Epiphany Musings

A sermon delivered to St. Paul’s School, Concord, NH at morning chapel on Tuesday, January 16th, 2018

The Journey of the Magi – T.S. Eliot (1927)

‘A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of the year
For the journey, and such a long journey:
The ways deep and the weather sharp,
The very dead of winter.’
And the camels galled, sore-footed, refractory,
Lying down in the melting snow.
There were times we regretted
The summer palaces on slopes, the terraces,
And the silken girls bringing sherbet.
Then the camel men cursing and grumbling
And running away, and wanting their liquor and women,
And the night-fires going out, and the lack of shelters,
And the cities hostile and the towns unfriendly
And the villages dirty and charging high prices:
A hard time we had of it.
At the end we preferred to travel all night,
Sleeping in snatches,
With the voices singing in our ears, saying
That this was all folly.

Then at dawn we came down to a temperate valley,
Wet, below the snow line, smelling of vegetation;
With a running stream and a water-mill beating the darkness,
And three trees on the low sky,
And an old white horse galloped away in the meadow.
Then we came to a tavern with vine-leaves over the lintel,
Six hands at an open door dicing for pieces of silver,
And feet kicking the empty wine-skins,
But there was no information, and so we continued
And arrived at evening, not a moment too soon
Finding the place; it was (you may say) satisfactory.

All this was a long time ago, I remember,
And I would do it again, but set down
This set down
This: were we led all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly,
We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death,
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.


The season of Epiphany in the Christian calendar begins each year on January 6th, when we observe the manifestation of the newborn Jesus Christ to the journeying magi, or wise men. The full season extends until Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent. Coincidentally, this season that follows Christmas comes at the very beginning of our calendar year, New Year, when we have all made promises to ourselves of new beginnings, new resolutions for the year ahead, and we have renewed optimism for our life and work.

We all experience our own epiphanies from time to time. Sometimes these can feel like sudden realizations of a direction we want to take in life. Perhaps they manifest themselves as strong feelings of who we are, deep down, as people. Sometimes, these epiphanies can lead us in such radically new directions that they force us to leave behind an aspect of our lives that has heretofore been of huge importance to us. A friend. A relationship. A marriage. A conviction that this one way is the right way for us. As T.S. Eliot implies in this morning’s poem, with the birth of something new comes the death of something old.

T.S. Eliot, one year before writing the poem, had an epiphany of his own, and converted to Anglo-Catholicism. “Journey of the Magi” is a narrative, told from the point of view of one of the magi, that expresses themes of alienation and a feeling of powerlessness in a world that has changed. I am sure that most of us can relate to these feelings in our world today. Eliot’s words may not suggest the positive energy for change and excitement that we might expect from someone who has supposedly witnessed the original Epiphany. When the magi visit the baby Jesus, Eliot expresses the idea that there is a new start, brought about by the death of something familiar. “Birth or Death?”, he says. Again, with the birth of something new comes the death of something old.

Some of you know that my principal interest outside of work here at SPS is musical composition. One of the things I really appreciate about an academic schedule is the opportunity to switch gears during the long vacations, and devote my time to writing music. I never identified as a composer growing up, or even through college. I was more of a dusty old organist type who tried to get interested in the mechanics of the instrument, but quickly tired of all that, opting instead for a more generalized approach to music. I learned to acknowledge my lifelong love for Tudor polyphony, Johann Sebastian Bach, the Anglican cathedral repertoire, mid-20th Century musical theatre, and 80s Brit Pop. Over the past three decades, I have allowed these genres to influence my own compositional style, although often this will happen subconsciously. Interestingly, after immersing oneself in a creative project, requiring substantial investment of self, there is a combined feeling of elation at the completion of the work, and a period of mourning that the creator/creation relationship is over. With the birth of something new comes the death of something old.

As former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, says of T.S. Eliot’s poem, “(We have) a new start that is felt only as the death of all that has been familiar; and yet the old world goes on, galloping aimlessly like the old white horse. Eliot never wanted to present religious faith as a nice cheerful answer to everyone’s questions, but as an inner shift so deep that you could hardly notice it, yet giving a new perspective on everything and a new restlessness in a tired and chilly world.”

It occurs to me that our school is a place rich with epiphany. I’m not talking about lightbulb moments that happen daily in the classroom. True epiphanies don’t just happen out of nowhere, and they are relatively rare occurrences. True epiphanies rely on a significant reservoir of knowledge, depth of thought, and investment of time and energy. Innovations are not epiphanies. However, with the ever-changing nature of our school community from newcomers to graduates, teaching fellows to retirees, newborn babies to deaths of loved ones, we are constantly experiencing the birth of something new and the death of something old.

I hope we can all cherish the journey while we are here. The ways deep; the weather sharp; the dead of winter; the melting snow; the summer palaces; the sleeping in snatches; the voices that tell us it’s all folly; the old white horses; the new babies; the fulfillment, light, and gladness of a true epiphany.

Stewardship Of Tradition

A sermon preached at St. John’s Episcopal Church, Cold Spring Harbor, NY on Sunday, November 18, 2018.

