… homespun song in Australia …

Last night I attended a seminar organised by Reconciliation for Western Sydney, on “Aboriginal Justice, Language Restoration, and Spirituality”, at Parramatta, Western Sydney, Australia. We heard sacred songs sung in Dharug Aboriginal language by Jacinta Tobin, a Darug Elder who is a descendant of Yarramundi, a chieftain of the Boorooberongal clan of the Richmond NSW area., and a Christian. Her presentation was followed up by Pastor Ray Minniecon from Redfern, who spoke about Australian indigenous spirituality and its connection to singing.

The enthusiastic audience, who braved freezing weather to attend, were delighted by Jacinta’s songs, and appreciative of Pastor Ray’s careful, patient explanations of complex indigenous spiritual concepts such as skin, songlines, and clan relationship laws. Jacinta has recorded three CDs of her Darug songs, and they will soon be available for online purchase.

Jacinta and Ray, and many Australian Aboriginal people, express their Christian faith in complete consonance with their indigenous identity and song. So why don’t Australian churches include more Australian Aboriginal music and ceremony in their parish worship? There’s plenty of brilliant indigenous church repertoire, and many great indigenous church musicians, out there, but most Australian parish church communities do not include and welcome Australian indigenous church musicians sufficiently, or include sufficient Australian indigenous church music in their worship repertoire.

Maybe someone at the upcoming NSW Sacred Music Festival can enlighten me as to the reasons for this shameful situation. Including indigenous church music in church worship is a proven method of reversing racism and educating non-indigenous people, but none of my church music friends / colleagues seem to care a hoot about this issue. I’m not at all happy to settle for the unspoken / unwritten, racist policy of imposing church music apartheid, repertoire censorship and worship segregation on Australian Aboriginal Christians. An optional annual token Sorry Day or NAIDOC service is simply not enough. All cultures and genres of immigrant music have found prominence and supporters in Australian church worship, so why is Australian indigenous church music so firmly excluded?

In 1963 my church community (St Theodore’s Anglican Church, Elizabeth South, South Australia) purchased a large, cumbersome Phillips tape recorder for our parish. Despite listening to the radio every day, no member of our urban church had ever seen or heard how taped sounds were recorded, before this event. The reason for this was prevalent conservative prejudice against “devilish” secular music, that cocooned church youth of my generation from moral contamination. My church youth group tried the miraculous tape recorder out, supervised by our parish priest, Fr. Norman Kempson. We were amazed to hear our recorded voices singing back at us. The Phillips tape recorder served our parish well, but we never thought to use it to replace our valued church organist, or our singing voices. Our worship was off limits to technology. Worship was not worship, unless it was enacted by live, physically present, musically competent human people, in real time. We used the tape recorder to produce plays and concerts, entertain at social events, and raise money.

Over the last twenty years, with digital technology ever present, many Australian churches have relaxed previously strict rules banning recorded music and audiovisuals during Church worship services. The digital church has now come to stay, whether technology-phobic older parishioners like it, or not. There is a sensible way of using recorded music and audiovisuals, but sadly, in some churches, nonsensical practices that are killing off congregational performance skills, have taken over. Sensible, moderate inclusion of recorded and enhanced music can help churches to teach and promote sung and instrumental worship.

Some church communities have gone too far, and have totally replaced live congregational singing with recorded music and recorded singers. Some communities, who are unwilling or unable to provide music instruction, music staff, and equipment, teach that total silence is always superior to sung worship. Of course silence has always had an honoured place in liturgy, but authentic Christian worship requires that intervals of silent prayer and worship are preceded by well ordered, harmonious, sung worship, readings, preaching and rituals accompanied by music. I am one of many actively worshipping Christians who love to hear human voices raised in well ordered audible worship of God, well balanced within liturgical rites, prayer and silence. I deplore the suppression of audible musical Christian worship, by parsimonious clergy and committees who refuse to provide adequate musical resources and experience for their congregations. There is no contest between silent worship and sung worship: each has its place in different stages of worship. God is present with us in both silent prayer, and also when we sing with heart as well as voice. In all human faiths, worship has always included both silence and song: why should Christian worship be downgraded, corrupted or silenced? Church singing, that is still valued and taught in many Christian churches overseas, is an important and effective way to proclaim our Christian faith publicly, and to introduce new members and children to doctrine, prayer and worship.

Recorded church music, when used correctly, supports sung worship, and should never totally supplant it. Using recorded accompaniments for some services can quickly reduce parish music budgets stretched by weekly organist fees and organ maintenance. But churches who value their music heritage adequately will always make room for skilled organists and choristers, and firmly connect recorded music with sound church music teaching and practice.

