Browse Categories

Browse By Month

Search SingAmen!

Children’s Choirs: How much can you really accomplish in 1 rehearsal? (Part II: Layered Learning)

Children’s Choirs: How much can you really accomplish in 1 rehearsal? (Part II: Layered Learning)

In our post two weeks ago, we looked at how a short seven minute (or so) warm-up process can, very quickly, prepare a children’s choir for successful learning–so if you missed that one, please go check it out, because it sets up for success in the rest of rehearsal.

So following the warm-up process, how do we move into music-making?

I have found, at least, that shifting immediately from a solid, well-aligned, vocally healthy warming-up process into a “please sit down and take out your hymnal/music/booklet” kind of activity is like dropping a lead balloon onto the energy in the room. The very process of sitting and taking out a book physically deconstructs the healthy body alignment you’ve just achieved, and just as important, it separates the process of singing “songs” from that of just singing and making beautiful sound. (Again–we do this all the time with our adults as well; this kind of transitional activity might be worth considering there too!)

Instead: our first activity after the warm-up is always a review of something we know and have memorized, such as a song or hymn or piece of service music for the nearest Sunday they are scheduled to sing (and if there’s nothing for the coming Sunday that they can sing memorized, that heralds a host of other problems, which I’ll address in some future post that might hypothetically be called “Strategic repertoire planning for children’s choirs”). Perhaps it’s the “Glory to God,” or the refrain to the Communion song, or the responsorial psalm…something they can sing from the same body placement and mental space in which they did their warming up, vocalizing, and ear training work.

Our next activity (maybe only 3-4 minutes later) is to learn something brief and new, by ear, still from the posture of a) warming up and b) singing familiar strong music we already know and love. If the responsorial psalm refrain is new, try that–heck, if the people in the pews are supposed to be able to sing it back on one hearing, we should expect our singing kids to do it too, right? Depending on the length of the text, I’ll often speak the text out loud to them and have them echo it back–and almost every time I need to ask them to do it twice, because almost every time the first speak-through is in sing-song-y semi-mumbled school-kid drawl–you know the one, the voice they use to say “Good MORRRR-ning, Faaaather Peeeeeeter….” That isn’t the voice we want. This is where we challenge them to find the strong syllables, the important words, and to speak the sentence as though we were an actor onstage, with strength and confidence.

From here, assuming the piece of music is well-constructed and the composer has been attentive to text flow when setting the melody (and if not, why would you be singing it anyway, right?), transferring this intelligent reading of the text to an intelligent singing should be fairly simple, as you invite them to sing the phrase after you. (Note: do not accompany them at this point; let it be all about the voices, without the often-leaned-upon crutch of the keyboard instrument. Let them hear and learn and own what they are singing as their own solid and supportive unit.) And in some cases, this reading/meaning process can also be transferred to helping your singers learn to apply expressive musical concepts as well.

For example: Here is the psalm response for this past Sunday, November 4, 2018, Year B, taken from the Lyric Psalter collection:

Notice how the text repeats three times, each time at a slightly higher pitch. After the first or second sing-through, when the notes and words are there but the overall “flavor” is still a little lifeless, you might ask your singers, “Why do you think the composer had us repeat the first phrase three times? Wasn’t once enough?” Try to elicit, in some organized “don’t lose the room’s energy” 20-second space of time, some variant of “because we really really love the Lord a lot!–how can we ever say it enough?” Have them sing it again, this time stressing “love” just a little more each time, so that it builds to the final statement.

Here is an opportunity to introduce a new–or not new, to those who have learned the term in their own school music classes or lessons–musical term, “crescendo.” Explain what it means (or ask for hands and let a student tell the group), and ask them to sing the line again, this time building a crescendo up to the third time they sing the word “love,” and then letting the music get a little softer (“diminuendo”) to the end. Then ask them to try the same thing again, with even more crescendo, and even more real feeling from their hearts…

This took four paragraphs and a graphic to describe something that in reality might take 4 minutes of actual rehearsal time: you spoke the text with them twice, and they have sung it a total of 4 or 5 times. During these minutes they have learned something about text stress, how to handle text repetition, phrasing, thinking about the meaning of the words they sing, and one or two musical terms. They have also learned the responsorial psalm refrain, and can sing it solidly and without accompaniment.

(Note: you could also have chosen, back in the ear-training solfège part of your warm-up, to incorporate this melody in your back-and-forth echo exercises, and even to teach it straight-up without telling them what you were teaching–just take the little cells of melody and do them with the singers, with hand signs, as your ear-training for the day.)

Do the math: We are now 15 minutes into our rehearsal time. We have warmed up and sung two of the pieces we are responsible for learning for Sunday. Not bad, right?

Now you will probably need to let them sit down, squirm a little, and move into singing from written materials–maybe throwing in a little quick stretch-and-shake-out break (by quick I mean 15 seconds max) before finally letting them sit and relax for just long enough to pick up their hymnals or song sheets or what-have-you, and open to the page you call out.

This is where your options open up a lot more, and you can get down to work on whatever you think will be most challenging for your group in this rehearsal–because the process that got you here has set you and your singers up for success. Are you trying to accustom younger singers to the way a hymnal’s verses are stacked under the musical lines? Help prepare them for a new opening song or hymn to be used during the Advent season, one with lots of more complicated words in the verses than they are accustomed to? Perhaps your first “memorized” piece after the warmup was the refrain to a song they know really well, but for which they are a little dicey on the verses. Maybe it’s time to introduce a short piece in a new language (anything from “Sizohamba” to “Es ist ein Ros entsprungen”–“Lo, how a rose” in its original German) Change tasks frequently, change posture frequently, and as soon as they seem to be disengaging, switch something up to get them back with you. And wherever possible, try to be rehearsing music several Sundays ahead of when you will need it, because it’s much easier to work with this age group 4 times for 7 minutes on a song than to keep them focused for 15 minutes twice, or nearly half an hour only once. Keep moving.