Last month, my wife and I were involved in the music for a wedding at which Yo-Yo Ma played the cello. When we arrived the day before, to rehearse with Yo-Yo, he said to my wife, “Oh, you must play the Davidoff!” He was referring to the cello – a Davidov Stradivarius built in 1712 –  he has played since 1987 when, upon the death of Jacqueline Du Pré, it was made available for his exclusive use. You can imagine the feelings that arose in Kate’s soul, as she proceeded to play this extraordinary instrument. The history behind this cello, the music it had played, the hands of those who had touched it, and the ears of those who had heard it, over the last three hundred years, was almost inconceivable. The emotional response that this opportunity brought out in Kate was extremely powerful, and transcended any number of similar musical experiences. There was history behind this moment. Kate is now part of the history of this instrument. While Yo-Yo Ma is notoriously one of the nicest people in the music business, this simple, thoughtful gesture of his, knowing how much this opportunity would mean to us, was presented without ceremony, without sensationalism, and with immense generosity of spirit. Yo-Yo knew that he had a duty, if you will, an obligation, to share the power and beauty of a hugely important work of art.

Yo-Yo & Kate

As I wrote these notes, last Friday evening, I was a few hours away from a long-standing tradition that takes place at St. Paul’s School at the end of each term. It is known as Last Night Service, where the entire school gathers in chapel to mark the end of each term. While it is a short, simple occasion, it is packed with significance that can be felt by the community as a whole. The service gives a sense of completion to the term. The same hymn, known as the Last Night Hymn, is sung at the start of every Last Night Service, complete with its Victorian language:

“Saviour, source of every blessing 
Tune my heart to grateful lays
Streams of mercy, never ceasing,
Call for ceaseless songs of praise.
Teach me some melodious measure,
Sung by raptured saints above;
Fill my soul with sacred pleasure.
While I sing redeeming love.”

Chapel Bell Tower_4.10.2013_SPS_Bells_10Apr4044

And after a few prescribed prayers – the same every time – the final collect is sung by the choir. This is sung to a musical setting by a former organist of the school, Robert Powell, and the text is this:

“O Lord, support us all the day long, until the shadows lengthen and the evening comes, and the busy world is hushed, and the fever of life is over, and our work is done. Then in thy mercy grant us a safe lodging, and a holy rest, and peace at the last. Through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.”

Of course, I lament the editing of Cardinal Newman’s original line, “O Lord, support us all the day long of this troublous life,” that I would sing as a boy chorister. However, this is principally a feeling based upon emotion and a certain degree of fond reminiscence rather than any aesthetic or academic reasoning. In any case, you can probably begin to see where I am heading with this thought. A vast amount of my deep appreciation for language, my internalizing of music, my obsession with order, comes from an emotional response to fifty years of exposure to, and involvement in, music and liturgy. As a creative musician, and especially as a composer, I am busily involved in, and passionate about, the power that music holds to touch, stir, move and, sometimes, burn in the soul of the listener. I feel the same way about poetry, and also about buildings. The smell of a building. The way it is organized. The manner in which we light the space. The respect we afford the rooms we enter. I am driven to share that appreciation with others, to communicate through the channels of this tradition – although mere words often fall short of the mark in this regard – and yes, to be a steward, of its bounty.

Stewardship: The careful and responsible management of something entrusted to one’s care.

When I think about us being careful and responsible managers of The Anglican Tradition, whether its music, its Book of Common Prayer, its Hymnal, its liturgy, I find it challenging not to slip into a stance of “defender” as opposed to a mere “steward.” With prayer book and hymnal revision being highly-touted priorities these days, often in combination with needs and motivations that are driven by important social-justice based initiatives, it is jarring for defenders of tradition to be balancing the issues at hand. Whilst the need for reform is beyond debate, the way in which we achieve these goals – which are many and various – is a matter to be handled with great care. How easy it is to be drawn into the pressures of our cultural norms. And how crucial it is that our churches should provide an alternative to everyday culture as opposed to a reflection of it. Our liturgies, our music, our poetry, and our artifacts are all there to feed us for the work we must all do in the world.  As churches, cathedrals, and chapels, we need to be leaders and shapers of culture, as opposed to mere followers of what twenty-first century society lays on the world which, let’s face it, can be remarkably whimsical and short-lived.

Chapel Bell Tower_4.10.2013_SPS_Chapel_10Apr4218

As we consider our next moves as a Christian denomination, it is crucial that any revisions to our “common” prayer, and “common” song, are exercised with as much scrutiny of the past as the future. Where we have been before will guide us to the future. Options can be useful, but just as a word-change in a centuries-old hymn can lessen the negative impact of a questionable turn of phrase, it can just as easily destroy a deeply-held connection to a beloved text. It can also, for obvious reasons, weaken the “communal” or “common” approach to singing and praying. We live in a time when revision and reinvention can be achieved at the flick of a switch, and not always for carefully considered reasons. With more intellectualizing of all things possible nowadays, with worldwide communications as they are, we are in serious jeopardy of losing the emotional and sentimental content of our lives. Those of us who live and work in establishments that care for many generations of students, benefactors, or congregation members, are quite connected to the fact that a deep attachment to an anthem written in the nineteenth century  will live on in their lives through an emotional tie to its tune, memories of its performance over the years, or mental images of loved ones singing it. We can so easily forget the importance of gut feelings, in favor of the more intellectualized response that modern society demands of us.

As stewards of tradition, we have a challenging, sometimes frustrating but, ultimately, richly-rewarding path ahead of us. The opportunity to share a deep love of something with others is one of life’s greatest gifts. Selling something to society that does not always have instant appeal, the bells and whistles of our tech-savvy population, or the logic that has been drilled into us regarding what is true in life. To sum up, I’d like to share a couple of quotes from opposite ends of the globe – the first from Australia, and the second from Great Britain – both of which reflect the universal language, and immeasurable value, of the tradition that has come down to us.

