Browsing Tag

Christian music


Preserving Gospel Music and Inspiring Teenagers

July 21, 2011
Gospel for Teens

Gospel for Teens

I recently came across a 60 Minutes segment that was very moving, encouraging, and left me with goosebumps — so I had to share it with you.  The segment presented by Lesley Stahl featured a New York City program called Gospel for Teens, developed and operated by Executive Director Vy Higginsen, a long-time radio personality and theater producer.  Gospel for Teens was launched in 2006 and is still going strong today under the MaMa Foundation for the Arts. The kids have to audition and attend the weekly rehearsals to participate in Gospel for Teens, which take place in a brownstone located in Harlem, New York.  The auditions are held once a year and teenagers ranging in age from 13 to 19 are able to join the group.  The kids don’t have to be the best singers in the world or be the next American Idol,  but they do have to be able to hit a good note or two.  The teens are never charged a fee to be a member of the group.  Gospel for Teens is supported by grants, donations, and interested sponsors who wish to see the program flourish.

Ms. Higginsen was interested in teaching the importance of gospel music,  explaining how the genre is an integral part of American history.  She also found it a way to encourage New York City and New Jersey teenagers to build their confidence and self-esteem.  Vy teaches the youngsters about the roots of traditional gospel music and how it cannot be forgotten or cast aside.  Vy Higginsen feels that if she has the ability to reach the children involved in Gospel for Teens and encourage their love of music cultivated from their heritage, then maybe they’ll eventually teach it to the generations after them and continue the legacy of great music.

It was amazing to see each teenager, whether they were excited, nervous, or timid, go from the audition process and transition through a few months of work to sing with such wonderful power, spirit, and joy.  The Gospel for Teens is a program that opens up new doors for many intelligent young people and provides these individuals a way to be involved in a positive activity as well.

Click the link below to watch the story.  I truly believe you will not be disappointed with everything you see and hear.  The music that these young kids create is guaranteed to leave you in awe.  Many communities could use an organization like Gospel for Teens as a way to build hope and knock out negativity in our youth.

Click here to watch the 60 Minutes segment. 

Click here for extended CBS coverage on Gospel for Teens.

Click here to visit the mama foundation website.

Directors' Toolbox

Small Groups during Slim Summer Sundays

April 19, 2011

Having been a church choir director now for many years, I have been faced with the dilemma of what to do during the slim summer months when my choir members are on vacations or spending the weekends at the lake with their children.  My church is one that doesn’t like the music program to take a break during the summer months, so I have to find creative ways to utilize the choir members that I have even when I am left with only one or two sopranos, or one or two men.

Last year I tried something different that went over very well for me and I want to pass the idea along because it worked out so well!  I asked my choir members to give me their vacation schedules early, and I put together small groups to fill the void of the missing choir during our worship services.  I had a ladies trio, a male quartet, a ladies ensemble, and a mixed ensemble.

I was able to choose appropriate music for each of these groups through  I found material that was easy to learn and that my congregation felt was blessed;  but more importantly, during the difficult summer months when I didn’t have a full choir present for rehearsals, I was able to use my regularly scheduled rehearsal time for my small group and still program new and valuable music that ministered to our congregation.  Music ministers are often called upon to be creative and work with what they have, and this worked so well for me last year that I am planning a full summer like this again this year!


Rejoice in the Small Choir

January 27, 2011
Slim Sunday Music

Music for Slim Sundays

It has been long-standing tradition that if you are a church choir member, you sing SATB music.  I don’t know when this became the norm, but for music ministers and choir directors, it’s almost an unspoken rule.  As a singer you are rarely affected.  As a director, adherence to singing SATB music can sometimes create programming problems and unnecessary headaches.

We’ve all encountered these issues in one way or another:

Scenario #1:  It’s Sunday morning and half of the tenor  (or bass)  section is out sick, or is visiting family.  The anthem you rehearsed on Wednesday night is now a shell of its former glory and sounds empty and uninspiring.  What do you do?  You should be able to reach into your library and pull out an “old standard.”  The problem with that is… you need your tenors for that, too.