Always save one higher-energy piece for the end of rehearsal–something joyful, something familiar, even a little boisterous, to wake them back up and send them back to their families and worlds happy they’ve been there.

Again–all this is what I do, and what works for me–please, please jump into the comments and share your thoughts and strategies with the rest of us!

(Next post: We’ll take a look at teaching early part singing and learning to sing in harmony.)

Of Soulful Saints and Saintly Souls: a Choral Sampler (Sing Amen! the Podcast, episode 10)

Of Soulful Saints and Saintly Souls: a Choral Sampler (Sing Amen! the Podcast, episode 10)

(**UPDATE**
This episode was completed and recorded before the tragic events at Tree of Life Synagogue on Saturday. Thus what brief narration and commentary I give on the episode does not address the tragedy of eleven people who lost their lives nor the countless numbers who grieve them. And even now, it becomes harder and harder to find words to address the senseless violence and hatred that seems to take more and more of our brothers and sisters each time we turn around…which is why, I suppose, we turn to music, to say what words cannot. So for all of those lost, and for all those who grieve…if all we can do is sing, sing their journey and sing their memory and sing the better world we wish we could have made for them, then that is what we must do, and continue to do…)

Somehow, October is nearly over, and November, with its inexorable push to longer nights and shorter days and years ending, is upon us. And it’s the week when, as a church, we turn to thoughts of our own mortality, and of those who have gone before us. This year is particularly poignant for me personally; last autumn at about this time I was traveling back East as often as I could get away in order to spend time with two people who were very dear to me and who were at that time facing big setbacks in their ongoing battles with cancer…we lost them both within a week of each other shortly after the new year. So I am listening to the music of these feasts with different ears than in years past, and finding in it a comfort I had not fully realized I needed…

This is one of those musical samplers that’s not particularly of use to people trying to plan music for parishes, since it’s basically launching mere days before the feasts it connects to (although I know I’m putting a bunch of these into my “hope chest” to maybe use next year)…but it’s also important for us to remember that sometimes we the ministers need ministering to just as much as anyone else. So I hope something in here can touch the hearts of all of us who this year are holding especially close to our hearts the memories of saintly souls and soulful saints we’ve had to let go of here on earth.

Peace!

–Jennifer

p.s. make sure you listen all the way to the end–in a moment of whimsy, I put at the end of this mostly reflective podcast Richard Proulx’s gently humorous account of the “Choirmaster at the Pearly Gates”…it always makes me smile. (Note: please do not take this piece as in any way reflective of thoughtful Catholic theology, or attempting to negate the promise of forgiveness and grace as free gift; it’s church musician humor, nothing more. 😉 )

Music heard on today’s podcast:

For All the Saints G-4540 (arr. John Bell)
As recorded on The Last Journey, CD-381 by the Cathedral Singers and John Bell

Sancti Dei Omnes (All you Saints of Heaven) G-3793 (arr. Richard Proulx)
As recorded on Let All Together Praise, CD-335, by Richard Proulx and the Cathedral Singers

The Cloud’s Veil G-4664 (Liam Lawton)
As recorded on Catholic Irish Classics, CD-915 by Liam Lawton, with Theresa Donohoo

Precious Lord G-7155 (by George N. Allen and Thomas Dorsey, arr. Nathan Carter)
As recorded on Great is thy Faithfulness, CD-999, a Tribute to the Life and Published Choral Works of Dr. Nathan Carter

Come to Me, O Weary Traveler, G-9135 (Sylvia Dunstan and Paul Tate)
As recorded on Life is Changed, Not Ended, CD-1044, by Paul Tate

Gospel Canticle of Simeon G-9721 (Michael Joncas)
as recorded on Deep and Lasting Peace CD-1047, by Michael Joncas

Lord our God, Receive your Servant G-4538 (John Bell)
As recorded on The Last Journey, CD-381 by the Cathedral Singers and John Bell

The Choirmaster at the Pearly Gates, by Richard Proulx
As recorded on Spirit of God Unleashed, CD-405

Full text:

The Choirmaster stood at the pearly gates
His face was worn and old,
He stood before the man of fate
For admission to the fold.
“What have you done,” Saint Peter said
“To gain admission here?”
“I’ve been a Choirmaster, sir,” he said,
“For many and many a year.”
The pearly gates flew open wide
Saint Peter touched the bell.
“Come in,” he said, “and choose your harp
You’ve had your share of hell.”

Anonymous (20th century, quoted from A Guest at Cambridge, 1998)

 

SingAmen! the Podcast, with Jennifer Kerr Budziak
Sound by Jim Bogdanich

SingAmen! opening music: Promenade, by Bob Moore (from Let Every Instrument Be Tuned for Praise, CD-491, from Liturgical Suite #4, G-4789.. ©GIA Publications, Inc).
SingAmen! closing music: Amen, (from More Sublime Chant, CD-459, The Cathedral Singers, Richard Proulx, conductor. ©GIA Publications, Inc.)

 

Children’s Choirs: So much unfocused energy, so little time… (Part 1: the Warm-up)

Children’s Choirs: So much unfocused energy, so little time… (Part 1: the Warm-up)

Maybe you see the children’s choir once a week, on a weekday after school. Maybe you are wrangling kids from two programs–the parish school kids next door have homework/break time for a while after school until the public school kids get out and can join them. Or maybe your regular weekly rehearsal is on a Sunday, before or after the liturgy most of their families attend. Maybe your rehearsal is only 45 minutes long, during which you need to warm them up, teach them two new songs, review 3 older songs, begin the new Mass parts, and possibly start the new Christmas piece you ambitiously want them to learn. Maybe along with those tasks, you’d also like to, I don’t know, teach them a little something about music and help them gain skills that will lay groundwork for future lives as choral singers…and maybe give them a little of the theology of what they are singing about…

Is this even possible?

