Tuesday, July 25, 2017

RISE: Remember Well the Future

“When God closes a door, he opens a window.”

I’ve never liked that expression.  Beyond the fact that I’m pretty sure it has more basis in pop theology than in what the Bible actually says, who wants to crawl through a window where a perfectly good door stood just moments before? 

When a door closed this summer, I was very happy that another door opened. The “closing” door was not attending classes at Trinity Lutheran Seminary this year.  The “opening” door was a chance to attend the Association of Lutheran Church Musicians biennial conference in Minneapolis!  I’ve been a member of several denominational organizations for musicians, but ALCM is my absolute favorite. The worship services, plenary sessions, musical events, and educational workshops are always of great value!

Sunday, July 9th, was my travel day.  It felt good knowing that I was leaving St. Mark’s in the capable hands of Jane D.  Not only do I appreciate her technical ability, but I know that she loves the St. Mark’s community at least as much as I do.

Monday started early with three back-to-back choral reading sessions.  Reading sessions are important for choir directors.  They usually work like this: attendees receive a packet of music and, with the guidance of a leader, everybody sings through the music together.  This is a great way to gauge the difficulty of a new piece and decide if it’s something you want to “take home.”  Music publishers usually provide the review copies free-of-charge.

Worship is one of the best features of ALCM events.  The service started outside with an Affirmation of Baptism utilizing handbells and the chorale “To Jordan Came the Christ, Our Lord” (christ, unser herr Lutheran Book of Worship 79). When we were all in the church, the Gathering Hymn was the ALCM-commissioned “God Alone Be Praised.” James E. Bobb, Assistant Professor of Music – Organ and Church Music at St. Olaf College, was at the console.  His improvisation on wie schön leuchtet was so energetic that I wanted to stand to sing when we got to the hymn – but it was during communion so I kept my seat.  With 360 singers in attendance, it took some time to prepare and serve the Lord’s Supper.
Opening Eucharist at Augustana Lutheran Church

Chad Fothergill’s plenary sessions on “Re-Membering the Role of the Cantor” was a centerpiece for this four-day gathering.  He examined the historic role of Cantors and helped us take a critical look at our roles in leading the church’s song today.  I’m looking forward to the publication of his presentation so that I can review it more deeply.  Daniel Schwandt was a co-presenter, but was not present because of a family emergency.  Even so, his presence was clearly felt.

A Window at Westminster Presbyterian
Tuesday found us engaged in Morning Prayer at Westminster Presbyterian Church, only a couple of blocks from the hotel. Morning Prayer was followed by valuable workshops.  I attended a post-plenary discussion of the afore-mentioned topic, “Come, Thou Font of Every Blessing” - a workshop geared toward reenergizing church publications such as bulletins and newsletters.

Tuesday’s final event was a hymn festival featuring the National Lutheran Choir and organist David Cherwien.  I never miss a chance to hear him play.  Yes, his playing is superb, but he is also one of the most creative church musicians that I know of when it comes to engaging people through hymns.  He takes everything we learned from Paul Manz to a new level.

Wednesday began with a plenary session by the poet-hymn writer Mary Louise Bringle. The topic was “Re-Forming Congregational Song: the Identity-Relevance Dilemma.  It was an interesting look at various denominations and why they sing what they sing.  Not surprisingly, we hold a great many hymns in common.

Following the plenary, there were more workshops. I attended “Liturgical Theology for Church Musicians” and “Getting It Right: Understanding How to Legally Use Music and Technology.”  St. Mark’s uses music from a variety of sources, so it’s important that someone understand how to record and report so that composers, arrangers, and publishers are able to continue to provide the church with new songs to sing.

