Not something that happens
But the way something happens
-- Charles Ives,
Essays Before a Sonata

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Migrating to WordPress

I have decided to migrate this blog's content to the WordPress platform. This site will remain up for now, but it will not be updated. In the future, you can follow my updates at

Monday, February 18, 2013

Wedding music in Massachusetts and Rhode Island

Are you planning a wedding in eastern Massachusetts or Rhode Island? I can meet all of your needs for ceremonial music:

  • Piano or organ accompaniment
  • Portable equipment for outdoor ceremonies - all you need to supply is electricity
  • Collaboration with singers, brass players, and string players
  • Custom arrangements of your favorite music
  • Licensing of copyrighted music

For more information, please contact me by e-mail: duncanvinson [ at ]

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Desegregating traditional and contemporary church music

Talk to any Protestant church musician these days and you will hear talk of "contemporary" and "traditional" music. What these terms usually describe is technology. "Contemporary" music is based on the technology of the late 20th century (amplification, mixers, electric guitars, synthesizers), while "traditional" music is based on the technology of the late 19th century (symphonic organ with electric blower, concert grand piano).

I have never felt comfortable with these terms, because I think they emerge from a typically American attitude of technological determinism. If we take technology out of consideration, so-called "contemporary" music is actually more backward-looking than so-called "traditional" music. In particular, if we consider the development of Protestant liturgies since the Vatican II reforms of the 1960s, so-called "traditional" music is more in step with the times. The music that suits liturgically-minded Protestantism is more often found in denominational hymnals and in choral music catalogs, rather than in the output of the contemporary Christian music industry. "Contemporary Christian" music has a modern technological gloss, but many of these songs continue the same textual traditions as the gospel hymns of the 19th century.

My point is not to stand contemporary Christian music on its head and say that because it's backward-looking, it's therefore bad. There is much to admire in the 19th century gospel hymns, and therefore much to admire in contemporary Christian songs. A Protestant liturgy is enhanced by "Shall we gather at the river" (1864), "I love to tell the story" (1866), or "Jesus, lead me near the cross" (1869), to name a few. Likewise for "Seek ye first" (1972), "Shout to the Lord" (1993), or "Come, now is the time to worship" (1998).

But I wouldn't construct an entire service on such hymns.
The gospel hymns, and the contemporary Christian songs after them, have a heavy emphasis on the psychology of the individual believer, as opposed to the sociology of the gathered community. Both are necessary for liturgically-minded Protestantism.

What I'm getting around to is that good church music is good church music, whatever its age, its national origins, or its technological media. I am troubled that at many churches, there are now different worship services targeted to different demographics. The so-called "traditional" and "contemporary" services may occur at different times on Sunday, or on alternate weeks, or even at the same time in different parts of the building. It is a shame that these congregations cannot resist the market-driven logic of media companies, which divide audiences into ever-smaller niches.

In my own work at First Congregational Church of Melrose, Massachusetts, I have resisted this trend, and have received positive feedback from the congregation for doing so. We have a single worship service on Sunday, with a diverse group of musicians who perform special music according to a rotating schedule:
  • youth choir (Treblemakers): 1st Sunday of month
  • praise band: 2nd Sunday of month
  • bell choir (Jubilate Ringers): 4th Sunday of month
  • adult choir: 1st, 3rd, and 5th Sundays of month
I consciously avoid segregating each service by musical style. For example, I may include a Bach organ piece as postlude on the same week as the praise band anthem, or have the adult choir sing an anthem in rock or gospel style. The music of every service is a mixture of different national origins and performing forces.

(Performance by YouTube user MusicByMichele.)

This past Sunday, for example, we had:

  • Organ prelude: Moderato in E minor (from L'Organiste), César Franck (French Romanticism)
  • Choral introit: "Thuma Mina" (South African praise song)
  • Opening hymn: "Jesus calls us o'er the tumult" to GALILEE (19th century hymn)
  • Choral prayer response: "Shine, O star," Lloyd Larson (contemporary with piano accompaniment)
  • Choral anthem: "One Bread, One Body," John B. Foley, arr. Jack Schrader (contemporary Catholic eucharistic anthem)
  • Communion music: Improvisation on piano and violin by two church members
  • Communion hymn: "I come with joy" to DOVE OF PEACE, with violin (American folk hymn)
  • Vocal solo: "Come, thou fount of every blessing," arr. Mark Hayes (jazz influenced hymn setting)
  • Choral prayer response: "Santo, santo, santo" (Argentine acclamation)
  • Concluding hymn: "We yearn, O Christ, for wholeness" to PASSION CHORALE (Modern hymn text to classic German chorale)
  • Organ postlude: "Menuet gothique" from Suite Gothique, Léon Boëllmann (French Romanticism)
For congregational hymns, the adult choir provides leadership, though I may also draw on musicians from the other ensembles as available. (This past Sunday, a violinist in the congregation joined one of the hymns.) I avoid a "one size fits all" approach to accompanying hymns. In this approach, I am helped by the New Century Hymnal, which the United Church of Christ published in 1995. In some quarters, this hymnal is criticized, particularly for heavy-handed alterations of hymn texts to remove archaic and gendered language. I agree with some of these criticisms, but in its defense I will say that the New Century Hymnal is an excellent resource for a congregation that, like ours, needs to bring together diverse performing forces. It has hymns that work best with choir and organ; with piano and soloist; with guitar and band; with children's voices. This combination is hard to find within the covers of one book.