Scenario #2:  It’s mid-May and your choir members are experiencing a bit of spring fever.  Your numbers are cut in half.  The men’s sections are half the size of the women’s sections on a normal Sunday.  Now they are really exposed, along with the rest of the choir.  What do you program?

Modern composers are not only writing great worship music, they are also experiencing it as many are church choir directors themselves.  They too know exactly what it’s like on those musically awkward slim Sundays.  Consequently, they have provided us a wealth of  music for smaller choirs that is creative, rich and worshipful.  One listen will erase any stigma the letters SAB might have carried with them before.

I encourage you to browse through the music listed below for smaller choirs.  The ranges are appropriate, the music is detailed and hearty, and the message is not simplified.   There is no need to panic or rearrange parts on a slim Sunday.  The tools you need for successful worship can be as close as your library shelves.  They can quickly derail any dilemma you might have in the choir room without diminishing your worship experience.

Click here for inspiring music for smaller choirs to add to your library.


Choral Conversations: Mary McDonald

January 12, 2011

Today I had the pleasure of speaking with Mary McDonald, a multi-talented musician from Knoxville, Tennessee.  In addition to her work as a composer, arranger, producer, pianist, and organist, she was a sacred choral editor for The Lorenz Corporation for nearly twenty years and currently serves as the organist for Central Baptist Church in Knoxville.  Her music and talents have blessed choirs and congregations across the country for more than twenty-five years.

Mary is the composer of more than 700 published choral anthems, several Christmas and Easter cantatas, and numerous keyboard collections, and still serves as an editorial consultant for Lorenz.  She is also active as a choral clinician, traveling throughout the United States conducting workshops and concertizing.  Her unique blend of heart, hands, and humor, combined with a wide range of writing and performing styles, keeps her in constant demand.  One of Mary’s greatest joys has been serving as accompanist for the Tennessee Men’s Chorale since 1985.  In 2000, Mary served as the first woman President of the Southern Baptist Church Music Conference.  She is a member of the American Guild of Organists (AGO) and the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP).  Mary was recently awarded second place by the John Ness Beck Foundation for her composition Yes, My Jesus Loves Me.

Thank you so much, Mary, for taking time from your busy schedule to answer a few questions for us! 

When did you begin in music?

I have been playing piano by ear since I was five years of age.  I have a sister who would work the pedals for me since my feet wouldn’t reach the floor.  At first, our mother thought it was one of my older sisters who had been taking lessons but soon realized it was her youngest, playing with both hands the hymns from the church services earlier that day.  I have never had piano lessons.

Did you have an “a-ha” moment when you knew you wanted to be a musician?

When I was in high school, I walked to Central Baptist Church many afternoons while waiting on my mom to get off work.  In 1970, our church installed a lovely Shantz pipe organ and our organist was practicing most days when I was there.  When she left, I asked our interim music minister for a key, telling him I was “studying” organ (just watching, actually).  The first time I rolled back the lid, I put my Algebra book on the rack  and began playing music.  I tried to make it sound like church music but was playing Elton John, movie themes, and improvised classical literature.  I loved the power of the pipe organ and the freedom to express myself through music.

What kind of things inspire you?

I am inspired most often by the text.  Once I read a scripture or hymn text, I begin forming music around the words and finding a style that best shapes the message through music.  At that point, either the text or rhythmic hook becomes the seed from which the notes spring forth into a song.  It’s an art form in that the creation of one part leads to the next until it feels complete.

What inspired you to become a composer?