I actually love working with my children’s choirs, and after a lot of years of experimentation and exhaustion genuinely am able to do all of the above within that 45-minute period. Is it perfect? Do the kids pay rapt attention to every second, without any squirminess or lack of engagement at any time? Nope, not even close. But…we get a lot done.

This is the first of what will likely wind up as 3 posts about the various aspects of working with children’s choirs: repertoire-teaching, rehearsal management, warming up, even musical literacy. And I find that the entire tone for a rehearsal is set by what happens in the warm-up. This brief process usually gets only about 7 minutes, but it’s crucial for keeping things working and building a solid groundwork for a productive rehearsal.

So: The Warm-up! I’m a firm believer in warm-ups. They do not just “wake up” the voice, they get the whole body and brain ready to work, rebuilding the group of individuals into a cohesive whole. I always do them in the same order: first stretching and readying the whole body for work, then working out the vocal registers in what we normally would think of as a “typical” series of warm-ups, and finally engaging in some exercise that works the brain and the ears, helping to set the ensemble sound and sharpen their musical skills.

1. Stretching and loosening activities, to help them get their bodies ready to make music. (This is important for adults too!) Stretching up to the ceiling one arm at a time not only stretches out the shoulders, but it also activates the rib cage and gets the whole torso moving. Slow shoulder and head rolls can help loosen up tight muscles and find a healthy alignment for the body. The trick is to combine the reaches and stretches and rolls with long slow breaths; this keeps them engaged and makes conversation difficult! (“Drop your head to the front, and slowly rollllll it to one side, then take a deep breath in….and out….let your head fall back to the front and then rollll it to the other side….breathe in…breathe out….”)

2. Segue into simple semi-pitched wake-up-the-voice activities. I like to start with long slow sirens along the length of their vocal ranges, stressing that the point is not to be loud, but just to gently let the voice float up, and float back down. I usually do a siren first, and have them echo it; then I’ll do siren-like vocalizations in different registers and ask them to echo it back. Then I’ll ease into a siren combined with pitch–e.g. I’ll siren up to some fairly high-in-the-register note, and from there just sing “sol, mi, do” on a neutral “oh” vowel, and ask them to sing it back. I’ll then repeat this exercise again and again, gradually moving down in pitch, to help them bring their natural head voice down into what can otherwise turn into a shouty chest register. Sometimes I will change to “sol-fa-mi-re-do”…or “sol-fa-mi-re-do-ti-do,” still on an “oh” vowel…or some easy sequence. And then, by the time we are nearing the lower part of the practical register, I’ll start actually singing these syllables and having them echo the solfège back.

3. Now, in the space of just a few minutes, we have already shifted into pitched exercises, tone, vowel placement, and intonation, and we have worked the lower and higher registers of the voice. Then we shift into working a couple of exercises to get the enunciators moving–you probably have a few of these that are your favorites (such as the one about the many mumbling mice, or the super duper double bubble gum, or what-have-you…drop me a line if you don’t, I’d be happy to help provide more!), but the one I start with every September is the one that both wakes up the text-producing mouth-parts and names them consciously at the same time:

(Pro tip: the hardest word will always, every time, be “of.” You’ll get “The tip o’the tongue, the roof o’the mouth” and so on. If you can get them to sing the “of” every time, you are golden for anything diction-wise you ever ask of them.) Start at a manageable tempo, then as you get going do a nice fun accelerando, which my singers always love and which challenges them. It’s a little silly–but it works. And then through the year you can be specific about which enunciators are the potential problems for different musical issues.

4. The final part of the warm-up that I use now without fail, every single rehearsal, is a brief exercise in solfège and music reading. It’s very simple to do and takes literally only a couple of minutes, and the benefits are almost immediate and applicable. Using a combination of singing movable do solfège syllables, alongside the Curwen hand signs, I have the choir sing (and gesture) up and down the scale together. In early weeks or with younger children I’ll then go to some easy echo work, using syllables and hand signs; as they progress further, I ask them to follow after me and sing the syllable that goes with each of my gestures–starting with easy home base tonic-dominant “do” and “sol,” then adding an additional syllable or two at each rehearsal, sticking with stepwise motion except when going to our home base pitches of “do” and “sol.” As rehearsals go by, their ability to “read” more complicated rhythms in my hands (mirrored in their own) gets more and more complex and confident, and every piece of music they sing becomes easier as they gain this facility.

my wiener dogs

Again: All of this takes literally about 7 minutes, most of the time. The key is to always keep moving, always know what’s coming next, never have to stop and think about what you are doing–because once you let them get away from you for even a second, they are gone like my wiener dogs when they see a squirrel. Keep them moving, keep them working and singing and occupied and engaged, and it’s amazing what they can do.

More next time–I’ll talk about the process I use for teaching a new song without losing focus, which is always a challenge…and how to apply our newfound knowledge of movable do to our church music! Until then–drop us a comment, either here or on the Facebook page; I’d love to hear your tricks for wrangling our young ones and having joy-filled and productive rehearsals!

–Jennifer

 

Conversation with David Haas, Part II: On Self-care and Avoiding Burnout (Podcast, Episode 9)

Conversation with David Haas, Part II: On Self-care and Avoiding Burnout (Podcast, Episode 9)

So out of David’s and my long conversation several months ago we were able to pull not one but two podcast episodes; the first one was two weeks ago (please check it out if you haven’t yet!), and here is part 2.

