Being articulate. >

For the last week, I have been working on the closing sequence of music for our upcoming Christmas program at Cedar Springs Presbyterian Church. The music for the program is celtic in style and is borrowed at least in part from my father’s 2003 album, “Irish Christmas.

When working day in and day out on arrangements, taking ideas and bringing them from the mind into notation, playing the audio on the computer and on the piano over and over and over again, it is so tempting to push towards the end and finish the piece! However, I have learned two valuable lessons as an arranger:

  1. Sometimes it’s best to walk away, rather than force a creative issue. I am not saying that creativity should only flow from us, and that it doesn’t require work. However,  we sometimes get stuck in a bubble and need to regain the perspective of the bigger picture. That means we give ourselves permission to say, “that’s one idea, and it might be fine, but I reserve the right to not commit to it at this point.”
  2. I have been living and breathing this music, but nobody else can hear that mental soundtrack. Getting the notes written on the page isn’t the end of the work. That’s like framing a house, wiring some lights and slapping some plumbing together and saying, “done!” It is now time to think through each part, considering the idiosyncrasies of each instrument, and communicate the details necessary to bring the soundtrack to life.

You might skip this next list if you are not an arranger – here are my steps to finishing the parts using Sibelius 7, and I do them in order to prevent having to fix things that I already fixed:

  1. Set the title, copyright info, composer info, and other global text items.
  2. Assign the rehearsal marks that would be the most helpful in rehearsal.
  3. Assign dynamics, slurs, and articulations for woodwind instruments. It is usually best to not use the “simile” indication – besides, it is trivially easy in software to assign articulations to large swaths of music. Use the Keypad to assign articulations, not the Symbols chart. Trust me.
  4. Now assign dynamics, slurs, and articulations for the brass and percussion parts.
  5. Now assign dynamics, slurs/bowing, and articulations for the strings. Match the depth of bowing information to the abilities of your players and the time you have for rehearsal. Generally, the more advanced the players, the less bowing info they will need. However, the more limited rehearsal time you have, the more bowing information is helpful. This assumes that you know what you are doing when it comes to bowing. If you don’t, it’s time to learn or find a string-playing friend.
  6. Would the parts benefit from a few well-placed cues? If so, go ahead and put those in now in the full score. (Home Ribbon: Paste as Cue)
  7. Go to the Parts ribbon and set the default Part Appearance page margins for All Parts – I typically need to give the bottom margin more space on the first page to accommodate the copyright text.
  8. Now open up each individual part and clean it up: Adjust the positions of the staves to minimize problematic page-turns and minimize the number of pages needed if possible. Watch for collisions and awkward spacings. If the stave spacing is jumping around in a part in a way that you don’t like, go to House Style: Staves: Justify when at least 100%. That will basically turn off the automatic spacing.
  9. Now go back to your full score and make it look the way you want. Feel free to “Hide empty staves” when you need extra room on the page. Think about page turns, upcoming instrument additions, etc, as you work through the layout of your full score. It is going to be your only tool in rehearsal, so you better think through the rehearsal process itself and what you are going to want to see at each moment in the music.

Good, articulate communication conveys information in an efficient manner. Mark Twain was quoted as writing, “I didn’t have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead.” When we musicians who are working as messengers of the Gospel give time and attention to detail, we are doing several key things: We are working hard to be faithful stewards of our own musical gifts, we are being respectful and considerate of the time and the talents of the musicians we are working with, and we are communicating the creativity, power, and joy of excellence when used for worship of God. It’s so much more than accents, slurs, up and down bows – it is our refined craft, and the knowledge that it is an offering of our heart to God, who deserves and demands our very best.

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Airtable and public views

imagesOne of the cool recent discoveries that I have made with Airtable is that you can publish and share selected information easily through sharing a view and embedding it or linking it on other sites. What this means for me is that finally I have an easy way to create a list of upcoming choir anthems with recording samples, YouTube links, and publisher links and share that with my choir members so that they can review the music during the week or see what anthems are coming up next. Very cool!