After graduating from Carson-Newman College in East Tennessee, I took my first organ position at Beaver Dam Baptist Church in Knoxville.  Since I could not read music very well, I would improvise the service music.  My music minister gave me a cassette of several offertories and encouraged me to write them down.  With my husband’s help and theory knowledge, we literally drew lines on paper and transcribed five organ arrangements and submitted them to the Baptist Sunday School Board.  They were accepted for publication in Pedalpoint magazine.  A couple of years later, John Purifoy moved to Knoxville to begin a publishing company and was introduced to me by my music minister at Central Baptist.  He asked me if I had composed choral music and I told him of my inability to write texts.  He suggested scripture or hymn texts and, taking his advice, I penned my first choral anthem, Seek First the Kingdom in 1983.

What would you say defines your style?

I don’t limit my creativity to one particular style of music.  I love to write big, traditional hymn settings for piano or organ (or both), and feel equally at home with contemporary choral settings of praise and worship choruses.  The gospel arrangements are always fun to score and play but I enjoy venturing out beyond those styles on occasion and just letting the music guide the way.  Regardless of musical style, my accompaniments will always be full, supportive and sometimes challenging!

Tell me one thing that people might not know about you.

I am married to my high-school sweetheart.  Prior to dating my husband, Brian, I actually went out with his brother for nearly a year.  Poor Brian had to sit in the back seat when his dad would drive me and his brother to school dances!  What can I say, it’s Tennessee. 🙂

What are you working on now?

I am collaborating with Pamela Martin and Larry Shackley on a new Christmas cantata for Fall 2011.  After this is completed, I plan to go back to my roots and write some organ music.  I haven’t written any organ solos since the late 1970s.

What is your favorite choral piece (by another composer)?

Then Will the Very Rocks Cry Out  (Hayes)

Do you have any advice or tips for those interested in composing?

Follow your passion and gifts.  God has been my personal GPS in putting the right people in my path at the right time.  It takes dedication and perseverance and an open mind.  There is a difference between composing and publishing, and it’s easy to lose focus.  If you write your heart and gain pleasure and satisfaction from doing it, publishing doesn’t matter;  it’s the icing on the cake.  Too many people write to get published and are missing the greater purpose.

Would you say that music comes to you more often through slow, careful planning or by sudden inspiration?

Both… I have worked weeks trying to craft an anthem and others have come in ten minutes.  I wish I knew the secret… but there’s usually a reason one takes longer than another.  In the end, each anthem is like a page in my diary;  a story for that moment and a part of the journey.

What are your favorite texts to set to music?

Hymn texts.

What is your favorite thing about composing?

When I finish a song that I’m excited about and only me and the Lord know about it!  I thank Him and ask His blessings on it… then send to the commissioning church or a publisher.

Inside the Actors Studio-Type Questions: 

  1. What is your favorite word?     Peace
  2. What is your least favorite word?     Hurry
  3. What sound or noise do you love?     Laughter
  4. What sound or noise to you hate?     Scottish bagpipes (not Irish)
  5. What profession other than your own would you like to attempt?    Politician
  6. What is your favorite composition?     Be Still  (new with Beckenhorst)
  7. What is on your i-Pod?     I need to get one!  Anybody feeling generous?
  8. Is there anyone you would like to collaborate with, living or dead?     John Ness Beck
  9. If you were stranded on a desert island, and could only have the music of one composer, other than yourself, who would it be?     John Williams

Is there anything else you would like to share with us? 

I am so grateful for Geoff Lorenz, Larry Pugh, and my extended family at Lorenz Corporation, who gave me an incredible opportunity to serve as Editor of Sacred Choral Music from 1991-2010.  Their patience, trust, support, and encouragement carried me through almost twenty years of music composition, editing, and publishing, and I wouldn’t be where I am today without their influence.  We are all grateful to the incredible work of J.W. Pepper for giving wings to our products and for all you do for the cause of sacred and educational music.  May God continue to bless our collective efforts.  

Thank you, Mary, for your time and for letting all of us get to know you a little better.  If you want to get to know Mary even better, the best thing would be to check out some of her many compositions.  You can find them here . 