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Shape note singing and the liturgy

I recently conducted an experiment in my work as music director at First Congregational Church of Melrose, Massachusetts, by augmenting my choir with singers from the shape-note singing communities of the Boston area, particularly Norumbega Harmony. As I have mentioned in previous posts, in recent years some musicians in liturgically oriented churches have expressed an interest in shape-note singing. This interest goes hand in hand with a trend toward eclecticism and diversity in church music, and a trend away from a single Eurocentric canon of music. Both as an ethnomusicologist and as a Christian, I have embraced these trends.

(I also believe that these tendencies are related to the growth of so-called "contemporary Christian" music in the liturgy, but that is for another post.)

Bringing together a church choir and shape-note singers presents challenges. There are differences in technique and culture that require translation so that each group of singers understands what the other is doing. Here's an outline of the problems that have to be solved:

  • How do you choose material that singers from both groups can share?
  • Do you sing the shapes? If so, how do you teach singers in the church choir to do it?
  • Do you use piano or organ to accompany, or try to go without instruments as in a singing convention?
  • Are pieces led and pitched by the choir director, or by rotating individuals from the ensemble?

Finding common ground in repertory is easier than it used to be. Since at least the publication of The Hymnal 1982 by the Episcopal Church, denominational hymnals have added many items also found in shape-note books. For our service, we used these three hymn tunes, which are in both The New Century Hymnal and The Sacred Harp:

  • Coronation
  • Martyrdom (in NCH) / Sacred Throne (in SH)
  • The Promised Land
The perennial problem is that hymnals frequently disagree in music and words. The tune "Martyrdom" sets the hymn "Alas, and did my savior bleed" in the NCH. In The Sacred Harp, this hymn is to a different tune; the tune "Martyrdom" is called "Sacred Throne", and sets "Beneath the sacred throne of God." Either is usable, but some rescoring and copying is needed in any case.

"The Promised Land" has a more drastic problem: it is in a minor key in shape-note books, but in a major key (and with dumbed-down harmony parts) in most denominational hymnals. I solved this problem by creating a hybrid arrangement for the shape-note singers: in a major key, but otherwise as close as possible to what is found in The Sacred Harp. That way the church choir and congregation can sing the tune as they know it, and the shape-note singers can sing in parts without too much difficulty.

Shape-note books can also provide material for introits, anthems, and prayer responses. Since the congregation does not sing these items, they need not appear in the denominational hymnal. We used the following pieces for this purpose:
  • Organ prelude: "Dove of Peace," arranged by John Barr in The Organist's Companion, July 2012
  • Introit: "Devotion"
  • Response after Lord's Prayer: "Ragan" 
  • Anthem: my own composition, "All Good Gifts" (currently unpublished, but may appear in print in the future)
  • Offertory: "Sherburne"
  • Benediction: "Parting Hand" 
As for the shapes, I wrote the shape names into copies of "Devotion" and "All Good Gifts" so that my choir could sing the shape names. They still found it difficult; indeed, it takes years of practice to sing the shape names fluently. It's worth the effort!

Did I use the piano or organ? My original ambition had been to use the organ only to summon the congregation at the beginning with an organ prelude. (A strange ambition for an organist!) I wanted to introduce each hymn to the congregation by having the visiting singers sing the tune in shapes first, then have the congregation join in on the first verse. During rehearsal it became clear that this would have been risky, and I decided to dispense with the shapes and to use the organ to introduce and accompany the hymns as on a usual Sunday. Maybe next time. 

(Though I will also point out that into the early 20th century, there are accounts of Southern singing conventions that had someone accompanying on piano. Some of the 78 RPM recordings of shape-note singers made in the 1920s also feature a piano, though this may have been at the request of the record producer rather than the singers.)