I am also using the ability to password protect pages on our church website in order to share a basic choir directory (with information from Airtable) with just our choir members. And with AirTable’s recent gallery view, this could become a very easy way for folks to learn names and faces when they are new.

The ongoing weakness with Airtable is its printing – still very basic and honestly, only barely useful. Maybe this will be fixed in the future… but for now I am still having to rely on CSV exports to be able to do fancy printing when needed. Thankfully, that’s not very often.

Sibelius 7 tips – fitting music on the printed page

I use Sibelius for music notation, and love the program. One common task and facet of good stewardship is how the music is presented to your musicians. Clarity of intent with logical page layout will save time and money, promote a more professional atmosphere amongst your worship team, and prevent dumb mistakes from happening due to awkward page turns and ill-placed key changes.

Here’s a quick 10-minute session on ways to handle page layout in Sibelius.

Airtable update – it’s like building a custom app

My first post on this updated blog, “Collaborative care for the choir” was an initial review of Airtable: www.airtable.com. Now that I have used it pretty solidly, here are my take-aways:

  • Collaboration tools are pretty good – we use it mostly to communicate changes and updates to our choir section leaders. The fact that Airtable puts a timestamp on record changes is really helpful.
  • It is fast. Syncing is instant, and works great on mobile or desktop.
  • The ability to create a web form is handy and really useful – and different from what you would do with a Google form. Google forms are great for collecting info, but Airtable forms are good for getting data into your own….
  • CUSTOM APP! Seriously, it’s like building your own app. Linked tables are the secret sauce to making it work.

Online form

Our choir had an awesome opportunity to sing with Michael W. Smith here in Knoxville for an event that Olympic ice skater Scott Hamilton organized. I put the signup form out via Airtable and had a custom app for the event where I could assign the singers their seating row and handle the number of passes and tickets needed.

I made this as a separate project in Airtable, but I should have made it as a table within my choir roster – and then folks could have simply checked their name off the list and I would already have their contact info at hand. Slick!

True database power

The most incredible use of Airtable is how we are now using it as the data backend for the Knoxville Area Handbell Festival. It now serves as registrar, checkbook ledger, financial reporter, music archivist, contact database, and legal document organizer. For the first time ever, I will be able to handle the duties of treasurer without having to lug around my computer and my black zippered binder stuffed with documents.

Using Airtable requires a bit of database understanding to really get going, but nowhere near as much as any other program I have ever messed with. Access? Forget it. Filemaker? Whatever. Fusion Tables? Still kind of intimidating. Airtable? YES.

Hey Airtable – think you could raise the limit on the number of rows allowed in your free version? Or maybe come up with a slightly lower price for the first tier of paid service? I don’t really know how much it would cost because of the whole “per user” charge thing. Just my 2 cents…

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Cedar Springs Sanctuary Choir rehearsing with Michael W. Smith at the Knoxville Civic Colosseum

MainStage: Free (and helpful) guides

While attending a Sovereign Grace Worship God conference in 2015 (Triune) I had the opportunity to attend a session on keyboarding that opened up a whole new world for me: MIDI controllers paired with software, specifically, Apple’s $30 MainStage program. Jonny Barahona (@JonBarahona) was the speaker in this session, and did a fantastic job blending teaching some of the basics of the program with real scenarios on how to leverage it in a worship setting.

I got home from the conference, dowloaded the program and hooked it up to my controller and got started very quickly. It’s very simple to setup and get started. However, it’s NOT that simple to get to the more advanced capabilities, so I have turned to the internet to find instruction. Here are some of the sites that have been genuinely helpful:

First off, visit Brian Li at www.BrianLi.com – he has assembled a great guide. Brian’s work is in Broadway and electronic music production, so he speaks to a great variety of styles and use cases. He also breaks down using MainStage into topic areas and explains the hierarchy of assigning and mapping controls.

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The second source I recommend is actually a paid service, Lynda.com – which is excellent for many different topics. If you are already a subscriber to Lynda, then you’re all set. If not, there are two free videos that are helpful. I have linked to their YouTube videos below.

