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A New Life for Music in the Church (Part One)

As I mentioned in my last post, the World Youth Day trip I went on this summer was particularly inspiring for me on the musical front. I’ve long been involved with and interested in church music, but the WYD week exposed me to some new and wonderful types of worship music (along with some old familiars which I like to varying degrees!)

This is the first in a series of posts on the topic of music in the church, inspired by the new music I encountered on that trip.

As it was in the beginning…

I grew up attending Catholic mass every Sunday with my family, which about half the time featured sung hymns. Depending on which local church we went to, some of the mass setting (e.g. the Gloria, Sanctus, etc.) might be sung, but for the most part it was hymns from a hymn book, accompanied by piano or organ.

I like hymns.

There are some fantastic hymns, and sung hymns can (if well chosen and well led) be a wonderful addition to a church service.


The big curse of church hymns is that more often than not, they are performed at a snail’s pace, leaving even capable singers struggling for breath by the end of each tortuous line, and giving you so much time for your thoughts to wander during each verse you’re surprised the thing ever ends! Don’t get me wrong, I’m not some weirdo with a fetish for super-speedy hymns. I’m just looking for a reasonable tempo that’s something approximating speaking speed; enough to give the words some meaning and allow natural phrasing.

I’ve been guilty in the past of (more…)

The streets are alive… with the sound of pilgrims

I recently had the opportunity to attend the enormous World Youth Day event in Madrid: a gathering of 1.5 million young Catholics from all over the world, joining together to express their faith, celebrate their religion and show support for the church and its leader, Pope Benedict XVI.

Despite the coverage in the UK media focusing mainly on the few thousand protestors, the city was absolutely dominated by positive youthful energy and exuberance, and it was truly a wonderful thing to be a part of. I loved seeing the city alive and loud, and people sharing and interacting in a way you never get on the streets of London. Such a spirit of joy and friendliness in people, with all their defenses down. To a born-and-bred Londoner like myself, accustomed to the buttoned-up “every man for himself” attitude so prevalent in big cities, it was a strikingly different and uplifting atmosphere.

Did you notice I said loud?

The occupation of Madrid was not a quiet, respectful, peaceful one. Far from it! The streets and public transport of central Madrid were alive in conversation and greetings (¡Hola!), but even more so with song and chant, in a huge variety of languages.

Almost all were unfamiliar and unknown (more…)

Never be afraid to bootstrap your musical education

The startup world loves “bootstrapping”: the idea that you get a business off the ground not by seeking investment and outside funding, but by starting to sell products or services and then gradually growing the business using your own income. It comes from the expression “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” and just means that you’re using whatever resources you have to hand to get yourself going. I’m a bootstrapping fan myself; it’s how I’m running Easy Ear Training so far.

Lately I’ve been thinking about bootstrapping in music learning, and specifically ear training.

There may not be an obvious connection to you, but if you’re a musician you’re probably doing this to some extent already – just without realising it!

There’s a huge wealth of history to music tuition, and no shortage of teachers to tell you “this is how you learn X”, “this is how you practise Y”. And I wouldn’t for a second want to dismiss the value there.

But there’s another way too. This is the attitude of bootstrapping. Of “do whatever works”.

Bootstrapping your music education

If you want to be a concert pianist or reach the top of the profession in your chosen instrument or talent, you need to be careful. You don’t want to learn the wrong fingering for a scale, or develop poor embouchure early on – because the more you practise the wrong method, the more ingrained it becomes, and the harder you have to work later on to fix it. As a saying I recently came across puts it: “Practise makes permanent”.

That suggests that a “do whatever works” mentality is wrong-headed, and will only cause you pain later on.

But I think that attitude is far too motivated by fear. (more…)

A new way to learn to play the latest songs on piano

This week I was introduced to a fantastic new website for learning songs on the piano, by a blog post over at Music Matters. It’s called and the idea is to teach you songs visually by showing the keyboard fingering on screen while a MIDI version of the song plays.

Now the graphics and sound quality may be a little ’90s, but put aside any snooty reactions – because there’s real value here. The focus is on pop music, songs that are in the charts at the moment (which, sadly, makes me realise once again how little I pay attention to chart music!) But I managed to find some Nirvana, and some Green Day. Check out this example video of Green Day’s “When September Ends” for a glimpse of what the site’s all about:

An example song tutorial at Green Day's 'When September Ends'

Learn by seeing, learn by doing

As you’ll see from the video, the arrangement (marked “Intermediate” difficulty) is fairly simple, but clearly recognisable. The options to adjust tempo and isolate each hand’s part make it easy to dissect any tricky sections and break down learning into manageable chunks.

Every student learns differently, but I’d say there are two main camps of instrumentalist:

Friday night at the London A Cappella Festival 2011

One of my favourite things about moving to North London has been setting up home just five minutes from Kings Place – a tremendous two-hall venue which houses a wide variety of live music, comedy, and spoken word performances throughout the year (and earns bonus points with the office-less entrepreneur for offering good coffee and free WiFi during the day!)

Last night I had the pleasure of attending not one but three concerts as part of the London A Cappella Festival 2011.

I very rarely read music reviews and don’t imagine myself any kind of a journalist, but I wanted to share some of the wonderful experience of the evening. So what follows isn’t intended as a critical review or a thorough recounting of the programme – just some thoughts and highlights from one excitable a cappella fan.

Note: I’m not one to snap photos during gigs, so please note none of the pictures or videos below are from the actual event.

If I’ve made any factual errors or you disagree with any of the views expressed – please shout in the comments below!