How did we incorporate the performance rituals of the singing convention? Obviously, our church service was different from a convention; it had a program set in advance by one leader (me) and was rehearsed in advance (one hour before the service). But I did try to incorporate some aspects of a convention:
  • I allowed shape-note singers to set the pitch for some items sung without instrumental accompaniment.
  • For the benediction, we used the traditional closing song, "Parting Hand," and invited the congregation to shake hands with each other. Most of them did!
  • Instead of an organ postlude, I invited the visiting shape-note singers to have a "mini-convention" by selecting several songs and leading them themselves.
The response from the congregation to this experiment was positive, and I plan to make this a regular feature of the liturgical calendar.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

A keyboardist copes with a broken arm

Toe straps are dangerous! About a month ago, I had an accident on my bicycle. As I approached an intersection, a car sped into the intersection and forced me to stop suddenly. I took my left foot out of the toe strap to put my left foot down, but I was balanced the wrong way and I fell to the right. As I was going down, I knew not to put my hands out to catch myself, but I landed the wrong way on my arm and broke my radial bone near the elbow joint (an injury which, ironically, usually results from putting the hands down while falling).

As a bicyclist, I never attempted anything I considered reckless, such as weaving through city traffic or racing down a mountainside. Yet even a low-speed fall from a seated position can cause a significant injury. Here's some information on radial head fractures. The important text is at the bottom: "Even the simplest of fractures will probably result in some loss of extension in the elbow. Regardless of the type of fracture or the treatment used, physical therapy will be needed before resuming full activities." For a musician, these are scary words indeed.

After about a month, I can say that I seem to have avoided a career-ending injury. I have been able to reestablish motion in my elbow and wrist joints. I can now perform all of the motions necessary for playing the piano and organ, though not as fluidly as before. I will be working hard to rebuild my technique from scratch. The lingering issue is strength in the muscles. It is still hard to open the hand completely and to play octaves or large chords. Sometimes I can't make all the notes in a chord sound together, and it's hard to give the little finger enough strength for bravura playing on the piano. (On the organ, these motions are less often necessary.) Like a baseball pitcher, I have to use a heating pad before I play and ice afterward. But I can play, for which I am grateful.

At first I just assumed that I would have to hire someone to substitute for me in my church music job for several weeks. But the congregation has encouraged me to continue to serve them as best as I can, even if I can't do everything I normally would.

  • Some repertory can be performed without the right hand, using just the left hand and pedals. My first week back, with my right arm still in a sling, I played the Prelude in C major from Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier, Book 1, in this manner, and I finished the service with an arrangement of Jeremiah Clarke's Trumpet Voluntary. (This is actually a good exercise for an able-bodied organist, too.)
  • A digital organ with MIDI capability can be "played" using a computer or MIDI sequencer. I accompanied hymns for several weeks using the setup pictured: a laptop connected to the organ using a USB-to-MIDI interface. I sequenced the hymns in Finale at my desk using only the left hand (first on a keyboard to give the pitch, then using Caps Lock and the number keys on my computer to give the durations). There are some tricks to making this technique work. You can't just copy the notes out of the hymnal verbatim; you must add ties and rests to mimic what a competent organist actually plays when reading from a hymnal.
  • Some solos and anthems are published with recorded accompaniment. I put CDs into my laptop and connected the audio output to the organ's auxiliary audio input. (This required some adapters, since the organ's inputs are dual 1/4" mono jacks, and the computer has a stereo 1/8" headphone jack.) As we found out during rehearsal, singing from a recording is harder than singing with live accompaniment, especially when the recording has many changes in tempo.

Friday, July 27, 2012

Jeremiah Ingalls Memorial Singing

Last weekend I had the pleasure of attending the Jeremiah Ingalls Singing in Newbury, Vermont, for the first time in several years. This singing is the brainchild of Tom Malone, a Vermont native now on the faculty of the music education program at the University of Massachusetts at Lowell.

Newbury is now a small place off the beaten track, but like many small places, it has its historical importance if you know where to look. It was one of the first settlements in Vermont, and the First Congregational Church in Newbury is the second oldest church in Vermont. (The oldest is Old First Church in Bennington.) This singing is now held in the parish hall of First Congregational, after starting out in a hall directly on the town green.

Jeremiah Ingalls (1764-1838) was one of the many composers and compilers of tune books who plied their trade in the early years of the American republic. He is most remembered today for his publication The Christian Harmony (1805) which, though not published in the recently invented shape-note system, is now considered a key publication in the development of shape-note hymnody during the first half of the 19th century. Tom Malone has overseen a republication of Ingalls's collection in four-shape notation in order to make it more accessible to singers already schooled in music from shape-note collections such as The Sacred Harp. The Newbury singing is the only public event featuring music from Ingalls's collection.

(This book should not be confused with the better known 1866 Christian Harmony by William Walker, which is still the basis of several traditions of convention singing in the South.)

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Recital for Beethoven Society

I accompanied soprano Vicky Schubert at the monthly concert of the Beethoven Society of Melrose in a program of French music:

  • "Chanson d'amour," Gabriel Fauré
  • "Aurore," Fauré
  • "En prière," Fauré
  • "Sérénade," Charles Gounod
  • "Je t'aime," Oscar Straus