10 Tips for Teaching Hymns to Singers – Dr Ralph Morton

  1. Don’t rehearse in the church before a service. Of course, there are times when you can’t avoid this, but the best hymn rehearsals happen when you are in a more “secular space and time”, with room to set chairs up in different configurations, room to move, perhaps some refreshments at the end, and a less formal atmosphere which will allow humour, laughter, mistakes, and the time to do a decent job.
  1. We learn best from those we like. Congregations will learn most when they like the presenter and (to extend the idea) when they like the experience.  This doesn’t mean you have to become Ms Personality with dazzling smile and a super slick charismatic presentation.  It does mean you simply have to be “you”, but you have to be your “best you”, your “you” who knows the music, knows how you will present the material, is warm, relaxed, friendly, accepting, and at times perhaps humorous and funny.  They will learn best when you make it fun and easy, when you “change gears” often, when you make it a game, when your enjoyment of the occasion is evident.
  1. Rehearse the whole and the parts. To learn well we need to work on the “bits” – small chunks of music where we can get the details right, but we also need to put the bits into context, so we need to rehearse the whole as well.  Some of your rehearsal may be spent rehearsing “line by line” (or even smaller phrases) with singing (or listening to someone sing or a recording) the whole at the beginning and at the end.
  1. Teach the emotion first and the notes last. We often think our task is to teach the notes.  It’s not.  The notes are one very small part of what we do.  We should start by deciding for ourselves which emotion the music conveys.  Is the hymn mysterious, does it suggest awe, is it ecstatic, is it a hymn of praise, is happy lively and vivacious?  Does it suggest the strength and power of God, or is it penitent?  These are all legitimate emotions that a composer might wish to express.  How would I and my congregation express that in the way we sing this – in our tempo, tone, volume, use of consonants, etc etc?  I often begin simply by having them sing the first note to “dah” until I get the emotion I want.  Then you can teach the rest of the notes, and if you keep them to it, they will continue with the right emotion.
  1. Use words as much as necessary and as little as possible. Words are great for giving explanations and sometimes for “firing up” and motivating a congregation.  You can make vivid descriptions of the emotion you are looking for, and sometimes fanciful descriptions make all the difference “I want you to sound as if you have the power of a jet plane taking off”.

But they can be a great hindrance.  We can be verbose where we need to be             concise and compact.  We use them often when we don’t need to speak at all!  If you sing a melody and the congregation is to sing it back, all you need to do is sing, and then indicate with your hand when they should sing – you don’t have to say “let’s all sing that”.  If they need to do it again, then use the hand signal again, or simply say “again”.

  1. Let’s get physical!   In my boy’s choir as we sing we may march in time, walk around the room, stand on chairs rather than on the floor, or lie on the floor.  We may “punch the air”, conduct the music, clap in time or stamp on the floor.  We may sing and wave hands and arms in shapes to describe the music we are singing.  We may have some choristers clap or stamp while others sing.  We may sing nonsense syllables or make up words to our sacred songs (start singing “Jesu Joy of Man’s Desiring to “I like pizza yes I do”).  We may hiss and whistle or shake and shout as we sing.  Of course adults won’t do all of this, but you get the idea!  Singing is a physical act.  It requires energy just like playing sport does.  A congregation which spends all of its rehearsal time slumped back in chairs or uncomfortable pews will sound as tired as its demeanour suggests.
  1. Don’t be afraid of “technique”. When we rehearse with ordinary folks we often don’t introduce issues which might be deemed “musical or vocal technique”.  We are either afraid to do so, or we believe we shouldn’t.  Let me state clearly: our goal is not to be “arty” or produce some aesthetically pleasing performance for an audience.  Our goal is “expressive” – we want to express the meaning and emotion of the words and the music.  “Technique” simply means “having the ability to do what you need to do”.  If a little bit of basic work on breathing technique, posture, producing vowels, mouth shape etc gives the congregation the ability to be more expressive, then do it.
  1. Don’t let them get away with anything! Have you ever conducted a congregational practice where no matter how many good ideas you had, how hard you worked, how energetic you were, the assembly sounded lifeless and listless, weak and limp, and expressing none of the emotion of the text.  Why is this?  The might be many reasons, but one might be that you allowed them to sing like that.  They sang that way, and perhaps you tried a few things but in the end you simply accepted it.  The best song leaders and choir conductors are not necessarily the best musicians, but they are the ones who have a very clear and detailed mental picture of what they believe their group can sound like, and then they don’t rest until they get that sound.  Their mental picture of the sound is realistic; they are not asking the group to do more than the group can do, but they want the group “to be the best that it can be”.  Often “the best that it can be” is far better than we think.

