12 Things I’ve Learned from Church Music Parts 1-3—Where You Are plus What and Who You Know
Like many composers, I write orchestral, chamber, and vocal music, for any sort of concert opportunity that comes up, but since I started composing I wrote church music because that’s where I was. In the churches I’ve gone to, that meant writing for choir.
In choir practice I was shaking my head not because of all the parallel fifths and octaves, not because of the doubled leading tones (and one tripled), and not because of the wacky key (three sharps, but not A or F# minor…hmmmm, E mixolydian, except for those D#s half-cadencing on, what, E over A, I guess). Nor were my lips pursed because I had been singing this almost every year for 15 years yet had forgotten these theoretical hiccups. No, I was shaking my head, pursing my lips, and smiling, because I had composed it, and wouldn’t change a thing.
Believe me, there is music I’ve written over the years that I’d edit heavily if I had the chance, and music that I’ve ritually burned in the fireplace, but this is not one of those. No, this Easter Alleluia verse is a keeper because it works right out of the box. It sits well, it sings well, amateur choirs pretty much nail it from the get-go, and it sparkles “Alleluia” from beginning to end. The choirs in two churches, the smaller one I wrote it for and the larger one I’m in now, just sound good when they sing it.
This little piece, to be sung right before the Gospel reading, sums up almost every reason I can think of to write music. And better than anything else I can think of, writing music for the church taught me how to compose.
1. Start Where You Are
When I’ve been asked how to have a career in composition (it’s actually happened twice), my first thought is to look behind me for a composer who can answer. Seeing none, I’ve said the only thing I can think of: Start where you are. Then repeat.
I started in church. My parents were those types who took their kids to church, which some oddly consider to be more abusive than sending them to school, but while at some point with great enthusiasm I stopped going to school, I still go to church.
Like many composers, I write orchestral, chamber, and vocal music, for any sort of concert opportunity that comes up, but since I started composing I wrote church music because that’s where I was. In the churches I’ve gone to, that meant writing for choir. If I played in a band or a string quartet I’d write for them, but what I know, from the inside out, is choral sight-reading, choral rehearsing, and choral singing in my fair-to-middling but quite untrained bass/baritone voice. (I’ve sung in every school choir available to me, also; I was only, oh, half-kidding about school.)
2. Write What You Know
It’s what Jo March had to learn in Little Women. Prof. Bhaer disapproved of her serialized potboilers, which had no basis in real life. His tut-tutting meant nothing (as he told her), but lunatics, vampires, and “The Sinner’s Corpse” also meant nothing—to her. Even if she made money at it, what was the gain for her soul? When Jo writes the book about her sisters, however, she discovers real writing, real love, and herself.
It isn’t a matter of writing what I know and then moving on to what I don’t know. It’s rather like turning to additional things I know, or rediscovering things I had forgotten. Composing leads me down paths I thought I knew but didn’t—until I walked them. A critic once told me that after a concert, an acquaintance asked him what he thought of the performance. He replied, “I don’t know. I haven’t written my review yet.” Composing is very much like that for me.
The Renaissance wind-band Piffaro asked me to base my Vespers, written for them and the new music choir The Crossing, on the music of the early Lutheran Reformation. They knew that I’m Lutheran and that I adore this music. So I did. But I had no idea what lay in wait for me: I found counterpoint through Vespers. I “knew” counterpoint, of course, the way we learn it, more or less, in school. I had learned it but never really liked it. But a light went on—no: fireworks, cannon, sequential bombs went off—as I composed. I wrestled with my utter ignorance of counterpoint and ended up falling in love with it. I had started with what I’d known—strong chorales and ruddy-faced texts—and ended up in undiscovered territory, right in my own back yard.
3. Write for People You Know
Often we write a piece, show up for the concert, maybe give a talk, and shake hands afterward. Writing for church, however, at first meant, and still often means, writing for my church. That’s a good experience, a very good experience, and a learning experience.
It’s good because I know the choir’s strengths and weaknesses. An average church choir comprises a dozen singers: ten women and two men, typically. One or two women will be legitimate amateur sopranos, meaning they have a high G; A if you’re lucky. Both men are baritones; one sings tenor but shouldn’t. That would be me, by the way. (I’m in a bigger and well-balanced choir now—about 20 with three real tenors!—but that explains why some tenor lines in my anthems go no higher than E-flat.)
It’s very good because I’m writing not for an imagined audience, not for any audience at all, but for a community, my community. They know me, and what we do for people we know is this: we cut them a break. Choirs have gotten to know, and have gotten to like, new pieces of mine much more readily because I was there, singing it with them. After one gnarled moment (maybe that one with the tripled leading tone), I’ll hear, “Thanks a bunch!” but with a laugh. They know I detest descants because I’ve told them. So when I write a descant and confess that this is my penance for having such harsh opinions, that makes it special, and it makes it their own. There’s no gaming, it’s just living together.
It’s a learning experience, this living together, because we discover that there are opinions other than ours, and we have to deal with them. I’ll hear what’s more difficult to sing than I’d thought and, if I’m smart, I’ll figure out why and fix it. But I’ll also hear about things I’d never considered, and that’s where the real learning begins. There are thousands of Alleluia models. But when you hear your own choir, even your own voice, rambling through your own Alleluia, rosy-fingered dawn appears, or fireworks go off, or a light bulb goes on. I may change the piece or just smile and shake my head, but I have at least learned, in community, a lesson. I have learned how to compose.
Kile Smith is Composer in Residence for Philadelphia’s art song ensemble Lyric Fest, the Helena Symphony, and The Church of the Holy Trinity in Philadelphia, as well as a classical host at WRTI-FM where he hosts the contemporary American music program Now Is the Time and Discoveries from the Fleisher Collection. He is also a Contributing Editor for the Broad Street Review and teaches composition. In addition to his residencies, he is currently working on commissions for The Crossing and other groups.