Here are some highlights, observations, and lessons learned from the past week:
- The flight out and back. I considered it a good omen when my seat on the flight out was upgraded to the "almost first class" section. That's the first time I've had leg room on a flight. A young boy across the aisle was on his first flight. As the plane lifted off, he shouted, "Woo hoooo!" I live in Atlanta now, but I grew up in the Midwest. As we approached Madison, I felt a sense of homecoming as we few over fields of corn and soybeans. Alas, my seat wasn't upgraded on the flight back, but it sure felt nice to touch down in Atlanta and feel the familiar oven-like heat of home.
- Practicing in public. With plenty of wait time, I practiced guitar in the airport. During the convention, I practiced guitar in a hallway in the hotel so I wouldn't wake up my roommate, who probably wouldn't appreciate hearing scales and arpeggios at 5:30 a.m. I used to feel self conscious practicing in public, but between my Noosh and L'Thai gigs, I play so much background music that practicing in public spaces actually feels normal.
- Plenary sessions with Marcia McFee. In addition to leading each morning's service, Marcia led two sessions entitled Think Like a Filmmaker: Sensory-Rich Worship Design for Unforgettable Messages. Marcia gave us a lot to take in. Essentially, her premise is that she considers filmmakers to be the preeminent storytellers of our time, and that the main reason for this is that film offers a blend of elements, including visual and musical components. When all the components work together properly, they combine to form an experience that sticks with you. Leading by example, Marcia's services and workshops layered a number of stimuli at the same time. Sometimes music was used to underscore spoken word. There was a theme throughout the conference based on the refrain from a hymn: "There are numerous strings in your lute. Let me add my own among them." There was a visual component of actual "strings" at the front of the auditorium (actually, long, colorful ropes) that were used in different ways from service to service. One of Marcia's main themes was planning services so that you move seamlessly from one event to the next. At Northwest UU Congregation, I think we do a fairly good job of transitioning from one thing to the next in services, but there is always room for improvement.
- Too much of a good thing. While I agree with most of Marcia McFee's ideas, I feel that an overemphasis on the seamless transitions and layering of visual elements, spoken word, and music can be too much of a good thing. I may be in the minority among the attendees, but I felt that the services sometimes crossed the line and came across as productions. To me, it felt like we were being led by the nose through services. As a layperson, if I were visiting a church that went to such extremes to put on a sensory rich experience, I wouldn't come back. Along the same line, in her workshops, Marcia will often stop and tell everyone to talk to the person sitting next to them about a topic that she just covered. As an extreme introvert who needs to sit and think about things, this was incredibly off-putting to me. I came to dread the "let's discuss" moments. I would have appreciated a "let's sit quietly and think about this" moment, and then I may have been more open to the "let's discuss" moments. Again, I'm probably in the minority, but in discussing the workshops with others, I'm not the only one who felt this way. As the conference went on, I started sitting as far away from others as I could and put out the "don't talk to me vibe" when we were asked to "discuss amongst ourselves."
- Lots of playing. Last year, I was a little disappointed that I didn't get to play for any services or workshops despite throwing my hat in the ring. Well, I wasn't disappointed this year! I had the privilege of playing for two morning services, a friend's workshop, and in my own workshop. Aside from the joy of playing the guitar, it's important for me to play with others at these conferences. I'm extremely shy about meeting people, but if I'm holding a guitar, I feel very comfortable interacting with those around me. Once I've met and worked with someone in a musical setting, I begin to feel more comfortable speaking with them in non-musical settings like lunch, the bus, between workshops, and in the hotel lobby.
- We Like to Move It, Move It! This was a fun workshop with Sarah Billerbeck, focusing on music and movement activities for children. First of all, it was just plain fun and silly, plus Sarah was working with a room of real, live kids, so there was a lot of energy in the room. I played guitar for Sarah on a few of the songs. That was fun, and it allowed me to some room for improvisation as I was accompanying the children's movements. And even though I don't work often with children in my church job, I still learned a few songs that I could teach to my choir as warm-ups or even use for congregational singing.
- Repertoire! I learned several songs that I plan on introducing to Northwest UU Congregation. I was introduced to several terrific new choir pieces in the choral reading sessions. The music for the conference choir was, for once, easy enough to introduce to an average church choir. I'm excited about bringing some new songs to the Northwest Band, and I picked up a few songs that could serve for congregational singing or material for Join-In Choir.
- How to Get Asked Back. Led by Joyce Poley, Aaron McEmrys, and my good friend Sarah Dan Jones, this session was for the "troubadours" – those musicians who travel around to offer workshops, special services, concerts, etc. This is not something I've done as a Unitarian Universalist music professional, but it's something I've been thinking about off and on. This panel discussion gave me a few ideas for the kinds of things that someone with my unique skill set could offer, and the panelists gave some good practical advice about nuts and bolts issues like marketing and pricing.