Here we go a little into what seems like one of the elephants in the room where church musicians are concerned–so many of us who for many years love our work and excel at it find ourselves at some point feeling completely overwhelmed and burned out, either choosing to leave professional ministry entirely or remaining in the work but being unhappy for years on end. This episode is a sort of reflection on the struggles pastoral musicians face; Interspersed with some of his music, here David talks a bit about how we need to take time to care for ourselves and keep our spirits going…

To stay in touch with David, get on his “Daily Living Reminders” mailing list, and see what else he’s doing, check out his website at DavidHaas.us.

Music heard in today’s podcast:

“I Will Live On,” G-8875
As recorded on I Will Live On, CD-970

“Come in our Dark Time,” G-9475 
As recorded on When we are Weak, we are Strong, CD-1011

“Dedicate Yourselves,” G-9488
As recorded on God Never Tires, CD-1010

 

SingAmen! the Podcast, with Jennifer Kerr Budziak
Sound by Jim Bogdanich

SingAmen! opening music: Promenade, by Bob Moore (from Let Every Instrument Be Tuned for Praise, CD-491, from Liturgical Suite #4, G-4789.. ©GIA Publications, Inc).
SingAmen! closing music: Amen, (from More Sublime Chant, CD-459, The Cathedral Singers, Richard Proulx, conductor. ©GIA Publications, Inc.)

The Reluctant Organist by Janette Cooper (treasures from the back catalog)

The Reluctant Organist by Janette Cooper (treasures from the back catalog)

So one of the best things about working at GIA is…the warehouse. Being this close to that much music, that many editions, stacks and racks and boxes and so much music all in one place. Seriously, I’m such a nerd that stepping into the building and smelling that inky publisher smell that lightly pervades everything, even the editorial department, makes me feel all warm and fuzzy.

But I can’t be the only nerd, right? I mean, look at this:

Tell me that doesn’t look like a really fun way to drop an hour or two, seriously?

There’s lots of great new stuff of course, but I’m having the most fun heading to the back of the warehouse and sort of pawing through the boxes of older stuff–books and resources and things that have sort of slipped off the radar in favor of newer products, but which actually have some great content and which, beneath their often dated-looking covers, have some very solid and currently-usable information inside them.

One of those products: The Reluctant Organist, by Janette Cooper, first edition published through the Royal School of Church Music in 1976, with a second edition in 1987. It’s a tiny little book, less than 40 pages long, but it is full of great information for “Reluctants” as the author calls them, describing her target audience on the opening page:

“…The organist disappears, the vicar looks round the congregation and sees Mrs. A whom he once heard play the piano at a children’s party. Told that the organ is very similar to a piano and that anyone can play a few hymns, she feels it would be ungracious to refuse to help next Sunday. She and the choir make valiant efforts and the following Sunday she has been prevailed on to repeat the performance. A year later she is still there…She is uneasily aware that the organ has more dissimilarities with her piano and he left her to believe…and Sundays come along so quickly–no sooner has she learnt the notes of the Whitsun hymns than Trinity is here. She tentatively asks the professional musician at the big parish church if he would give her a few lessons…He suggests that she join the local Organists’ Association, but on her first visit she finds the talk is all about wind pressure per inch, and the second is an organ crawl where everyone except her indulges in lengthy improvisation. She returns to her own church, and to her I offer this interim emergency recipe booklet.”

Perhaps I love this book so much because this was me when I started out on organ, having no idea what I was doing and no one to tell me what to do or how to do it. I so wish I’d had this book back then–her outline of the key points to the workings of the instrument is concise and clear, her approach to pedalwork for beginners is wonderfully commonsense, and I wish I’d known about it 20 years ago.

In this very short book she offers a crash course on the most basic of basics. Here’s just a sampling of her wit and wisdom:

  1. What you’re looking at in front of you when you sit down at the organ for the first time (in the chapters “Geography 1” and “Geography 2”)
  2. Advice on how to start using the pedals: “I will outline an approach to pedalling which may bear more fruit than the stab-and-poke technique employed by many.”
  3. Permission to not start using the pedals: “If you are entirely rational and trouble-hating, be assured that you may be a very competent Reluctant with no use of the pedalboard whatsoever, and skip the next two chapters. It will save much agony.”
  4. Registration: “Your ears will tell you that an 8 and 2 can make a welcome change when used without the intermediate 4, that 16-foot manual stops can be unclear, and that the Swell Oboe can be particularly nasty when used with the Diapason. The matter of registration is subjective within reason: you must listen.”
  5. Rhythmic hymn playing: “…I do not mean merely putting notes down according to the metronome. Rhythm is closely linked to accent, and it may have escaped your notice so far that there is no mechanical way of making an accent on an organ…”
  6. The tremulant: “Now a few gadgets for Reluctants to use most sparingly. The tremulant gives a vibrato to the tone of some stops…and although it can be used to great effect in a few eighteenth and nineteenth century works, I urge you to forget its existence for the time being.”
  7. General professionalism: “Flinging oneself on the organ seat five minutes before a service only to find that chantbook and left shoe have disappeared, opening the hymn book with right hand while the left plays a repeated arpeggio over a firmly held pedal C–both are sure ways to mediocrity and/or disaster.”

Her writing “voice” is delightful and very British, at least to my ears, and I enjoy her writing while appreciating the common-sense approach she brings to what for many of us is a big intimidating instrument.

So…if there are any other “Reluctants” out of there–I’d highly recommend checking it out!

And if you’re ever in Chicago and would like to take a walk through the warehouse with me (I’m serious about that! Come visit us!), I’m always game.

