Sunday, May 7, 2023

A Sunday in the Country

My favorite thing about going on vacation? Deciding where I am going to church!

Weeks before any trip you can find me googling the destination for Lutheran Churches, particularly churches that are part of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA). But since I was going home to Wisconsin for this trip, it was obvious that I would visit my parents' church - Southwest Prairie Lutheran Church in rural Viroqua, Wisconsin.

The southwest corner of Wisconsin has no shortage of quaint pioneer-founded churches, but I was unprepared for the jewel that is Southwest Prairie. At least in Vernon County, I would be surprised to find a more beautifully appointed worship space. (Some may equal, but none surpass!)
a warm place in winter - from their Facebook page

a cloudy spring day

The church, complete with its own cemetery, began its witness to the gospel more than 160 years ago. (More than one parishioner told me that Southwest Prairie was the mother church for several neighboring congregations.) Its white siding is not unusual for the area, but its striking blue roof sets it apart from other churches in any season. Upon entering the nave, visitors find a gospel-serving space that is reverent and more ornate than expected. A carved wooden altar holds a painting of Jesus, the Good Shepherd, at the center. The altar is flanked by two windows depicting the sacraments celebrated universally by Lutherans - holy baptism on the left and holy communion on the right. Their prominent placement alerts visitors that the church's founders wanted a church where the gospel is preached and the sacraments are rightly administered.

But the most surprising element is the church's ceiling and walls. In 1938 they were covered with stretched burlap, painted, then stenciled. Eighty-five years later, the effect of detailed mosaics is still evident. 

The church is so rustic, you can only get there by driving along a gravel road. Don't forget to turn at the cottonwood tree or you'll end up somewhere else.

The structure of the service was classic "Service of the Word." Although the communion ware was on the altar, there was no communion that day.

Pastor Timothy Dunham, a graduate of Duke University Seminary, leads in a manner that is worshipful and welcoming.

On the Sunday I visited, the gospel reading was about Jesus' encounter with two disciples on the road to Emmaus. Regarding the passage Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures (NRSV), Pastor Dunham observed that we do the same thing every Sunday.  He's right! During the "Word" portion of worship, we do hear readings from the Hebrew Scriptures to which we've added readings from the epistles and  gospels. (I may have missed part of the sermon, because at this point I was thinking about how we do something similar for the Easter vigil.)

The Prayer of the Day and the Confession of Sin both seemed tailored specifically to the day. This made me suspect that Pastor Dunham may have written them himself - and I was right! It turns out this is his usual practice, but he's not sure how common it is for Pastors in his denomination (Lutheran Churches in Mission for Christ, or "LCMC") to do the same thing. Not only is this approach refreshing, but it requires attention to detail while preparing.

The congregation sings well! (Of course they do. Midwestern Lutherans are the best singers of all!) Patty F. leads them well from the organ - an older Allen model that fills the space nicely. Assembly song, a hallmark of the Reformation, is a tradition proudly carried on by this assembly.

On this day we sang hymns from Lutheran Book of Worship and With One Voice:
Holy God, We Praise Your Name LBW 535
Precious Lord, Take My Hand WOV 731
I Know That My Redeemer Lives LBW 352
Rise Up, O Saints of God LBW 383

At one time, Southwest Prairie was part of a three-point parish that included Northwest Prairie Lutheran Church and Bad Axe Lutheran Church. The latter is my home parish. You can read how that church aided my formation in an older article on this blog:

If you are in the area, I recommend a visit to Southwest Prairie Lutheran Church, or to its sister parish, Northwest Prairie Lutheran Church. They are one parish that worships in each location on alternate Sundays - so plan ahead!
It's still Easter in the liturgical churches!

This window, best viewed from the balcony, was donated by the Ladies Aid, year not given.

Sunday, January 1, 2023

Christmas at St. Mark's - 1962!

You can see it's still Christmas at St. Mark's (and in all liturgical churches) because of the Christmas tree. I love this time after Christmas Eve when I get to practice by the light of our tree. (Some people prefer to call it a Chrismon tree - but that's a topic for another article.)