The first one involves mapping controls:

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The second demonstrates playback plugins:

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Enjoy these sources, and feel free to chime in with additional items that have been helpful.

Soli Deo Gloria.

Remind – super simple group texting

Disclaimer: I don’t have any connections to this company. This post is here to hopefully provide a tool for ministry.

www.remind.com

Remind is great. Dead-simple to use and it works on iOS, Android, and desktop web browsers. It is designed for schools, but works equally well for other organizations. It’s kind of like a version of Twitter that will actually reach your participants.

I offer three good use cases for this app to justify why you might want to give it a look:

Use Case Number One: You Are The Leader Of An Ongoing Group

Want to send a quick update to everyone about a change in schedule? DONE. Snowy weather causing delays or cancellations and you gotta let your choir or band members know? DONE. Quick word of affirmation or fun picture of upcoming events? DONE.

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Use Case Number Two:  You Are In Charge of A Traveling Group

“Hey everyone – change of plans: meet back at the ice cream shop at 3:30” – or “pack your sunscreen tomorrow” – or – “whoever is with Tyler, make him call his mom right now”. This is sooooo handy on choir tours.

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Use Case Number Three: You Are The Lead Communicator For An Event

As folks register for the event, have them also signup for Remind (and let them know that they can opt-out anytime). Need to let folks know about a change in venue or time? DONE. Reminder to turn in surveys or other forms? DONE.

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You may look at this and see an answer to a communications situation – and if so, please share your idea with the world.

Soli Deo Gloria.

 

Managing and leveraging multiple libraries

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Some of the more recent TV boxes (Apple TV, Amazon, Roku, etc.) offer the ability to search across various networks to find the content you want. That’s a pretty compelling feature because I don’t always know which services carry which shows. Sometimes I just want to watch Top Gear without having to know the licensing deals of broadcast media companies.

How does this relate to music ministry? Well… 

At the end of my post about using ratings in your library, I mentioned integrating libraries… and that sounds kind of fancy and maybe even a bit tech-y. It’s really not. In fact, this simple concept offers tremendous benefits when planning and combing through your music looking for that perfect piece. It’s an obvious solution now in my mind to a problem that had developed slowly over the years of using a music library database.

Here’s the problem, and the reason it prompted such an elegant solution: I was using Excel and had a spreadsheet for my own personal music. I also had a separate spreadsheet for my church’s music. When I wanted to search for a particular thing, I had to open up both files and search them both. What’s worse than that, though, is that the columns in these two files did not match, were different, meant different things according to who had input the data, etc.). If I bought a piece of music for the church and then also bought a personal copy, I had to make sure to enter it in both files.

Church file: Documents/Music Library.xls
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(Putting one of these in my own personal list involved re-typing it, because the columns didn’t exactly match)

I got tired of inputting the piece TWICE and decided to make the columns match so I could at least copy/paste the row from one file to another.  And then… an AH-HA moment. What if the libraries weren’t separate files at all? I could just have a “Library” column that told me which library contained the piece:

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(And I can autofilter by Library to see just the titles that belong to that library. Yes!)

This simple step makes searching across multiple libraries a snap, and leverages the Ratings system in the process. Trust me, it’s really handy. My current database contains the records of my own music, three church music libraries that I have working familiarity with, a few records from friends who have presented music from their own collection to be used for the church, and even a library that consists of titles I don’t own, but heard somewhere and wanted to remember them for possible future use.

My options (specific for me) for column: LIBRARY:

  • Andrew Duncan
  • Fountain City UMC
  • First UMC Oak Ridge
  • Cedar Springs Presbyterian Church
  • Hymnals
  • Noted (Not on hand)

Here’s a result of a real-life search using my database. I want to find a Youth Choir piece for the Christmas/Advent season – Advent being preferable because I want it to use it in early December. I would like to see what I have for SAB choir and piano, and would like to see the results sorted by their Rating:

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Looks like Mark Patterson’s “Jesus Christ the Apple Tree” or Mark Miller’s “Come, Thou Long-Expected Jesus” might be worth investigating. And, you’ll notice that “Come, Thou Long-Expected Jesus” is in the library of First UMC Oak Ridge, so it is a title that has seen some use and might possibly be more familiar. I also know where to go to look at these pieces for the next step of planning.

