Advice on Managing a Hymn Competition
This article appeared in the Fall 2014 issue of Worship, Music & Ministry, the journal of the United Church of Christ Musicians Association.
Staff working in smaller churches must keep themselves from the temptation of thinking that certain projects are not possible, due to limited financial or human resources. Additionally, staff who must work full-time elsewhere in order to live their passion at a part-time church job may sometimes feel like one more project may be just enough to upset proper work-life balance.
This article will attempt to help staff see the scriptural truth that with God all things are possible (or at least that more things might be possible than expected), when committee brainstorming first begins.
Our new hymn had its roots in the spring of 2012, when our Council’s 185th Anniversary Sub-Committee first began meeting. As we considered the many ways in which God had blessed us that year, and in the nearly two centuries preceding this celebration, we thought there was no better way to honor the generations, both past and present, than with a hymn written and composed in honor of Edwards Church. I heard from many Council members throughout the year that they “never would have even thought of” the possibility, but fortunately, I had come to this project as a past-administrator of similarly-minded competitions at Nassau Presbyterian Church in Princeton, New Jersey, and the New England Philharmonic. Fortunately, these prior successes gave me the confidence to lead us on this rewarding journey.
After the initial proposal and encouragement from our Anniversary Sub-Committee, we sought the approval of Council, offering general ideas for timeline, prize, and publicity. With their endorsement, we were ready to begin.
First and foremost, we needed a text which reflected the traditions and history of our congregation. Our pastor, Rev. Dr. Debbie Clark, is an excellent writer, having penned hymns that are sung with familiar tunes for baptisms and Advent. She graciously agreed to begin thinking of this new text, for anticipated completion in August (this allowed a three-month writing process).
Call for Scores
While the text was being developed, we posted an announcement on ACDA’s ChoralNet forum. The post clearly detailed the rules and guidelines, and invited interested composers to RSVP their interest to a dedicated email address at edwardschurch.org. This email address was monitored by one committee member who remained the participants’ sole liaison, for the duration of the competition. Anonymity was of utmost importance to us for several reasons. In the small world of choral music, we didn’t want the voting panel to be influenced by a potential big name, or, perhaps more difficult, a local name (our community has many strong musicians who deserved an equal shot in the contest). The ChoralNet posting promised that the text would be sent to anyone on the mailing list in early September. Additionally, the contest was mentioned in our monthly newsletter, encouraging anyone interested to use the email address rather than approaching music staff directly, again for fear that the voting panel could learn of local composers involved in the process.
Our posting allowed for a period of approximately four months for composition and submittal. The committee and voting panel were not given regular updates on entries received, nor were they given any scores as they came in. The online announcement was reposted one time during the period. Our deadline was mid-January, at which point, our liaison gathered all the submitted entries (PDF was required) and ensured that each composer had followed our requests to omit any identifying information on the score itself. She numbered each “Entry ##”, and supplied the members of the first voting panel a combined PDF of all the entries.
The members of the first voting panel were selected for their known abilities to play through scores with ease, and with experience enough to make quick decisions as to the perceived quality of the submissions. The panel members were charged to independently select 4-6 hymns which they would like to advance to a final round with a larger voting panel. They were given no particular instructions, aside from a request to work independently and choose multiple hymns that they felt would best reflect the character of our congregation, and which they believed would deserve the hymn tune name edwards church.
At this point, we relied on faith that the individuals would come to a non-verbal consensus of sorts in their initial voting. I believed that the odds would be in our favor that through separate eyes, the submissions would sort themselves out. And, fortunately, this ended up being the case. Two hymns appeared on four shortlists, and four hymns appeared on two shortlists, resulting in a field of six that were highly regarded.
At this point, we rallied a final voting panel, this time intended to be more representative of the entire congregation. We announced for a few weeks in advance, and met after church on Palm Sunday in our fellowship hall. We had representation of about 20% of our usual Sunday attendance at this voting event.