I don’t mean that your rehearsal demeanour should end up cajoling, whining, negative, critical, confrontational, or nasty.  Your manner remains warm, caring, friendly, energetic, and exuberant and so on.  You are accepting of them and where they are, but you have a place that you want to take them, and you will not rest until you and they get there together.  “Don’t let them get away with anything” is probably a crude way of saying this.  Another might be “show leadership”.

  1. Practise the music yourself. Ultimately this is the most important advice, and perhaps even the only advice you need.  Practice is the musician’s prayer.  I use the term “practice” in a wide sense here – it is sitting at the piano banging out the melody or playing the accompaniment, or singing phrases over and over again and experimenting with them.  But it is also sitting at a table with music and note paper and brainstorming and meditating, or quietly reading the texts over and over again and making them your prayer.  It is “worrying” the music like a dog with a bone, or wrestling with the music like Jacob and the angel.  Practice is talking to the music and allowing it to talk to you, and letting it wash over you.  It is learning its secrets and learning how to communicate them to your congregation, and then learning how to help them to communicate them in their singing.
  1. Plan the rehearsal. The foregoing tips imply you need to be prepared!  Good teaching doesn’t just happen – it is planned and prepared.  So what do you need to prepare?  That’s hard to say, because rehearsals, presenters, hymns, congregations, and occasions are all different.  But here are some things you might think about:
  • The order you’ll teach the hymns in
  • Stories about the words, music, text writer, composer
  • Words or phrases which might be handy to use
  • Words or phrases which you shouldn’t use!
  • How long you will spend on each hymn
  • How to regenerate spirits if interest or energy are flagging
  • Warm up exercises
  • Jokes, humourous anecdotes etc
  • How you might use movement
  • How you might “place” your singers (if you know some strong singers, you might put them in strategic positions which will help the congregation)
  • What to do if things are going badly

In the end you won’t use all that you have prepared, and in any case, you don’t want to be rigid in sticking exactly to your plan.  A hymn rehearsal is something of an improvisation – it is done spontaneously and “on the spot”.  But the most spontaneous people are also often the ones who have done the most preparation.  They are not afraid to depart from the plan – but they do have a plan to depart from!

Finally, if you have never tackled a hymn rehearsal – have a go!  It can do wonders for your congregation’s hymn singing, but also wonders for its sense of unity, friendship, sociability and sense of mission.  Go for it!

10 Tips on being an inspirational conductor of adult choirs – by Graeme Morton AM

  1.  Be inspired yourself

It is all too easy for we conductors to get bogged down with the weekly grind of conducting the choir, or with hassles with other people in the organisation/church, or in maintaining the balance between our “conductor life” and the rest of life. These can all be transcended by reminding ourselves of our belief in the choir’s mission, by our commitment to, and love of, the music, and the joy of interacting with our singers.

 

  1.  Be inspiring yourself

Adult singers come to choir for a wide variety of reasons, some musical, some social, some because of their sense of commitment and in some cases for reasons not necessarily obvious even to the singers themselves. Remember that singers bring to the rehearsal many of the problems of daily life, and at rehearsal encounter all their doubts and concerns about their musical competence. It is the conductor’s inspiration that in large part enables the singers to let go of such matters, and to come to a place where the music itself elevates this spirit and nourishes their soul.

Remember that to be a conductor is to be an actor! Play the role of the embodiment of inspiration, even if your own inner strength is a little lost.