“When I sit in the cathedral, I see history, music and architecture paraded before me. One of the great duties of faith is to be the carrier of culture. Religions are the repository of our wonderful liturgical music and the majestic language of the King James Bible. The soaring architecture evokes images of both the Medieval roots of our European history and the Victorian English who, whether we like it or not, shaped much of the Australian persona. The art and painting, while less than genius, are the greatest of religious art (unfortunately to be found in other places). And the music is, for aficionados, deeply moving. It is the total package.”  — Blogger, Melbourne, Australia

“The music is beautiful, but the special quality of Evensong lies in other places too, in the paradoxical contrast between the sinewy intricacy of 16th century language, and the simplicity of the thoughts it expresses: prayers for courage, for grace, for protection from the dark, for a good death. These are things to which our minds have particularly lately turned in the aftermath of recent terrible events, but they were there all the time in the psalms and collects of Evensong. For almost 500 years the same words have been repeated by people in times of trouble or of triumph. The presence of that cloud of unseen witnesses lends an intangible quality to Choral Evensong. You could call it calm or spirituality. You could call it holiness. But it’s very precious.”  — Stephen Shipley, music producer



When Elgar met Jackie, and Yo-Yo, and Kate, and Nick, and…

Almost exactly 100 years ago, during the aftermath of World War One, Sir Edward Elgar began work on his cello concerto. It wasn’t until Jacqueline du Pré recorded the work in the 1960s that it achieved any popularity. The cello played by Jackie for the recording was the Davidov Stradivarius, pictured on the cover below.


My parents owned this LP, and I listened to it, voraciously, throughout my childhood. I then studied the cello concerto as a set piece for my O-level music course in high school. I have loved the piece my whole life.

Today I played the organ for a very special wedding, and accompanied Yo-Yo Ma in selections by Schubert, Bach, Schumann, Couperin, Saint-Saëns, and Elgar. Yo-Yo now plays the exact cello used by Jackie – the Davidov – and this is the instrument he brought to the wedding.


Yesterday afternoon, we rehearsed together, in preparation for today. It was much more than a rehearsal. It was two hours of joyous music-making, thoughtful conversation, and enormous fun. Everything you read about Yo-Yo is true. He is humble, deeply thoughtful, self-effacing, and eager to communicate his passions and, genuinely, to hear yours. My wife, Kate, came along to the rehearsal. As soon as Yo-Yo saw her, he said, “You have to play the Davidov!” Jaws dropped. Tears flowed. Laughter and stories were shared. It is an astonishingly beautiful instrument with an extraordinary history.


Yo-Yo and I played through each piece. He turned me into a better accompanist with his playing. Most of the time he simply stood by the organ, reveling in our collaboration, as we shaped each phrase. As Kate observed, he was taking this every bit as seriously as any other performance.


Kate was checking for balance out in the room. When we were done, she casually asked Yo-Yo if he would play some of the Elgar concerto. “That would be crazy!” he said and, turning to me, asked, “Can you play the orchestra part?” I plonked down an octave E, and away we went. I was accompanying Yo-Yo Ma, playing the Elgar Cello Concerto, on the same cello that Jackie had played it, on the LP I had listened to throughout my childhood!


We made it through the 9/8 section of the first movement, and as my clinging to the memory of the score slowly disintegrated, we silently agreed that discretion was the better part of valor. It was an incredible moment, and the tears in our eyes said everything that needed to be said. It was time for Kate to play again.


There is so much to be absorbed from a moment like this. I will treasure this busy weekend for ever. A master musician brought out the best in us. He followed as much as he led. He listened as much as he spoke. He eschewed any shred of self-importance, and created an atmosphere of mutual admiration and ease, in which we could all be at our very best. He cared generously and genuinely.

When Yo-Yo arrived for the wedding this afternoon, we asked how each other’s evenings had been. Then, immediately, he enquired, “How’s Kate? And how’s Eliot…?”

A New Path

I was glad to read a recent article from Chorus America this week entitled A New Career Path For Singers. The author outlines the trend of the last decade, whereby young singers graduating from excellent training grounds such as the Yale Institute Of Sacred Music, Westminster Choir College, and other venerable institutes of higher learning, are “knitting together careers by traveling from city to city to perform with professional choral ensembles.” This is certainly a 21st Century development, and is elevating the overall standard and, in most cases, visibility of choral music as a genre of music-making in America. It is also changing the way in which choral music takes place within a given community. In the past, a town or city that was NOT New York, Boston, Washington, or a handful of other well-stocked cultural centers, would rely on local singers being assembled by a hard-working, talented, dedicated local musician in order to produce a season of choral concerts that would achieve greater heights than the local volunteer choral society. Another option for exposure to good quality choral music was the importing of great collegiate or cathedral choirs from England, beginning in the mid-1900s when such ventures began to be somewhat practical. As I suggested in a recent presentation at the Dallas AGO Convention, the attraction of undertaking this as a financially responsible and practical endeavor is surely waning. In large part, I believe that this is due to the significant rise in standard of professional choral ensembles in the USA. Because of the rise of the “fly-in” model – not choirs from Europe, but individual singers from Stateside locations – it is now quite possible to hear first-rate choral music in places like Austin, Miami, Tucson, Santa Fe, and other cities where, twenty years ago, such opportunities would have been rare.

