|Boston Public Garden – my practice space|
for the next few days.
We have three host churches for this year's conference: Arlington Street Church, First Church Boston, and First Lutheran Church of Boston. All are within easy walking distance of the hotel.
We began the day with a service at Arlington Street Church, a beautiful historic building. This being a Unitarian Universalist Musicians conference, there was a lot of music. Each year, I am awestruck by the sound of 200+ musicians, mostly professionals, joined in song. The power of all those voices truly moves me. There are times that I have trouble singing because I find myself getting choked up by the experience. Another wonderful thing about this conference is simply being around so many professional church musicians. Most of us are the only music professionals in our church, and being surrounded by all of these people is a reminder that I'm not alone.
I skipped the plenary session that followed the morning service and practiced some more in the park. The speaker visited Northwest UU Congregation a few months ago and led a three hour workshop, so I didn't feel the need to hear her again. That being said, the topic is an important one: Sexual Boundaries and Professional Ethics. Let's just say that the workshop I attended was an eye opener, and I'm certain that most the people who attended her presentation felt the same way.
Following the plenary session was the Conference Choir rehearsal. What a treat! We are working on four pieces for Sunday morning. Our conductor, Brainerd Blyden-Taylor, is excellent. We spent most of our rehearsal reading through the music and getting the general gist of it. We'll dig into it more in the next two days. Aside from making great music, I like to use these rehearsals to learn tips from the guest conductors. There is always something I can take back to my own choir.
After rehearsal, we had an easy walk to First Church for lunch. Along with about 200 other people, I didn't really know where I was going, but I followed the herd and got there just fine. I used the down time at lunch to practice some more, and then it was time for the workshops. The workshops are held at First Church and First Lutheran, which are conveniently across the street from each other.
There were a lot of good workshops to choose from. For the first one, I chose "Leading Hymns from the Keyboard." The focus of this workshop was to help pianist and organists develop ways to lead hymns more effectively from the keyboard. Keyboard players are generally at a disadvantage if they have to lead congregational singing, because they are hidden behind their instrument. It didn't matter that I wasn't a keyboard player; I still picked up some good tips. I was happy to learn that, as a hymn leader, I am already following most of the workshop leader's suggestions. For example, I have no problem using a microphone and filling up the sanctuary with sound. I don't drag the hymns. I like to spice up the hymns by adding a swing beat or turning a tried and true hymn into a bossa nova.
There are some other things that I can add to my bag of tricks as a hymn leader. For example, I have never given my congregation any kind of special information or context about the hymns we sing – mostly because I don't know the context myself! To remedy that, I just ordered Between the Lines: Sources for Singing the Living Tradition. This is an excellent resource for learning more about the hymns we Unitarian Univeralists sing. Another thing to consider in hymn leading is what our workshop leader called "paperless" singing. Paperless singing can be leading a simple hymn by rote, or it can mean projecting a hymn onto a screen. I've been resistant to projecting lyrics, but I might be open to projecting lyrics with music (if it's legible). I'm attending a workshop on technology in worship services tomorrow, where, among other things, I'll learn a little more about projecting lyrics and music.
The second workshop I attended was "The Second Voice Change: The Aging Voice," led by Don Milton, the music director at UU Congregation of Atlanta. There was a lot of good information here, and the workshop was well attended. As a general rule, church choirs tend to be comprised of older members. I have a couple exercises to bring back to my choir, as well as another good reason to practice. Just like exercising your body, the singing voice needs exercise. A daily, systematic practice routine is essential to keep the voice in shape. Voice muscles lose any new gains in strength, flexibility, and endurance after 48 hours. Any vocal improvements that my singers make during a Wednesday evening rehearsal will be lost by Sunday morning! Fortunately for my choir, exercising the voice doesn't have to mean practicing their parts – although I would very much appreciate it if they did! To exercise the voice, you can simply make noises. You can practice by making noises in your car as you run errands. Just be careful at a stoplight if you have your windows down.
One major thing I took away from Don's presentation is that I really should take voice lessons. I sing pretty well naturally, but to be honest, I could use some improvement in teaching others how to use their voices properly. I can correct notes and rhythms all day, but I have trouble explaining to a new singer something as simple as using head voice. If I can get with a vocal teacher, I can learn how to work with my singers more effectively.
The last thing I attended today was a Choral Repertoire session, where we sight-read through a bunch of new repertoire. I like these sessions. It's a great opportunity to scout out new music for the choir, and I enjoy sight-reading anyway. Today's session focused on music by fellow Unitarian Universalist composers. There were some real gems in there, but some of the pieces would be pretty difficult for my choir. Still, there were a couple that I'll consider ordering.
There is a worship service tonight, but I skip the evening services. I learned after my first year that I simply can't go to everything and maintain my health. Instead of attending the service, I worked out, ate dinner, and then started writing this blog article. This hotel is attached to a real gym! I was expecting the usual handful of treadmills and a stationary bike. Instead, I was delighted to find a full fledged gym. After my workout, I got a call from my best friend from high school, Mark Stanaford, who lives in the area. He's going to make reservations at an Italian place on the North Side. I have no idea where the North Side is, other than it must be north of where I am staying, but I have read that if you want truly great Italian food, the North Side is the place to go. I'm really looking forward to meeting up with Mark!
Tomorrow will start early. Before the actual conference day begins, I'm taking part in a focus group to explore fair compensation guidelines and practices for mid-sized congregations. Then there will be a morning service, choir rehearsal, and more workshops and a choral repertoire session. I can't wait!