Christmas 2022

There was a time when St. Mark's was home to a different kind of tree - a living Christmas tree!

Now, before anyone get curious and runs up to the tree to pluck its needles to see if they are real or not, I'm talking about a tree made formed by living people!

Svend Simonson with Luci

Apparently, this was the brain child of Hugh Alderman, one of our earliest music directors. Red Brown once told Viki Grzelinski that St. Mark's had the very first living Christmas tree in Jacksonville. He also said that Svend Simonson built the frame of the tree. Children stood on risers that gradually decreased in length so they formed a triangle. Each year Mr. Alderman (who was St. Mark's Music Director for more than 20 years) picked one lucky child to be the angel at the top.

A show this good had to go on the road! And what a great way to share the good news of Jesus at Christmas time!

A 1962 article in the Florida Times-Union reports that the Christmas tree performed two concerts at the Cummer Gallery of Art in Riverside on Sunday, December 23, 1962.

This picture, possibly from 1962 or at least about that time, was clearly taken in the old nave of our current building on Hendricks Avenue.

Two handbell choirs joined in the festivities - and the Cummer event was their premier performance! They played the Petit & Fritsen handbells from Holland. According to the program, a young Steve H. played in the junior choir! (Red Brown was not in the handbell choir that year, but he told me of playing the bells as well.)

Since published handbell arrangements were scarce at the time, Hugh Alderman arranged several of their songs.

Do you have a memory of the living Christmas tree, or perhaps a memory of Hugh Alderman? I hope you'll share it in the comments below.

Hugh Alderman, left, with Pastor Nordsiek

I wonder what people will say of St. Mark's Christmas music 60 years from now?

Merry Christmas and happy new year!

Sunday, November 20, 2022

Sixteen Music Memes for Sixteen Years

This week I celebrate 16 years of being Cantor at St. Mark's Evangelical Lutheran Church. Normally a reflective piece of writing might be called for, something that waxes nostalgic - but I've decided to forgo that and do a fun post of some of my favorite music memes!

First, what is a meme? Memes are a social media phenomenon. According to Merriam-Webster, a meme is "an amusing or interesting item (such as a captioned picture or video) or genre of items that is spread widely online especially through social media."

Memes seem to fly about social media without any copyright information. I intend no such violations myself. If something is copyrighted, let me know and I'll remove it.

So here are some of my favorite musical memes (in no particular order), some with comments and some without. I hope you enjoy them as much as I do! 
Meme 1

I love this woman's enthusiasm! I can't imagine why you wouldn't want to take your choir music home and practice!

Meme 2
Sometimes you just can't get a song out of your head!

Meme 3

This picture is used for a variety of memes. I think I read once that the original title of this meme is "First World Problems." The person in the photo is always having an emotional moment over something that isn't that big a deal. (Hey, we've all been there!) BTW, finger prints on a handbell are serious business, but not THAT serious!

Meme 4
I'm not sure why Captain Picard is picking on the altos, the same goes for any section at one time or another. This meme is also great because I love Star Trek too!

Meme 5

It's not just old people! To be honest, the most copies I've ever found of a single anthem in a single folder is three. We have a numbering system now, so it's not likely to happen again.

Meme 6

She's back! This one is a classic!

Meme 7

Judge much, J. S. ?

Meme 8

Yes. We play by the rules! (That's not to say there aren't exceptions to every rule!)

Meme 9
I say this to people all the time. "Send me an email. If you tell me something an hour before church or an hour after church, it's a conversation that never happened!"

Meme 10
Here's another meme from "The World's Most Interesting Man." Years ago, while working for an Episcopal Church I visited a Methodist service. As is my practice, I sat down and listened to the postlude. When the pastor greeted me he said, "You must be an Episcopalian or an organist."

"Turns out I'm both," I answered.

Meme 11

This meme is fun because I'm also a "Game of Thrones" fan (which is where the picture comes from).

One of my favorite musical jokes:
How many first sopranos does it take to change a light bulb?
Two. One to screw the bulb in while the other asks, "That's a little high for you, isnt' it?"