The final event on Wednesday was a visit to St. John’s Abbey, a Roman Catholic community, school, publishing house, and church in Collegeville, Minnesota.  We received the warmest of welcomes and participated in an ecumenical worship service which I won’t soon forget.  Father Anthony Ruff, OSB wrote eloquently about this experience in a blog post that I hope you will take the time to read: 

I’ll save you the google search! “OSB” is Order of St. Benedict.
St. John's Abbey

St. John's Abbey
St. John's Abbey

We concluded the conference on Thursday morning with a closing Eucharist at one of my favorite churches – Central Lutheran in Minneapolis.  Mark Sedio is the Cantor there and I am always checking Central’s website to see what he is doing. The service featured his choral work “Rich in Promise.”

There was so much more that I could write about.  If you are a Lutheran Church musician and are not a member of ALCM, I can’t commend this organization to you enough.  Even if you never attend a conference, you will appreciate the extraordinary quality of its publications “Cross Accent” and “In Tempo.” Our Facebook group is one of the best resources available.

There were lots of other activities: networking, casually sharing ideas and experiences over great meals, performances, beautiful venues – the list goes on.  I am grateful that St. Mark’s realizes the importance of providing for continuing education opportunities.  Yes, I am personally enriched by these events, but they help me to more fully lead the church’s song at St. Mark’s.

It won’t be too hard to catch up on the work I missed at Trinity this summer.  I’m glad this door opened! 

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

St. Mark's Is A Site for the American Guild of Organists Southeast Region 2017 Convention

One reason the American Guild of Organists exists is “to advance the cause of organ and choral music, to increase their contributions to aesthetic and religious experiences, and to promote their understanding, appreciation and enjoyment.”  (Want to know more about the purposes of the AGO? Visit www.agohq.org and click the “About” tab.)

I would like to personally say “Thank you” to St. Mark’s Evangelical Lutheran Church for your part in helping us to fulfill our purpose.  For the last two years our local AGO chapter has worked hard to sponsor a convention for the Southeast Region of the guild. Conventions include workshops and concerts that provide education and inspiration for our members.
Sunday night included a hymn festival at the Episcopal Church of the Good Shepherd
On Monday of the convention, June 12, 2017, we spent the entire morning in San Marco between All Saints Episcopal Church, Hendricks Avenue Baptist Church, and St. Mark’s Evangelical Lutheran Church.  Special thanks goes to Loree M. and to Mark and Lynette W. who served as hosts by pointing the way to restrooms, directing conventioneers to the nave for sessions, and helping as needed.  They were truly gracious and met each person with a smile.

St. Mark’s was the location for a workshop on body mapping which teaches musicians how to map (align) their bodies for better physical well-being, better practice, and better music.  It was led by Rhonda Cassano who has been a member of Jacksonville Symphony Orchestra and currently teaches flute at the University of North Florida. Ms. Cassano has also appeared at St. Mark’s with the San Marco Chamber Music Society. 
Rhonda Cassano teaches Body Mapping

Another workshop at St. Mark’s was led by Dr. Cara Tasher, Director of Choral Activities at the University of North Florida.  Her engaging presentation gave choral directors tips on getting the accuracy and expression they want from their singers.

Finally, Donald McCullough led a reading session at St. Mark’s.  Reading sessions are an important part of any convention because they introduce new music to directors.  Each participant receives a packet of music and then we all sing through each title. The session included several pieces composed by Mr. McCullough who is a well-known composer, Director of the Jacksonville Symphony Orchestra Chorus, and the Organist and Choirmaster of Jacksonville’s Episcopal Church of the Good Shepherd.
Don McCullough conducts a reading session at St. Mark's

The program book
I chaired the program book committee.  Our book had to include schedules, concerts, workshop descriptions, artist and presenter bios – and lots of other things.  I am really happy that our cover featured the photography of our own Bill D.

All these events happened at St. Mark’s. Thank you to St. Mark’s for making your space available.  As your Cantor, I am always happy and proud to share our facility with my AGO colleagues.

