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Reboot webinar on church music: ‘Lift up your Voices, Lift up your Hearts’

19 May 2021

Garry Humphreys hears about getting congregations to sing again


The deputy director of the Royal School of Church Music (RSCM), Canon Sal McDougall, chaired the RSCM/Church Times webinar on Tuesday

The deputy director of the Royal School of Church Music (RSCM), Canon Sal McDougall, chaired the RSCM/Church Times webinar on Tuesday

ONE of the more positive outcomes of the lockdowns has been the virtual event, enabling attendance at a wide variety of lectures, conferences, and other gatherings, irrespective of location.

One such was a whole-day live webinar on Tuesday organised jointly by the Royal School of Church Music and the Church Times — “Lift up your Voices, Lift up your Hearts” — described as a “reboot webinar” covering “hot topics for musicians, ministers and laity”, with online delegates from Britain and overseas, including Montreux, Switzerland, and Sydney, Australia.

Church music and the effects of Covid, and the many and varied initiatives adopted by churches throughout the country, have been extensively reported over the past 14 months, but the intention of this webinar was essentially to focus on the future and bringing choirs and congregations back to some sort of normality.

It is clear, though, that things will never be quite the same as before. It is also clear that this may be no bad thing; for the pandemic has taught us a great deal — about the need for reconnecting with our congregations as well as our singers, and the power of singing to do this.

The first speaker, Miles Quick — head of congregational and instrumental music at the RSCM — went so far as to suggest that the quality of congregational singing is a barometer of that particular church’s health. John Bell of the Iona Community asserted that “music more than sermons can shake congregations”; but the heart, as much as musical skill, is an essential element in achieving this.

Bell reminded us that a congregation is a different entity from a choir: choirs sit together and not only have singing skills but rehearse what they sing. Congregations don’t! Hymn-singing needs to be made more attractive for a congregation, varying the delivery, style, and who sings what.

They will not learn new tunes from instruments, he said, but from hearing the music sung, perhaps not by a fine singer in the choir, but from another member of the congregation, more like themselves. His own two-part book, The Singing Thing, was recommended.

But the music needs to be chosen carefully, and singable by a congregation: tunes and keys matter. Anne Harrison, a committee member of the Hymn Society of Great Britain and Ireland, took as her point of departure “Let everything that hath breath praise the Lord.” This was reiterated by Noël Tredinnick, long associated with All Souls’, Langham Place, and the BBC’s Songs of Praise, who emphasised the power of music to bring harmony and unity, and the part played by the director of music as an ambassador, a link between clergy and choir, choir and congregation, and between all those and God — an ambassador of God and an ambassador of music.

“What next for choirs” was the topic of discussion between Steven Maxson (Director of Music at Grimsby Minster) and Tim Williams (St Wulfram’s, Grantham). They emphasised the difficulties of maintaining the community feeling in a choir, despite many impressive initiatives during the lockdowns, which, it was agreed, were not the same as being together. In addition, members without access to technology, or with visual or hearing disabilities, still needed to be kept in touch through information and reassurance.

What can be achieved by introducing children to large-scale hymn-singing was described by Gill Fourie, head of music outreach at Blackburn Cathedral, as an introduction to Hymnpact, a forthcoming initiative for bridging the gap between schools and churches.

As for the clergy, it appeared to be assumed that most were unmusical, so that Kimberly Bohan (Rector of Waltham, Grimsby) spoke of “transforming fear” by learning short, simple musical phrases. Helen Bent, the RSCM’s head of ministerial training, identified books, courses (specifically the RSCM’s Music for Mission and Ministry), and other resources. She likened the return to normality to Ezra’s return to Jerusalem, and spoke of the need for flexibility and open-mindedness — and to encourage people who think that they can’t sing together.

She talked about learning new music, too — perhaps with new words to old tunes — without abandoning the old and familiar. New things, in time, become old.

Old and new was very much in the minds of the editors of The Revised English Hymnal, now expected to be published in September. Two editors — Canons Martin Draper and Gordon Giles — described the new book, which clearly upholds the traditions established by its founders, but with some changes designed to accommodate current practices, but which, they hope, “won’t be noticed”.

It was interesting to hear hymns variously identified as “sung to God, sung to each other, or sung to oneself”.

The day ended with a session on the important but perhaps not very sexy topic of copyright and licensing, during which, I noticed, the number in attendance declined noticeably.

This was a most fascinating, informative, and enjoyable day, well presented and with few technical glitches, and time very well spent.


To watch the webinar, see Lift Up Your Voices, Lift Up Your Hearts.

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