A detailed 100-year history of music ministry at St. Paul’s Fort Garry could fill a lengthy chapter of a book. The parish has had many iterations of music ensembles and utilized service music in genres ranging from traditional organ and choral works to folk songs, Top 40 hits, and musical theatre selections.
My earliest memories of St. Paul’s are of attending the early (more contemporary) service at which my father played guitar. Over the years, we have been blessed to be joined by numerous musicians; vocalists, guitarists, Celtic instrumentalists, percussionists, brass and reed players… the list goes on. By the late ’90s, we had moved to a single morning service, with the music shared between the traditional choir and the folk style praise band, the Rejoice Group, with whom I was finally allowed to sing. Who knew that 20 years on, my own dad would be calling me “The Boss”?
In 2018, we entered the next step of our musical journey as a mixed group, combining both the traditional choir with the Rejoice Group into one unified ensemble. As I moved into my new position as Music Director, my primary goal was to create a program where all genres and members felt represented and heard; to bring all talents together and grow them into a new sound.
Three years later, a Sunday service might look a little bit like this:
Comfort My People – Steve Bell, guitar and vocals
Worship the Lord – Voices United, guitar, vocal, piano
The God That I Know – New, Australian resource
Alleluia Sing to Jesus – organ, guitar, harmonica
Guide My Feet – acapella four-part harmony
Bless the Lord (10, 000 Reasons) – New, Christian top 40 song
Each service is planned almost like a mini-concert, with the flow of music linked to the emotional pacing of the service. Generally, although not as a rule, we begin with more contemplative and/or traditional pieces and finish on a more contemporary and energizing note.
“Music is the universal language of [hu]mankind,” wrote Hans Christian Anderson (a Danish author who is best remembered for his fairy tales).
In theatre, we often say, “when you can no longer speak, you sing.” Music allows us to feel and express emotions more deeply in a way that plain speech cannot.
While some might be a bit shocked to hear what I have played in church (yes, both Disney and Rogers & Hammerstein have gotten involved), all genres of music have both merits and drawbacks. In choosing music for Sunday morning, I ask myself how a piece of music might support and enhance the message of this Sunday’s liturgy. Factors taken into account include: singing ability/accessibility, difficulty level, orchestration, familiarity, and if the is text reflective of theology and readings of the day. I believe it is important to continuously challenge and explore our faith and connection to God in new ways. As we continue to explore, study, and recontextualize the Bible in our spiritual growth as Christians, why not approach music in the same way?
Just as we are all unique individuals, walking our spiritual journey in our own way, so too do our musical tastes change and evolve daily. This includes the moments and the music with which we find our strongest connection. Traditional pieces can be comforting and reconnecting us back to earlier memories, reminding us of loved ones gone before. New music can excite and inspire us as we move in the world throughout the week. A varied selection of service music aims to blend the past with the present and connect with a piece of each person’s soul, reaching them wherever they find themselves on their journey.