Raúl Prieto Ramírez at St. Augustine's Catherdral Basilica

Thank you also to the St. Mark’s Foundation.  Their gift to the convention of $1,000.00 was one of the first gifts we received.  It partially funded a concert by Raúl Prieto Ramírez who came from Spain to play a thrilling concert at the Cathedral Basilica in St. Augustine.

The full impact of conventions like ours can never truly be knows.  Organists and directors take new techniques and ideas home to their own churches, schools, and other venues.  They teach them to their students and share them with colleagues.  It is a great gift not just to the individual organist, but to the greater church and to the community.

Photos of Rhonda Cassano and Raúl Prieto Ramírez were taken by a member of the Central Florida AGO Chapter and are taken from Facebook.

Friday, April 7, 2017

Seven Not-in-any-Particular-Order Reasons to Experience the Easter Vigil

The Testing of Abraham by Lauren Sohacki
The service begins outside where the new fire is lit, passed to the Paschal candle (also called the Christ candle), and from there passed to individual worshipers.  We move into the darkened church, encircle the pews, and give thanks for the light of Christ.

The Exultet (also called the Easter Proclamation)

Forms of this chant, led by the Cantor, have been sung in Christian churches for seventeen centuries!  Today’s Lutheran version includes dialogue between the cantor and the assembly as they sing, “This is the night!” together. 

The Vigil Readings
The Old Testament is full of stories of God protecting and providing for God’s people.  We’ll hear many of them tonight.  Our tradition is to present the readings through poetry, dance, art, drama, and any other means that will convey the story.  Each story is followed by a musical response that may take the form of a hymn, psalm, or music by the choir.
Lisa Brott danced the Creation story in 2013

In Lutheran tradition, the gospel acclamation is a communal act.  For the Vigil, our acclamation starts with the joyful ringing of bells as the lights come up in the nave and the altar candles are lit.  The organ crescendoes to join the bells. With happy voices we all sing “This is the feast of victory for our God!”

The Easter Vigil is a unique time for baptism.  One of the things that happens during Lent is preparing new Christians for baptism.  Even if none are held, we can all take the time to remember our own baptism and be thankful.

Alleluia Returns to Worship
On Transfiguration Sunday we buried the alleluia.  It has been sitting in a box under the altar these past forty days, so it’s especially joyful when sung during the gospel acclamation.

Our worship during “The Three Days” reminds us that Christ calls us to love one another, takes us through the passion, then proclaims the resurrection.  Can you think of a better way to complete this journey than gathering as an “Easter people” around the table of the Lord?


It is likely that the sunrise service grew out of the Vigil tradition.  In many places the Vigil began at sundown and lasted into the early hours of the morning – we will be done a lot sooner than that! This is truly the most celebrative liturgy of the year. Please come and be a part – and don’t forget to bring a bell!

Saturday night, April 15th, at 7:00 p.m.

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

What's In the Box?

As you enter the nave for worship, what do you see that is different from just a few weeks ago?

One thing you’ll notice is that the color purple is all around you.  The cross behind the altar and the cross that leads the procession are covered with purple.  Even the pulpit, where the gospel is proclaimed and preached, has a new purple covering.  It is said that this rich color reminds us of repentance. It is also known to have been an ancient color for royalty, so it also signifies solemnity.  Repentance and solemnity are two of the hallmarks of Lent.

As this forty day (excluding Sundays) season begins, you might also hear some things you haven’t heard recently.  St. Mark’s long-time tradition has been to change the Holy Communion setting, including its complementary liturgical music, with each new season.  This year we took that a step further by introducing Holy Communion Setting Nine from Evangelical Lutheran Worship.

The Kyrie (“Lord, Have Mercy”) is deeply reverent with hints of jazz that give it a soulful, contemplative bent.  The Sanctus (“Holy, Holy, Holy”) also has a lushness that can’t be rushed. (Listen to the organ under the second syllable of “Ho-san-na.) As we get further into Lent, we’ll likely introduce the Agnus Dei (“Lamb of God”).