 

  1.  Train the choir with purpose

The singers in your choir are often as time-poor as you are, and possibly more so. Some conductors in response to this, and being sensitive to their singers, minimise the amount of rehearsal and even cancel rehearsals when there appears to be no immediate need to rehearse. Other conductors take an opposite view, and run the choir in such a way that the singers feel that the time they devote to choir is worthwhile. Rather than feeling that they were “wasting time” that could have been spent in other important pursuits, the singers feel uplifted by what has been achieved, and by the rehearsal experience, and that the rehearsal was time well spent.

 

  1. Find a balance between the choir that is and the choir that is to come

As the conductor it is important that we have a sense that our choir will be different in the future than it is now. If we train the choir without any sense of what that future is, the choir will never get there, but if we train the choir focusing too much on that future, current singers may well become daunted and discouraged, so find the balance between these two ends of the continuum.

So for example, while you may think your choir not yet ready to attempt the wonderful unaccompanied music of the Renaissance, and to achieve the sublime beauty of that style, to not ever attempt it will not encourage new and more competent singers to your choir, nor inspire your current singers to think beyond the choral world they already know. But too much Renaissance music too soon may well discourage the singers who are
currently in the choir. Find the balance.

 

  1.  Know the difference between your singers as “the choir” and as your friends

The role of conductor has with it a certain level of detachment from our singers, at least while we are fulfilling the role of “designated leader” of the ensemble. How else can we manage with authority processes such as placing singers, correcting singers, chiding singers, and encouraging accountability from the members of the choir? In “choir time” (as distinct from social time) such a distinction is important. This is not to say we should appear detached, nor be unfriendly. We must show, and must be seen to show, to each individual in the choir, so that each person feels valued and affirmed within the ensemble.

 

  1.  Give each singer a sense of musical self-worth

Research about excellence in music has identified that the best musicians have a sense of self – efficacy, and that those ensembles whose members have such a sense will develop better than when members have a poor sense of their worth as a musician, or of their role in the ensemble. Further members with a poor sense of self-efficacy will not only fail to make a positive contribution to the choir – they may eventually leave.

So encourage each of your singers to understand their musical gifts and/or the role they play within the ensemble. For amateur musicians this is especially important because many will be “victims” of the idea that good musicians have some special inner talent that the rest of us missed out on – the idea of “God – given gifts”. Recent research also shows us that what separates the expert from the person with less expertise is also about the amount of training and skill development that the expert has undergone, rather than about talent or giftedness. To quote the title of one such book that discusses this issue “Talent is Overrated”. Further, the amateur musician is unlikely to recognise the musical “gifts” that are naturally a part of their personal make up. For example, a singer who naturally phrases expressively may not recognise this in themselves because it was not a skill they had to work hard to acquire. It was just there. As conductors we can encourage their sense of musical self-worth by helping them identify, and by us acknowledging, such qualities.

 

  1.  Share your own mission for the choir with the members.

On the face of it one might assume that the mission of the choir is self evident, and particularly in a church choir. However, the reality is that the choir will have a variety of missions – to the church itself, and specifically to the liturgy, to the members (obviously), and possibly to the community in which the church is placed, and different church choirs will place different values on these various aspects of the mission.

Make sure your choir members share or at least understand your view of the choir. Is it first and foremost to (1) serve the liturgy, or (2) is the social element of choir membership the first priority (that is, having the church provide a dynamic and cohesive church organisation alongside the other organisations that make up the community life of the church), and the liturgy itself provides a framework for the choir while the choir’s internal dynamic remains the first priority? Alternatively, is the first priority in the choir’s mission to (3) expand the knowledge and experience of sacred music shared by choir members and the congregation, or is such a developmental role not part of the mission of your choir? Or is the role of the choir to manifest the Christian injunction to (4) be the best that we can be, and if so to what extent is this to be the focus on the individual, or the focus of the choir as a single unit? In other words the “best possible choir” might have visions of excellence that cannot be realised even when all members strive for the individual best, so if this is the prime purpose of the choir, some singers may be excluded. These same singers may have a very worthwhile role in the choir if other aims underpin the mission of the choir.

All of the above views of a church choir have legitimacy, but you can see that some of these would make uncomfortable bedfellows, and the juxtaposition of such differing views held by different choir members may make the achievement of an inspiring choir difficult.

