A JOYFUL NOISE
By Christine Burton
‘Paperless’ music a good challenge for church choirs
Last summer I was fortunate to participate in a pastoral music workshop
hosted by St. Paul’s University in Ottawa and run by the All Saints
Company of San Francisco.
The workshop focused primarily on what was simply called “paperless
music.” Self-evidently, singing without sheet music, but in reality
its reach was broader than this. The workshop involved a variety of approaches
to “paperless” music — call and response, where words
and music are repeated back to the leader of song; chorus repetition,
which is similar to antiphon/verse model of the Psalms; longer episodes
of “teaching” of a song with a fair number of words.
Interestingly, while some were what we might refer to as “ethnic” (Latin
American music is only “ethnic” if you’re not Latin
American), they ranged in style, with some being upbeat and dance-y,
others being more contemplative, such as the Taizé experience.
But as the instructors demonstrated to and through us, you don’t
need sheet music in front of you to “make music.” After all,
it’s called “the oral tradition” for a reason.
Now, you may think, “easy for them, they’re all musicians.
. . .” In reality, though, such an approach actually presents some
challenges for traditional church musicians. We are accustomed to the
crutch of having sheet music. And when I say “crutch,” I
do mean that. My current director, like many of my church and community
choir directors before him, regularly exhorts the choir to look up and
at him, and sometimes to sing without any music at all, assuring us that
we probably know not just the first word of a hymn, but the entire thing.
This was brought home in a recent church choir performance that included
Randall Thompson’s Alleluia — a piece that uses no words
other than “alleluia” — and still we were glued to
our books. This workshop challenged me to get out my music-based comfort
zone and consider the reality of what some assemblies live on a week-to-week
Assemblies often sing without music in front of them, using
all the styles and methods outlined above. It’s not surprising, really, as it’s
how we all learned music in our childhood. Our mothers and fathers sang
songs to us before we could speak. Then they sang songs where we repeated
the chorus or were a note or two behind them in repeating the words of
the verse. Then, if your family was like mine, you sang songs on long
car rides — learning words and melodies, and maybe even harmonies.
These days, kids learn songs from watching the same TV
shows and movies over and over again. Casting my mind back without much
difficulty, I can still sing all the words to the theme songs from Gilligan’s
Island and The Beverley Hillbillies. (Come on, admit it, you went immediately
to “Come listen to a story ‘bout a man named Jed . . .” See
how easy it is to get pulled off track by paperless music that has sunk
into the depth of memory?) Our favourite Christmas carols — how
often did we ever see the words or music as we learned them throughout
our childhoods? Even as adults we learn songs from hearing them on the
radio. All without paper.
We are simply the latest in a long line of people who have learned via
the oral tradition. And proof-positive of how incredibly effective the
oral tradition, the paperless tradition, can be in sharing music and
spreading ideas, building on the experience of centuries of people singing,
long before education made simple literacy commonplace, let alone the
ability to read music.
Part of what I learned from the workshop was how engaging
paperless music can be. Because we cannot rely on notes and words on
a page, we need to watch and listen — think of how babies can be utterly rapt by
someone speaking or singing. And when you really watch and listen to
someone, you engage. You focus and pay attention, to content as well
as to notes and musical and rhyming patterns. But when you get it right — well,
we’re just like the babies who are very pleased with themselves
as they match the song structures. It was fun! I wanted to do it again!
We helped each other. And, just like babies, success begets success.
We are willing to try again. Maybe something a little harder . . .
Another part of the session involved writing our own short compositions. Just a few bars, less than a minute long. I was pretty sure that, as a singer, I wasn’t a composer at all. Turns out I was wrong. I came up with a couple of workable pieces, one of which was actually very good.
However, in terms of learning, this exercise was of particular
use to me as a musician. Knowing that I was going to have to teach my
own song to the rest of the workshop participants made me realize how
important all the elements of a hymn are. I was not going to be able
to rely on them being familiar with an old hymn setting, at best they
might recognize words if I took well-known Bible passages as my inspiration,
which I didn’t. I needed something that would be simple enough
to teach, but interesting enough to keep them engaged. A tougher assignment
than it first appeared. But I was able to do it, and so were the rest
of my workshop classmates.
Most churches and church choirs rely on printed music.
It gives us the opportunity to try harder music, to learn more complex
harmonies, to sing longer and more verses that allow for a fuller elaboration
on a theme. Paperless music doesn’t work for every circumstance, but
we shouldn’t assume that paperless isn’t an option. People
can learn more easily than we may realize. Paperless music can offer
a different kind of complexity and richness than traditional SATB arrangements.
It can also provide another way to engage the assembly, and through that
engagement, bring them more fully into the liturgy and an experience
of the divine.
Those wanting to learn more about paperless music are invited to check out www.allsaintscompany.org. There you will find resources related to paperless music and more. And, yes, as the name often suggests, All Saints is an Anglican crowd. They came up from San Francisco to offer a non-denominational workshop at St. Paul’s Catholic University in Ottawa, and are willing to visit elsewhere in Canada as well. Good luck and good singing!
A Saskatchewan soprano, Burton has sung praises to the Lord in Regina, Saskatoon, Winnipeg and now at St. Joe’s in Ottawa, where she is a chorister and cantor at two masses.