If you like this idea and want to give it a try, here’s the step-by-step plan:

  1. Make a backup of your existing files just in case something goes wrong. Then…
  2. Create a new, “master” spreadsheet.
  3. Decide what columns you want in your new master spreadsheet, and what those column headers mean as well as their order from left to right
  4. Now go to your existing spreadsheet(s) and add/move/rename columns until they match the layout of the master spreadsheet.
  5. Once everything matches, you can simply copy/paste from your existing spreadsheet(s) into the master spreadsheet. (OR use the Save As function to skip this step and step 2). Repeat as necessary for each spreadsheet.
  6. Enjoy your newly integrated view of your already researched musical options.

This is a small investment of time that pays large dividends – and allows me to be a good steward of my church’s resources.

Soli Deo Gloria.

Best music library program – and, what’s an incipit?

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Sure – use Excel if you want to. No shame in that. But AT LEAST turn on the Auto-Filters. You’ll thank me later.

OR…. use an actual database. Right now I am really happy with Google Fusion tables. I basically took my Excel list, exported it as a .csv file, imported it into Fusion Tables and went from there. It’s amazingly powerful and customizable, and much easier to deal with than a raw MySQL database (which is what I was using for a while).

Whatever program you go with, make it more than a list of stuff.

Too often we think of the library file as a way to store stuff and find it later. While that is true it is MUCH more helpful to think of the library as a ministry and planning resource! Come up with the questions you are often trying to answer when planning, and figure out the best way to represent the answers to those questions in your music library data file.

For example – I often can remember the melody line of a hymn before I can think of the name of the text or the tune. So, it is helpful for me to quantify the melody into a searchable term. “Holy, Holy, Holy” (NICAEA) opens with the following incipit: 113355 (do, do, mi, mi, sol, sol), so I entered that numeric code into an “Incipit” column and can now search for that melody. And, a neat side benefit is that as the database grows and you search it for incipits, you will discover similar melodic contours in hymns that you never ever thought of as being related.

This link will take you to the public version of my Google Fusion Tables database – the subset that contains only hymns. Play with that and search by incipit in your browser. It’s pretty cool.

Collaborative care for the choir

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At my church we have a choir of around 60-70 active singers, with another 20 or so listed on the rolls. We also have prospects, folks who are “on leave” as well as dealing with medical issues and travel…

AGGH! How do I keep up with all of the details of each and every member of my choir? And… even if I figure that out, how can we effectively and actively pursue new members? I continually feel behind, and we are going to start doing something about it.

Right now, we are trying out an online database tool called Airtable – what I like about it is that it gives me AND my section leaders a way to communicate specifically about choir members, and to spread the knowledge about what is going on in folk’s lives more effectively amongst our leadership team (we have one section leader per voice section). They also have a surprisingly good app for iPhones. My hope is that by using this tool we can stay in better and more frequent communication with our choir members and reach out quickly to new folks. I’ll try to update as we roll it out and use it in the real world.

Technical info – because this stuff is important: I considered using Google Fusion Tables for this as well, and it IS more powerful, but it is also less user-friendly for my volunteer section leaders. It does, however, give you the option of plotting addresses on a map so that you can get an instant overview of where your choir members live – useful for planning social gatherings or visits!

What fields did I include in our database?
Full name
Status (active, currently inactive, prospect, on leave, etc.)
Phone
Email
Address
Picture
Voice Section
Notes (general notes)
Communication history (when and how was someone last in touch? email, facebook, text, phone?)
All this is a work in progress.. and I would LOVE to know how others handle this! I want to be the most effective choir director possible – and that as always means so much more than teaching notes and rhythms. It is truly building relationships with others in the name of Jesus Christ.

Soli Deo gloria.