From the Organ Bench

Posted September 26, 2012 by ststmusic
Categories: General

Welcome to the choir loft at St. Stephen’s, Orinda. This site offers information and commentary on current and upcoming projects of the music program. St. Stephen’s Choir is a 30-voice mixed choir that, in addition to supporting and encouraging congregational singing, is a community of singers that enjoys choral music of many styles.

Thanks for visiting with us. See you in church…


Sing-it-yourself Messiah 2013

Posted December 4, 2013 by ststmusic
Categories: Choir, General, Handel, Messiah, Music

Need an extra hallelujah in your life? Join us for a community sing of the Christmas portion of Handel’s Messiah at St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church, 66 St Stephens Drive, Orinda, on Friday, December 6 at 7:30 p.m. The Messiah Sing will be directed by Minister of Music Robert Train Adams, with Festival Choir, soloists and chamber orchestra with harpsichord and organ.

Soloists include sopranos Margaret Secour (St. Clare’s Pleasanton) and Marianne Adams, altos Chris Naliwski and Barbara Greeno, tenor David Chavez and bass Geoffrey Turnbull. This event is an annual fundraiser for the Food Bank of Contra Costa and Solano Counties.

Childcare is available by reservation. A free-will offering will be taken. For more information contact Brenda Free, or 925-254-3770 x10.

This event is always fun: great music, a strong orchestra, lots of enthusiastic singing led by strong soloists; if that’s not enough, the reception after is itself not to be missed!

Music Appreciation Sunday 2013

Posted October 1, 2013 by ststmusic
Categories: Choir, General, Handbells, Music, Sermon

In recent years it has been the custom that I get to preach on Music Appreciation Sunday. This year it took place on September 22. The gospel reading was Luke 16: 1-13.

I began at the organ console, at the back of the church.


(while moving from organ console to pulpit)
Man, I thought I had it made: skim a little here, slice off a piece there—no one would ever know. Perhaps I could have managed things a little better. It’s not like the boss would ever miss what I took… Besides, everybody does it! If I don’t look out for number one, who will?

What am I going to do? I don’t want to work for a living… Ah, I know: I’ll make people love me.


(after reaching the pulpit)

I’m standing here today because this is Music Appreciation Sunday, when we acknowledge and thank those who lead us in worship through music. But I can’t ignore today’s scripture any more than I can avoid breathing. To be a church musician is to be intimately involved with scripture. So let me return to today’s Gospel for a minute, because it speaks to both what it is to be a church musician and—beyond that—to what it is to be a person of faith.

If this parable were like most parables, we would assume that the owner is a stand-in for God…and that the steward is us. I have a problem with that, because it suggests that the ends justify the means. Even though the steward cheated and manipulated and most likely embezzled, it was OK because he cleverly set things up so that people would cheerfully take him in after he was fired—and these same people would have a lot of good will for the owner because he, thanks to the steward, was perceived to have forgiven a significant portion of their debts.

There certainly are people who live like the steward and his boss—there are too many examples of scandal and misuse of economic and political power in recent years that make the point. The “children of this age” are alive and thriving today. The challenge before us, as people of faith, is to live differently. The ways of the faithful are not the ways of the world.


Church Music

When I started studying today’s gospel, and as I read commentaries and sermons that were written on this scripture, the more confused I became. A number of sources suggested that the point of the parable is that we are to forgive, even if our reasons are suspect. That still sounded to me like trying to buy one’s way into heaven.

I had several good discussions and exchanges of email that were helpful, especially with a friend who said that it was all about relationship. If we don’t feel a sense of connection, of relationship, with someone, it’s easier to take advantage of them, as the steward did. He actually tried, through his kickback scheme, to create relationship. His boss understood that it was a scam, but gave him high marks for his manipulation.

The more we can expand our sense of relationship, enlarging our understanding of family, of clan, of those we should care for, the more we can counter the world of the steward and his boss.

And that brings me to music: Specifically church music and musical instruments.

Church music is different than worldly music. We would expect that, to some extent—at least as far as the content goes. We sing to, and about, God. We sing our faith; we sing the dreams and visions and lives of the great cloud of witnesses that have gone before us. We sing to build up the body of Christ, of which we are part, and we sing to the world, even though what we sing may not be of the world.