 

  1. Love the music that you sing, as well as loving your singers who sing it

Well of course, I hear you say, I do! However I think many conductors have this out of balance. My point is that the music deserves to receive more “love” than at present, and that we conductors often confuse love of the music with love of what the music does for us (e.g. we might love it because it provides the means by which the singers choose to come together to sing). I often get the impression that many conductors believe that they love the music when in fact what they love is not fundamentally the music itself, but other tangential things that arise from the music. Why else would there be so many choirs that perform very poor music, pleasant though the experience may be? It is because the prime focus is on the flow-on benefits of the music, rather than on the music itself.

Look at it this way. Unless we sing music we are not a choir, so in this sense it is the music itself that gives us a role and an “excuse” to interact together as musicians – it justifies our existence as a community group. And because it is this interaction which gives such satisfaction and joy the danger is that we confuse this good that the music achieves for us with the good of the music itself. So in your reflecting on the conductor’s role, strive for the intrinsic appreciation of the music and not merely an appreciation of what it does for your choir.

And it is not an either/or situation. To focus on poor music which gives a sense of community is surely not as enriching as focusing on great music (which also gives a sense of community).

 

  1.  Forgive failure and celebrate success

Sometimes as conductors we need, it seems, to be able to articulate musical criticisms of our singers or their efforts as proof that we ourselves are musically astute. And as Australians I suspect it is our nature to be deprecating of others rather than affirming. But since “nothing succeeds like success” use positives as the foundation for future growth, rather than over-emphasising the negatives.

 

  1.  Accept duality – Don’t expect the singers to be (and think) like you, and similarly do not be (or think) like your singers.

Accept the duality of the conductor’s role as reflected in the following juxtapositions. a) have high expectations while accepting that they will often not be fulfilled b) make the choir one of the most important priorities in your life and accept that it may not be so in the lives of your singers.

10 Tips on Hymn Playing – Dr Robert Boughen OBE

Ye shall know them by their fruits. Mat.7:16

…and while it is highly admirable to be able to play the latest brutally difficult piece without making a mistake, there is a much more subtle and comprehensive skill in not merely playing a hymn tune (simple though that might seem at first glance) but in leading and energising a congregation to an advanced spiritual awareness of the text.  But first…

A)  HOW TO CARVE AN ELEPHANT

  1. Take a block of marble
  2. Remove therefrom everything that does not look like an elephant.

B) HOW IS ALL MUSIC PERFORMANCE LIKE PEANUT BUTTER?

It varies from oily-smooth to crunchy. Yes, all this is relevant to hymn playing.

In A) one needs to have at least a mental image of an elephant and in hymns, one needs to have a sonic impression of how it (words and music) should sound. If you are not energised by quality examples live (But where shall wisdom be found? Job 28:12)  then there are many examples on the internet. Don’t merely listen but dissect analytically. P is for plan, persist, paper (for jotting down discoveries) and prayer so read James 1:5 plus verse 14.

In B), from choir training (no not merely choral conducting for almost anyone can stand up and wave their hands around) to playing every instrument, there must be, where the texture demands it, contrast between the ultra-smooth and the short, detached style: to paraphrase the Bard, “A surfeit of the sweetest (SMOOTHEST) things a loathing to my stomach brings.” [A Midsummer Night’s Dream: Act 2 Sc.2]

Here are some basic tips for beginners.