Interestingly, when setting nine first appeared in some provisional materials, many thought it would be too difficult for congregational singing, but recent discussions on social media show there are places where it has become a favorite setting.  Scott Weidler, the past Program Director for Music and Worship in the ELCA, has this to say:

Knowing that, during the ELW development, some thought setting 9 was too difficult . . . I (among others) predicted that it would take a while for it to be really noticed and become learned and loved. Here we are -- 10 years later -- having this conversation. I love it!

There is something else about the sounds of Lent, something more conspicuous by its absence than by its presence – and that is the ancient acclamation of praise, “Alleluia.”
Lent begins with Ash Wednesday and the Imposition of Ashes (Wikipedia)

Many liturgical churches hold a custom (the practice is a tradition, there is no liturgical mandate to eschew the word during Lent or any time) of “burying” the Alleluia during the season of Lent so that its first utterance at the Easter Vigil is especially joyous.  At St. Mark’s, our tradition has become one that includes ringing bells in darkness as the altar candles are lit, the organ fills the nave with an exuberant eruption, and we all sing that first “Alleluia” together.

So, on Transfiguration Sunday we sang an eleventh century hymn to honor this practice that dates to at least the fifth century:

            Alleluia cannot always be our song while here below:
            Alleluia our transgressions make us for a while forgo;
            for the solemn time is coming when our tears for sin shall flow. (ELW 318)

As we sang, the assisting minister carefully folded a banner with that wonderful word emblazoned on it, then laid it in a box.  When we conclude our Lenten journey, when we come to keep glad Easter with the faithful saints on high, we’ll sing it together with all of the joy of those who are redeemed.

Now you know what’s in the box. 

The box is resting under the altar. It was made by the son of Phyllis Green as a temporary vessel for her ashes during her funeral service.  It was given to St. Mark’s to be used in the same manner for future funeral services.

Friday, February 10, 2017

Preparing Our Hearts and Minds to Worship

Picture it. The Cruz family household circa 1976. The oldest child (me) has recently become a teenager and the youngest-there are six in total- is maybe two years old. It’s Sunday morning and it’s time to get ready for church. In a family with six kids everything has to be meticulously planned, laid out on a timetable, and carefully choreographed if we are to enjoy the blissful ride down Everson Hill to Bad Axe Lutheran Church in rural Wisconsin.

That wasn’t how it went at all.

I’m not sure how Mom managed to get all of us ready for church on Sunday morning. (By my memory, it was mostly Mom who took charge of this.) There was always a shoe to be hunted down, Sunday school books to be gathered, clothes to be ironed - anyone with kids knows the drill. By the time we got to the church parking lot Mom would have pronounced her famous phrase – “You kids are enough to make a preacher cuss!”

But this article isn’t about getting ready to leave for worship on Sunday morning; it’s about how to prepare once you get there.
Preparing for worship may include a stop at the font.

Lutherans (and others from a liturgical tradition) tend to be quiet once they are in the nave. Any conversation is hushed and necessary. Once you sit down, what do you do? This blog post offers a few suggestions.

First, pray. The kneelers are there if you want to use one, but it’s just as good to sit quietly. Thank the Holy Spirit for gathering the people around you today. Pray for the Pastor, lay leaders, and musicians as they prepare to lead worship. Pray for the people around you. Matthew Deames, Interim Pastor of Mamrelund Evangelical Lutheran Church in Kent City Michigan, used to arrive especially early so he could walk around the perimeter of his church with the directory in hand, specifically praying for each family.
Still have time to kill? Open your bulletin and read the gospel lesson. Think about where the Pastor might go if this is the basis for the sermon. Next, read the Prayer of the Day. It contains the themes you are likely to encounter in the service. When you have the theme in your head, you will be more aware of all the places in worship that relate to it. Listen for similar words in the hymns, the readings, and the sermon.

