Blessings count! New year review of music at St Luke’s, part II

Katrina DowlingMusicLeave a Comment

Halfway through the season of Advent, with a strong focus on preparing for Christmas festivities, there’s such a feeling of spiralling into a conclusion that it’s hard to believe that the first few weeks of the Church year have barely unfolded yet. But we are indeed still at the beginning. Here is a picture of our music ministry at the present and as we imagine it developing through the rest of the 2016-17 Church year…

[for a look back at the past year, see part one of Blessings count]

Congregational music-making

To start with, we’re carrying over some priorities given to us by the worship ministry team last year:

  • help the congregation re-engage with traditional hymns and learn to sing all the harmony parts
  • maintain continuity of our singing tradition at more than a superficial engagement

To do so, we’ll be looking for opportunities for the congregation to spend time singing, such as:

  • hymn-singing for 15 minutes or so prior to some Sunday morning services
  • some ‘singing services’ similar to a service of lessons and carols
  • a ‘pleasant Sunday afternoon’ – not scheduled yet, but we’ll try for March 2017
  • increased use of congregational sung blessings

It will be a huge help to the ease and enjoyment of congregational singing that we are also addressing the church acoustics this year. We’re very excited to be able to improve both the natural acoustics of the room and the amplification system now, after attending to some repairs, the projection system in the church and works in other parts of the building during the past year. Establishing a slightly more live acoustic will greatly increase our sense of connection to each other when we sing and speak as a body in worship (see Alive sound)

There are two major new elements of the music program this year, one for children and one for people of all ages. Starting in term 1, our children’s ministry group is introducing Musical Sunday School on the fourth Sunday of each month during school terms. Children are invited to bring their own instruments and enjoy their Sunday School learning in the care of an experienced musician.

For both adults and children, a music session will be on offer as one of the features of the intergenerational services to begin in February 2017. Intergenerational services will have all the parts of the liturgy we know and love, with the addition of parallel sessions in which we can choose to explore the Word in one of three different ways: verbal, visual and musical. We’ll enjoy this format on the third Sundays of most months.

Musical services of worship

As in last year, Taizé-style services will be held in Summer-Autumn (February-May) and Spring (August-November) on the evenings of second Wednesdays in the month.

On Sunday 14 May 2017 there will be a special focus on a composer’s life and music. Last year we had a focus on J.S. Bach – but I won’t reveal the subject of our next composer-focus service yet!

Music for the wider community

As I mentioned in part I, we’ve recently modified the organ pedalboard with removable risers that enable short-statured players to reach the pedals with ease. We’d like to make the organ available to younger players in the local community who are interested in learning the instrument. If you know parents or teachers of children who are interested in organ, please contact St Luke’s to arrange access for teaching and practice. Remember that guests and new players need to do an induction, so put them in touch with the minister or music director.

Blessings count! New year review of music at St Luke’s: part I

Katrina DowlingMusic2 Comments

Happy New Year! The Church year began on 27 November, the first Sunday in the season of Advent. This post was going to be both a look back at the music program at St Luke’s in the 2015-16 Church year and a look at how we are starting this new 2016-17 Church year and some of the good things we anticipate. But the great news is that when I started to count our blessings, there were clearly so many that I had to split it into two posts – here, a look back. In the next post we’ll look at present and future.

Congregational music-making

We enjoyed some open-air singing, which is a little unusual for us, in our Palm Sunday procession and at the dawn service on Easter morning.

For our shared Pentecost celebrations, we banded together with the choir of Renewal Chinese Christian Church to form a combined choir. The music directors of our two churches conducted one song each.

We also collaborated with local Uniting Churches for our combined service in June 2016. Members of our congregation joined in with the choir, the chamber singing group and the instrumental music.

In September, the worship ministry group sent three of us to attend ‘Intergenerational Ministry Practicalities’ at the Centre for Theology & Ministry. Some insights from these seminars have already helped us in our approach to music-making in worship (see In the midst of generations)

It’s been a great pleasure to experience the congregational use of hand percussion instruments in services from time to time during the year. We don’t get the instruments out so often that we would get tired of them, but when we have them around the pews and give ourselves permission to pick them up and play, I’ve noticed that their spontaneous use during hymn-singing is always both musical and sensitive to the worship service.