The Instruments

The musical instruments we use reflect this distinction between sacred and secular. The pipe organ and its digital and electronic cousins are increasingly found mainly in churches.

The organ dates from about the third century B.C., found in its earliest forms in Egypt and Greece. It took about 1,000 years before it came to be used in church. Initially it was used for public entertainment. It also served as an excellent early warning system as enemy armies drew near, since organs can be quite loud.

As cathedrals were developed, they needed an instrument that could lead large groups of people in song. The organ did the job quite nicely. Up until relatively recently, municipal auditoriums usually boasted of an organ, but changes in music technology and taste, with a few exceptions, have pretty much put an end to that. In 19th-century America, homes would often have reed organs, until they were pushed out by the piano and, later, the phonograph. (Remember the phonograph?)

Handbells predate the organ, going back to China in 1600 B.C. The English handbell, played by most bell choirs, developed as the much smaller cousins of English church tower bells. The bell ringers wanted to practice the peals, or changes, that they would ring. On cold days, it wasn’t much fun standing around in the tower, so they made smaller instruments…and then moved their practice sessions to the nearest pub.

The Voice

And how can we keep from singing? At the last supper, they sang a hymn. The Hebrews in the Old Testament sang during worship. The psalms come to us from this worship practice.

There’s a specialized literature of hymns, chants, sacred song, anthems, cantatas, oratorios, and so forth that has been developed over the last 1,000 years or so. Most of us don’t remember back that far, often finding our inspiration from the latest denominational hymnal.


Not of the World

Today we recognize our singers and handbell ringers who enliven our worship. They bring us music from the rich tradition of our spiritual forebears, and keep us singing new songs that speak to our faith today. They don’t do it as the world does: while we enjoy music with a beat, our music won’t be confused with the latest in pop music. Even though the clever steward in the Gospel felt justified for his misdeeds, we sing a different tune.

Saint Teresa of Avila wrote

Christ has no body now on earth but yours,
No hands but yours, no feet but yours,
Yours are the eyes through which is to look out
Christ’s compassion to the world,
Yours are the feet with which he is to go about doing good;
Yours are the hands with which he is to bless now.

Our singers give voice to Christ’s message; our handbell ringers are his hands; even organists try to play as though their hands and feet are his. As we all lift our voices in prayer, praise and song, we offer our voices as his voice, our music as his music, reaching out to our neighbors and beyond to the world as his hands, feet, eyes and body.

Advent Introits Year C

Posted November 13, 2012 by ststmusic
Categories: Composition

Tags: , , , ,

One of the delights–and challenges–in planning and presenting music at St. Stephen’s in Orinda is that each we sing (or play, if it’s the handbell choir in action) an introit at the beginning of the service as well as an anthem (usually at the offertory, sometimes at communion). An introit in our practice is a short piece of music, usually less than 90 seconds, that usually functions as a call to worship. I first started writing them for our Summer Choir, which only has a half hour or so on Sunday to learn both introit and anthem. Writing my own allowed me to build in flexibility, since I would never know how large a choir I would have, nor the composition of the choir, until the morning itself. I’ve expanded my reach to other seasons of the church year (I know: summer is not a season–but it is a fact of life!), including Advent–and I’ve just finished my set for Year C in the three-year lectionary cycle we follow.

My introits are always based on the lectionary psalm. I find a verse or two that give the flavor of the psalm and speak to the theme–as best I can understand–of the readings. The last couple of years I’ve added an extra dimension. I’ve written a psalm tone for cantor and choir, and an antiphon for the congregation. The antiphon uses the same music for each week of the season (Advent, Lent, Eastertide), modified each week to fit the words of the antiphon drawn from the psalm. I then use that same antiphon in each of the introits I write. This adds both a unifying element and sometimes throws me a bit of a curve, as I sometimes get a neat idea for the introit that seems to disagree with the antiphon. As a composer, I love the challenge.

Antiphon Melody for Advent Year C

I’m looking forward to sharing with you how this antiphon melody shapes each of the introits in future posts. I’ll include mp3s of each introit, and a look “under the hood” at the composition process. This advent’s antiphon, by the way, came from another piece I just finished writing: a work called Waiting, written for our handbell ensemble. I’ll include an mp3 of that piece when I discuss the first introit, Show me your ways, O Lord.