I usually skip these two steps and go right for the hymns. I’m always a little disappointed if I know all of them. (I know. I’m weird that way.) Is there a hymn you don’t know? Look it up and read through the text - read it like poetry. When the hymn comes up later in the service, pay special attention to the introduction to hear the melody and rhythm of the text.

Look at the voluntaries – the prelude, postlude, the choir’s anthem, and see how they relate. Most of the preludes I play are hymn-based and they are chosen because they relate to the texts. Feel free to look the hymn up and use its words to prepare your heart and mind for worship.

You probably won’t be able to able to complete these steps every Sunday, but try for one or two.

The Pastor, choir, altar guild, and lay leaders are all examples of people who could use your prayers before worship!

If you are bringing children to church, your morning might be especially frantic. Don’t fret. God, and the rest of us, are just happy that you made it. I’d love to read your comments on this post. Are any of these ideas helpful? Have you found other ways to prepare for worship?

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Organ Concert at St. Mark's on Sunday, January 15th, at 7:00 PM: Peter DeWitt

When St. Mark’s refurbished its organ nearly three years ago, the tonal palette was
Dr. Peter DeWitt
designed to enhance congregational singing.  A happy result of the upgrade was that our organ is also better suited as a solo instrument.  We first heard some of its exciting features in a hymn festival played by Aaron David Miller.

Thanks to a generous gift from Ruth Copeland, we will have our second opportunity to hear our organ played as a solo instrument.  Dr. Peter DeWitt will play a solo concert on Sunday, January 15th, at 7:00 p.m.  The concert will feature music by J. S. Bach, Norwegian composer Knut Nystedt, and Spanish composers whose music was prominent during the founding of the city of St. Augustine.

Peter DeWitt recently retired after 37 years as professor of music and theory at Shorter College in Rome, GA where he also served as the college organist. During that time he performed more than 100 times both as soloist and collaborator as organist, harpsichordist, pianist, singer and actor throughout the Southeast. He also performed in Germany, France, Scandinavia, Russia, England and Spain. In 2000, he presented the complete Clavierubungs of Bach in a series of five concerts. He is a past president of the South Eastern Historical Keyboard Society, past treasurer of the Atlanta Baroque Orchestra, and an active member of the Jacksonville chapter of the American Guild of Organists.  He is the chair of the Jacksonville AGO’s upcoming regional convention in July of 2017.  He is especially proud of the numerous awards won by his students in organ and composition.

Our Zimmer-Colby Organ

Sunday, November 27, 2016

Ten Things I Love About My Job at St. Mark's

Last Sunday was my ten-year anniversary at St. Mark’s Evangelical Lutheran Church. I came into the office on November 20th, 2006 and played my first service on Christ the King Sunday.  This year Christ the King was on November 20th so my calendar and liturgical anniversaries were on the same day!

In honor of these ten years, here are “Ten Things I Love about My Job at St. Mark’s.  A word of caution: this is not a “top ten” list and the items are not being listed in any particular order. So here is my list, with just a few words about each one.

One thing not mentioned in any of the ten items is how grateful I am for all of the people who have become a part of my life during this time.  Pastor Bob Hale, our Interim Pastor, is fond of saying the important thing about being part of a church community is building relationships.  He’s right.

So, here is my list:

NUMBER ONE: Evangelical Lutheran Worship
We dedicated the new hymnal on Epiphany Sunday and I have to say that I love it.  I appreciate the variety of Holy Communion settings and I love that the introduction acknowledges ELW as “a core rather than a comprehensive resource.”  This hymnal is one of the best ones on the market.
We dedicated ELW in January 2007 with this "sculpture." People came from the pews to get a hymnal and take it back to their seats.  It was easy enough at 8:30, but we had difficulty recreating it at 11:00! Photo by Bill Daugherty.
Sunday mornings are great, but they couldn’t happen without the hard work of singers and handbell ringers in the middle of the week.  I am by myself for a good part of the week doing the work of practicing, planning, and preparing, so I look forward to Wednesday night when I am actually surrounded by people!