Musical services of worship

In a big first, we celebrated two series of Taizé-style evening services during the past year: an Autumn series March-May and a Spring series August-November. As we took our first taste of this style of worship, it was interesting to see people arriving a little ruffled at the end of a full day, then leaving refreshed and renewed after just half an hour of chanting and silent prayer.

On Sunday 17 April 2016, the morning service had a special focus on JS Bach, not just by playing and singing his music, but also featuring deep reflection in the preaching informed by Bach’s life and faith.

Instruments and collections

We’ve expanded our collections through the purchase of sheet music and a hand percussion set and thanks to the kind donations of some harmony hymn books, sheet music, and a glockenspiel. In addition, a thoughtful and skilled member of the congregation made soft cases for all the hand percussion instruments so that the whole kit can be transported easily.

The organ has undergone an important development. Thanks to an ingenious and handy member of the congregation, we made modifications to the organ pedalboard and bench, creating removable risers that enable short-statured players to reach the pedals with ease.


Holy Humour Sunday in 2016 was a significant time for our chamber choir, the Mustard Seeds, as the occasion encouraged us to risk looking silly, and singing and dancing to Jason Gray’s “Laugh out loud” gave us an experience of choreography (see Laughter is a holy thing). It’s also dear to us because the preparation for this song marked the teaching debut of one of our children.

During the year we benefited from the generous loan of choral sheet music sets from High Street Road Uniting Church.

The Mustard Seeds undertook a discernment period during May-August 2016 and have begun, with enjoyment, the trial of new rehearsal format, under a new director and with a full-time accompanist for the first time, moving the focus away from a cappella singing.

Team of instrumentalists

During the year, two of our instrumentalists decided they had gained enough experience to move from quarterly to monthly commitments. We now have five principal musicians who play regularly at Sunday morning services, Wednesday evening Taizé services, Tuesday midday communion services, and other services at special times (such as evening of Ash Wednesday).

One of the points of pride in our music program is the flexibility of payment status for the musicians at St Luke’s – every year, each musician chooses from a range of options including full fee, part fee, travelling expenses, unpaid, or paid for some services and unpaid for others. Musicians appreciate the ability to make this choice without feeling that they will be locked into ‘volunteer’ or ‘professional’ status, and I’m always struck by the generosity of their contributions regardless of what kind of transaction is involved. During the past year, one of our instrumentalists transitioned into a different fee, and all of our musicians played at least some of their services at St Luke’s for no fee.

Music for the wider community

We held the second of our Local Voices songwriting workshop series during September-October 2016 (see Lyrics: Voices distilled. A sneak preview of Local Voices 2016). It was enjoyed by first-time and more experienced songwriters from St Luke’s and the local area, and the tutors took just as much enjoyment in learning from each other’s sessions, which provided a great model of workshopping lyrics and music for the participants.

Meanwhile, we published some songs from the first workshop series, Local Voices 2015, via the St Luke’s blog (see Welcome to this table, Free agents, and New life – new beginning). And as St Luke’s director of music I took special pleasure in seeing the warm reception one of our songwriters received when we shared his composition with local churches at the Ecumenical Hymn Festival in October 2016.

Finally(!) we built upon our relationship with Essex Heights Primary School by hosting the school strings concert in the church, which is a venue of just the right size for the string players and provided a bright, warm welcome to a large number of school families on a night of flooding rain in June 2016.

I know that my Redeemer liveth

Katrina DowlingMusicLeave a Comment

To celebrate the Reign of Christ and the triumphant end to the Church year, let’s listen to a great Handel aria!

Handel monument at Westminster AbbeyAt Handel’s burial place in Westminster Abbey, there is a statue of him with pen in hand writing his own musical credo. It is the opening of the score of “I know that my Redeemer liveth.”