Meme 12

It's funny because it's true.

Meme 13

Technically this probably isn't a meme, but there is a group of church musicians that likes to take classic art and add captions. This is one of my favorites. And it's nice because I can give credit! I laughed at this one for several days!

Meme 14

I wouldn't suggest that a singer date a piano major to get a free accompanist, but I have recommended to choir singers that they date other singers. We are always looking for new people and we are always recruiting!

Accompanying is hard work! Those people are worth every penny!

Meme 15

I've never cared about any sport really, but Julie Andrews expresses beautifully what I'm thinking while football teams are recruiting and other people are building their fantasy football teams.

Meme 16
This one feels like a personal attack! When Covid started and we were recording services I would practice something and play it perfectly. The second I hit the record button, it became a total disaster!

This one's a bonus!

Dear People of St. Mark's,
Thank you for 16 wonderful years! I look forward to more!
Cantor Tony

Monday, October 10, 2022

What Everyone Should Know About Sopranos, Altos, Tenors, and Basses

Most choirs of adult singers include four voice types: soprano, alto, tenor, and bass. Beyond "sopranos and tenors sing high while altos and basses sing low," each part performs specific functions in the musical ensemble. Beware! What follows is gross generalizations - none of these things are always true, but they generally hold true in choirs with singers of more than one gender.
Members of the Valparaiso Chorale performing at St. Mark's in 2018.
The choir includes sopranos, altos, tenors, and basses.

Four-part music
Have you ever noticed that music in hymnals usually has four separate lines to follow? There are two on the top line (treble clef) and two on the bottom line (bass clef). This is because since the time hymns began to be printed with lyrics AND musical notation, it was written for four-part music - not the organ! Each voice part is responsible for a specific line. (For a long time, hymnals only included texts. Scandal and vigorous debate ensued when someone decided to publish music and words together.)

In more modern times, hymns occasionally appear with a single vocal line. This usually means the choir (and assembly) sing the melody against a specially composed accompaniment from the organ or piano.

Sopranos almost always sing the melody, especially in hymn singing. When people from the assembly don't read music, they sing the soprano line. This includes bass-clef voices who sing the melody an octave down. In hymn singing, soprano notes aren't particularly high - that happens with music written for choirs to sing alone. In many church choirs, some sopranos will sing a descant - a much higher counter-melody that soars above the other singers to add interest and drama.

Altos are glue! They provide the harmonies that let us know if what we're hearing is in a major or minor key. They add harmonic colors that tell us if we're singing a hymn from northern Europe or something with a touch of jazz.

Heard by itself, the alto part is often. . .unimpressive. But what would we do without it? One young woman has achieved a certain amount of fame for recording just the alto line of the classic Christmas song "All I Want for Christmas Is You." Give it a listen at the link. It might sound odd on its own, but imagine a choir without altos. It's sad, isn't it?

There are more jokes about tenors than all other voice parts combined! Our choir room used to contain the following warning (that I will always believe was probably placed there by a tenor):

All kidding aside, tenors work with the altos to support the harmonic texture. They also add color and fullness to the choir's overall sound. (UPDATE: Since this article was printed in the Messenger, a BASS came forward and confessed to posting the sign!)

There's a reason they are called basses - they are the base of the choir! Basses normally sing a harmonized part that is usually the "root" of a chord. Basses help the rest of the choir sing in tune by providing a solid foundation. They also add richness and depth to the choral sound.

Which part do you sing?
All singers are welcome to join the Festival Choir in its work of leading the church's song at St. Mark's. Whether you sing soprano, alto, tenor, or bass, we hope you will join us. For more information, contact Tony Cruz or any choir member.

Come sing with us!

Note: A version of this article appeared previously in the St. Mark's Messenger newsletter.

Saturday, August 13, 2022

From Generation to Generation: My Experience with the ALCM at Valparaiso University

All professions have their own professional associations to help members keep up with industry trends, maintain standards of excellence, and be part of a community of people who share common goals. For Lutheran church musicians, that organization is the Association of Lutheran Church Musicians.

