Power of Music: The Hymn Society Conference

It was a joy to experience the power of music at The Hymn Society Annual Conference in Dallas. Also delightful was connecting with composers, lyricists, music ministers, organists, and choristers from around the world to share our stories and musical gifts.

Here are some highlights from the feast of hymn festivals, workshops, and presentations. (The video recordings I made on my phone could not capture the grandeur of the music, but they will give you a sense of it.)

The opening hymn festival, led by Michael Conrady and Thomas Pavlechko along with choir members and orchestra from Christ the King Catholic Church, took place in the beautiful sanctuary of Lovers Lane United Methodist Church. Conrady is a pastoral musician, composer, and arranger who serves as organist and choirmaster at St. Thomas Aquinas Catholic Church in Dallas, and Pavlechko is a composer, editor, conductor, and organist who serves as music director for Christ the King Catholic Church in Dallas. It was a moving experience of congregational singing with hundreds of musicians and the superb choir, organ, and orchestra.

Especially serendipitous was the congregation’s singing “With Water Freely Flowing,” by Larry E. Schultz, a composer I’ve collaborated with on hymn collections and children’s music.

The Conference bookstore included hymn collections and a children’s music book that Larry and I collaborated on.

Here is a portion of Larry’s hymn sung at the festival that I recorded on my phone.

One of the workshops I attended brought hymn text writers together to celebrate and critique our work. The facilitator was David Gambrell, Associate for Worship in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) Office of Theology and Worship and award-winning published author of hymn texts. Gambrell led us in a conversation about why we write hymn texts. Responses included: hymn texts stay with us because the music embeds the words in our memories; new texts reclaim familiar tunes with peace and justice themes; hymn texts are gifts to our Creator; hymn texts celebrate the wonder and mystery of life; hymn texts are healing. We sang and critiqued the hymns submitted before the conference. I submitted “Ruah Spirit Calls Within,” one of my unpublished hymns in progress. Gambrell and others in the workshop expressed appreciation for the feminine imagery and pronouns in this hymn, commenting on the need for more female divine names and images in hymnody. Also, they talked about the need for more hymns on the Holy Spirit. My hymn, they said, could be used for Pentecost and ordinations as well as for services on themes of calling and justice. They also gave me valuable critique that has helped me revise several lines.

The second hymn festival was led by Ana Hernández in the lovely sanctuary in the round of Prince of Peace Catholic Church. Hernández is a composer/arranger, workshop facilitator, author, and activist who uses music to dismantle racism and to remind people they are beloved of God. I had the joy of experiencing her music several years ago at the opening of The Center for Congregational Song in Dallas. When I visited with her the day before this festival, she was wearing a shirt with the words: “Talk less, sing more.” The festival she led verified the power of “singing more.”

One of the most moving experiences was singing the simple phrase “open my heart,” over and over with hundreds of voices in harmony, gathered in a circle, lifting hands in prayer. I felt that if people all over the world sang together this prayer, “open my heart,” we would all be changed and the world would change.

Here is a video recording of a portion of “Set It Right Again,” one of the songs by Hernández that we sang at this festival. “There’s a great trouble in the land. We’re gonna set it right again.”

Here are some memorable quotes from presentations and workshops.

“The heart of a hymn is the content, the text. Music is a vehicle for the text.” –Tony McNeill, workshop clinician, lecturer, consultant, mentor, guest choral conductor throughout the country, and visiting artist at Park Avenue Christian Church in New York City.

“Intercultural work is hard. We have to do the difficult inner work so we can honor people of various cultures. Through our worship leadership we model equity, love, and compassion for congregations.” –Rosa Cándida Ramírez, worship pastor of La Fuente Ministries, an intercultural, intergenerational bilingual ministry in Pasadena, California, and blogger for The Center for Congregational Song.

“The purpose of music is to reintroduce something beautiful into the world. The beauty of music conveys truth. Truth is instilled through the beauty of music.” –Ryan Flanigan, songwriter, founder of Liturgical Folk, and music director of All Saints Dallas, an Anglican Church in Oak Lawn.

Tuesday evening the hymn festival was led by Jan Kraybill, Mark Doerries, and the Notre Dame Children’s Choir in the majestic Meyerson Symphony Center. Kraybill is an internationally acclaimed concert organist, musical leader, organ consultant, and enthusiastic cheerleader for the power of music to change lives for the better; she serves as Organist-in-Residence at the international headquarters of Community of Christ in Independence, Missouri. Doerries is an associate professor of sacred music at the University of Notre Dame and artistic director of the Notre Dame Children’s Choir. From Kraybill’s magnificent organ Prelude, “This Day the World Was Called Into Being,” to her rousing Postlude, “Choral Fantasie on Ein feste Burg,” I was transported by the power of music.

Especially moving was singing in a congregation with more than a thousand voices, led by Doerries and the splendid Notre Dame Children’s Choir and Kraybill’s exquisite organ accompaniment.

We sang some classic hymns of faith, including “Love Divine, All Loves Excelling,” “Abide with Me,” and “O God, Our Help in Ages Past.” It was my mother’s 101st birthday, and I felt I was in heaven with her celebrating and singing “changed from glory into glory, till in heaven we take our place,” “heaven’s morning breaks, and earth’s vain shadows flee,” and “be Thou our guide while life shall last, and our eternal home.”

Wednesday evening’s hymn festival was led by Tony McNeill and Joslyn Henderson in the elegant sanctuary of First Presbyterian Church. McNeill, affectionately known as “Dr. T.,” is a sought-after workshop clinician, lecturer, consultant, mentor, guest choral conductor throughout the country, program director for the Johnson C. Smith Theological Seminary Certificate in Worship Leadership, and visiting artist at Park Avenue Christian Church in New York City. Henderson is a dynamic vocal artist,  graduate of vocal performance at Spelman College, and leader of music at gatherings, conferences, and churches. I’ve had the joy of experiencing her music leadership at Nevertheless, She Preached, The Center for Congregational Song opening, and The Gathering: A Womanist Church.

McNeill began this festival by commenting that there would be no words between songs, that all the songs would be as one continued song or breath of prayer and praise. This was a stirring experience of singing a diversity of songs, from meditative to rousing, with the creative leadership of McNeill and Henderson.

A special treat was singing in the congregation beside Faith Manning, minister of music at The Gathering. Her beautiful, powerful voice added to the joy and inspiration I felt.

Here are video recordings of two songs we sang at this festival: “Breathe on Me” and “God Be with You.”

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2 Comments

  1. Colette Numajiri
    Posted July 26, 2019 at 7:31 pm | Permalink

    Fantastic. Your phone recordings are still great. I soooooo wish I’d gone to these, hope to make future conferences. Music transports, heals and blesses us. Thank you for gifting the world with more blessings.

  2. janna
    Posted July 27, 2019 at 8:28 am | Permalink

    Thank you, Colette, for your enthusiastic, affirming comments. I wish you had been there with me! Thank you for all your creative gifts you’re sending into the world.

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