The whole of Part 3 of Messiah is about Christ as redeemer and about his kingdom. This aria is right at the start of Part 3, and you can already hear the triumph that is to emerge in this story, not of escape from death in this world, but of embracing death and reconciling it into eternal life.

You might be familiar with the words of this aria:

I know that my Redeemer liveth, and that He shall stand at the latter day upon the earth. And though worms destroy this body, yet in my flesh shall I see God. (Job 19:25-26)
For now is Christ risen from the dead, the first fruits of them that sleep. (1 Corinthians 15:20)

But did you know that for the musical setting of the portion “I know that my Redeemer liveth, and that He shall stand at the latter day upon the earth,” Handel reworked material from an earlier opera that expresses an almost opposite sentiment? The little air that opens Act II of Riccardo primo has these lyrics:

Se m’è contrario il Cielo, e che sperar potrò frà tante pene.
If heaven is against me, what hope is there for me in all this trouble?

In both cases, the music supports the mood of the words. So how does Handel take this musical material from despair in Riccardo to hope in Messiah?

Both songs are set in the same key and for a soprano, both employ a continuo and strings, and the same melody is recognisable in both. Here is the soprano’s first entry in each song:

Riccardo primo II.1 Arioso “Se m’è contrario il Cielo”, mm.4-8

Riccardo primo II.1 Arioso “Se m’è contrario il Cielo”, mm.4-8

Messiah III.1 “I know that my Redeemer liveth”, mm.18-35

Messiah III.1 “I know that my Redeemer liveth”, mm.18-35

One of the main differences is that Handel has changed the meter from four beats per bar in “Se m’è contrario il Cielo” to three beats per bar in “I know that my Redeemer liveth.” That gives the Messiah piece the sound of a minuet, a dance.

He has also moved the metrical position of the melody. In the example of “Se m’è contrario il Cielo” above, I’ve marked the start of two phrases with red boxes. Both phrases start on a high E and they start on an off-beat (so they begin with very little accent).

The red boxes in the example of “I know that my Redeemer liveth” mark the same points – the start of the two phrases. You can see here that not only does the high E now fall on the first beat of the bar (ie. the strongest beat), but Handel has also added an upbeat to each phrase. That means that the E is arrived at by an upward leap of a fourth – a declamatory gesture.

Do you agree that these changes make the difference between music that suggests “let’s give up” and music that suggests “I have faith in my King”? Listen to these two recordings and see if you get any further ideas!

Sandrine Piau singing “Se m’è contrario il Cielo”

Eleven-year-old Henry Jenkinson singing “I know that my Redeemer liveth”


Advent every day

Katrina DowlingMusicLeave a Comment

The season of Advent isn’t here yet, but choirs have already been preparing for some time. Preparing for the season of preparation. Expectantly acting towards the season of expecting. We all work ahead of each season (as well as doing some quick, spontaneous work that responds to the current season), so we really live out Advent every day.

You might not be in a choir, but this way of preparing will resonate with some aspect of your life. One thing I love in what choir practice reveals about Advent every day is that we each have agency. When we start to learn a song, we are a long way from getting the sound we’ll make after it’s been well rehearsed. We have to imagine the result that is coming and we have to wait through all the days and weeks of practice for the time to come when we hear that sound fully embodied. But we never have to wait passively – in fact, if we merely waited passively, we’d block the possibility of that sound being born. It’s a great gift to us that we have our own work to do as part of the waiting.

At the same time, it’s not all up to us to control the process tightly all the way and force the result we want. Part of the waiting is playing with the process and the medium (voices, or whatever you’re working with – paint? words? people? your body?), letting them tell you how we’re going to take the next step. Advent every day is acting in the expectation of God inhabiting you and your medium and your actions and your fellows, using your part to make something transcendent. That gives us the freedom to work wholeheartedly and without any anxiety.

Georges de La Tour: Joseph's Dream, c.1600-1650Being open to discerning what you should be preparing for is also part of the experience of Advent every day. There’s usually a point in choir rehearsals at which that imagined final result falters, you forget that you’re in the hands of a director, you doubt your own ability to see it through, and you question whether you should back out. Then, usually, you discern that you should go through with it, rather like Joseph. For a little while after he heard that Mary was expecting a child, his preparations were all oriented towards getting out of a very uncomfortable situation! It was later that Joseph discerned that, instead, he could work towards the Advent that embraces all kinds of peril. I bet that Joseph’s dream was only just reassuring enough to see him through the difficulties of that time, too!

