in-law, a longstanding and loyal member of the RSCDS, later earned a scroll of recognition of her ‘outstanding service and loyalty … maintaining the aims of preserving the standards and traditions of Scottish Country Dancing …’  There it is again – preserving standards and traditions.

But!  This laudable attempt to keep something pure and unchanged is at the same time at variance to the idea of a fluid folk tradition.  Saying, ‘we do it this way, this is the best way, and this is how it must be done’, is a rather risky way of encouraging the next generation to adopt traditions and make them their own.  (We could say the same about churches clinging to metrical psalms, I guess, but I’m not blogging about that just now!)

My thesis touched on some of these arguments in earlier times.  Sharp and Miss Milligan were positively modernists compared to my research into Scottish song collecting from 1760-1888, and I really want to read more before I leap into old arguments with my size three wellies on and upset everyone who knows more about the early 20th century collectors.  More anon, then.  Until then, I must be restrained and willing to be corrected!

I'm a musicologist disguised as a librarian. I'm qualified in music, librarianship and education. I began this blog when I was studying for my PGCert in Learning & Teaching in Higher Arts Education, and I'm now using it for CPD. I'm a Fellow of the Higher Education Academy. Midweek I am PI for an AHRC-funded research network @ClaimedStatHall – early legal deposit music. Off-duty I'm hard-wired into my sewing machine!