Several colleagues of a certain age – mine! – chimed in with completely legitimate comments on Facebook feeds in response to this article. These ranged from an observation that…

“in NYC in the late 70s, choral/ensemble gigs with the likes of Musica Sacra, NYChoral Artists, NYEnsemble for Early Music, Gregg Smith, Waverly Consort and whichever church/temple job one landed kept the bills paid. Occasional trips to the Philadelphia Singers, Folger Consort and Boston Early Music Festival broadened the horizon.”


“things have come a long way in the US where being an ensemble singer was seen as being a failure.”

While some individuals’ comments smacked of a certain envy that this “itinerant choral musician” phenomenon is happening now, nobody was critical of the development. One commentator said…

“it’s great to see ensembles and choruses sprouting up across the country! For those singers with flexibility, there’s gold in them there hills!”

There is no doubt that part of the success of these ventures rests upon the desire of individual singers to preserve the fulfilling, exhilarating, perhaps euphoric experiences that those of us who have sung with groups to a very high standard in college remember as being life-changing. In some cases, they also want to keep singing with the same people. They will often do this to begin with for very little financial reward. Hopefully, with a good entrepreneur at the helm, and a hard-working Board of Directors, the financial rewards come in due course. This is no new model. Look at the early days of groups like The King’s Singers, The Tallis Scholars, The Monteverdi Choir, The Sixteen and, indeed, look at their current membership. For the majority of the high-profile London choirs, the singer rosters are made up from the same artists, some of them with careers as solo artists too. Many of them make their bread and butter from regular cathedral or church singing. This can sort of be done in New York, but not many other places in the States. The singers know each other. They know the scene. They want to sing with each other. Or if they don’t, they have achieved a supreme level of masochism and self-flagellation!

And, returning to the article, another commentator said this…

“For a group of busy freelancers today it may be obvious that solo and ensemble singing needn’t be mutually exclusive aims (as singers across the pond have known and practiced for decades). Professional viability and a road to success can depend as much on finding and managing their compatibility; a skill-set for which student singers have too often been left pedagogically to fend for themselves…”

So, my observation is this. These singers want to sing with each other. They often found this mutual satisfaction and passion for choral singing in high school and college, and they want to keep riding that wave. It makes total sense. This is the kind of career in singing that can be somewhat sustainable for a wider group of people. With the greatest respect to my colleagues who “teach with the spirit and with understanding also”, how many singers who “train” to enter the world of opera, with that as their only goal, are “successful” in achieving their dream? Beyond that, how many of those singers, having spent the entirety of their studies with teachers who are building and training their voices for the opera stage, are of any practical use to a choral ensemble? From whence does their deep-seated desire to sing professionally come, if – and yes, this is not always the casebut “if” it goes hand in hand with a misguided notion – most often bestowed by inexperienced singing teachers – that choral singing is somehow less healthy, destructive or damaging to the human voice? Clearly, the motivation is not derived from the same source as that of a passionate choral singer! Where I grew up, the very best all-round singers were the singers who had sung in a choir and, for the most part, continued to do so while carrying on successful careers as leading oratorio, opera and art song professionals. The choral avenue was every bit as soul-enriching as the high-profile solo gig. And they could do both, to an extremely high standard. And they could read music fluently. And most likely play the piano. And be responsible to the team. And responsive to the ensemble aspect of the work. But these skills were born through an immersive, consistent, demanding upbringing through the musical ranks as a choral singer, which is rarely about the individual person, certainly not about the individual voice, and a frequent platform for oft-quoted directorial catchphrases such as “Leave your troubles at the door!”, or the harsher version of, “I don’t have time to hear about your problems!”, or “It’s not all about you!”, comments for which we would most likely be hauled in front of the community conduct board these days! That’s where the skills were formed. And THAT is where the true love of singing was formed.

I am a great supporter of individual singing lessons, for any level of singer. However, I will stick my neck out and say that, with very few exceptions, the type of vocal education that high school, and even college age, singers need is firstly a reinforcement of the musical values espoused by the choral ensemble, and secondly a solid grounding in good vocal technique. Not, as is so often the case, a twice-weekly session to “build” the voice into something that it does not need to be for an under 21 year old using solo songs and arias intended for the more mature voice,  frequent bouts of “vocal rest” as ordained by the self-appointed guardian of the child’s voice – the singing teacher – and barely more than a disparaging sideways glance at the work of the choral program upon which they are wreaking havoc! It is singing, plain and simple! And a good singer needs to possess the ability to adapt to any given situation, if they are to be successful.

“We are a group that does the whole repertoire. So you have to be able to sing without vibrato, you have to sing with vibrato, you should be comfortable going back and forth from solo to ensemble singing.”

We are turning a corner in my current place of employment, where the potential for true partnership with the singing teachers is a reality. This fills me with excitement! I once mentioned that I honestly failed to see the value of our students taking the type of vocal lessons we offer at the school, with regard to the feeding and development of the choral ensembles. This was met with a slap-down of “You’re wrong!” and followed up with the statement that “It is those students taking voice lessons who form the backbone of the choir, because they actually want to participate, and encourage other people to rise to their standard.” Well, I can think of a much more compelling reason to want to participate in a choral ensemble, and wanting to be there needs to be the first prerequisite! What we do after getting them in the rehearsal door is the important part, with make-or-break consequences, and this needs to be assisted, not hampered, by any form of outside influence. I’m pleased to say that we are achieving results through the regular singing of Choral Evensong and Compline, concert tours, run-out engagements, guest clinicians (several pictured at the top of this article) and, yes, a coordinated and healthy approach to one-on-one and group vocal/choral education, with the right singing teachers in the mix. The fruits of our labors are there to be experienced, by singers, congregations and audiences alike. I fully expect to see several of the young singers who pass through the choral program here, five or ten years after they graduate, to be “knitting together careers by traveling from city to city to perform with professional choral ensembles.”