Expectant waiting is what I learn from choir about Advent every day. A kind of waiting that is active, wholehearted, carefree, discerning, and trusting. What would you add from your experience?

The Art of Hymn Playing

Katrina DowlingMusic1 Comment

I heard some of our team of musicians chatting about how they map out organ registration in order to engage the congregation when we sing hymns, and I asked Michael Watkins to share some of his insights with us. Here is his response:

Playing hymns for congregational singing is an art form. Accompanying congregational singing is much more than playing the notes on the page.

Determining how to play a hymn is a bit like writing a Year 12 language analysis essay. I ask myself two questions:

  1. What is the hymn-writer trying to say?
  2. How would I (as the organist) like the congregation to sing this hymn?

Quite often, the answers to these questions will change between verses of a hymn, and will affect things like the tempo (speed) and sound quality. The aim of this is to assist and encourage the congregation to then find their own meaning in the hymns we sing.

Take, for example, the Brian Wren hymn “Let all creation dance” (Together in Song 187).

Verse 1 is as follows.

Let all creation dance
in energies sublime,
as order turns with chance,
unfolding space and time,
for nature’s art
in glory grows,
and newly shows
God’s mind and heart. 

By analysing the first line, we know this is a joyous hymn – we are called to dance. The second line talks of “energies.” As a result, I would like the congregation to sing with confidence. I would therefore choose a reasonably strong sound combination to encourage the congregation to sing out. This would most likely include the Great and Swell diapasons and flutes and normal pitch and one octave above.

Verse 2 is:

God’s breath each force unfurls,
igniting from a spark
expanding starry swirls,
with whirlpools dense and dark.
Though moon and sun
seem mindless things,
each orbit sings:
‘Your will be done.’

The opening words of verse 2 talk of “God’s breath.” This immediately suggests verse 2 will be much quieter than verse 1. This is supported by the second line, which talks of “igniting from a spark” – i.e. something very small. Consequently, I would like the congregation to sing more reflectively. I would therefore choose softer organ stops compared with verse 1, such as playing on the Swell manual only.

Verse 3 is:

Our own amazing earth,
with sunlight, cloud and storms
and life’s abundant growth
in lovely shapes and forms,
is made for praise,
a fragile whole
and from its soul
heaven’s music plays.

Verse 3 is interesting. Whilst it does refer to “praise,” this is not a verse to be sung with great gusto. The references to our “amazing earth” being a “fragile whole” and “heaven’s music” playing all suggest to me Wren wants us to stop and reflect on the beauty of the world around us. As a result, I would like the congregation to really absorb the imagery, meaning this verse should also be sung reflectively. I would make subtle changes only to the way I played verse 2.

Verse 4 is:

Lift heart and soul and voice:
in Christ all praises meet
and nature shall rejoice as all is made complete.
In hope be strong,
all life befriend
and kindly tend
creation’s song.

The opening line of verse 4 calls us to lift our “heart and soul and voice.” In the third line, we sing of nature rejoicing. The second half of the verse then talks of having strong hope. This suggests that the verse should be sung strongly, as a verse of praise. In accompanying this verse, I would choose stronger organ stops to encourage the congregation to sing louder – perhaps even louder than in verse 1. I would achieve this by introducing the diapason stop two octaves above normal pitch. This adds a sparkle to the music. For the second half of the verse, I would introduce the Trumpet stop to give some extra power in the lead up to the end of the hymn.

As you can see, hymn playing is much than playing notes on the page. Whilst it is very easy to become involved in a tune (and perhaps a tune engenders certain connotations itself), it is the words of hymns that are of primary importance, and determine how they should be sung.