ALCM, a pan-Lutheran group, nurtures and equips musicians to serve and lead the church's song.

The recent conference titled "From Generation to Generation" fulfilled that mission well. This conference was sponsored and organized by Region One, but members traveled from across the country. We were eager to be in the company of colleagues and friends after two and a half years of travel restrictions and cancelled events.

For me, it was also a reunion with most of my classmates from Trinity Lutheran Seminary.

My classmates from TLS!

Held at Valparaiso University, the ALCM conference coincided with Lutheran Summer Music (LSM). LSM is the nation's premier faith-based music academy for high school students. This convergence of ALCM and LSM brought the generations of church musicians together in a way that doesn't often happen on a large scale.

Daily worship was an important part of each day. Morning Prayer in the famed Chapel of the Resurrection followed breakfast each morning. We returned there each night for Evening Prayer. LSM youth served in many of the leadership roles at these services, serving as cantors, organists, lectors, and more.

One of the most memorable events was an Evening Prayer service that included a hymn festival! Singing hymns with a full chapel was a deeply satisfying way to finish the day.

Most of the day was given to workshops. I chose three sessions on Composing/Arranging for the Assembly. I also attended sessions on choral warm-ups, bulletin design, and copyright concerns. All sessions were led by knowledgeable people who are leaders in the field of church music.

One way to inspire musicians is through concerts - and we heard two amazing groups perform.

Cantus is an American groups whose concert "My Journey Yours" told the stories of immigrants to America through reading first-person accounts. A rich tapestry of choral music, most of it by modern composers, complemented the readings.

Cantus - from the website

The second concert was by the Calmus Ensemble from Leipzig, Germany. The five singers gave an incredible all Bach, all acapella concert. It came in three parts featuring music by J. S. Bach - including sung versions of his organ works! At the center was Bach's famous motet, Jesu meine Freude.

Calmus Ensemble - from their website

Both concerts were made possible through a generous gift from Mark and Kathy Helge who are major supporters of the ALCM.

ALCM membership is one of my most valuable tools as a leader of the church's song. I am proud to serve on its board!

This mural on the chapel wall shows Valparaiso University's motto: In your light, we see light.

Monday, August 8, 2022

Music Week 2022 at Lutheridge - Good News!

Just saying the word "Lutheridge" around St. Mark's is likely to be met with smiles and happy nods. People at St. Mark's have owned homes there, attended retreats, and visited friends who live there. Our St. Mark's Ringers have enjoyed many a handbell weekend there. Lutheridge is also an important part of Pastor Daniel's call story.

Thornburg Hall - My home away from home during Lutheridge Music Week

So, you can imagine why I was excited about participating in my first Music Week at Lutheridge. It wasn't just about the possibility of cooler summer temperatures, but I had my fingers crossed! (We had great weather, by the way, with lows in the 70s and highs in the mid 80s.)

Lutheridge Music Week did not disappoint for experiences. I'll talk about three of my favorites: worship services, singing in the adult choir, and taking in the camp's natural beauty.

Most worship services at Lutheridge take place in Whisnant Chapel. The walk is not a long one, but it's quite steep. I found myself making that trek three times most days - for morning worship, an organ workshop ("Creative Song: Leading from the Organ & Piano"), and then again for evening worship.

Whisnant Chapel is about as rustic as you can get. It has a simple wooden construction. Instead of windows, there are large open spaces in the wall. This allows the cool mountain breezes (and the occasional mosquito) to pass through freely.

Whisnant Chapel is surrounded by a forest of trees. No glass in the "windows."

Each worship service was well-planned and beautifully accompanied by piano and/or organ - sometimes by one person and other times by a team. (The organ is rented for Music Week.) The preaching, by Pastor Todd Cutter (University Campus Minister and Director of Spiritual Life at Lenoir-Rhyne University), was reverent and meaningful. The assembly laughed at his humorous stories - like being chased by a rooster while enjoying a morning run, and being attacked by a loft of starving pigeons.

Preparing for worship

A special communion service called for some special decorations.