And yes, maybe there will be an occasional opera diva too…!




Between Permanence And Change

057 - 7 Months - 60 The Green
NW in 1968

NW in 2016

Five years ago, after serving for less than one full year as Director of Chapel Music at St. Paul’s School, I was unexpectedly appointed as Head Of The Arts Department for the school. This was set forth as a five year position. Beyond this expectation, and after ordering a new box of pens to sign almost daily invoice payments and reimbursement requests, I had virtually no idea what would be expected of me. I had not benefited from observing my predecessor at work. The timing of this appointment was unexpected. What I knew it would afford me was a seat at the table where many new initiatives for the school were discussed, policies were re-evaluated and adjusted as necessary, and a certain amount of culture and program shaping might take place. All of this was true and, in all honesty, was equal parts frequent frustration and rich reward. I will always be very grateful for this opportunity to enter more fully into the life and work of a school which, after six fulfilling years, I am increasingly happy to call home.


As I reflect on the last five years, and prepare for my seventh year as Director of Chapel Music which, in stark contrast to the Arts Head job, I feel extremely comfortable and qualified to execute, I find myself considering the areas of my former administrative position that have allowed me to grow as a person, as a professional, and as a leader. I was pulled from my comfort zone, and I am eager to translate some of these experiences into qualities that might feed my current work in the chapel, the choir and the music program. Amidst these considerations, I received an e-mail from a friend who is considering an Arts Head position. They wrote:

“As a former arts head, what would you say were the challenges that you had when facing an arts area outside of your own specific discipline? How would you handle communication and support for areas outside your comfort zone?”

My response fairly tripped across the keys of my laptop, virtually writing itself. It was an aspect of the work about which I had thought quite frequently during the last five years:

“Your question is a good one, since that is possibly the greatest challenge for an “Arts” Head, as opposed to a Department Head in another discipline. For an Arts Department to run well, to its full potential, I personally think it is best for the Department Head to act as a funnel for all of the good ideas – and the many years of experience – of the individual program leaders (Dance, Music, Fine Arts, Theatre, Film etc.) and to develop as much autonomy for those people as the system allows. Of course, your funnel should have a pretty good filter most of the time, so that there can be a sense of unanimity in approach from the department, damage control for those moments when tempers are frayed, and clarity and efficiency in communication with the Upper Administration. Nonetheless, it’s an imperfect system, driven by a perceived need for conformity, consistency and equality across the disciplines…which is rarely possible! Having said that, I think there can be a really creative, cooperative, and supportive team-driven approach with likeminded people. We can keep each other on the rails, and grow as individual artists and teachers, choosing to be fed by the challenges that arise, just as much as we might be frustrated by the feeling that, yet again, we are being asked to fit square pegs into round holes.”

078 - Sept 1969 - 60 The Green
NW exerting influence on his family at an early age in 1970

One of the most rewarding and energizing realities which we, as an Arts Department, would often observe was this. While we, especially as performing artists, would struggle to apply grading norms, design rubrics that fit consistently with the wider curriculum, and so on, many of the current trends in education such as backward design, flipping the classroom, blended learning, and so on, would fit neatly into the “norms” of an artistic pursuit. While I still have trouble with the concept expressed by a former Rector of the school that we should strive, as teachers, to make ourselves dispensable – see below – the edges of the square pegs would quite often receive a little gentle sanding down, at moments when it was least expected…and most appreciated!

“Education means teaching people how to think, how to learn, and how to behave alone.  The best teacher ever seeks to make himself dispensable.” Rev. Samuel Drury (Fourth Rector of St. Paul’s School: 1911-1938)

As I sit here and write, while my son watches Harry Potter Part Five, I think Dolores Umbridge sums up my feelings best, and feeds my excitement for the next five years.

“The Ministry of Magic has always considered the education of young witches and wizards to be of vital importance.The rare gifts with which you were born may come to nothing if not nurtured and honed by careful instruction. The ancient skills unique to the wizarding community must be passed down the generations lest we lose them for ever. The treasure trove of magical knowledge amassed by our ancestors must be guarded, replenished and polished by those who have been called to the noble profession of teaching. Every headmaster and headmistress of Hogwarts has brought something new to the weighty task of governing this historic school, and that is as it should be, for without progress there will be stagnation and decay. There again, progress for progress’s sake must be discouraged, for our tried and tested traditions often require no tinkering. A balance, then, between old and new, between permanence and change, between tradition and innovation because some changes will be for the better, while others will come, in the fullness of time, to be recognized as errors of judgement. Meanwhile, some old habits will be retained, and rightly so, whereas others, outmoded and outworn, must be abandoned. Let us move forward, then, into a new era of openness, effectiveness and accountability, intent on preserving what ought to be preserved, perfecting what needs to be perfected, and pruning wherever we find practices that ought to be prohibited.” Dolores Umbridge (Harry Potter And The Order Of The Phoenix)

And the final word goes to Stephen Hawking who, although he didn’t realize it, would frequently cross paths with me when we were dodging traffic on Queens Road in Cambridge, England, when I was an undergraduate organ scholar. It’s OK. I didn’t know who Stephen Hawking was either back in 1987…!