 

Sing Amen! the Podcast, Episode 8: David Haas (Part 1) on How He Got Here

Sing Amen! the Podcast, Episode 8: David Haas (Part 1) on How He Got Here

This past January, GIA released David Haas’s book I Will Bring You Home: Songs of Prayer, Stories of Faith, an amazing volume telling the stories behind more than 130 of his best-loved songs. But looked at all together, this book is not just about the songs—it tells the story of a life, of a vocation and a calling. An autobiography in music, if you will. It also gives the reader a first-hand look at music in the Church after the Second Vatican Council: who the people were, what it was like to live and work and compose in that time, all seen and told through the lens of one person who, almost to his own surprise, found himself on the front lines of the shifting culture. In my capacity as an editor at GIA, I was lucky enough to get to work with David on the book, and it was really fun getting to walk through these stories and get to know David better through them—by the time you finish, you feel like you’re listening to an old friend.

(A little commercial here—please don’t forget to register for GIA’s Fall Institute, taking place in Chicago just next week, October 11-13. David will be there speaking, and he and Lori True and Zach Stachowski will be giving a concert on Thursday night October 11, entitled “God will Delight”—you won’t want to miss it, and you won’t want to miss the other wonderful clinicians we have coming, people like Michael Joncas, James Jordan, Ola Gjeilo—I think we are still taking registrations, so head over to the institute website at institute.giamusic.com and come join us!

End of commercial.:-) )

So–A few months ago David was at GIA on one of his fairly frequent visits here, and he was kind enough to sit down and have a conversation with me, and it was great talking with him—I joked afterwards that I thought we might have two podcasts worth of stuff recorded, and even though at the time it was meant as a joke, it turned out to be true. So this is Part 1 of a two-part podcast with David; we’ll release Part 2 in two weeks. This first part is a more general conversation about David’s life and development as a composer, the paths that led him to doing what he now does, and his overall thoughts and approach to composing. Part 2 delves more deeply into the question of spiritual and mental self-care for musicians—how do we keep going, how do we manage our work-life balance, how do we avoid burnout…Let’s face it, it’s not an easy life, but we continue to believe that what we do is important, and that we are needed in the vineyard. So please tune in in two weeks for that conversation.

So if you’ve ever wondered what the first liturgical song was David Haas ever composed, click “play” above, or subscribe to the podcast via iTunes, Google Play, or Stitcher…and then keep listening, to one of the best conversationalists and nicest, funniest human beings I’ve ever gotten to chat with. Enjoy!

Music heard in today’s podcast:
“My Lord and My God,” G-9659 (David Haas)
“We Will Rise Again,” G-3454 (David Haas)
“I Will Walk With You,” G-9618 (David Haas)

The above selections can be found in their entirety on I Will Bring You Home, CD-1041.

SingAmen! the Podcast, with Jennifer Kerr Budziak
Sound by Jim Bogdanich

SingAmen! opening music: Promenade, by Bob Moore (from Let Every Instrument Be Tuned for Praise, CD-491, from Liturgical Suite #4, G-4789.. ©GIA Publications, Inc).
SingAmen! closing music: Amen, (from More Sublime Chant, CD-459, The Cathedral Singers, Richard Proulx, conductor. ©GIA Publications, Inc.)

Richard Proulx: On Church Acoustics

Richard Proulx: On Church Acoustics

This second post on acoustics and music-making in churches features an article by the late Richard Proulx in the first-ever GIA Quarterly magazine issue. It eloquently (if somewhat cantankerously*) lays out the basic problems and solutions. (Spoiler: carpet is never the solution.)

Click here to see the first post on acoustics in churches.

_____

Singing on Alien Ground

Richard Proulx

 

Wall-to-wall carpet. Padded pews. Acoustical tile. Acoustical plaster. Absorbent wall panels. Soft, rough-sawn wood. All designed to muffle, stifle, deaden sound.

There is growing concern among thoughtful liturgists and musicians regarding the crisis of unworkable acoustical environments being created in both new and renovated churches in this country. With evident purposefulness and at great expense, we continue to design and renovate worship spaces where members of the assembly hear themselves sing and pray only as isolated and detached individuals rather than as part of a unified community. Has the Church only been kidding when asking repeatedly for strong community participation? Have liturgists not been serious about a “ministry of the assembly”? When musicians’ cries for more careful acoustical consideration go unheeded, why are they then blamed for failing to produce strong congregational song?

Floors and “the bottom line.”  Carpets divide people and destroy community in worship. The perception that wall-to-wall carpets provide “cozy warmth”—once considered a domestic luxury of having “arrived”—has a price in both liturgical involvement and long-term stewardship.

People tend to sing louder and better when they hear their voices clearly magnified, which is why some of us like to sing in the shower, underneath bridges, or in other resonant places. Rooms which “give back the sound” when people sing or read greatly enhance and encourage congregational participation.

One practical function of the floor surface is to conduct sound from one location of the building to another. While we often think of air as being the medium for sound, it is actually the floor, or air immediately above the floor, which amplifies the sound of voices and conducts it evenly throughout the entire worship space. (Electricity travels in the same way: over, not inside of, wire.) It is easy to see, therefore, how material used in floor treatment can either improve or reduce the efficiency of sound transmission. For community singing, this can be a critical factor.

Worship leaders, especially clergy and musicians, should occasionally test their acoustical perception by sitting in the midst of the assembly as members of the community itself. Sonic perspective gained only from sanctuary and choir loft are usually incomplete and imaginary. Experiencing the congregation’s vantage point can produce a fresh, even shocking, sense of reality about sound and sight, as well as many other things! Unfortunately, few clergy or musicians are willing to subject themselves to this practical, revealing exercise.