One Joyful Choir

January 6, 2011
One Joyful Choir

One Joyful Choir

On a November Saturday afternoon, a group known as One Joyful Choir came together in song to raise money for a hospital in Haiti.  Consisting of 500 singers from over 130 Presbyterian churches from the southeast region of Pennsylvania, the singers performed at the Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts, located in the heart of Philadelphia.  The event, dubbed Hallelujahs for Haiti, was created by the Presbyterian Disaster Assistance Organization to raise money for earthquake relief — specifically to support Hôpital Sainte Croix in Léogâne, Haiti.

According to the One Joyful Choir’s website, “the presbytery is encouraging all churches and members to work together, sharing gifts and resources.”  The overall concept was intended to provide people with an opportunity to spread fellowship and joy, while giving singers an opportunity to praise God and worship through the gift of music.  This was the third year for this glorious event.  The 2007 concert raised over $40,000 used to assist those in need around what is known as The City of Brotherly Love.  This year the proceeds were used for Haitian earthquake relief.

Hallelujahs for Haiti was conducted by Dr. Pearl Shangkuan, a professor at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan.  The choir was accompanied by Andrew Senn, organist for the First Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia, with piano, brass, and percussion used to accompany the massive choral production.  Thirteen choral pieces were performed during the concert, including Jeffrey Honore’s composition “How Can I Keep from Singing” and Moses Hogan’s “We Shall Walk Through the Valley in Peace.” An organ and church music professor from St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minnesota by the name of John Ferguson also composed an anthem for the concert.  One Joyful Choir began rehearsing for this magnificent event many months prior, with all affiliated with the program devoting a great deal of their talent and time to provide beautiful music for a worthy cause.

Click here to visit the choir’s website.


Goodbye, My Friend

December 30, 2010

As a faithful attendee of Pepper new music reading sessions, “Goodbye, My Friend” was presented at one this summer.  Call it premonition or just random thought, I realized that our church choral library had little in the way of fitting funeral or memorial service music, especially something new and different.  Fortunately in my seven-year tenure as Minister of Music, most of the pieces selected by families of deceased loved ones were of the hymn-book variety with an occasional Malotte “Lord’s Prayer” tucked in.

Traditionally, after the directors’ summer reading sessions, I hold one of my own to preview the music we might be scheduling when our choir season starts up again in the fall.  We read “Goodbye, My Friend” this August.  After the song was completed.  I noticed that one of our members becoming tearful.  In the Joys and Concerns session held later that afternoon, Karen explained that she had just received word that one of her close friends was very ill with cancer.  She was touched by this new Philpott-Kupferschmid octavo, realizing how appropriate the selection would be in the future.

After the readings, our librarian filed the number away — to be used as needed.   Little did we know, at this point, that it would fill a musical need so quickly!  Some two weeks into our choir season, a founding member of our Methodist Church of some 50-plus years slipped into a coma and quietly passed into the hands of God. 

Lew had been a faithful tenor in the Our  Saviour’s Choir.  My immediate thought was that we needed to have more than just an assortment of his favorite hymns at the service.  With his daughter’s blessing, I promised a special musical selection.  It didn’t take long to realize, however, that my promise was going to be difficult to keep.  As much as the Chancel Choir would like to have sung, we could not come up with a balance of parts in those few who were able to attend the Friday morning service.

I went to the new music file cabinet and pulled a copy of “Goodbye, My Friend.”  On examination, I determined that the melody line was suitable for a baritone (me).  To keep the flavor of the piece intact, I asked a former choir director and close friend of the deceased to sing the alto part.  The performance went without a hitch.  The words seem to echo what others had said  in spoken tributes about our friend Lew.  Never, repeat  never  have I felt a congregation so engaged by every word of the simple lyrics;  the same with the haunting and often touching melody.  I looked over the room and there were not many tearless eyes in this house of God.

At the reception following, not only was the family appreciative of our duet offering but countless others came up to say “Thank you for that beautiful music.”  Several asked where they could obtain a copy, each quoting a different lyrical phrase that seemed to  amplify and echo a special relationship shared with Lew.

