Report by Edward Mylechreest
Over the second weekend of January, salvationist composers and musicians from throughout North America flew into Chicago to attend the 2018 North American Composers Forum (NACF). This bi-annual event is a wonderful chance for composers to meet together, to spend time in fellowship, and to learn more about this unique craft.
This was my first year in attendance at the NACF, which this year was hosted by the Central Territory. Our welcome session by Dr. Harold Burgmayer, was centered on looking at the history of Salvation Army music making, from the roots of the brass band, to the eventual inclusion of the songsters, and right through the many different versions of the Tune Book which have been created over the years.
Throughout the weekend, all of the delegates would take part in united sessions like this, where we would all meet together to discuss certain aspects of Salvation Army music making, and how our role as composers fits into it. A panel of leaders would take turns answering questions on each topic, and offer their own words of advice and wisdom. These discussions included:
– What are musical section leaders looking for?
– What are editors and publishers looking for?
– Making pieces work for kids.
– What do you do with an idea?
All of the fascinating discussions gave us poise to consider how our writing can have a greater impact within the church.
One of the highlights of the weekend was our time of devotions which we had each day, each being led by one of the well-respected faculty members, taking time to talk about their own music. To hear Paul Sharman, Ralph Pearce and David Catherwood each dissect and analyze a piece of their own music, to explain where ideas and motifs had come from, and to discuss the spiritual meaning and implications of the music was a real gift to all of those in attendance. I am sure that some of the stories we heard there, will be passed down in many a rehearsal around the army world, having learnt some more of the significance behind each musical choice.
Breakout sessions were another staple of the weekend, where two sessions would be run simultaneously by members of the faculty, so that we could work together in smaller groups on specific topics. The hardest part of the weekend therefore was having to work out which session to go to! Sessions included
– A session on the importance of lyrics (entitled ‘Words, Words, Words’)
– Writing effective piano accompaniments
– Tips for composing for beginner brass
– How to notate and score for percussion
– Writing Singable Melodies
– Software Tips (Sibelius or Finale [the eternal argument between contemporary composers])
These hands on sessions were great for providing practical advice and solutions to the problems that face composers today. Plenty of room for lively debate and feedback, which meant that not only were we learning from our tutors, but from each other as well.
One of the biggest hurdles facing modern composers, is actually hearing our music performed. Technology has certainly advanced over the years, but there is nothing to match the feeling of hearing your music actually played by an ensemble, rather than the small ‘perfectly accurate’ sound that comes from a computer program. For the NACF we were privileged to have two ensembles provided, who would perform the pieces and songs that we had written. A wonderful choir was assembled from the local area, who ably read through the choral music that we had written. For the brass music, that Chicago Staff Band would be our ensemble.
What a wonderful experience for any salvationist composer, be they new to the craft or having studied it for some time, to have their music played by a staff band. On the Friday night, not only did they so kindly read through all of the pieces that we submitted, but they also provided us with a short concert, playing music that had been composed by members of the faculty. I have no idea how they managed to keep their lip, as it was a formidable evening of playing, a real feat of endurance. To each of the members of the CSB, and to all of the choir members, from each of the delegates, thank you so much for giving us this kind opportunity to hear our music performed.
So much can be learnt as a composer, simply by hearing our music being played. Not only this, but to have some of the Salvation Army’s most gifted and well respected composers alongside to offer their feedback and comments is truly invaluable.
Throughout the weekend, we were each assigned individual tutors, who we would have time to sit with and to go through the music that we had submitted. For me, this was quite possibly one of the most important aspects of the weekend. To sit with the writers of some of the great music that you have grown up with, been inspired by, and to have them take the time to analyze and offer positive feedback on each of your humble pieces, was so incredibly affirming. We are so blessed in the Salvation Army, to have so many gifted writers, who have offered up their gifts to the Lord, and who are so willing to help nurture and support the next generations of composers. To each of the tutors thank you so much for your openness, your patience, and for imparting your wisdom to us.
Before we knew it, it was time for us to return home. We met together for a final service of worship and consecration in the chapel, led by Nick Simmons-Smith. Taking time to respond to the author of all, he who made us, and granted us our gifts, was the perfect way to conclude the weekend. In studying scripture, spending time in prayer, and through singing some of the great songs of the church, we were able to unite together as a church family before we would each be going our separate ways.
To each of the delegates, it was such a wonderful experience getting to meet so many of you. Let us all keep using our gifts for him, continuing to grow and learn, as we choose to give him our best (Pa-rupa-pum-pum).
I look forward to the 2020 North American Composers Forum – and if you are someone who is beginning to take their first steps into the world of composing, I hope to see you there!
Regional Music Director
Greater New York Division
Delegates and Tutors(*), NACF 2018
Dr. Harold Burgmayer*
David Catherwood* (guest)
Paul Sharman* (guest)
Lt. James Beardsley
Dr. Jonathan Corry
Major Tim Pascoe
Dr. Dorothy Gates*