Unlike stone, wood, or other permanent materials, carpets always need to be replaced. Holes, tears, incense burns, salt from icy winter streets—all impact on the durability of even the most expensive floor fabrics.

At a time of heightened stewardship awareness throughout our parishes, initial investment in solid, permanent floor materials are better long-term bargains than materials which require periodic replacement. That is sound management and good stewardship.

Doctrine of electronic reinforcement.  For church architects, floor treatment is an expensive design headache. Carpet is the expedient solution for cutting design and construction costs, even though architects know that replacement will be necessary, Ironically, both corporate and domestic architecture now favor hardwoods or ceramic tiles for floor treatment, and the crafts involved in producing them are enjoying a renaissance everywhere except in churches.

Once a worship space has had its natural acoustic muffled or amputated, attempts at “correction” via massive electronic reinforcement become essential for all “performers”: presider, lectors, cantor, choir, and instrumentalists. Rather than provide here subtle enhancement for clarity, sophisticated systems with computerized time-delay are required in dead spaced to bring the booming voice of The Electronic Church to the remotest corners of padded parish centers. This simulating of outdated recording studio techniques leaves out the most critical “performer” of all: the congregation, which must struggle with its role unamplified, unreinforced. Shall we also now provide each member of the community with body mike and earphones to electronically synthesize a corporate song? A poor, unworkable acoustic for worship demonstrates poor theology at the most practical level.

A challenging mandate.  Since worship spaces have acoustical requirements and goals unlike those of other public buildings, it is critical that those responsible for redesigning and reviewing plans be diligent in compiling all available information necessary to make informed responsible decision.

_____

Originally published in GIA Quarterly magazine, issue 1:1. ©1990 by GIA Publications, Inc.

 

*This issue makes me cantankerous too.

Sing Amen! The Podcast, Episode 7: How to Love Wedding Music Ministry (Interview with Mary Prete)

Sing Amen! The Podcast, Episode 7: How to Love Wedding Music Ministry (Interview with Mary Prete)

Complaining about weddings is probably the single favorite pastime of church musicians when they get together. (Okay, even as I read what I just typed, I have to acknowledge that many of my friends and colleagues have a much longer list of things and people we all love to complain about, but let’s just accept that this one is pretty high on the list. 😉 ) I’m honestly not a wedding-complainer, though–I have always really enjoyed sitting down with couples and helping them discover the musical possibilities for their wedding liturgies, and then being there with them to help them realize their vision for the day. And in my experience, they are generally really lovely, cool, smart people. Of course I have my war stories; we all do. But overall–it’s a pretty great thing to be part of. And I’m one of the least romantic people you will ever meet. (Just ask my husband.)

This podcast episode is edited down from a long conversation I had some months ago with my good friend Mary Prete, who was instrumental more than a quarter-century ago for developing one of the first and I suspect longest-running Wedding Fair programs around, at Old St. Patrick’s Church in Chicago’s West Loop. What struck me about her approach to wedding ministry was not just the way she applied her business-brain (she has a really good one) to the challenge of marketing and strategizing to get people to these fairs, but also the deep underlying sense of ministry and outreach with which she approaches the whole process of meeting and working with engaged couples to help them plan for their wedding liturgy.

Have a listen!

 

Music heard in today’s podcast:

Covenant Hymn (Gary Daigle and Rory Cooney) G-4017 
As recorded on Praise the Maker’s Love CD-292

SingAmen! the Podcast, with Jennifer Kerr Budziak
Sound by Jim Bogdanich

SingAmen! opening music: Promenade, by Bob Moore (from Let Every Instrument Be Tuned for Praise, CD-491, from Liturgical Suite #4, G-4789.. ©GIA Publications, Inc).
SingAmen! closing music: Amen, (from More Sublime Chant, CD-459, The Cathedral Singers, Richard Proulx, conductor. ©GIA Publications, Inc.)

 

Acoustics in our worship spaces: Are planners talking to the musicians?

Acoustics in our worship spaces: Are planners talking to the musicians?

In the past couple of weeks I’ve talked with people facing a dilemma, and a real hindrance to their ability to perform their ministry well: the committees, architects, and pastoral staffs at their churches have built and installed whole new designs (or renovations) for worship spaces and/or sound systems–without ever once speaking with the musicians about the particular needs of their ministry.

This is a subject near to my heart, and it has been ever since my very first parish job, where I started just as the renovation of the church building began. I got there just in time to prevent them from irrevocably forcing the piano into a completely unusable spot, but I was too late, or too young, or too new, to save the choir loft.  Apparently some nice parishioner who owned a carpeting business had donated carpet to the church, and one of the associate pastors had in the past gotten annoyed when the choir members shuffled pages and talked to one another during the liturgy (I told him, “I can put a stop to that, really.” He didn’t believe me.) and he deliberately wanted the sound tamped down up there.  Plus, the carpet would be provided and installed free of charge. I said, “but it will absorb all the sound!” He said, “But we will have microphones!” I was 22. I lost. And it basically meant that, in this beautifully renovated space, the choir, singing from a lovely rear-of-church loft that should have sent the sound right down the nave and supported the people’s singing beautifully, was only audible through the speakers. Broke my heart. (Fortunately, a couple of decades later when the ancient held-together-with-chewing-gum-and-duct-tape* organ–which somehow was left out of the renovation, another really sad omission–was replaced, a nice hardwood floor was installed up there, so that space is now at last what it should have been ages ago.)

