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Annual Meeting: Music Department Report

The year 2012 saw a huge transformation of the Music Department in several wonderful ways. The most important—that a significant number of individuals   (many with little or no prior musical experience) took the risk of participating in departmental programming—has resulted in a new community of volunteer parish musicians with an enlarged and energized diversity of musical interests.


In January, a series of workshops were offered to explore making music from the perspective of handbell-ringing and change-ringing. Approximately 18 people responded.

Because it was very important to make a good-faith effort to include all the people who expressed interest, schedules were gathered and interpreted before announcing dates and times to meet. The unexpected result—a two-week schedule meeting on alternating Saturday mornings and Monday evenings—worked quite well and helped to keep everyone involved and/or caught up if they had to miss.

In addition to the light-hearted fun that was in abundance throughout the workshop series, our troop of student ringers embarked on a several field trips: we attended a top-notch professional handbell ensemble concert at First Presbyterian in Roswell; and, we were given a demonstration of change-ringing of tower bells and handbells by the team of ringers at St. James’ Episcopal Church in Marietta.

In terms of making music, our bell ensemble demonstrated a lot of willingness to present musical offerings in very different ways:

  • Called Ringing: The entire ensemble participated in presenting called rings (rounds, king’s, queen’s, tittums, and reverse rounds) in worship services.
  • Change Ringing: Individuals from the ensemble learned to ring with two bells in basic change-ringing patterns read from a matrix of numbers. These presentations were made periodically in the spring and summer shortly before the Rite II service, as well as before and after the services on Christmas Eve.
  • Bell Ostinati: As part of the parish’s Holy Week services, the entire ensemble performed new works composed for presentation with the lengthy readings at the Easter Vigil service. At one point in that service, 13 ringers rang all 25 bells in the two-octave set.
  • Chordal Ringing: In conjunction with the Summer Service music used at the Rite II service in July, the ensemble explored the challenges of ringing in rhythm and joining the sounds of individual bells to make basic chords supporting the harmony of the music. For those new to interpreting musical scores, a series of meetings and rehearsals were dedicated to explaining foundational elements of musical notation. These skills have become invaluable in the ensemble’s ongoing participation in augmenting the service music in worship and in our restarted Taize services.
In terms of going “outside the walls” of St. John’s, the bell ensemble:
  • Brought “satellite members” of our community into our parish activities.
  • Met and befriended other non-local Episcopalians.
  • Met and befriended non-Episcopalians by performing at Christ Our Hope Lutheran Church’s fall musical festival fundraising event.

In addition to enlarging the experience of liturgy and worship at St. John’s with the beautiful sound of handbells, our volunteers’ exploration of music-making in a fun, relaxed, and safe environment has enabled the parish to develop a cadre of singing ringers who have emerged to form the foundation of our parish’s musical community—a welcomed and much appreciated development.

New Musical Offerings

In 2012, two new regular musical offerings were implemented:

  • Taize: Occurring monthly, our Taize services of musical prayer were restarted in the fall. The bell ensemble’s participation in Taize services and the inclusion of quadruple obbligato instrumental descants designed to feature the talents of our string and woodwind players, has striven to imbue Taize at St. John’s with a peaceful, uplifting spirit. As a result, attendance has averaged approximately 20 individuals, a significant increase from the parish’s prior experience with this service format. The service has drawn in people from outside the parish.
  • Evening Prayer: Rounding out the parish’s Wednesday evening programming, singing evening prayer has become a relaxing way for some to end bible study while serving to prepare others coming for choir rehearsal following the service.

 Collaborative Projects

Our ongoing efforts to engage the community through music resulted in a significantly enlarged and expanded presentation in November of a requiem mass using a musical setting composed by John Rutter. In the summer, the choral conducting department at Georgia State University was approached to inquire whether there would be any interest; their hearty response enabled us to double the size of the choir, enlist the talents of the entire studio of graduate-student choral conductors, provide undergraduate choristers with a learning experience, and develop the parish’s presence in South Atlanta’s musical community.

The success of the project has also laid important groundwork for enabling St. John’s to develop an ongoing collaborative partnership with GSU’s choral program.

Though not known to many, a second requiem mass was undertaken by several parish musicians as collaborative project with the musicians of The Episcopal Church Of Our Saviour in the Virginia-Highland area. We explored the original Gregorian chant melodies of the traditional Latin mass as we got to know COOS’s choristers and music director, Daniel Pyle. Upon the offer by Dr. Pyle, one of our parishioners performed a short solo during the service; it was a “bucket list” first for him and he did an admirable job!

Again, by being open to working in collaboration with others, the foundations of future opportunities have been laid: our parish musicians have been invited in to participate in a shape-note singing event at COOS in February, 2013.

Section Leaders

Thanks to a “lead gift” covering a significant portion of the program’s costs, a group of four scholarships were put in place in 2012 to hire section leaders (soprano, alto, tenor, and bass) for the choir. The summer and early fall were devoted to developing a job announcement, announcing the positions, and interviewing applicants. The resulting team of singers has been a pleasure to hear and work with.

Ongoing Activities

  •  African-American Music: In honor of Martin Luther King Day and Black History Month, service music, hymns, and choral selections were presented in worship from the Lift Ev'ry Voice And Sing II hymnal.
  • Holy Week Services: In Holy Week, the choir presented music for the following services:
  • Tenebrae: Psalms were chanted along with antiphons.
  • Maundy Thursday: The service featured Taizé music
  •  Good Friday: Traditional chants, hymns, and canticles were presented.
  • Easter Vigil: Bell ostinati accompanied readings.
  • Easter Day: A brass quintet of GSU students accompanied hymns and service music; a 30-40 member chorus was formed on the spot to sing the Hallelujah Chorus at the Offertory.
  • Choral Guild of Atlanta Concerts: St. John's has continued its role as the South Atlanta host for the Choral Guild of Atlanta.
  • Advent & Christmas: Lessons & Carols services were performed on the Third Sunday of Advent and on Christmas Eve. The Advent service featured solo excerpts from Part One of Handel’s Messiah that was rounded out by the choir’s singing of the great And The Glory chorus. The ensemble had an “authentic” experience of being conducted from the keyboard and featured a supporting string quartet of parishioners and guest volunteers along with the harpsichord continuo. The “early” service on Christmas Eve was devoted to Lessons & Carols, with Holy Eucharist celebrated afterward; the “late” HE Rite II service (midnight mass) included special musical offerings from our choristers and soloists.

I would like to take this opportunity to thank all those who have helped to shape, support, promote, volunteer, listen, and otherwise help our rising music program. Your help and participation means a great deal. Thank you.

Thomas Elston, Organist-Choirmaster & Director of Music