Recorded accompaniments and electronic music for churches has pitfalls, some of these being the cost of a good sound amplification system, digital organ maintenance, and sound technicians’ fees. Reliable and skilled recorded audiovisual curation and synchronisation during worship is just as important as real time music rehearsal and performance supervision. A blaring and blurting sound system, uncoordinated hymn lyric slides, or selecting detested recorded songs sung by non-local performers in non-local accents, is a sure way to drive a congregation away to a more musical parish that welcomes and promotes local church musicians and composers..

Following the example of media adulation of secular “star” singers, Australian churches have jumped holus-bolus on to the Church Music Idol Bandwagon. According to some Australian church hierarchies, Australian Church singers and musicians are no longer permitted to practise music ministry. Relegated to selecting music repertoire and delivering technically competent performances, their robotic provision of church music in praise of God is supposedly divorced from, and irrelevant to, pastoral care and ministry.

To promote this heresy, clerics are instructing youth to idolise the current church music star and the latest church music “hit song”. Churches who aggressively commodify and market their in-house church music, composers and performers, often attack rival church music as sinful, in lengthy articles detailing musical offences. These Purity Brigades attack their competitors not only by taking the high moral ground, but by harnessing the depths of populist media hell. Evangelical Christians are marketing films about devil-worship using Catholic Gregorian chant soundtracks, and requiring their members to repeat the myth that Catholics are not Christians. Catholic priests, totally ignoring the vast repertoire of Protestant church music for the dead (e.g. from Protestant composer Johann Sebastian Bach), are preaching the slander that no Protestant Christian ever prays for the dead. Each male church musician has his fan club, and is signed to an international corporation that controls his church music career, income and output. Many Australian church musicians, following the example of their commercially successful music contemporaries in the rock, pop, country and rhythm and blues genres, and abandoning long held church music traditions, have imposed secular compositional styles on church texts, to cater for commercial market demand. These factional music divisions are tearing churches apart.

Use of secular tunes is not a new thing in church music: secular themes have always been used by church musicians to attract congregations, but this tendency was previously regulated by central Church control. No longer. Today the scale and speed of the demise of church music traditions in Australia, facilitated by musically illiterate clergy and church committees, has been startling.

In Australia, this forced demise of traditional church music forms and exponents has included severe censorship of the education, performances and new compositions of women church composers and musicians. The few women church musicians who briefly ascend to the heights of star church music performer status in Australia enjoy only momentary glory, before they are ungraciously booted out of the church music pantheon.

Sounds like sour grapes, I know, but I have experienced working in a fine church music system in the past, and today’s commodified church music is a travesty of what good, honest, heartfelt local church music can be. Even free-wheeling French Taize chants, which were composed as templates to be shaped and enhanced by local music styles through prayerful improvisation, have become poor shadows of themselves in many Australian churches, that have banned local creativity and congregational education in church music. So please excuse me for expressing my disgust at this anarchic church music mess, which could have easily been avoided by funding a strong inter-denominational National Centre for Australian Church Music. The Wesley Centre in Canberra was a good start, but it didn’t go far enough. And guess what, God values every sincere church singer, just as he values every tiny sparrow that sings God’s praise from its heart. I’m still singing for God!

To express your views you can vote in my poll.

You may have noticed that the title of my blog has changed from neocantor to neocantrix. This is because an online troll registered the word neocantor in his name on Twitter, and I am not the author of his @neocantor Twitter posts.

In Australia, Church cantors minister to thousands of congregations, enriching worship with the music of many Church traditions. They work within many different church structures, and their work may be supervised, or not. No inter church agreements on the work of Christian musicians exist, although corporate church music conferences often claim dominant governance roles. Church denominations treasure their particular Church music tradition, which always contains and communicates their doctrinal position within the wide spectrum of Christian belief.

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Yet despite being consigned to what is effectively a management limbo, where individual competition is not only promoted, but mandatory, Christian cantors are surviving. Their ministry survival strategies are varied. Some cantors have chosen to enlist with Church music corporations, and so are paid by parishes affiliated to these church music licensing corporations. Some work as part-time casual employees, and some choose to work as unpaid parish or emerging church volunteers. But more and more trained, experienced Church cantors are choosing to establish independent online cantor ministries, presenting church music workshops, singing for selected liturgies, composing church music, recording their compositions, and speaking at Church music conferences. Whatever survival strategy these Christian religious singers adopt, they are still serving the Church as cantors dedicated to Church music ministry.