  1. A hymn tune is written for a four part choir and needs to be arranged for an organ. Tie together all repeated notes except in the treble and in the bass from a weak to a strong accent. This basic legato style is vital but NOT if that is all. At times, to move a congregation along, I have for a short time, played every chord staccato. To give an accent, let there be a sliver of silence before the sound, the more ‘martial’ the words and tune, the more silence to give the effect of an accent on the unaccentable organ!
  1. The introduction must be played in the tempo of the hymn WITHOUT ANY SLOWING DOWN. Often the first phrase, then the last phrase can be used.
  1. Be consistent for in doing so, you will gradually train your congregation. Only slow down at the end of the last verse and nowhere else otherwise the whole hymn will get slower and slower and end up going backwards!
  1. There is no one ideal tempo for a hymn, it depends on the time of day, acoustics, the instrument, the liturgical season of the year etc. Try to be consistent in the way you finish a verse, breathe, then start the next one. I like to continue the (silent) musical pulse and this helps the singers to anticipate the start of the next verse.
  1. In all of this, the words are the most important so be aware of the overall ethos of the poem, the places where this will change and phrase (and alter the organ sound) accordingly. Play the words and not merely the music.
  1. If the tune drags, use higher pitch stops (4’2’mixtures) rather than more mere decibels, bullying the singers instead of gently leading “those who are with (out)…”Be aware of the places where it is difficult to snatch a breath in strict time, and allow a little elbow room of tempo variation without distorting your basic pulse.
  1. It is far, far easier to lead from the console if the organ is large with a wide range of tone colours and not mere volume. This is easy on the seven-manual monster in St.Abinadab’s Abbey-On-The-Hill (above) and very difficult on a harmonium (a wheezy little excuse for an organ) (below) or the staggered two-manual baby electronic with twelve sticks underneath. Believe me, I’ve tried them all!
  1. The introduction should be played on clear, incisive stops and at times, even the melody only at this time, is a welcome breath of fresh air. Then, firm without being belligerent appreciating there is a difference between Good Friday and Easter Day!
  1. If you cannot play the pedals, then don’t!
  1. Be daring, experiment, ask for feedback from the singers. Dominus vobiscum.

RSCMNZ Aus and NZ Summer School, Auckland 2018

Now is the time to begin thinking about and preparing for participation in the forthcoming RSCMNZ combined Australia and NZ Summer School 2018.

Dates: 9th -16th January 2018.

Course Director is Andrew Lumsden, Organist & Master of the Choristers, Winchester Cathedral, UK, ably supported by renowned local specialists.

Auckland NZ is the venue and Holy Trinity Cathedral, with its 2 new stunning organs and the beautifully completed Selwyn Chapel, is the hub.

Planning is well underway and because 2018 is the 60th anniversary of Vaugham Williams death, his music and that of contemporaries are featured.

More details here

Church music: an unlikely global social network

Photo Credit: Hans-Jörg Gemeinholzer

During my recent time in Northern Europe, I had the opportunity to see dozens of wonderful sacred spaces.  Towers protruding from the landscape, these buildings are often imposing on the outside, and remarkably beautiful on the inside.   As a Christian, sitting in these amazing buildings is both awe-inspiring and uplifting.  As an organist-nerd, I am often transfixed at the amazing instruments (plural in many cases!) that are in these churches.  Take the gilded “old” organ in the German Church in Stockholm (pictured) – I challenge any organist to not get itchy fingers looking at this marvellous instrument!

Given the complexity, fragility and dedicated craftsmanship of these impressive instruments, it comes as little surprise that it is difficult to gain access to their consoles.  In fact, many of the churches I visited offered tours, tower climbs and even organ recitals – but never the opportunity to see the organ up close.  At some places (including the German Church above) I asked a church delegate whether it would be possible to view the console.  The usual response was either “no”, or “I don’t know what our organist would say about that”.

I was to be based in Copenhagen for six weeks whilst studying, and I realised before my trip that I should try to find a church in which to practise while I was away.  I emailed three church organists at large churches close to my residence, asking them whether it would be possible to either have lessons with them whilst overseas, or at least to have some practise time at their church.  I received responses from all three, and offers for both lessons and practise time from two of them.  I accepted the offer from the first respondent, and arranged a time to meet for coffee once I’d arrived.

Babett was organist at Grundtvigs Kirke in Copenhagen (pictured), a church about the same size as the city’s cathedral, and with a stunning four manual Marcussen and Son organ.  Not only did Babett make herself available for lessons, but she also gave me my own key to the organ loft so I could come and go as I pleased! She also made sure I was up to speed with the organ recitals that were happening around town while I was there.  She accompanied me to a recital at the cathedral, and insisted that we join the recitalist upstairs for a glass of wine after the concert.  She introduced me to the recitalist (director of music at another city church), the cathedral’s director of music, and to the console of the cathedral organ.

A couple of weeks later, Brisbane’s own Christopher Wrench gave a recital in one of the city churches.  I met up with Christopher after the concert, and he introduced me to the church’s organist, who was only too pleased to show us around the church, including its Carillon.  We then shared a lovely meal at a local restaurant and traded musical war stories.