“Goodbye, My Friend” would serve as an appropriate musical tribute in almost any memorial service.  How ironic for me, too, that it carries a dedication to one of the most gentle of gentlemen that I, personally, ever encountered in this musical world… the late David Lawrence.  Goodbye, my friend!  You will be remembered for your guidance and overwhelming musical knowledge which you graciously shared with so many of us.

Guest Blogger:

John Austin Van Hook, Minister of Music

Our Saviour’s United Methodist Church of Schaumburg, Illinois


Choral Conversations: Joel Raney

December 14, 2010

Joel Raney

Joel Raney is an incredible pianist and composer.  He is part of the editorial staff at Hope Publishing Company, has studied piano and organ at the University of North Alabama and has his Master of Music in piano performance from The Juilliard School of Music.  We are thankful Joel took time from his busy schedule to answer a few questions for us.

When did you begin in music?   Sometime between learning to walk, and learning to read… I really don’t remember not being in music.  I grew up on the piano bench… an old Story and Clark upright, pounding out things I heard, and playing the hymns in boogie-woogie style, which my mother absolutely hated!

Did you have an “a-ha” moment when you knew you wanted to be a musician?   Several, actually.  The first was at age 14, winning the North Alabama State Fair talent competition with my rendition of “Alabama Jubilee” on the Hammond organ.  I took my shoes off, wore red socks, and did a little pedal solo that killed.  Then a few years later, I was playing my first Bach 2-part invention, when suddenly, both hands started working, almost as if by magic, on their own.   Wow, that was a great feeling I’ll never forget.   Crossing that first bridge to a new level.  That’s when I started actually getting serious.

What kind of things inspire you?   People inspire me.   Memories inspire me.   Nature inspires me.   My wife and kids inspire me.   Just waking up in the morning and realizing I have another day, and another chance to create something… that inspires me.  Sometimes that inspiration doesn’t last long, but I usually start the day with it!

What inspired you to become a composer?   It just happened gradually.  Performing and improvising leads to arranging, which leads to composing. 

What would you say defines your style?   I’m still working on that, but there are three kinds of music that I love, and I guess they all find their way into  my writing.   1:  Classical, of course.  Three years and a masters from Juilliard, and listening to hours and hours of the masterworks… that has an impact.  2:  Film scores.  I love hearing how the music actually directs the emotion;  the same is true of musical theater, which is also a passion.  3:  Southern soul, and gospel.  Listening to Ted Smith and others play that evangelical piano, and playing in a rural church.

Tell me one thing that people might not know about you.   I’m married to one of the best singers you’ll ever hear.  She’s got a lot of soul, and sells a song better than anyone I’ve ever heard.  When she sings a ballad, I usually can’t get through it without dripping a tear  or two on the keyboard.  Oh, and I performed in Pump Boys and Dinettes  in Chicago for a couple of years where I wore red cowboy boots, and tap-danced while playing the accordion and singing a song about having a farmer tan.

What are you working on now?   A gospel choral for SATB and childrens choir, a handbell setting of  “The Angel Gabriel from Heaven Came,”  an arrangement to close our church Christmas program, and a jingle for Rent-a-Center. 

What is your all time favorite choral piece (by another composer)?   Impossible question to answer.    “For the Beauty of the Earth” by Rutter“A Jubilant Song” by Dello Joio; Eric Whitacre’s “Cloudburst“;  Rutter’s “Te Deum“; “Hear My Prayer” by Mendelssohn.

Do you have any advice or tips for those interested in composing?   Listen to everything you can, study with whomever you can, and pray for a way to earn a living.

Would you say that music comes to you more often through slow, careful planning, or by sudden inspiration?   One or the other… never in between.

What are your favorite texts to set to music?   Psalms,  and anything about peace.

What is your favorite thing about composing?   Being creative is, in my opinion, what connects us with our creator.