Even more important, though,** it is crucial that everyone involved realizes that we are not designing for a theater space, or a classroom, or a lounge, or a lobby…in all of these scenarios, the goal of the sound designer is to make sure the sound transfer is clear from the front, or the speaker, or the leader, or what-have-you, and damped down where the “audience” or “listeners” or “crowd” are located. But as we all know, there is no audience at liturgy. Even when we talk about “the choir” as being that group standing and singing together in the beautiful non-carpeted musician space, we are missing the point, because the assembly is the primary choir of the liturgy. If we are committed to fostering assembly song, we need to make it possible, even easy, for them to do so. Carpets, padded pews, sound absorbing wall tiles, low ceilings–all of these contribute to the individual assembly member being acoustically isolated from the people around them, and feeling as though they are the only person singing. When individuals don’t hear anyone singing around them, they are inevitably quick to fade out themselves, and the vicious cycle continues, and the assembly forgets its own voice.

In the coming months, I will be devoting some blog space a few articles I’ve located in the GIA archives on this subject, simply because I know a lot of people have questions and concerns. Most of the questions I hear boil down to this: “I know this is important, I know carpet is bad and over-miking is bad and reflective surfaces are good. Can you please give me some advice, resources, documents, and data, so I can take this information to the pastor/committee/builder?” (Click here for the second installment, Richard Proulx’s article “Singing on Alien Ground.”)

So, a few nuts and bolts:

  1. The first consideration in any acoustical situation needs to be the acoustic of the room you’re working with. Saying, “Well, the room has this problem, let’s fix it with the sound system” is usually going to be wasteful and self-defeating, because a flawed room won’t get the best out of your sound system either–remember, your sound system is working within whatever acoustic you give it; the electronic sound and the natural acoustic sound will have to work together. Fix the room first. The better the acoustics in the room you create or alter, the less work (and money!) will be required of your sound system.
  2. Perhaps your room is too live, and needs a little absorption of the sound. Carpet is not the answer. The hard reflective surfaces should be right around the space where the sound is generated (i.e. where people are speaking/singing). If any absorption needs to happen, it should happen far away from your singing assembly, preferably as many feet above their heads, as is possible.
  3. Shape and size of the room matter a lot. Long narrow rooms with high ceilings make it easy for sound to travel along the long axis; fan-shaped rooms are much trickier and introduce new challenges–but they are challenges worth taking the time and effort to address. (You can’t just “fix” these challenges with a sound system; see #1.)
  4. Ceiling height is almost as important as the overall shape of the room. For sound to travel well, you need significant space over people’s heads.
  5. Perhaps most important: your sound consultant must be someone who understands the unique needs of a room that supports assembly song. Studio-type sound-equipment engineers have been known to come into a room and say, in essence, “okay, let’s dampen and absorb ALL of the natural acoustic of the room, and then we have complete control and can replace it with a well-placed sound system.” If your engineer says anything even faintly like this…run away, because it means they do not understand the needs of your space or your liturgy.
  6. This last one is neither a nut nor a bolt, nor anything I researched; it is a Jennifer musing, but I think it might still be helpful. We know that (excepting of course the electronic consistency of digital keyboards and such) every piano is unique and a little different from every other; every organ has its own personality and character; every guitar has its own sound and tone color. They are not animate objects, but each is unique and possesses its own voice and resonance, and they are the instruments with which we make music. The room in which we make music is also part of the music-making. The room is the resonating chamber for the voice of the people of God as they sing. To be cold and clinical about 4 walls and a ceiling is to miss the point. The room makes music with you. Make it your ally, your partner, your friend, and the music will show it.

 

Here also are a few notes from the liturgical documents, in case anyone needs solid documentation to bring to a committee: Sing to the Lord has a solid section about acoustics in churches, starting in paragraph 101. It doesn’t address sound systems per se; it seems to take the opinion that in a well-designed acoustically sound room there will not be much need for amplification, but that if there is, it should not overpower:

101. Acoustics refers to the quality of a space for sustaining sound, especially its generation, transmission, and reception. While individual ministers of the Liturgy, ensembles, and even choirs can be sound-enhanced through amplification methods, the only amplification of the singing assembly comes from the room itself. Given the primacy of the assembly’s song among all musical elements of the Liturgy, the acoustical properties of the worship space are critical. For this reason, specialists in acoustics should be consulted when building or modifying liturgical space.

102. If each member of the assembly senses his or her voice joined to the entire community in a swell of collective sound, the acoustics are well suited to the purpose of a gathered community engaged in sung prayer. If, on the other hand, each person hears primarily only his or her own voice, the acoustics of the space are fundamentally deficient.

103. Sound-absorbing building materials include carpet, porous ceiling tiles, soft wood, untreated soft stone, cast concrete or cinder block, and padded seating. Avoiding excessive use of such materials makes it easier to achieve the ideal of many voices united in song.

104. The acoustics of a church or chapel should be resonant so that there is no need for excessive amplification of musical sound in order to fill the space and support the assembly’s song. When the acoustics of the building naturally support sound, acoustic instruments and choirs generally need no amplification. An acoustically dead space precipitates a high cost of sound reinforcement, even for the organ.  (Sing to the Lord #101-105, ©2007 USCCB)

 

Built of Living Stones, the USCCB document on environment and art in worship, has a section on sound in church design entitled “Sound in the place of Worship.” 

Silence is the ground of all prayer. From contemplative silence emerge the sung and spoken prayer of the entire assembly and the prayers and proclamations of the various ministers. Liturgical celebrations call for the clear transmission of the sung and spoken responses of the liturgical assembly, as well as of the words of the individual ministers such as the priest celebrant, the deacon, the readers, and the cantor and leader of song. In addition, the space should provide an environment for instrumental music that supports the assembly’s song and worship.

