Posts Tagged ‘Unitarian Universalist Musicians Network’

A little more than a year ago, I wrote a piece called “Sound Stew” about the amazing week on Star Island, coordinated by Carl and Cheryl-Anne Sturken, which focused on music and sound, in many, many forms.  I’ve decided that a follow-up is in order, given that I recently returned from another conference which celebrated music in many forms.

I refer to the Unitarian Universalist Musicians Network (UUMN), an organization dear to me for its mission and work serving professional musicians and those offering music ministry within Unitarian Universalism.  For years I served as the liaison from the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) to this organization, trying to help the group focus on mission and goals, strengthen their programmatic offerings, and develop a strong relationship with the UUA.  They succeeded and – while I wasn’t looking for it – they captured my heart.  This organization became my organization, and when my time to serve as liaison ended, they honored me with a lifetime membership.

And so I continue to be part of UUMN, serving now as their Director of Communications, and as a Good Officer as well. I know the UUA is a small denomination.  But if that fact leads one to believe that its musicians will be small, second-rate, or less than other faith communities (or artist communities, for that matter) might offer, the assumption would be wrong. I continually marvel at the talent that makes each gathering of the UUMN bubble and pop with energy.

Here are composers who write moving contemporary music for worship and the spirit (bless you, Clif Hardin) who I would match up with anyone. Here are fabulous jazz performers, singers who might as well be appearing on Broadway, conductors who are absolutely first-rate, and those who come equipped with toy pianos and some gizmo I’d never seen (and which I am probably mis-spelling) called a binocular that emits amazing sounds. And here are worship leaders who are as skilled as any I’ve seen – fine preachers, superb liturgists, people who really get what good worship is and know how to bring it.

More than that, they are fabulous to be with — warm, inspiring, talented as all get-out, and dedicated to enriching our Unitarian Universalist faith through their good works and artistry.  Many of them — way too many — are dramatically underpaid, working without benefit of health care or church-supported pension plans.  Far too many could tell stories about the ordained clergy in their congregations treating them like “the music people” rather than like colleagues.  Some have been working at their churches for more than fifty years (here’s to you, Alfa Radford) and soon will retire; others have come from or moved to ordained parish ministry (David Glasgow and Jason Shelton, among others), some oversee music programs in their churches that keep them employed full-time and bring them to Eastern Europe to conduct their choirs (Beth Norton, for instance).

And a growing number are seeking credentialing from the UUA to acknowledge the effort and study they have devoted to becoming highly skilled and excellent music leaders, just as we so honor our religious educators and ministers.

All of these people contribute their own unique pulse and rhythm to the annual UUMN gathering, all of them help to weave a fabric that is diverse and rich and inspiring.  Through some amazing piece of good fortune, years ago, I got thrown into the same room with them, and it’s been pretty much a love fest ever since. Long may it continue, for (as the beloved hymn says, this sound ragout helps to move us “to a more profound  ‘Alleluia!'”

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I just returned from five remarkable days in Madison, Wisconsin, where I was part of the Unitarian Universalist Musicians Network annual conference.  It was packed, end to end, with singing, learning, watching great performances, and sharing sound and experience with some of the most inspired musicians in our chosen faith community.  Once again, as I felt when I was at Star Island living in the middle of so much music and sound, I felt like my head was about to explode from the sensory stimulation — this time with attention focused on the connection of music to faith.

On Wednesday night, I eagerly awaited the conference opening worship service, which was held at a large United Methodist church adjacent to the conference hotel.  The attendees rose in body and spirit, as every year, to sing together “When in Our Music”, the piece which captures the connection of sound and spirit which begins:

When in our music God is glorified,
and adoration leaves no room for pride,
it is as though the whole creation cried

How often, making music, we have found
a new dimension in the world of sound,
as worship moved us to a more profound
© 1972 by Hope Publishing Co.

As is always the case, I had a hard time keeping it together while we sang.  We listened to the pieces – performed by a wonderful choir – which won this year’s Silliman Anthem Award competition, celebrating the best of Unitarian Universalist choral anthems.  We welcomed newcomers to the conference – more than thirty of them, I believe – and prepared to delve into the ways that music moves the head, the heart, the spirit.

And so it went for the rest of the conference.  One of the things I love about the UU Musicians Network — and there is lots to love — is the commitment that folks have to offering dynamic ministry to the world through music and worship.  There were continuing education opportunities offered in composition, conducting, children’s music, music for healing and transition, building dynamic ministry teams, integrating instruments into worship, using Finale (software for music notation), best practices for working with choirs, and lots more.  There were master classes with composer Stephen Paulus, who was commissioned to write a magnificent piece for the UUMN conference choir to perform.  Paulus has had an impressive career, and he is not, as my mother used to say, chopped liver, but rather a pretty big deal.  Stephen Alltop, who also arrived with impressive credentials, conducted the conference choir…a high-powered guy with a very easy-to-work-with style who got great results from us.

One of the high spots of the conference for me was the presentation of “Go Out!”:  a celebration of liberal religious heritage and values in words and music, by composer Elizabeth Alexander.  The presentation offered the words of many of the guiding voices of Unitarianism and Universalism and some terrific pieces, including a duet, “Die Gedanken Sind Frei,” a women’s choral piece that brought to light the words of the Edict of Torda, and another that celebrated John Murray’s exhortation to “give them not hell, but hope.”  This is a piece worth doing, and I hope that it will catch fire with musicians around the country.

There was more, of course:  handbells, Bach musicians, African music, Indian kirtan music with Milwaukee-based performer Ragani, a high-energy performance from the klezmer band Yid Vicious, recitals of classical, folk, contemporary, and eclectic music, a variety show that featured acts irreverent and delightful.  There was worship – services so good that they rank among the best worship I’ve ever been part of.  And there were deep connections made, so valuable there is no way to put a price on it.

From start to finish, every day from 8 AM until 9:30 PM (and that was only the ‘formal’ part of each day), participants were living, breathing, doing music.  This is a more profound “Alleluia,” to be sure.  May the gifts that we received continue to be brought forth to bless the world.

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