From community bands to family choirs, musical groups enhance Unitarian Universalist congregational life.
Many Unitarian Universalist congregations extend their love of diversity to their music. Some congregations are home to a variety of musical groups beyond the traditional organist and choir—groups that take worship deeper, groups that create another dimension for social justice work, and groups that simply add fun to congregational life.
Take the Joyful Noise no-audition community band, for example. A part of Edmonds Unitarian Universalist Church in Edmonds, Wash., it is an experience in enthusiasm, diversity, tolerance, and inspiration.
This is not a “practice till it’s perfect” kind of a band. If it had rules, here’s what they’d be: The band plays without trying to impress anyone. Improvisation is OK. Practice is good, but participation––and joy––are more important than perfection. Expect good things to happen and they will.
The band plays frequently at the Edmonds church and also at Shoreline UU Church. Nick Maxwell plays piano, handles the group’s schedule and email list, copies and hands out sheet music at the weekly practice session, and calls out the order of songs. Everything else is up to members––which part they play, how they play it, whether a piece is repeated.
Most of the time the freeform group includes at least a piano, a trumpet, and a tuba. Often there will be a flute, mandolin, drums, clarinet, saxophone, ukulele, or dobro.
Joyful Noise is about sharing the joy of playing music––with other musicians and with a congregation. Sometimes the group makes “fabulous” music, one member said, and at other times perfection eludes it. Those latter times can be liberating for the congregation, Maxwell said. “I believe that our goofing up frees everyone in the congregation to goof up in their own lives—that is, to follow their own inner light. And we are showing that you can trust that good things will happen if you follow your own vision.”
Across the country, at the UU Fellowship of Briarcliff, Croton, and Ossining in Croton-on-Hudson, N.Y., an appearance nine years ago by the singing group Olympia’s Daughters inspired several people, including Laurie Golson, to form Spirits in Harmony, a women’s choral group.
“We began as four voices, a cappella,” said Golson. “We are now eight plus a pianist.” The group sings at Sunday services and is the featured entertainment for a variety of fellowship functions.
“Of all the ways I have participated in the life of my congregation, being a part of Spirits in Harmony is, without a doubt, the most important,” said Golson. “It has given me the opportunity to share my musical gifts with my beloved community, and that has been a gift to me!”
The fellowship’s minister, the Rev. Jim Covington, also sees the group’s contributions as a gift. “The music provides a grounding moment for us, it brings us together, we become more centered. The worship experience is significantly enhanced and deepened,” he said. Erica Denler is director of the group, with help from Roberta Kosse while Denler is on sabbatical.
Several congregations in Kansas have created the I-70 Choir, named because all the participating groups are along Interstate 70––the Unitarian Fellowship of Lawrence, the UU Fellowship of Manhattan, and Shawnee Mission UU Church in Overland Park. Michael Oldfather, the Manhattan fellowship’s choral director and the leader of the group, said it was formed when he and a leader of the Lawrence congregation, Forrest Swall, decided it would be fun for members of each of the congregation’s small choirs to have the opportunity to sing in a larger group.
Formed in 2005 with singers from Lawrence and Manhattan, the group sang at the installation of the Rev. Michael Nelson in Manhattan the next year. In 2007 choristers from all three choirs trekked along I-70 to sing at the fiftieth anniversaries of the Lawrence and Manhattan fellowships, and the fortieth anniversary of Shawnee Mission. The farthest congregations are about two hours apart. Several other UU congregations have also been invited to participate.
“This has been one of the greatest musical experiences of my life,” said Oldfather, who shares conducting responsibilities with music directors Dave Simmons of Shawnee Mission and Susan Harper of Lawrence. “Many, many of the singers have gone out of their way to tell me how much they enjoy the experience. Truth to tell, they really didn’t need to say anything because it was obvious that they were having a great time.”
When Agnes Paulsen was asked 19 years ago to start a children’s choir at the UU Church of Tucson, Ariz., the turnout––four reluctant boys––was discouraging. So she raised her sights and started a family choir. “So many of our church activities are categorized into age groups and I think it’s important for families to do things together, so I thought, why not sing together?” Thus Family Singers was born.
Over the years Family Singers has provided music at least monthly for morning worship. “My main object has been to make it fun,” Paulsen said. “In the beginning I recorded songs on tape that families could play and sing in the car.”
The group has also become a close community. “We think of ourselves as an extended family,” Paulsen said. “At each rehearsal we take time for sharing and we celebrate birthdays with a special song.” When one of the dads in the group died suddenly the group turned a rehearsal into a healing time of remembrance. When a member’s grandmother was ill and in the last days of her life the group went to her home and sang from the next room.
Paulsen said sometimes children get their parents to join the choir and sometimes it works the other way. Patrice Davison, now 16, joined the singers when she was three or four. “At first I came because my Aunt Kathy wanted me to, but as time went on it became my favorite part of church,” she said. “We add our own flair to the music.”
Twice the group has chartered a bus so that it could sing at other congregations. It has also sung at memorial services.
The Olympic UU Fellowship in Port Angeles, Wash., has a group called Three Dots and a Dash. It consists of the Rev. Chip Wright, a jazz pianist as well as the congregation’s minister, along with a guitarist and two or more singers. The name comes from the Morse code designation for the letter V, which is also the Roman numeral for five, the original number of people in the group.
Wright, a former studio musician, often creates music services. Last spring the group led a service titled “Songs for Spring,” in which songs evoking nature and rebirth were interspersed with the spoken word. Another service, “Wasn’t That a Time?,” focused on folk songs and their relationship to the antiwar movement. A service on the theology in the music of Bob Dylan is being planned.
“The services we do are an evolved form of Kirtan,” Wright said. He explained that Kirtan is a religious practice involving chanting followed by a period of meditation in a recurring sequence as a way of achieving a deeper meditation experience. “We use a song, then a time of discourse, and then another song. This dynamic of words and songs together can create a transcendent space if it is done well and the whole congregation can find itself in another sense of time and place.”
“At any one of these services you will see tears, recollection, recognition, delight, and joy,” Wright said. “I believe that this repetition allows emotional reflection that is not as readily achievable through other kinds of worship. The message, music, message, music pattern has power.”
Music can also be a means of establishing cross-denominational relationships. The music ministry at First Unitarian Church in Portland, Ore., has reached out to an African-American congregation in hopes of partnering with it on social justice work involving music, such as after-school music programs. “We’ve had several exchanges of music through our respective gospel groups and we found we have much in common as to social justice work,” said Mark Slegers, minister of music. “We’re building a relationship with music and then I think there will be other places we can go.”
When Janice Boughton and her husband moved to Moscow, Idaho, and joined the UU Church of the Palouse, they formed the a cappella group Trillium. Sometimes a Mormon couple living in their neighborhood is drawn into the group, which has sung at both the UU church and the Latter-day Saint chapel. Boughton jokingly refers to the group as the “Mormontarians.”
“We don’t discuss theology, but we do listen to each others’ services,” she said, adding, “I sing because it feeds my soul. It makes me happy, it’s a great way to interact with other people, and the discipline of developing my voice adds an interesting dimension to my life.”
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Donald E. Skinner was the founding editor of the InterConnections newsletter for congregational leaders and a senior editor of UU World from 1998 until his retirement in 2014. He is a member of the Shawnee Mission Unitarian Universalist Church in Lenexa, Kansas.