Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Answering the Call: For God and Country

Eighteen. Just finished high school. A time when a pretty young girl’s head is embroidered with visions of sugar plums, thoughts of an endless future, a lacy wedding dress, a fine young husband, and a wee house with a white picket fence. And later, the pitter patter of little feet and delicious gales of laughter in a home filled with joy, with pies on the windowsill and the aroma of fresh baked bread wafting about. Instead, all she had taken for granted was forfeited. Selflessly forfeited. And she boarded a train for the west coast, watching the apple orchards whizzing by to the rhythm of the metal wheels on the tracks. It was 1944. Food was rationed. Nothing was to be wasted. All must be sacrificed for the war effort. She’d already see many of the boys from school return home, injured, some of the wounds not visible to the naked eye. Where did she find the courage to say goodbye to all she had ever known? To fearlessly step into an uncharted future to fight to preserve the freedom that had always been a given in our nation? This small town girl was soon in the big city, with many young girls from all over Canada, undergoing the rigors of military training. No more leisurely afternoon teas at the old café on Main Street. No trips to the swimming hole on a lazy hot summer afternoon with sandwiches and lemonade in a sack. No weekend dances at the church hall. She was now one of a troop of young women, marching in perfect cadence, their faces steely with resolve. She would never go back home to the idyllic Okanagan valley, her life leading her in a totally different direction. She made a difference. This shy and gentle Christian girl, found within herself the mettle to do what had to be done. She forged ahead and never looked back. She went on to accomplish many good. things in her life. Her faith in God and her values and ethics served her well all through life to this very day. She’s here every Sunday, just over there in the background. More than seventy years later, she is still that shy and gentle soul. When she greets you, the kindness and compassion emanate from within. She instinctively knows when you need some caring words, or a gentle hug. She has always known what needs doing. And today, she sits in a pew, quietly remembering. Anonymous

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Don't You Want to do Better?

“Don’t you want to do better”?

This was the phrase uttered by conductor, Dr. Jonathan Griffiths, while he was addressing the massed choir we participated in, preparing for our Carnegie Hall debut in New York City. At the time, it was applicable to getting a bunch of amateur choristers to do their absolute best, but it struck me that this is a question for all musicians, and indeed all volunteers and staff in the church to ask themselves on a regular basis. Don’t you want to do better?

I’ve had lots of conversations over the years with church folk. Some are perplexed why I still need to practice, that perhaps I should know how to just play anything. Some are surprised that I would go to conferences and learning events, because they have this strange idea that I might know it all already. Nope!

Many employees or volunteers in the church are life-long learners. For me, engaging in learning is really important, because I will never “know it all”. There is always something to learn from my colleagues, from reading, from listening to concerts and recordings, from going to workshops and masterclasses, from searching for new music, etc. Admittedly it shocks me when I find out that there are musicians out there who at some point stop “studying”. Don’t you want to do better? And, here’s the epitome for me, in a church setting - Don’t you want to give your best to God and to the people that you serve? As staff or volunteers, doesn’t God deserve 100% effort?

Last Sunday, I played really poorly. There were many reasons why, including much distraction by the pets there for blessing, lots of enthusiastic children, several wonderful new choristers, last minute requests, but those are just excuses for why I didn’t do my best. I was prepared, organized, had practiced, and yet, there were things that went astray. It felt like I didn’t give my best to God. Thank goodness this doesn’t happen very regularly! So, after the service, I thought, ok, get up, shake off the dust and strive to do better next week. After all, don’t I want to do better?

Tammy-Jo Mortensen,
Music Director

Monday, January 18, 2016

Music as a Meditative Practice

I went to the Taizé service that Robertson-Wesley hosted in November.
It was the first Taizé service that I had been to in a long time. And after the first chant, all the memories of why I love this style of service came flooding back to me. I used to attend Taizé services quite often, when I was in the midst of my undergrad degree. In those days, walking in to the quietness of the space, I brought in all the stresses and burdens of balancing school, jobs, and family. At the end of the hour-long contemplative service, I would walk out renewed, feeling a bit like a puddle – completely relaxed and lightened to start a new week with fresh eyes and a refreshed soul. 

What is it about a Taizé service that would achieve this rejuvenation in one short hour? Is it the dimness? The calm and quiet? The music? The heartfelt prayers contributed by anyone who wishes to pray aloud? The reading(s) in various languages? Perhaps it is all those things in combination? Of course, for a musician, the music plays a big part in any service. The simplicity of the Taizé chants, with repetition, often with a mélange of languages and harmonies is soothing for many. You can easily fit into the harmony, close your eyes and just sink into the text and the music in a different way than you can with a multi-verse, more complex hymn. I love complex music too, but this renewed experience of attending a Taizé service made me think again about the experience of music in worship. It got me thinking about other music for services which is simple but not simplistic.

Immediately a few centres that have created this style of music leapt to mind. Consider the short pieces of the Iona Community, many of which we have used at Robertson-Wesley in Sunday morning services. These minatures can act in the same manner that the Taizé chants do. They are short and carry a single message, can be used liturgically at specific points in the service, and can be easily linked to a theme, readings or sermon.

Thanks to Rev. Stephen Johann, a United Church minister here in Edmonton, I was recently introduced to the music of St. Lydia’s. This church was begun in 2008, and now meets in a storefront in Brooklyn, NY. It is affiliated with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and supported by the Episcopal Church. Some of the criteria for the music used in their services is that it is simple and can be taught easily, learned by ear, and can bear repetition. They also want to make sure that the music is communal, that it represents their theological language, and doesn’t require accompaniment to “work”. They have a song-book, and music is taught by a song-leader, but the congregation goes “paperless” to spend time sinking into the music and communicating with one another.

Gregory of Nyssa Episcopal Church is located in San Francisco, CA. While it follows some of the same parameters of the above worshipping communities, and most of the music is done without accompaniment of any sort, a variety of musical styles is intentionally chosen with a range of eras and styles in every service. They have a number of composers within their congregation that contribute to the repertoire of music used at St. Gregory’s. This is perhaps closer to our style at Robertson-Wesley. Any music, regardless of era or style is considered for use, as long as it fits with the theme, scripture, season or message of the service.

The conclusion that I came to in looking at all these centres for worship, is that there are many common threads in how they speak about music for worship. They all use melodies and texts from various parts of the world, and sing often in languages other than English. While some of these communities use longer hymns that carry more than one image, they all use shorter chants and repetitive pieces. They are all thinking deeply about language and theology, and how to involve people in communal music-making. Amen!

The next Taizé service at Robertson-Wesley will be Sunday, October 16, 2016 from 7-8 pm in conjunction with the Koinonia group.

For more information on each centre of worship:
Taizé - http://www.taize.fr
Iona - http://iona.org.uk/
St. Lydia’s - http://stlydias.org/
Gregory of Nyssa - http://www.saintgregorys.org/