Think About These Things. What is worthy of praise?

Last night, after returning home from our weekly service of compline at St. Paul’s School, I sat down with the intention of writing some thoughts about what it means to be in an active worshipping community. After a few minutes of quiet rumination, I set aside my computer in favor of catching up on my latest Netflix addiction – Shetland. My mind had gone in the direction that says, “Come on, you know your just going to get all preachy about your opinions on what is good and what is bad, and manufacture yet another narrative about why your beliefs are worthwhile.” Well, isn’t that what blogging is all about? Yes, but sometimes it’s good to back off a bit. Then, I woke up this morning to an e-mail from The Living Church, with a link to the latest online article – Faithfully Facing Congregational Decline. I took this as a sign to pick up with last night’s train of thought!

To give some context, my role at the school where I have been for six years is packed full of challenges and rewards that differ substantially from work in a parish church or even a cathedral environment. While many of our services here are open to the general public, including Thursday night compline, the emphasis on our religious and liturgical life is firmly rooted in offerings for the school community. Some of these are “required” for all the students and teachers. Convocations, termly evensongs, last night services, and four morning gatherings for 30 minutes each week at 8:00am. For these services, there are almost 700 people crammed into the chapel. Many of the additional services we offer are voluntary in nature, much like a parish church, and these include Sunday afternoon choral evensongs once a month, a weekly Sunday eucharist at 4:00pm, a weekly Wednesday eucharist at noon, and compline every Thursday night at 8:00pm. Choral evensong attracts a healthy crowd of locals and some school folk. Maybe 50-100 total, depending on the day. The weekly eucharist and compline are very small gatherings, often with as few as 3 or 4 people in the congregation, sometimes 20 or 30. Last night’s compline was an example of this, where 4 students attended, while 14 members of the choir chanted elegantly, spontaneously and respectfully for 20 minutes. It was magical, mysterious, spontaneous, restorative, deeply musical and satisfying to all. Most importantly, it continued the routine that has been established recently of a repetitive act of worship each week of the school year. Same time, same place, same choir. The ability of the ensemble has grown exponentially this year, in terms of their confidence and group dynamic, and we have offered an oasis of peace and tranquility to the greater community.

For those who are surprised by the relatively small attendance, let me offer some additional context. When I was organ scholar of Clare College, Cambridge, we would routinely offer Tuesday and Thursday choral evensong to a handful of people in the congregation. Often 2 or 3. Sometimes none! The music was rehearsed to an exacting standard of professionalism, and nobody questioned the reasons for doing so. While I’m sure we all wished that more people could have heard us, this was never voiced by choir members. The value of offering an exquisite 45 minutes of beauty, calm, and other-worldliness, manifested itself in a tightly-knit group of like-minded people who knew that what they were doing was far, far greater than the sum of its parts.

When I was assistant organist of Washington National Cathedral, we would sing evensong with the boys of the choir, 20 students from St. Alban’s School, every Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday afternoon. This was in addition to the daily rehearsals and the Sunday services. Some of my most satisfying musical experiences came during these services, when there would frequently be glorious moments of treble sound, underpinned by organ accompaniment, soaring through the gothic arches as the sun came down on Mt. St. Alban. Again, we would sometimes have just a few attendees. Other days, we would have 200-300 or more people gathered. We didn’t often know what kind of attendance to expect. The point is, we were ready to deliver the goods in a well-rehearsed, elegant, respectful liturgy. It was repetitive, it was valuable, and it was what we did. We did it well, and we invited anyone to come and share it with us at this International House of Prayer (lovingly referred to as the IHOP) for All People.

Last week at St. Paul’s School, we offered our termly “evensong” for the whole school. (I say “evensong” in quotes because in recent years this service has strayed from being a true service of choral evensong. It has held on to the name, but the structure is often a little looser around the edges.) This May 11th offering was a sequence of readings, reflections and music, for which the choir had been rehearsing long and hard since the beginning of April. The main piece was Benjamin Britten’s REJOICE IN THE LAMB. The other anthems were my setting of THINK ABOUT THESE THINGS from Philippians, and an arrangement of Joni Mitchell’s BOTH SIDES NOW. The readings were carefully chosen from the writings of Jean Vanier, and the speaker was Amy Julia Becker, who delivered a series of three incredibly beautiful and powerful reflections on Love and Knowledge, with an over-arching theme of Theology and Disability. There was a movement of a Bach Cello Suite, and two processional hymns – Come, My Way, My Truth, My Life and Lord Of All Hopefulness. The service flowed with a grace and beauty that is not often experienced when the whole school is gathered. It was incredibly gratifying to see the young voices of the Chapel Choir rise to such an occasion, and to feel that the thoughtful preparation of clergy, musicians and school leaders had achieved an interweaving of theme and direction that was brought about as much by the Holy Spirit as it was by design. Totally and utterly glorious, in every way.