A choir practice selfie from earlier this year.

We worship in a beautiful space that has incredible acoustics for singing and instrumental music.  Groups that perform here enjoy performing in our space. One orchestra director pulled me close to whisper excitedly, “This room makes them sound better than they are!”  We are blessed that the San Marco Chamber Music Society calls our nave “home.”

NUMBER FOUR: The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America
Many know that I was baptized and confirmed Lutheran (American Lutheran Church). I moved here with my family in 1980 and we started attending church at NAS Jacksonville – where I also had my first two church music jobs.  I never had the opportunity to work for a Lutheran church until I came to St. Mark’s twenty-six years later!  That means I missed LBW (it had just started catching on the in the Wisconsin country churches) and the merger that created the ELCA.  I am proud of the work our denomination does and its perseverance in sharing the gospel of Jesus Christ. I am also happy to have returned to my roots.
The ELCA is known as the church of "God's Work. Our Hands." We observe GWOH Sunday each year with a Sunday of community service.

Every denomination has its association for musicians and I have been a member of many of them.  The ALCM has the best publications, the best networking, and it’s full of people who are willing (and anxious) to share their knowledge freely. Learn more about the ALCM at www.alcm.org.

I am having such a great time with this upgraded instrument.  The original two manual Zimmer organ is still there, but the additions by Colby have vastly expanded the color palette of the instrument.  One of the best things was having Aaron David Miller dedicate the organ during a hymn festival. Read more about the upgrade in this older article from my blog: http://smljax.blogspot.com/2013/04/an-expanded-organ-for-st-marks.html

Aaron David Miller prepares for the festival.
These kids sang every hymn!

I was telling my sister about an upcoming funeral and she thought that might be a part of the job I wouldn’t like so much. The truth is I find great meaning in every funeral service.  Having been in this community for ten years, I have played services for people that I not only know, but I genuinely love.  It is a great honor to help the church commend its loved ones to God as they become part of the church triumphant.  Funerals are sad, I know, but the music and texts are so profound that I can’t deny the impact they have on forming my faith.  I hope the same is true for others.  My desires for my own funeral are laid out in my blog.  You can read that post here:

When I was first told I would be expected to carry on the Bach Vespers tradition at St. Mark’s, I will admit that I was nervous.  Having never conducted an orchestra (except under very controlled circumstances in college), and not having many (okay ANY) major works under my belt, I knew I was in for a new experience.  I have to say that I find it extremely rewarding to present J. S. Bach’s music in the context of a Lutheran Vespers service.  I also have to acknowledge the vision of my predecessor, Jim Rindelaub. Without Jim, Bach Vespers might never have come to be.  This tradition involves members of the Jacksonville Symphony Orchestra and many singers from the community.  It is worth preserving.

Bach Vespers 2016

We have a harpsichord that was built by our own members under the direction of Brian Stout (another one of my predecessors), a gorgeous Yamaha grand piano, shiny handbells from the Whitechapel Foundry in England, and a Zimmer/Colby 36-rank pipe/digital organ that people who should know say is perfect example of a hybrid instrument.  If the nave were a playground and our instruments were see-saws and monkey bars, we wouldn’t be able to keep the kids away.  These instruments lend their support as we sing the church’s song.

Our handbell choir on retreat.
About four years ago I started working on a Master of Arts in Church Music degree through Trinity Lutheran Seminary in Columbus, OH.  This has been a time consuming and costly endeavor, but I have enjoyed great support from the folks at St. Mark’s.  The program at Trinity is such a perfect fit and I am learning much from it.
Some of my friends from Trinity on campus last summer.

There is a quote, attributed to Confucius that keeps showing up in my social media newsfeeds: 

Choose a job you love and you’ll never have to work a day in your life.

Every time I see it, I think, “Yes, I’m already doing that.”

Thank you, St. Mark’s, for a rewarding ten years.