I went to a United Church Music Conference… and it was actually really cool
I am sitting in Toronto Pearson Airport having just finished a three-day conference. Like so many conferences, the food was plentiful, transportation was slightly complicated, and there weren’t enough Atlantic Canadians. But perhaps a bit unusually, this was a conference entirely for United Church of Canada musicians and music ministers.
Music Matters is the annual conference of Music United, a branch of the United Church that deals entirely in music ministry. The United Church is the least churchy-church you can go to in Canada, and the conference was full of people who like to have a good time, swear occasionally, go to the pub after blasting out hymns, and like to talk about being affirming to LGBTQ+ folks, making efforts toward reconciliation, and frequently note that Jesus was a brown guy who wanted people to be humble and share their snacks. For a church conference, it’s pretty low-key (pardon the pun).
Musicians in the United Church also tend to be a pretty low-key bunch. Many music leaders are asked to fill in for someone and end up leading, or are pulled from the choir or other music ministry into leading a children’s choir or a bell choir. There’s not a huge amount of ego, and people are generally there to combine a love of music with some general enjoyment of being in church. People are also, basically, just really kind.
I arrived last Thursday, and was picked up from the airport by not just any old volunteer, but by the music minister at our host church, Islington United. Top notch service right there. I was one of five delegates from Atlantic Canada – the rest nearly all men, and all (much) older than I.
Serendipitously, an article about my singing group, the Halifax Newcomer Choir, had been published online in Broadview, the United Church of Canada’s magazine, just that morning, so when I arrived at the conference on Friday afternoon, and launched into a conducting masterclass with Elaine Choi, and I introduced myself as the director of the Newcomer Choir… people really knew what I was talking about. The article had gone all through the United Church and choral Facebook worlds and so between that and being tiny and one of the few under 30, I was very recognizable.
The Friday afternoon was devoted to conducting masterclasses with Canadian conductor Elaine Choi (herself an immigrant to Canada). I was one of four conductors chosen to work with her – hugely intimidating at the best of times, but my conducting training is very much zero. But she was gracious and patient, and worked with us one on one in a small group, before we went into the sanctuary to conduct all the delegates in song. Afterward, many other delegates said to me that they would not have felt brave enough to conduct, but really, how often do you get to have a leading Canadian director give you feedback? Have to take the chances when they arise.
After a homestyle dinner prepared by the church volunteers, we all shuffled back to the sanctuary for a community hymn sing, which was open to the broader community. After three years of minimal music making, being in a room with 50 true musicians, sight reading more than a dozen hymns in four or five part harmony, with guitars, flute, piano, organ, accordion, and djembe players was fantastic. We finished the evening glowing as only happy choral singers can.
On Saturday, we worshipped first, led by Reverend Maya at Islington United. Worship during a music conference consists mostly of… music, unsurprisingly, though Maya managed to slip in a little bit of church. If you’re a United Church musician though and not feeling especially ‘churchy’ this is a very safe conference to attend – the true God and Bible bits are limited and the music is emphasized above all.
Saturday was plenary day: we had a session on the new United Church hymnal (takeaway: it’s complicated to write a hymnal). Another session on contemporary worship music (takeaway: let’s sing new songs, they’re great and catchy). And finally a session on why hymns might be racist and what we can do about it (takeaway: some hymns are racist. Choose songs carefully. Don’t be that white person who sings songs from other cultures without doing your research). Perhaps this is just a music nerd moment, but the plenaries were excellent, and the speakers really engaging.
Supper again followed by… more singing. We had a (very exciting -for us) read through of newly published church music or ‘anthems’ as they’re known in the church (the songs sung by the choir alone during a service). After so long not sight reading, it was clear that some of us were a bit rusty but we got to take home a large packet of new music to consider bringing to our groups and churches.
Though the conference officially ended Saturday evening, many of us stayed into Sunday to participate in a large hymn sing at Metropolitan United Church in downtown Toronto. Singing Zadok the Priest with an exceptional organist, singing revival hymns with fifty highly skilled musicians, and belting hymns with a six piece brass band and the audience – pretty cool.