Editorial License

Rob Hammerton, music educator etc.

Do I Have Any Business Expecting This?

Every year around this time, church musicians get a little crazy.

Much to prepare for! Christmas Eve services! Four Advent Sundays, two anthems per Sunday, plus choral interjections, plus psalm tones if your church does that sort of thing! Blue Christmas service (for those who have experienced loss in the last year, and/or during any Advent season; these holidays can be a tough time to be hurting)! Barn Sing (easy enough for the carol-singing audience, but who’s going to set up that Powerpoint presentation so we don’t have to print lyric sheets?)! Caroling visits to our shut-ins! And if you’re a public school teacher, that’s on top of rehearsal, rehearsal, dress rehearsal, concert, concert, Senior Center performance, in-school music assembly …


And certainly in my case, that means marathon rehearsals. It’s actually the norm at Sudbury Methodist, since my brother-in-law Kevin (organist) and I seem to have a history of cooking up, um, rather large projects. Christmas Cantata! With a cast of thousands! The more the merrier! We’ll hang the extra players from the rafters if we have to! Last year, it was Kevin’s own Christmas Cantata, thirty-five minutes of some of the hardest music I’ve ever conducted, or that our choir has ever sung. Two years ago, a cantata of Dietrich Buxtehude; very baroque. Three years ago, it was the Christmas Cantata of Dave Brubeck, which was about a half-hour worth of the OTHER hardest music, etc. etc. (Did you know Brubeck had written one of those? I didn’t either, till the August before December 2007. It’s neat, but he obviously never sang in a choir. Voice leading, hello?!)


So, this past Thursday night, following three months of work preparing choral parts for nine out of twelve movements of Benjamin Britten’s “Ceremony of Carols” … we went for the marathon session. It’ll be presented tomorrow morning during our regular 9:30 am service. A curious piece of work indeed, scored originally for three-part treble voices, soloists, and harp. The text is fairly middle-English, with all manner of curious re-spellings and odd pronunciations. It’s been converted by a kindly publisher to SATB voices and piano, on the odd chance that your church doesn’t have a harpist sitting around.

Hold off for a moment on the harp part of this.

Considering we usually start evening rehearsals at 7:30, run through Sunday’s hymns, and start the major-work fireworks hopefully by ten till 8 … our choir folks recognize the potential to go a bit past “union time”, as it were. Nine o’clock is our usual stopping point, but on these special evenings, it could be 9:30 … could be quarter till 10 … hopefully not beyond …

With one movement to go, I turned to look at the clock in the back of the Sanctuary, expecting it to say 9:30, or some version of Stupid O’Clock. I was ready to turn back and apologize for the lateness of the hour. Instead … the clock said 8:55 pm.

Wow. Fast work. More than that though – good humor throughout. One thing I love about our choir – they offer up more than their fair share of patience and belly laughs. To adjust a previous “starred thought”, this crowd is at their best when things are at their goofiest. Whenever we worked on the movement that was basically just chant, one of our basses would actively campaign for us to close our music folders and whack ourselves in the heads after each phrase, a la “Pie Jesu Domine (slap!)” from Monty Python and the Holy Grail.

Now to the harp part.

Consider: my job Thursday night was to help a 28-member choir of volunteers (and very few trained musicians) integrate their choral parts with congregation members playing flute, clarinet, French horn, trombone, baritone horn, violins times two and cello … and to integrate it all with the sound of a professional harpist. Her name is Lira Cady; she teaches at Atlantic Union College (Lancaster, MA) … and she clearly knows her stuff.

But the harp will not necessarily project its sound as well as an accompanist bangin’ on a piano. Plus the harp parts in the Britten cantata usually offer very little to a choir in the way of doubling their parts for security. So if you take a volunteer choir away from its usual low-ceiling rehearsal room and its very-nearby piano … and you stick them in a large space and separate them from their accompanying harp by several yards (and eight or nine other musicians) …

You might get quiet panic.


Not here, apparently. Choir hit it out of the park. Oh did they bring their “A” game. We’d arranged parts for the various non-harp instruments which would double choral parts and help keep the choir in the game – but they really didn’t need help Thursday night. I kept checking in with Ms. Cady at the harp, hoping against hope that she thought it’d been worth the drive out to Sudbury … and whew! she kept hinting that everything was fine. (There are a couple of movements featuring only the soloists which are just oddball enough that I need to spend some time today, just plain ol’ practicing my “vave your arms!” work … but Ms. Cady politely didn’t mention those.)

The “degree of difficulty” of this work is fairly high; and everyone in the room had already completed a full day of work (or, in the case of some of our instrumentalists, school) and was probably not exactly fresh as the proverbial daisy. But if you’d loitered outside the Sanctuary during that session, you’d have heard – besides the fine music – some really good punchlines and a lot of full-throated laughing. No grumbling that I could perceive; no rolling of eyes, gnashing of teeth, checking of watches. When I asked gingerly if we could possibly run one of the bouncy movements a third time, to make sure of a couple of things, I heard boisterous “yes, yes, yes, one more.” Afterward I thought aloud, “I had no business expecting any of that when we finished at 9:10 pm.” But I got it.


Lest there be any wondering about whether I like my church gig…


December 11, 2010 - Posted by | arranging, choir, music, SUMC | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,


  1. ..this would be why us Jews eat Chinese food and go to the movies on Christmas–too much work!!


    Comment by heidi sarver | December 11, 2010 | Reply

  2. […] As a church choir director, my job is to develop our music program. Yes, I need to try new musical anthems, to explore new means of musical expression as spiritual offerings, but also – of course – to maintain and develop our choir and other ensembles, in both size and competence. No ensemble director wants to see his group’s size decrease – or, if we must remain the same size, let us improve! So any time a church visitor expresses musical interest, or even mere musical awareness!, I jump up (without spooking them, of course) and suggest that our music program is a neat place to be. It’s a great community within a great community, which I’ve chronicled before. […]

    Pingback by Tebow Time -or- Choose Restraint « Editorial License | January 16, 2012 | Reply

  3. […] church choir which I can count on to produce, week after week: beautiful music … a community of caring … and belly […]

    Pingback by Making a List… (or, Taking It For Granite, Part 4) « Editorial License | November 23, 2012 | Reply

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