In planning out how I would like a hymn to be sung, in the days leading up to a service, I always come back to my two questions:

  1. What is the hymn-writer trying to say?
  2. How would I (as the organist) like the congregation to sing this hymn?


Michael’s full registration for “Let all creation dance”

Verse 1:

  • Pedal: Subbass 16’, Gedekt 8’
  • Great: Principal 8’, Octave 4’, Rohr Flöte 8’, Flute 4’
  • Swell: Bourdon 8’, Flute 4’, Prestant 4’
  • Couplers: Great to Pedal, Swell to Great

Verse 2: as for verse 1, but play on the Swell manual only.

Verse 3: as for verse 1, except without the Swell to Great coupler.

Verse 4: As for verse 3, but add Fifteenth 2’, and then Trumpet 8’ for 2nd half of verse.

Join us to sing “Let all creation dance” among the festivities celebrating St Luke’s Preschool and blessing of animals at 9:30am on Sunday 23rd October 2016.

Alive sound

Katrina DowlingMusicLeave a Comment

Gustav Spangenberg, Luther making music in the circle of his family, c.1875 (detail)Have you noticed that a church is not a concert hall? I confess I often blur the two in my mind when I think about sound, envisaging that to get a good sound for music and spoken word in church, we could look to the principles used in concert halls or lecture halls. But Acoustics for Liturgy reminds me that “we must appreciate the difference between liturgical acoustics, in which a congregation participates in making music, and concert/lecture hall acoustics, in which an audience is there only to listen.”[1]

The congregation says spoken prayers together as one voice; when we sing as a congregation, our song is also prayer and proclamation. Each member and the whole assembly as a body is a participant in the liturgy. So, I need to remember that, within the church, there is no spectator’s area, no audience, no passive place.

Being in a different church reminded me of it this week. At the service I attended, the assembly was no larger than that of my home congregation, and no younger, so the people didn’t have a stronger sound by reason of numbers or physical strength. But when we said “Our Father…” there was a warm sound of many voices speaking as one; and when we sang, it was vibrant and easy and, once again, a single corporate voice. Every time we sang, I saw faces light up as our sound bloomed during the opening phrase. Hooray for natural acoustics! The building itself supports the values of our liturgy.

You could also be reminded of how the congregation is a central actor in worship if you are accustomed to an adequate acoustic and you visit a more difficult one. Mark Williams recounts the experience of a congregation that temporarily moved from their acoustically live church to a dead space:

[In their own church building] the congregation sang, boy did they sing. And when they prayed or read prayers or creeds together, it sounded as one voice being offered up to the Lord. Preaching could be heard clearly without the aid of a mic. There was a corporateness in the worship and no one felt alone in their worship because of the acoustics of the room.

When we moved into the temporary quarters of the large historic church in downtown Savannah – quite beautiful and shared with us by a very generous congregation I might add – we found that the sanctuary acoustics had a dramatic impact on the life of our worshiping congregation. With carpet under the pews, velvet on the pew cushions, a domed ceiling constructed out of thin ¼” wood, and an HVAC system that was clearly audible at all times, we soon found that the corporate nature of our worship was decidedly changed. Worshippers complained of not being able to hear even the persons next to them singing or participating in the liturgy, singing lost its former gusto, and all speaking elements of the service had to be mic’d. The sense of the family gathered for worship and their combined voices being offered as one voice to the Lord went away in this new acoustic. As thankful as we were for the use of a beautiful historic space, the air went out of the lungs of our worship and no matter what convolutions we came up with to overcome it, there was no fighting this systemic disorder.[2]

Going from one place to another is an excellent way of discovering what’s valuable in sound (whether in the context of worship or any other activity). Have you made any sound discoveries in new places?

[1] Edward A. Sovik, Acoustics for Liturgy (Chicago: Liturgy Training Publications, 1991), 38.

[2] Mark K. Williams, “The Holiness of Acoustics,” in Worship Space Acoustics: 3 Decades of Design, ed. David T. Bradley, Erica E. Ryherd, and Lauren M. Ronse (New York: Springer Science+Business Media, 2016), 34-36: 34-35.