 Quickfire Questions (partially stolen from James Lipton on Inside the Actors’ Studio)

1.  What is your favorite word?   Hope

2.  What is your least favorite word?   Can’t

3.  What sound or noise do you love?   A baby giggling

4.  What sound or noise do you hate?   Anyone talking loudly on a cell phone in public

5.  What profession, other than your own, would you like to attempt?   Being a chef

6.  What is your favorite composition ?  Whatever I just finished

7.  What is on your iPod?   Bill Evans, Oscar Peterson, the complete piano works of Chopin, John Rutter, Eric Whitacre, Ray Charles, The Messiah, Andreas Wolenweider, dozens of film scores, Stephen Sondheim…

8.  Is there anyone you would like to collaborate with, living or dead, that you haven’t yet?   I’m open to anyone.

9.  If you were stranded on a desert island, and could only have the music of one composer, other than yourself, who would it be?   Mozart… because there’s a lot of it, and lots of it is cheerful, and I’d need a lot of cheering up.

Joel is a talented, gracious person and a gifted composer.  If you have the chance to attend a concert that he is performing in or a workshop that he is giving — RUN, don’t walk — to get there.   And Joel, thank you for your time!

Click here for a sample of Joel’s compositions.

Directors' Toolbox

Set a Festive Mood Before the Concert Begins

December 1, 2010

Christmas MusicOne of the highlights of the holiday season is enjoying one of the many music programs that add so much to the season.  While attending one such holiday concert,  I experienced an added touch that really enhanced the evening’s performance.

As audience members arrived, they were greeted by several small student groups playing carols.   The groups consisted of various instruments and were placed at different locations, both outside the entrance as well as throughout the foyer.  I noted they were spaced far enough apart that they didn’t interfere with each other’s performance — all the while keeping the sounds of the season within earshot of the incoming audience.  The effect was that of instrumental carolers,  creating a festive atmosphere that greatly enhanced the seasonal atmosphere for the evening’s performance.

The “caroling” groups consisted of middle school musicians that had volunteered to perform.  The carols came from several standard holiday collections that can be rehearsed with full band and are easy enough to perform with little rehearsal time.   The director divided the band into the small caroling groups for the concert night.  The caroling groups were so well received that they took the show on the road, and used the instrumental groups at various functions around town — playing before choir concerts and singers caroling before band concerts.

What a festive addition to holiday celebrations!  It not only builds performance opportunities, responsibility and confidence in young musicians, but puts your audience in the mood for a special holiday treat!




Moving toward “Blended” Worship

October 26, 2010
Worship Band Play Along

Worship Band Play Along

If you are a minister of music and have been considering moving your music ministry toward a more blended style of worship, but you aren’t quite sure how to begin with the personnel you have, let me recommend a series to you that is versatile and valuable and will offer you many options as you begin to introduce new and exciting worship ideas to your congregation.

The books are called the Worship Band Play-Along series — there are five different volumes available and a sixth to be released any day now.  One of the wonderful features of the books is that they are adaptable for just about any situation.  If you are just introducing your congregation to worship music, you can have your current pianist and organist accompany you as you teach the choruses to your congregation.  If you already have an overhead or currently utilize PowerPoint, you can use that to show the lyrics.  As your congregation gets more comfortable with the choruses, your instrumentalists (pianist and organists) can begin to play along with the CDs that accompany the books.  This will offer a fuller sound and keep your live musicians from feeling unnecessary.

This set of books is a wonderful tool to implement current praise and worship music into your church’s music program.  The music that is chosen for these volumes is theologically sound and the arrangements are easy to play, sing and learn.  There are separate books available for keyboard, vocals, guitar, bass, and drums, but you only purchase what you need for your particular congregation.  One of the volumes is even dedicated to Christmas music, so that every time of year is covered.

These choruses are familiar and popular and the recordings are of the highest quality.  I have used this series in my own church with great success.  This is a wonderful tool to assist you, as a music director, in taking your church music program to an authentic “blended” worship.

Click here to see more information about the series.