Sing-it-yourself Messiah

Posted November 13, 2012 by ststmusic
Categories: General

Tags: , , , ,

 A community sing of Handel’s Messiah will be held at St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church, 66 St Stephens Drive, Orinda, on Friday, December 7 at 7:30 p.m. The Messiah Sing will be directed by Minister of Music Robert Train Adams, with Festival Choir, soloists and chamber orchestra with harpsichord and organ. This event is an annual fundraiser for the Food Bank of Contra Costa and Solano Counties. Childcare is available by reservation. A free-will offering will be taken. For more information contact Brenda Free, or 925-254-3770 x10.

This event is always fun: great music, a strong orchestra, lots of enthusiastic singing led by strong soloists; if that’s not enough, the reception after is itself not to be missed!

A Note on our psalms

Posted October 26, 2012 by ststmusic
Categories: St Stephens Psalter

Tags: , , ,

A group of men from St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church in Orinda, California, gathered on a Friday evening in March for dinner at the start of a weekend retreat. The conversation and the food were plentiful—but an element of concern appeared every now and then: “Our topic is what? Psalms? I don’t know…it sounds kinda dry.” And the level of concern was elevated when they found out they would be expected to write their own psalm (and then talk about it!).

As we got into the topic on Saturday, and started reading and talking about the psalms, our time together took on a spiritual dimension that we all treasured. We saw that the psalms, written thousands of years ago, still spoke to our hearts. When we gathered at the end of our session, after taking some time for reflection and writing our own psalm, it became clear just how vital the psalms were. Just as the psalmists had shared what was on their hearts—their joy, anger, anguish, fear, confidence—so did we.

If that had been the end of our experience: a time for men to gather, to reflect, and to talk from the heart, that would have been sufficient. But wait: there’s more.

I invited participants to share their psalms with me, so that they could be set to music. One of the other participants was also a composer, so he and I collaborated. This itself has been a rewarding challenge, as he composes songs relying strongly on his ears, while I bring years of classical training and a strong reliance on music notation to the table. Just as there was diversity in the original psalms, so too did our project have a diversity of expression in both text and music.

What started with a group of men getting in touch with an important piece of their religious heritage has grown as their words have been transformed (hopefully not for the worse!) and shared with the choir, with our congregation, and soon with a concert audience and—who knows?—maybe youtube!

While the original psalms are in no danger from our efforts, sometimes you just need to sing a new psalm.

Concert Time is Near

Posted October 24, 2012 by ststmusic
Categories: St Stephens Psalter

Tags: , , ,

Please join the choir of St. Stephen’s, Orinda, in a concert of contemporary psalms written by the men of St. Stephen’s: “O God of all Creation;” “Lord, my boat has no rudder;” “My Restless Being;” “You assure my place at the table;” and ten others. Composers Peter Margen and Robert Train Adams have set these moving and inspiring texts to music for baritone and soprano soloists, mixed choir, and piano or acoustic guitar. The music varies in style from English cathedral to jazz and blues. Each psalm will be read in its original version, followed by its musical setting.

When: Sunday, October 28, 5 p.m.

Where: St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church,, 66 St. Stephen’s Drive, Orinda CA

Cost: Free

For the text of the psalms and program notes from the composers, please follow the links on the sidebar.

Listen to a New Psalm

Posted October 3, 2012 by ststmusic
Categories: St Stephens Psalter

As I’d promised in a couple of earlier posts, program notes are now available for each psalm. We’re still adding to the notes, but there’s some background information on each piece. In addition, audio files–really midi files–of the score of each movement have also been added to the program notes. They’re not as good as live music–or recordings of people performing–but they’ll give some idea of each piece. Of course, that means you should come to the concert, or get the recording which (ever hopeful) just might come out of the concert…

In the meantime, the sidebar to the right of this note lists all of the movements. The page titled St. Stephen’s Psalter gives a complete list of contents. From the page for each psalm you can click on the link at the bottom to get to the program note.

Alternatively, Psalter mp3s lists all 14 movements and their mp3 of the score. These will make the most sense for choir members with score in hand who are preparing for our concert.

Next up: some thoughts on writing music, and a conversation between Peter Margen and Robert Train Adams.