Lyrics: Voices distilled. A sneak preview of Local Voices 2016

Katrina DowlingMusicLeave a Comment

How lovely is the depiction of poetic truth in the Song of Moses:dew-william-waterway

“Give ear, O heavens, and I will speak,
and let the earth hear the words of my mouth.
May my teaching drop as the rain,
my speech distil as the dew,
like gentle rain upon the tender grass,
and like showers upon the herb.
Deuteronomy 32:1-2 (ESV)

“May our speech distil as the dew” is a good summary of our thoughts as we prepare for Local Voices 2016 songwriting workshop (if you’re reading in September-October 2016, you can join in here). For the first session, Felix has asked participants to bring some lyrics that appeal to them. Our other tutors are looking forward to doing Felix’s writing exercises too, and are sharing their homework with you in advance…

Clare’s pick:

I’ve been looking so long at these pictures of you
That I almost believe that they’re real
I’ve been living so long with my pictures of you
That I almost believe that the pictures
Are all I can feel
The Cure, “Pictures of you”

Paola’s pick:

No, I won’t let you break me
No, I won’t let you break me
I’ve got an ego the size of England
And a pocket full of hopes
I’m the sole and sovereign ruler of my mind
I won’t let you break me
Sabina Sciubba, “I won’t let you break me”

Katrina’s pick:

Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in.
Leonard Cohen, “Anthem”

What lyrics are currently appealing to you, and how do they move or inspire you?

Register for Local Voices 2016 here.

Who are we singing for, and who is singing?

Katrina DowlingMusicLeave a Comment

Versailles opera house interiorI’ve been asked, “In church, who are we singing for?” so let’s play with the idea of an opera, with singers on stage enacting a story for the audience, and see what it suggests for hymn-singing.

Put ourselves – the whole congregation – on the imagined stage of a service of worship. Sometimes we split into characters made of individuals or small groups of people as we enact our story, such as when we sing “The Lord bless you and keep you” to each other. But much of the time the congregation is a single character. We sing a collective utterance.

Many of our hymns are like the aria. In the conventions of opera, some song, such as recitative, is ‘public’ on the stage – all the characters on stage can hear what is said. But an aria is commonly unheard by other characters on stage; it represents a character’s inner thoughts, revealed only to the audience. I think that much of our hymn-singing is a collective inner thought made audible, not for the benefit of other characters, but before the audience. And if the congregation is being a character on stage, then we might imagine that the audience to whom we reveal inner thought is the divine persons.

For example, singing “Tell out, my soul, the greatness of the Lord! Unnumbered blessings give my spirit voice…” the congregation expresses its collective desire. Actually, an additional thing can be happening here. Because these words are borrowed from Mary, the congregation can choose to inhabit Mary’s role.

What about when we seem to be exhorting each other? Singing “Seek ye first the kingdom of God and his righteousness,” whom do we address? I’d suggest that such a hymn is also like an aria. It is a character exhorting him- or herself, which is an important part of many operas. In Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice, when Orpheus is given permission to go and retrieve his wife from death, he first sings “Now all my hopes start to rise… I will brave every pain and peril,” showing his inner movement to the audience, not to other characters in the story. But Janet Baker says that this musical encouragement is essential to the story: “It is like the way the Bantu warriors gear themselves up through music and rhythm. So Orpheus prepares himself for the descent to Hell, for unless he sings the aria he is not going to set foot there.”[1]

Then sometimes we sing words that address God directly, so we appear to have two characters on stage: God; and the congregation, singing “Our heavenly Father…” or “My Jesus, my saviour…” or “Breathe on me, breath of God…” And sometimes the congregation explicitly takes the role of God, singing, for example, “A new commandment I give unto you, that you love one another as I have loved you…” So, in our imagined opera, we recognise that God is audience, on stage addressing us, and on stage singing through us! And we remember we’re called ‘the body of Christ’ – which reveals, perhaps, not only who we are singing for, but who we are, singing.

[1] Quoted in Edward Greenfeld, “Glyndebourne Festival Opera 1982: Edward Greenfeld: three interviews,” Liner notes to Orfeo ed Euridice, Erato Disques, 2292-45864-2, 1983, CD.