- Building the Band. For the first time, I presented a workshop of my own, called Building the Band. I talked about lessons learned from starting a band, finding music, spicing up hymns with a band, and rehearsal techniques. This was the last workshop slot on the last day, so there were fewer attendees than there probably would have been if I had presented this workshop on an earlier day. Still, it felt like the people who attended got something out of it, and I had fun putting this together and presenting it. Each of my main topics could have been an entire workshop topic, especially the section on rehearsal tips. Learning from that, if I have the opportunity to present a workshop again (and I hope I do!), I'll choose just one or two big topics next time so we can go into greater depth. Aside from that self-criticism, I felt very good about this presentation and consider it a success, especially considering it was my first time. I was pleasantly surprised at the number of questions, both during the workshop and after, when people approached me in the hotel to talk some more. On top of that, one person described me as relaxed and open to questions, and another described me as inspiring. So, pat on the back for myself before I start picking away at where I need to improve.
- Meeting the Band. One of the best parts about putting together my workshop was throwing together a band to play some musical examples. I was unable to find a time and place for everyone to meet at once for a rehearsal, so I rehearsed the music with one or two musicians at a time, and then we all played together for the first time at my workshop. Although I didn't expect to have to rehearse this way, it worked out really well. Aside from playing with some terrific musicians, I had a lot of fun working with everyone. Kudos to Susanne Maziarz (bass), Tristan Strelitzer (drums), Scott Roewe (alto sax), and Jed Levine (piano). We want to play together again next year! I don't know in what capacity we'll play. I don't care if we play a workshop, a service, or we just end up playing together at the hotel. I just hope we can all play together again.
- Meeting an Old Friend. Most years, I find that the workshop is being held near an old friend. This year, I had a chance to meet up with Jon Becker. I first knew Jon when I was an undergraduate trombone player at the University of Illinois. Jon was a trombone player studying for a his Master's Degree in music education. Several years later, I worked with Jon as part of the Collins project. I engraved the entire body of work of the American composer Edward Joseph Collins. This was a LOT of work! We're talking several large orchestral works, some involving choir, concerti, numerous piano and chamber works, and even an opera. Overall, this was about 10 years worth of work. Jon wore many hats in this project, including editor, so we were often in touch about the progress of each project, fixing errata, and other music engraving matters. Although Jon and I were in touch frequently during this period of time, we hadn't seen each other in person since I graduated from the U of I in 1988. It was really nice to meet Jon face to face and catch up in person.
- Choral Workshop. Emily Ellsworth, the conductor of the children's choir at this conference, presented an absolutely superb workshop. Nominally, it was about working with children's voices, but as Emily herself said, it was really about working with voices of all ages. She focused mainly on choral warm-ups. As I took notes at this year's conference, I would often use a highlighter so that my attention would be drawn to especially salient points when I went over them later. Looking at my notes now, I highlighted most of the page. As an instrumentalist who isn't as comfortable working with voices as a trained choral conductor, I was pleasantly surprised to find that I'm doing a lot of things right. That doesn't mean that I didn't learn a lot from this session. I learned a few things I could tweak to make my choral warm-ups more effective. I learned a physical warm-up that will get the choir laughing – not that it takes much to get my choir laughing. I also have decided that I need to take voice lessons. It's something I've been thinking about, but Emily just came out and said it. She recognizes that many music directors (including me) who direct choirs are trained as instrumentalists. The best way we can learn how to teach vocal techniques effectively is to take voice lessons. I'll be looking into that. I learned a good way to describe a dynamic range to a choir. Number 1-10. Number 1 is the softest dynamic that will still project to the congregation. Number 10 is the loudest you can healthfully sing without shouting. I'll start using this number system with my choir. I remember learning about a similar number system back when I was a high school trombonist playing in all-state band. It was good to be reminded of this. I'm grateful for Emily's workshop. This single session was worth the trip.
- Call and Response, Zipper Songs, and Rounds. I would like to learn more songs that a congregation can learn to sing quickly. Fortunately, my friend Sarah Dan Jones is a living library of these types of songs. I got to talking with Sarah Dan in the hotel lobby, asking her if she could recommend a book or other source for learning call and response, zipper songs, and rounds. At this point, Sarah Dan's repertoire lives mostly in her head, and the songs bubble up as they're needed. Sarah Dan mentioned that she sometimes thinks about writing them down, but she hasn't gotten around to it. Well, I'm the king of "writing things down." I offered to engrave them for her if she'll sing them to me. We're going to set up a Skype call and get all this started. Who knows? Maybe this will turn into a future publication. At the very least, I'll learn a lot of fun songs.
All in all, this conference was a wonderful experience. It always is. I learned a lot, deepened some friendships, and have a sense that I'm beginning to find my niche within the UUMN community.
Next year's conference is in Arlington, VA. I'll be there!