Sacred Music Intensive Workshop, Jacobs School of Music, Indiana University, Bloomington

November 1, 2017

Noel Morse Beck has spent many years serving as organist and director of children, youth, and adult choirs in Presbyterian, Methodist, and Episcopal churches in the Muscle Shoals area of northwest Alabama. Through this experience, she has learned the inspiration and practical value of continuing education at events such as the Sacred Music Intensive Workshop, in order to develop and maintain excellence in music programs of small-to-medium size congregations. She had the good fortune of spending a year studying privately with Janette Fishell. Currently, Noel Beck is organist and choir director at Trinity Episcopal Church in Florence, Alabama.

Church musicians representing all regions of the United States, the Bahamas, and Canada gathered on the campus of Indiana University in Bloomington for this year’s Sacred Music Intensive Workshop, June 5–9. There were more than 40 participants; the number was limited by design, so that each could receive personal attention, and all could develop camaraderie through learning and sharing ideas in both planned and informal settings. Some attendees had participated in prior years’ workshops; others experienced this inspiring and delightful event for the first time. All were attracted by the opportunity to study with the outstanding organ and choral faculty of the Jacobs School of Music.

This annual event was created by Janette Fishell, organ department chair, and Walter Huff, choral arts professor, both seasoned church musicians. Participants were allowed to design their own schedules throughout the week, choosing from lessons and lectures pertaining to organ, choral music, voice, and carillon. 

Experienced organists were given the opportunity to have two or more private lessons with Janette Fishell, Christopher Young, and Marilyn Keiser. Beginning organists studied with doctoral student Yukima Tatsuta. All of these master teachers were most generous with their time, making this feature a very popular part of the week’s activities. Available for practice and lessons were the C. B. Fisk, Inc., organs in Auer Hall and Alumni Hall, as well as numerous organs in the practice rooms of the Music Building. 

There was an outstanding opening concert, presented by the organ faculty. The program included works by Johann Sebastian Bach, William Albright, Dan Locklair, Louis Vierne, Gabriel Pierné, Henri Mulet, Benjamin Britten, Hisaishi/Wasaki, and César Franck. 

For those whose special interest was choral music, there were daily presentations by Walter Huff organized around the central theme: “Are we creating the ideal rehearsal/performance environment for our choristers?” Lecture and discussion sessions covered such topics as getting started rehearsing a new anthem; creating the optimum sound (pitch, tone, vowels); transforming a hymn into an anthem; effective choral warm-ups; implementing the Robert Shaw’s Count-Sing rehearsal technique; preparation of Handel’s Messiah, including the “Hallelujah Chorus.” There were also conducting practicums, a conducting masterclass, and choral reading sessions. Voice classes were offered, taught by IU graduate student Rachel Mikol.

All participants were invited to participate in Huff’s daily two-hour choir rehearsals, culminating in a closing concert on Friday evening. The program included the soaring lines of A Hymn to St. Cecilia, with music by Herbert Howells and text by Ursula Vaughan Williams; Earlene Rentz’s exuberant setting of On Jordan’s Stormy Banks; Stephen Paulus’s intimate The Road Home; a lyrical Jesus Christ, the Apple Tree by K. Lee Scott; Howells’s “Nunc Dimittis” (from the Collegium Regale service); and John Rutter’s Let all mortal flesh keep silence, which begins mysteriously and ends with majestic Alleluias. Participating organists were invited to accompany the anthems and the two congregational hymns. The closing concert also included organ selections performed by several of the week’s attendees, including works by Helmut Walcha, Dan Locklair, Raymond H. Haan, and Jehan Alain. One participant played his own composition. 

The intensive week also included presentations by the organ faculty. Christopher Young offered a lecture/demonstration dealing with styles of registration for the church organist. Janette Fishell, who cleverly titled her presentation “Achilles Heels and All Thumbs? Mastering technical problems and finding musical answers,” invited attendees to bring organ repertoire trouble spots, and demonstrated how to improve technique to solve challenging problems. Marilyn Keiser presented a most useful list of organ repertoire selections appropriate for both service and concert playing. There was also an informative presentation about understanding and maintaining the health of the pipe organ, presented by Patrick Fischer, Jacobs School of Music organ curator. 

Amy Hamburg Mead offered participants the opportunity to learn to play the school carillon. At week’s end, participants gave a charming noonday concert of hymn arrangements and other selections played on the carillon, enjoyed in the open air of the school amphitheater and the surrounding area. 

There were daily sessions on topics such as: Body/Mind/Spirit, focusing on maintaining the musician’s inner physical and spiritual health, including yoga practice, led by Beth Lazarus; and spiritual insights, led by Reverend Andy Cort. 

Lois Fyfe Music, of Nashville, Tennessee, provided an excellent “pop-up shop,” including organ music and resources useful to church musicians. The music shop also conducted a most useful anthem reading session.

The university campus provided great natural and architectural beauty. The city of Bloomington offered delectable eateries—from coffee and sandwich shops only a few steps from the music building, to restaurants and fine dining within a short walking distance, featuring farm-to-table, continental, Mid-Eastern, and Asian menus. Participants had a varied choice of housing: college dormitory, local hotels, and inns.

This was truly an excellent way to spend a week of continuing education. Many of those attending plan to make it an annual event.

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