There are thousands of skilled female Church musicians in Australia. Two of the most skilled and dedicated practising Church musicians I know are my friend Antonia Deasey, an Anglican music teacher at Trinity Grammar School, Sydney, who also has private pupils and sings in a Cathedral choir, and my Anglican sister Anne Speer, who teaches violin at three Church schools in Western Australia, takes private pupils, directed her local parish choir until recently, and plays with a regional orchestra. These two gifted, talented women are well employed by the Church, but are owed much greater recognition as professional Australian Church musicians and teachers. The private recognition they receive is not comparable with the public adulation regularly heaped upon their male Church music colleagues. Among many others, Rosalie Bonighton (now deceased) is another under-recognised Australian Church musician who springs to mind, together with my Presbyterian aunt Jean Fullard nee Simpson, who served as the organist of St Andrew’s Peace Church, Wonthaggi, Victoria, for many years, and Robin Ruys, current Music Minister of the Anglican Parish of Hunters Hill, Sydney NSW.

In Australia, it is not unusual for fully trained, qualified female Church musicians to be undervalued, underpaid, and grossly overworked. Reform of this aspect of Church music ministry is overdue. Part of the problem is the assumption that technical skill is all that is necessary to be a Church musician. In reality, much more is required, including ethical Christian conduct. Male Australian Church musicians seldom show concern about neglect of female Church musicians – on the contrary, indulgence in tasteless jokes ridiculing female Church music performers and composers, while basking in mutual male praise, is common among Church men. I was fortunate, in my own Church music work, to be regularly employed as a Cathedral Cantor, and I learned much from the professional example of Catholic Cantor Kathleen Boschetti of St Francis Church, Melbourne, Anglican Church music composer Rev. Elizabeth Smith, and Catholic Cantor Donrita Reefman of St Ives Cathedral, Sydney, about working with clergy and lay ministers and requiring their respect. I trained entirely at my own expense. In 2013 I wrote a blog about my positive experience of being a Cantor – see

http://australianchurchmusic.blogspot.com.au/2013/02/the-growth-of-women-church-cantor.html.

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Elizabeth Sheppard vested for Church Cantor ministry, 2010

I loved Church Cantor music ministry and was praised for my success at it. In addition to musical, liturgical and compositional skills it required tactful multi-skilled liturgical coordination with a large group of male clerical and lay supervisors and female assistants. When liturgical worship is smoothly coordinated and the whole community is in tune with the Holy Spirit, Cantor ministry has its own very special rewards and fruits, not the least of which are enduring community friendships.

The effect of globalisation on Australian Church music has been as dire as its effect on that Aussie icon, Vegemite. Although many talented Australian composers continue to produce uniquely Australian Church music in many genres, Australian Church music governing bodies and clergy pay minimal or no attention to local Australian Church music. In Australia, Church music licensing is dominated by globalised corporations who promote non-Australian Church music over the work of local Australian and Aboriginal composers. Australian Church music selection committees overwhelmingly favour non-Australian music over Australian Church music. Some Australian parish music programs use exclusively non-Australian music repertoires and genres. Infusions of forward-looking, hopeful, uniquely Australian musical expressions of Christian faith are rare, ephemeral, and are not included in music examination lists.

For insight into why this has happened, read Jeffrey Tucker’s 2002 article about a multinational corporate Church music publisher whose policies and business ethics are not in tune with Christian beliefs, principles or practice (see link below) http://www.crisismagazine.com/2009/the-hidden-hand-behind-bad-catholic-music

The globalisation of Church music is also discussed in depth by a shocked Richard Barrett on the Orthodoxy and Heterodoxy (Orthodox Christian) blog – http://orthodoxyandheterodoxy.org/2013/01/29/the-hidden-hand-behind-bad-music-could-it-happen-here-american-catholic-worship-and-orthodoxy-in-america/

Church Music App-ologetics

Even in Church music, the smart phone app has its uses. Church music geeks compose and make music online as well as in real time, with human hands and feet and eyes and ears and voices.

The phenomenon of the virtual choir (if you don’t know about this, google Eric Whitacre) has blown preconceptions about tying Church music to a particular time and place, sky-high. Whatever the virtues of real-time interaction (which are unsurpassed, and should never be discounted), as Church musicians we are now stuck with the digital app addictions of the upcoming generation for a long time.

In cyberspace there’s an app for every task you can possibly imagine. Enterprising Church musicians design and market Church music apps, thereby solving their income problems forever. Apps help with a specific task, and can be uploaded to smart phones or computers quickly, and used immediately. For instance, I have a virtual piano keyboard on my iPhone that I use for composing.

This is not an app marketing blog, but I believe in giving credit where credit is due. From time to time I’ll be reviewing Church music apps (e.g. ear training apps, chant databases, music theory apps) that I’ve found helpful and time-saving. Make your own judgements!