The first consideration in providing quality sound transmission is the acoustic design of the building. The interior surfaces such as the walls, the floor, and the ceiling affect the transmission of sound, as do design features like the ceiling height, the shape and construction of rooms, and the mechanical systems such as heating and cooling units and lighting fixtures. The sound-deadening tiles so vital to noise reduction in gymnasiums and other public buildings will be used rarely in a church and only with professional advice to reduce or eliminate outside noise. Soft surfaces such as carpets, rugs, and large fabric wall hangings absorb sound, while hard surfaces such as stone, tile, glass, and metals reflect it. A combination of sound-absorbing and sound-reflecting surfaces properly applied and used in correct proportion provides the kind of system needed for a worship space.

Acoustical engineers can help parishes design a building capable of the natural transmission of sound; they also can be of great assistance in the renovation of existing buildings.

Another aspect of an effective audio environment is the electronic amplification system, which can augment the natural acoustics and can help to remedy problems that cannot be solved in other ways. Planners also should consider provisions for sound in the nave, in the sanctuary, and in adjacent spaces such as the gathering area and the space around the baptismal font. Accommodations should be made for people with special hearing needs.

Providing for the amplification of the proclaimed and sung word and for instrumental and choral music is a complex task that demands the skills and experience of experts in the field of acoustical design. Choosing local vendors who do not possess the requisite skills to understand the complex needs of the liturgical assembly may prove to be a serious, even costly liability. (#221-225, ©2000 USCCB)

 

One final, happy story.

My current place of part-time work and worship has just been blessed to open a new space. We are a large community that on many Sundays just can’t fit everyone into the church, so for years we have been holding “overflow” liturgies in the church basement, where there wasn’t even enough space for the additional people; we have now just moved into a new building, one with a large community space designed and created to be flexible and usable for many kinds of events, but with regular worship as a key piece.

Way back when this all started, all the department heads were invited to a meeting in which the decisions that had been made would be presented so we would all know what was happening. One of those decisions was that the new floor would be carpeted.

I had fore-warning of this, so I went in armed and ready. I had articles, I had figures, I had arguments and counter-arguments, and most of all I had an understanding of the issues. I calmly and articulately was able to shift the conversation from “how will we keep the carpet clean” to “perhaps another flooring type would work better.” I was able to talk about the big points I noted above, I was able to talk about the need for the reflective surfaces around the singing people, and when they showed me their calculations for exactly how much absorption the room would need (it’s basically a giant math problem; it was really kind of cool!), I was able to steer them to placing those absorptive materials up at higher spaces in the big room, so the sound would not get out of hand but the space where people sing would be appropriately reflective.

At the end of the meeting, the architect looked at me slightly aghast, and said, “Why haven’t we been talking with you all along about this? We had no idea. This changes everything.”

The space is beautiful. There is no carpet. This Sunday I will get to find out how it works with a real live assembly…I can’t wait.

–Jennifer

 

*I’m kidding about the chewing gum, but not the duct tape…the blower was literally held together with duct tape.

**To be clear: not putting carpet in your choir lofts is pretty darned important! Do. Not. Carpet. The. Music. Area.

Sing Amen! The Podcast, Episode 6: A Contemporary Sampler

Sing Amen! The Podcast, Episode 6: A Contemporary Sampler

Greetings all! Here is the contemporary sampler recording I said I would do, since I’ve been leaning more heavily in the choral direction for a while. And it is definitely a sampler; there is no real guiding principle for what is chosen here beyond it being songs I like, in an order that seems to hang together well, by a solid cross-section of composers. (And even with no repeats, there are of course quite a few composers–some of whose omission from this first contemporary music episode have had me waking at two in the morning with anxiety-laden thoughts, and who I hope are still my friends–I have not yet included on this podcast, but I’ll get to them as we go!) The idea here is half an hour or so (okay, closer to 40 minutes) of nice music you can just listen to and enjoy. We’ll get more focused later on as we go. It is still only early September, after all. 🙂

I mention this on the podcast as well, but please do bear in mind that while you will be hearing in this podcast the studio-recorded versions of these songs, this is all music created for use in liturgy (I’ve used most of them myself at one time or another), and they are singable and lovely, so I hope those of you who are responsible for putting songs on the lips of your assemblies give some of them a try.

I don’t have a whole lot I need to say about this–just listen and enjoy! See below for a list of where to find these songs if you’re interested. And have a great week!

–Jennifer

Music heard in today’s podcast:

One in your name (Ian Callanan) G-6956
As recorded on In Beauty We Walk CD-881
Note: This is a pod-only edit of the song, and it is not the one from the CD or the octavo, which contain the prayer for the blessing of water; this one is just for listening purposes and goes straight into the singing for the Rite of Sprinkling. The octavo has the full version.

The Lord is my Shepherd (Gary Daigle) G-8283
As recorded on To You Who Bow CD 998

My Only Desire (David Haas) G-9471
As recorded on I Will Bring You Home CD-1041
Recording artists: Hangad

Turn Around and Believe (Rory Cooney)  G-8755
As recorded on To You Who Bow CD 998

Will the Circle be Unbroken (Tony Alonso) G-6914
As recorded on Songs from Another Room CD-648

Who is the Alien? (Lori True) G-6711
As recorded on There is Room for us All CD-639

New Heaven and Earth (Jeanne Cotter) G-9345
As recorded on Tender Hearted CD-969

Go out to the world (Chris de Silva) G-6930
As recorded on One Love, One Song CD-713

 

SingAmen! the Podcast, with Jennifer Kerr Budziak
Sound by Jim Bogdanich

SingAmen! opening music: Promenade, by Bob Moore (from Let Every Instrument Be Tuned for Praise, CD-491, from Liturgical Suite #4, G-4789.. ©GIA Publications, Inc).
SingAmen! closing music: Amen, (from More Sublime Chant, CD-459, The Cathedral Singers, Richard Proulx, conductor. ©GIA Publications, Inc.)