It’s suffice to say from the experiences above that I felt well and truly immersed in the church music culture of Copenhagen.  As someone living in a foreign city with only the few friends I’d met at university, it was amazing to feel so “at home” in the church music community so far from Australia.    The act of sharing an art form transcends countries, generations and church hierarchies.  It would seem that “what the organist does say” is quite different from what the church curators imply.  Behind the ornate organ cases and locked organ consoles are organists who are friendly, engaging and willing to welcome you into their church music community – all you have to do is reach out to them, and common interests takes care of the rest.

Adam Hoey is the Chairman of the Queensland Branch of the Royal School of Church Music.

Vale, Ralph Morton, FRSCM

It is with great sadness that we must report the passing of our RSCM Australia president, Ralph Morton, FRSCM.Ralph Morton 2

His brother, Graeme, reports that he passed away very peacefully on February 20, surrounded by his family, just as his favourite anthem, Like as the Hart by Herbert Howells, was being played in the ICU.

Among the tributes, a message has been received from Andrew Reid, Director of the RSCM, who says:
“I am sad for your loss, and ours, but like you I rejoice in Ralph’s faith and in the Resurrection, and I am grateful to have known a
man with no apparent ego who served others, the Church, the RSCM and his Lord so faithfully. Rarely has a person been so open to the good in so many different traditions within the Church, and that has been a great blessing to RSCM Australia.”

The funeral was held on Wednesday 2 March at St John’s Anglican Cathedral, Brisbane.

Catholic Worship Book II Official National Launch

Archbishop Denis Hart, President of the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference, cordially invites you to the much anticipated launch of
Catholic Worship Book II – published by Morning Star Publishing

Friday 8 April 2016 at 5:30pm for 6pm-7pm
Catholic Leadership Centre (in the Celtic Hall) Corner of Victoria Parade and Hoddle Street, East Melbourne
Admission is by gold coin donation
A wine and cheese reception will follow the launch in the Catholic Leadership Centre.
Copies of the People’s Edition will be available for purchase or order at the launch for the special one-off price of $30 | Online purchases (Online prices apply)
Webcast nationally at 6pm AEST via webcast.cl/cwb2launch (log in early to ensure time for software download, if needed) | Groups viewing webcast, please register at anita.plant@cam.org.au for acknowledgement during the launch.
RSVP by Tuesday 5 April 2016 Mrs Anita Plant, National Office for Liturgy | anita.plant@cam.org.au or (03) 9926 5762

CWBII-National-Launch-Invitation

Winning Music from the Summer School 2016

The 2016 Summer School has taken place in Canberra. Here’s as taste from the final service: the choir sings the winning entry in the ACT Branch 2015 Composition Competition, an Old English setting of Psalm 33 by David Yardley:

If you weren’t there, see what you missed! Watch the Preview Video of the 2016 Summer School here

Victorian Branch: Lenten and Easter Seasonal Choral Singalong and AGM

Flyer AGM, Lent & Easter,

Wine and Cheese Convivium, followed by seasonal selections from “Sunday by Sunday” and the Annual General Meeting

When                   Monday, March 7, 6:30pm for 7pm start

Where                  St Francis Church, Melbourne

Cost                     RSCM Members Free; non members $20 (waived if joining at the event)

RSVP                   Extended to Monday, February 29

Ralph and Graeme Morton, FRSCM

Ross Cobb posted the following message on the RSCM NSW Facebook Group on January 30, 2016:

“Huge congratulations to Brisbane brothers, Ralph Morton and Graeme Morton on their awards of Fellowship of the Royal School of Church Music. Ralph and Graeme, respective directors of music at Brisbane’s St Stephen’s Catholic Cathedral and St John’s Anglican Cathedral, are two giants of the choral world in Queensland. They have encouraged and trained several generations of musicians and the excellent standards of choral singing in the whole of the East Coast are in the main main due to their selfless and unstinting work over many years. Australian music will be forever in their debt, and we rejoice that their amazing work has been further recognised internationally.”

Graeme Conducting
Graeme
Ralph Morton 2
Ralph