The differences between these events? All were offered with a high degree of careful preparation, to the best of the participants’ abilities, and with a goal of achieving something transcendent. All succeeded, and this is the point. The results would not have been changed in any way – for better or worse – if the number of attendees had been reversed. Whether there had been 7, 70 or 700 people at any one of these services, the careful, orderly, graceful and respectful liturgies would have reached people, any number of people, wherever they were in life. Whether a Cambridge student, choosing to spend an hour in quiet meditation between study sessions; or a pilgrim coming to the National Cathedral for the first time, perhaps the only time; or a high school student, attending under duress, frantically racing from a sports practice to sit through a service, before running off to a formal dinner for the whole school. Some of these people will be affected in surprising ways by what they experience. Some will be nonchalant. Some will be critical or annoyed. This is the key, however. Unless the purveyors of the product are truly invested in what they are doing, thoroughly prepared, and communicating through music and word their profound convictions in the value of the results, the offering will be compromised in some way. As leaders and directors, we must preserve our core values, often in the face of derailing challenges.

The three “Rs” here are repetition, ritual, and respect. The “Rs” to avoid are reimagining, reinventing and reacting. Yes, I have drawn attention to three scenarios which, in one way and another, do not face the regular, everyday pressure to attract more and more people to fill the pews in order to pay the bills. But, in simply reading that last sentence, does this not draw attention to one of the fundamental flaws in the direction our churches have gone? Let us not try to be all things to all people. We will succeed in none of them.

As Amy Julia Becker said in her reflections on a person’s usefulness versus their value, we cannot, and should not, judge a person with Down Syndrome to be any less valuable to society than a person without. In fact, they can be of greater value. They have a third copy of chromosome 21, and they are able to teach all of us incredible lessons in life. Attending a formal liturgy may not seem useful or valuable to everyone. However, if it is thoughtfully prepared, gracefully presented, with no apology for the content; if it is believed in by the people presenting it as a worthwhile endeavor; if it is preserving something counter-cultural to a broken world, offering an oasis of mindful calm; if it is welcoming people into an experience which will nourish them in unexpected ways, where rather than meeting the secular world halfway, or responding with that which society tells us people want, we offer something far removed from the outside world; if it achieves all of these things, and elicits an unexpected response from someone on the receiving end, or even if it generates absolutely no response, it has been a worthy event of great value.

Patience with, conviction in, repetition of, and respect for what we do will surely reap reward. The character building benefits of participation in such endeavors are far-reaching and proven. As Cole Hartin says in the article mentioned at the beginning of this essay, when he saw the reaction (visible pleasure) of the middle-aged woman with flowing brown hair…rows and flows of angel hair…”I then knew it was all worth it. We quietly slipped back out into the wet green world, silently thinking our own thoughts. This was my first experience with the Episcopal Church, and the living Anglican tradition.”

Comfort Food

“The whole time I was reading “O Sing Unto the Lord,” I was making copious notes to go and rediscover some forgotten anthem. Time after time, passing references to pieces I’ve sung and loved brought me sharp pangs of nostalgia, followed by a sense of gratitude that this tradition has been such an important part of my musical world.”

I enjoyed reading an article by Nico Muhly today, where he comments on a new book – “O Sing Unto The Lord” –  by my old friend and colleague, Andrew Gant. The New York Times article is entitled “Why Choral Music Is Slow Food For The Soul.”

Nico’s closing paragraph – printed above – caused me to reflect on the music of my childhood, and ways in which connection to an early memory can reside deeply in one’s soul. It can also bring about a certain jarring effect when the same text is set to different musical material. This has very little to do with the relative quality of the composition, which is to a greater or lesser degree wrapped up in subjective reasoning. Rather, the jarring effect can be brought on by the feeling that a deep-rooted, emotionally driven relationship has been toyed with. This most certainly features pangs of nostalgia, feelings of comfort and, as Nico says above, profound gratitude for the connection.

One of the first anthems I remember singing as a boy chorister is Maurice Besly‘s sensitive, tenderly flowing and profoundly elegant setting of the evening collect “O Lord Support Us.”

LORD, support us all the day long of this troublous life, until the shades lengthen, and the evening cometh, and the busy world is hushed, the fever of life is over, and our work done. Then, Lord, in thy mercy, grant us safe lodging, a holy rest, and peace at the last; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.


This is the tune I think of whenever the text is recited. I also rejoice in the inclusion of “this troublous life” which resonated so deeply as a seven year old chorister (!) along with “as the shades lengthen” which is just sheer elegance. Interestingly, though, in my current place of work, the setting used for several decades now is by my distinguished predecessor, Robert Powell. It is a lovely setting. Graceful, melodic, delicate, poignant. I have grown to love it. But the Besly will never be replaced in my mind, or in my soul.


Another piece from my childhood is, of course, C.H.H. Parry’s setting of “I Was Glad.”

It is irreplaceable in my soul, even when compared to the magnificent early settings by Henry Purcell or John Blow. However, when I arrived in Washington DC in 1994, and we started planning the centennial celebrations of Leo Sowerby to take place the following year, I was quickly captivated by his setting of the same words, with its sweeping lyricism and elegant melodies.

Nowadays, the de rigueur setting is by another predecessor of mine at St. Paul’s School, James Carter Knox. While this is not strictly a setting of Psalm 122 (it includes a verse of Glorious things of thee are spoken, and tends to dwell on the “prosperity” side of the story which can arouse sensitivity in the 21st Century mind…) it is a much loved, appropriately puerile, romp of a tune, reminiscent of a good old Victorian drinking song, that has found its way into the hearts of tens of thousands of school alumni. My heart and soul remain unmoved. However, partly through a sense of duty, and partly as a defender of tradition, I have developed an affection for it. There is a value to this piece that transcends any of its musical shortcomings.