Our intention was to maintain a light atmosphere at the vote. These panelists had come by their own choice, and we needed to honor that enthusiasm by being well organized in advance, moving the proceedings along, and fostering an environment of encouragement and openness. Pizza, the great encourager, was also offered. At set times during the presentation we invited discussion, and were prepared with prompting questions, should the conversation slow down.
To begin, I provided a bit of background to the contest, the timeline, and the first round of voting, in an effort to establish the importance of this phase of the contest, as a part of the whole. We explained the differences between a hymn text and a hymn tune, the significance of a hymn tune’s name, and so on, that everyone might begin with the same necessary knowledge.
To begin, we played through and sang the first verse and refrain of each of the six finalist entries. Discussion was discouraged between songs, but voters were encouraged to jot down mental reminders for themselves to help recall the pieces from the field. A slide was presented to call to mind the following questions:
How easy and fun is it to sing?
- Are there high/low range issues?
- Will the melody be memorable?
- Is it a musical complement to our mission/philosophy?
- Does the music work with/reflect the text?
Our initial vote called for three favorites from each panel member. We used polling clickers integrated with PowerPoint for instant vote recording and bar graph feedback. The clickers ensured both that the results remain anonymous and that there be no dead periods for collecting and tallying papers. Fortunately, this first vote allowed us to whittle the field down to a clear consensus of four that required additional conversation and voting. At this point, we opened the floor to discussion, questions, challenges; and all voices were heard. Some remarks were broad (“this melody is hard to remember”, “there’s too much leaping”) while others begged more sophisticated musical analysis (“This rest breaks the flow of the poetic phrase”). Following more discussion and roughly an hour after we’d begun, the vote between the final two submissions ended up a landslide victory for the winner. While both tunes were had strong melodies and character, we collectively determined, through the open discussion, that the winning entry could be more easily sung by a congregation, while the first runner-up would have made for a tremendous anthem for trained singers; it was just a bit too hard to pick up a few times a year by our enthusiastic, but largely untrained congregation.
Our voting session ended with the first singing of “our hymn”, with all voters standing, and singing all verses with piano. It was a very moving experience, considering the historical importance of what we’d just done.
It had long been chosen that our hymn would premiere at our Pentecost morning service in May, which gave us a few months to make appropriate preparations and announcements. Immediately, we notified the composer of the winning tune, and sent notes of appreciation to those composers who were not chosen. We informed the finalists of their standing in the field, and encouraged all composers to use their setting of the hymn at any point after our premiere, being sure to credit the text’s author, and noting that only the winner could use the hymn tune name edwards church. We had determined early on that publication of any of the hymn submissions would be allowable, and not in violation of the contest or the wishes of the author (our pastor).
We asked the winning composer for a photo and biography, with which to create a special take-home pamphlet for the premiere with the score included. In subsequent performances, we have printed the score as an insert in that Sunday’s bulletin.
At its premiere, the service was crafted around the text. Reflections and readings alternated with individual verses, first introduced by the choir alone, and later by the full congregation. By the end of the service, the tune had been heard a half dozen times, and the congregation felt they really knew and understood the music and lyrics. We felt a great sense of pride that day, in both the anniversary itself, and the feeling of accomplishment that we had something musical to call our own.
I was sincerely touched by the process of this contest. Touched by the generosity of time displayed by the people of Edwards Church: the 185th Anniversary Committee for allowing the competition to exist; our pastor, for her thoughtful time writing the text, and guidance throughout the months; our contest liaison for maintaining private dialogue with the composers, to allow the panel to truly choose an unbiased winner; and to the members who formed our voting panels. But, truly, a special thanks went out to each of the composers across the globe (in the US, Canada, England, Finland, and Japan) who, through their time composing in our honor, effectively sent a blessing from afar to a group of fellow believers whom they’d never met previously.
Rick Seaholm is choir director at Edwards Church, UCC, in Framingham, Massachusetts, and has begun pursuing commissioned minister of music status in the United Church of Christ. A graduate of Westminster Choir College and the University of Massachusetts Lowell, he is a member of UCCMA and ACDA, and works, by day, as the Associate Director of Interactive Technologies at the Boston University School of Management (since renamed the Questrom School of Business).