One early morning worship service, accompanied by recorders and guitar, was a Thanksgiving for Baptism at the lakeside. I almost slept in for this one - after all, the walk down the hill isn't so bad, but the hike back up is another story! Fortunately, I found out I could drive there. Arriving a little early, I took a moment to enjoy nature's beauty and a wet bench. (Note for the future: take something to sit on at the lakeside!) The recorders and guitar, complemented by assembly singing, seemed like the most natural thing in the world. I'm glad I didn't miss it by sleeping late!
The lake at Lutheridge. Does anyone know if it has a name?

Handbells and preaching were part of the order of worship for Thanksgiving for Baptism.

The biggest worship service was on Friday night with singing by the adult choir and music from the advanced and intermediate handbell choirs. It was a glorious evening!
The adult choir rehearsing for the final service.
Photo by Karol Kinard Kimmell

The highlight of the week for me occurred away from the camp. Jeremy Bankson (the organ clinician) led a hymn festival titled "Good News to Sing About." It included choral and instrumental music - most of it composed/arranged by Bankson whose organ accompaniments were dazzling! The venue was First Presbyterian Church in Asheville. My one regret for the week is that I didn't sing in the hymn festival choir.
First Presbyterian in Asheville was a wonderful place for singing hymns. 
Hymn festivals happen to be one of my favorite things.

It's been awhile since I sang in a choir. Our choir was led by Eric Nelson, Professor of Music and Director of Choral Studies at Emory University. Read his bio here: About 65 excellent musicians sang in the choir, rehearsing two or three times each day. At first, I wasn't thrilled with all the literature he selected, but by the end of the week I had warmed up to all the pieces - and even came to love a couple of them. Singing in this choir was pure joy! We learned 5 pieces in total, and sang them all at the final worship on Friday night.

Singing under someone else's direction, especially someone as accomplished as Nelson, is a great way for a choir director to learn new approaches to leading their own choirs. Observing how another director deals with diction, singing in tune, and artistic expression is a rare and prime opportunity. I look forward to trying out a few new tricks on our Festival Choir!
A good variety of anthems to sing! I loved the Hagenberg and Craig Courtney pieces. "O For a Thousand Tongues to Sing" (Eric Nelson's own arrangement) was very stirring - especially with such a good-sized choir!

Mark Johanson (Christ Lutheran, Charlotte, NC) accompanied the choir - and he was a dream! He seemed to read the director's mind, skillfully anticipating his every move - all while playing with artistic precision!

Finally, I found some time to enjoy a walk on one of the nature trails. The one I chose has an entrance close to the chapel and is called "The Quiet Way." It was a warm day, but the mountain breezes made for a centering walk in the woods. I used to love being in the woods while I was growing up on the family farm in Wisconsin - and the North Carolina mountains made me feel right at home.

The theme for the week was "Good News!" - so let me share some good news. Lutheridge Music Week isn't just for directors! I would love to return with singers from our Festival Choir and handbell players from our St. Mark's Ringers. There are also opportunities for people who play just about any instrument you can think of.

There are also activities for children and youth. We didn't see them during the week (except during meals), but we heard all the groups perform before the week was out.

Thank you to Karol Kinard Kimmell and Ed Tompkins who serve as program directors for Lutheridge Music Week. It is a testimony to their hard work that people return year after year for this mountain top experience. I recommend Lutheridge Music Week to people from all denominations who enjoy church music or work in music ministry.
On a free night, I had a wonderful dinner with new friends at the Grove Park Inn.

Thank you also to the staff of Lutheridge for being the stewards of this special place, and for taking care of us "campers."

Thank you to First Presbyterian Church in Asheville for opening their church and organ to us. It was an amazing place to worship.

I was also grateful to have the chance to share information about the Association of Lutheran Church Musicians. Our table had free copies of past editions of ALCM's "Cross Accent" journal and "In Tempo" - a practical resource for church musicians. We also had some free cds to be enjoyed for the journey home.

Now when someone at St. Mark's talks about Lutheridge, I'll be one of those people smiling with a wistful look in his eye.