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Hugh Morris, director, Royal School of Church Music

16 November 2018

‘The biggest cause of fraught relationships between organists and vicars is poor communication’

This job brings together all the things that I’ve worked for over the past two decades. I’m a professional church musician, an educator, a trained teacher, and a committed Christian.

Some current aspects of church music I find worrying. But now I can roll up my sleeves and do what I can to ensure that it’s got a bright and vibrant future. I’ve got lots of energy and dedication, and I always try to stay good-humoured, not least because the Christian message is one of hope and joy.

I most admire my direct predecessor, Andrew Reid, actually. He’s got tremendous intellect and wonderful musicianship, tied to great integrity and faithfulness, and he was always happy to help and advise people, including me.

Much of my work is done at my desk, and two or three days a week in the Salisbury office; but my family moved to Derby Cathedral in December 2014, and my daughters are still in the choir there; so we’ll stay, because it’s so central.

Good music is an essential tool of mission and worship. It’s down to the Church to inspire people to take part, and offer the education that isn’t available elsewhere. In my previous post at Derby Cathedral, we worked hard to give our choristers a musical training that wasn’t just focused on preparing services, but equipped them for lifelong participation in worship.

No, I don’t think there will be a sudden influx of lots of organists and robed choirs. You only have to realise how many people don’t learn much music at all, never mind the piano. But there are ways of training new organists, including the RSCM’s Pipeline scheme, and choirs in general are on the rise.

The future, I suspect, is more about fusion, celebrating the best of all traditions. But, of course, pipe organs are in churches for good reason: an organ played well can lead hymn singing and inspire worship generally like nothing else can.

Whatever the style, it’s important that music is done well, worshipfully, and with skill — not for its own sake, but because God deserves the best. We offer a whole range of training resources for formal choirs, worship bands, small instrumental groups, and even smaller: often rural churches where all that’s available is one leading voice.

There’s lots of advice on how to raise money and budget for music. Our Inspiring Music in Worship encourages conversations in churches. We want to do more education and outreach programmes ourselves.

We’re a charity funded by membership, income from donations and legacies, our RSCM publications, and our educational courses for clergy, singers, and instrumentalists. We’ve had good attendances on these this summer. We can’t make a loss on them, but we want to make them affordable. Next year, we run our three-yearly international summer school, and we’ve offered three full scholarships for music leaders from churches with limited resources.

You need to find a human story to encourage funding. I persuade people to invest in musical education because it’s not a dead spend: the recipients have a future, and education doesn’t stop when people are 18. You’re educating people to serve the Church.

The biggest cause of fraught relationships between organists and vicars is poor communication. Ordination courses, even residential ones, often include little music training; so, many clergy arrive in posts literally unable to talk the language of the often long-established musicians. No wonder there’s no dialogue. RSCM’s Strengthen for Service course is designed exactly for that situation.

If the vicar is very musical, the musicians may feel threatened. But musicians, too, need to remember that they’re there to serve the needs of the Church, not the other way round. Both sides need to realise that they’re not “sides”.

I can’t remember not knowing God. I can still remember saying prayers with my parents at bedtime, as a child, and even one of the Vicar’s talks on prayer at primary school. But there have been times in my life where I’ve been deeply aware of God’s guiding hand, and, as I’ve got older, I’ve tried to let myself trust in that.

Music has been a deeply intertwined strand in some of those encounters. I’ve been part of some huge, grand services with wonderfully uplifting music. I’ve had shivers down the spine hearing choirs singing at evensong. I just love playing hymns myself in services. I’ve been moved to tears in small acts of Taizé worship, and really excited by cross-over services like a Celtic folk-band fusion with choir in a eucharist, or a jazz-inspired evensong. These moments usually come when the worship and music are fused together with the same intent and intensity.

I really love choral music, though. And one favourite piece is Howells’s Te Deum Collegium Regale. The ending, “Let me never be confounded,” is just amazing.

My parents supported my music and even bought a new piano for me, though they themselves aren’t musicians. I was lucky to attend a great primary school with an inspiring music teacher, and attended a secondary school with fantastic music and a chapel, which is where my love of choral music began.

Now, I live with my wife, Sarah, who’s a GP, and two daughters, who are 11 and 13, and I feel very blessed. We’ve come to a happy arrangement: my wife’s an excellent cook who really enjoys cooking, and I really enjoy eating. I like trying to tame our garden, which is still a bit of a wilderness in places, and I find doing DIY a really good switch-off. We all enjoy putting on walking boots and heading up into the Peak District together, which isn’t far from home. Of course, I like making music, too.

As I get older, I increasingly value peace and complete silence; but I play music in my head — often replaying things I’ve heard or performed or conducted. Sometimes, I write music in my head, too, though more often I use a piano to go beyond an initial idea.

Getting the best out of others — that’s one of my chief joys as a choir trainer.

I once did a day-long walk to get to Machu Picchu in Peru. I suffer badly from vertigo, and there were two terrifying hours where the path wound round the side of a mountain with a simply horrific drop to the right-hand side. Without my wife cajoling me from behind, and a lovely young lady whose feet I quite literally followed, I’d have been completely stuck. I’ve also made a couple of brave decisions to step into the unknown to a new job from a place where I was quite happy. Real acts of faith, but I’m glad I’ve done it, each time.

The knowledge that God is faithful to us in the world gives me hope, even if we aren’t exactly brilliant in the other direction.

I pray for peace in our troubled world. And that the Church can have a positive voice and impact on our communities and country, despite the seemingly endless waves of negativity and hostility from the media.

I’d choose to be locked in a church with Johann Sebastian Bach. I want to know how he could possibly conceive such profound music with such apparent ease, and then perform it with such unparalleled skill. I’d try to pick up a few tips.

Hugh Morris was talking to Terence Handley MacMath.


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