App-phobia has crept into the mindset of many Church musicians who

  • obsessively photocopy, distribute, retrieve and file print scores
  • don’t own a smart phone, or are computer-phobic
  • believe that Church music could never be improved by technology
  • devote no time to app discovery and selection
  • think that rehearsing well, with no technology aids, is sufficient

Changing deep-set attitudes like this takes miracles. Hang on, Christians believe in miracles!

If you have a music director that insists on making his and your job as difficult as possible by refusing to adapt to digital technology and app networking, or doing a go-slow on this,it might help to pray loudly and publicly about it.

I’ve noticed that Australian Church Choirs are under rated and under exposed in the Australian and international media, possibly due to the tendency of Australian Church communities to be comfortably inward-looking rather than mission-oriented. As a result, the world is getting the impression that Australian society is more secularised and less Christian than it actually is. To help remedy this, here are some links to Australian Church choirs, databases of Australian Church Choirs, and organisations that maintain, promote, publish, and market the music of Australian Church Choirs.

Choir

Karina Gough’s list of Melbourne Choirs is a good starting point. You can find it by cutting and pasting this URL into your browser.

http://home.vicnet.net.au/~choirs/

As is usual in Australia, this internet choir list favours secular choirs and only includes a handful of Melbourne’s many Church choirs. It seems that Australian Church choirs simply don’t bother to register on non-denominational Choir lists, or join general choral associations. By confining Church choir publicity and networking to denominational websites, Australian Church musicians are doing themselves out of many opportunities.

As organist Mark Quarmby helpfully points out, the Royal School of Church Music in Australia maintains a larger (but far from comprehensive) membership list of Australian Church choirs, see link below:

http://www.rscmaustralia.org.au/Links.htm

The Australian National Choral Association (ANCA) lists only 4 parish Church choirs in its membership, and 10 Church school and ethnic Church community choirs. I counted a total of 47 members choirs of this organisation listed on their website.

http://www.anca.org.au/find-choir

Some Australian choir websites omit Church choirs altogether, e.g.

http://www.choirplace.com/choirs/choirs-in-australia

http://www.caoa.org.au/index.php/choirlinks (Choral Association Australia Inc., 54 choirs registered, but no Church choirs)

Accusations of “high-brow” elitism in Church music are often levelled at Anglican High Church (i.e. episcopalian or Anglo-Catholic) parishes in Australia.

At the other extreme, the so-called “low” Anglican Churches of the evangelical persuasion, who have simplified their Church music repertoire in an attempt to increase congregational participation in Church music, are often accused of “low-brow” banality, or outright iconoclasm.This debate generally disguises the real issues. i.e. music costs and ministry time commitment. Small parishes cannot afford the luxuries of paid orchestras, professional choristers, or a pipe organ, no matter how much they want these. The fix-it-quick option for a cash-strapped parish with no hymn books, organ, or organist, is a limited hymn copyright licence, projected slides, and recorded music accompaniments. The longer-term option (and in the long run the more productive one) is a firm commitment to weekly Church music education for all ages. Parishes with internet access (not always the case in Australia) can organise hymn practice sessions easily, otherwise CDs can be used. The Royal School of Church Music provides Church music training resources, and many Anglican schools and dioceses, ethnic Churches and ecumenical associations organise Church music schools, camps and conferences.

Since every Church is committed to providing a peaceful witness to Jesus Christ’s divine teachings and life, there is no mandate for Christians to bicker over selecting their worship music repertoire, or engaging in media beat-ups that gleefully escalate inter-church music squabbles. Obviously, different Church cultures and backgrounds will favour different, legitimate Church music repertoires, and there is no harm in this. Church music governing organisations, Church schools, and parish music directors are charged with ensuring that Church music in Australia is well composed and performed, that it proclaims Christian teachings, and that it is well integrated with worship. In Western Sydney, it is not uncommon for 40+ different languages to be spoken in one Church parish, but in the interests of preserving Church unity, congregations still manage to learn and sing a core repertoire of English hymns. Annual, monthly, or weekly monocultural liturgies, and special feast day celebrations, fill the need for each cultural group or faction to perform and hear their own Church music in various locations, but there is also an unspoken hospitality rule, by which an invitation is always extended to visitors from other cultures to attend and observe ethnic or denominational liturgies and music, where they are treated as honoured guests.

By visiting all parishes, and not indulging in excessive partiality re music genres within their diocese, clergy and Bishops can exert a considerable charitable, pacifying influence that promotes unity in Christ, even where differing music repertoires, doctrines and texts tend to divide. The strongest unifying force for any diocese is an authentic Christian witness, where Church people join in caring pastorally for those in need. When peaceful Christian work of this kind takes priority, Church music repertoire issues are often reduced to their proper perspective.