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Finally, as my dear colleague and Senior Chaplain of the school, Rev. Richard Greenleaf, recalled in a recent chapel talk, we are blessed with many musical settings of Charles Wesley’s hymn “Love Divine, all love’s excelling.” My favorite tune, having sung it at countless weddings, earning my 25p as a boy chorister, is Blaenwern, which even precedes Hyfrydol – the more popular tune match here in the USA – in my memory bank!

And yes, there is another one by my esteemed colleague, Mr. Knox, who wrote many hymn tunes during his tenure. Sung with great regularity during school chapels, convocations, memorials, weddings and graduations, Knox’s tune is possibly one of the most sprawling of melodies, galloping through a long and winding road of harmonic tension and release, with relentlessly clunky word setting. It is the theme song of the school, etched in the mind of the alumnus, whilst completely foreign to the visitor. While this shortcoming breaks one of the cardinal rules of what constitutes a good hymn, my affection for Knox’s version has grown over time, based upon the legacy it represents.

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(The questionable juxtaposition of familiar words with an unfamiliar tune is exceeded only by the other “school hymn” which does it in reverse, and imposes unfamiliar words on Holst’s well-known tune Thaxted.)

Why am I offering these thoughts? This is not some kind of hoity-toity, namby-pamby, artsy-fartsy, willy-nilly, blame-it-on-society, litany on why a certain piece of music is “better than” another. I simply refer back to Muhly’s quote at the top of this blog entry, and admit that my judgements, biases, preferences, passions, and good-natured pokes are grounded in nostalgia and love for a certain, specific musical journey. Above all, I too am grateful for a tradition that continues to bring comfort to my soul, feeds my spirit, guides my imagination, and grounds me as a musician.

Naughty, Naughty, Naughty!

In the matter of reforming things, as distinct from deforming them, there is one plain and simple principle; a principle which will probably be called a paradox. There exists in such a case a certain institution or law; let us say, for the sake of simplicity, a fence or gate erected across a road. The more modern type of reformer goes gaily up to it and says, “I don’t see the use of this; let us clear it away.” To which the more intelligent type of reformer will do well to answer: “If you don’t see the use of it, I certainly won’t let you clear it away. Go away and think. Then, when you can come back and tell me that you do see the use of it, I may allow you to destroy it.”

G.K. Chesterton – The Thing (1929)

The powerlessness and dismay that one feels at this time, with the rapid deforming of society, the thoughtless modern reforming of standards by which one lives, and the lack of intelligent reform in one’s immediate future, prompts one to draw attention – via this series of short articles – to matters about which one cares deeply, and through which one still clings to the hope that all is not lost.

Yes, this is one person’s perspective. However, I feel that now – more than ever before – it behoves the church to be pushing back against society’s norms, trends and whims. The church – more than ever before – needs to be a leader of society, not a follower. In short, it needs to offer an alternative to society rather than, in its seemingly constant search for relevance, providing an extension of society’s foibles.

1. RADICAL REIMAGINING AND REINVENTING – naughty, naughty, naughty!

“Due to our culture and the precedent set by the 1979 prayer book, our temptation now is to add, to compose, to proliferate.”


2. ASHES TO GO – naughty, naughty, naughty!

“I won’t have time to go to Mass today,” quite a few of them muttered.


3. GLITTER ASHES – naughty, naughty, naughty!

Jesus said, “Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven.” Matthew 6:1 (The Gospel Reading for Ash Wednesday)


And another thoughtful piece…


4. A BLANKET USE OF INCLUSIVE LANGUAGE – naughty, naughty, naughty!

“The 1979 BCP takes what ought to be a prayer of great comfort and transforms it into a nightmare of hopelessness for most of the human race, all in the service of making our worship more gender-inclusive.”


5. A CHILD OF THE SEVENTIES – naughty, naughty, naughty!

This is just a piece of fun, because it’s important to keep laughing! Funny how these things come back to you after 40 years! Yes, this was a hit during the time the 1979 prayer book was being assembled, with its “vast expanse of interstellar space, galaxies, suns, the planets in their courses, and this fragile earth, our island home.”

That’s just NAUGHTY!

Hold Fast To That Which Is Good

I live and work in an environment that tries to be all things to all people…and I love it. This does not alter the fact that I strongly maintain that nobody can be all things to all people unless they come from a place of strong adherence to a core identity. My school is founded in the Episcopal tradition, is welcoming to people of all faiths or of no faith, and is in constant dialogue regarding the level to which we maintain a chapel program based on, and reflective of, the very best values and traditions of the Episcopal Church. We have healthy dialogue, hard conversations, differing points of view and passionate responses. We often disagree. This is a good place to be.

The recent news that the choir from Washington National Cathedral will be taking part in the inauguration on Friday has provoked a huge response, nationwide. At first there seemed to be confusion about the inauguration and the prayer service. The cathedral has hosted a prayer service on the day after the inauguration for many decades, and this is different to appearing at the inauguration itself. The cathedral invites the new president into its holy space in order to pray for him and for a peaceful transition of authority. The cathedral hosts the service. The new president, and his team, and the congregation, and the nation, are recipients of prayer and support. This is a service provided by the cathedral, for the people. This is the true meaning of liturgy and it is not about a person, or a group of people. It’s not about us. It’s not about me. It’s a transformative work provided for the people. Of course, the cathedral clergy, staff and musicians should design and execute such a service, coming from a strong adherence to the institution’s core identity; the institution of which they are granted temporary custodianship, and are granted power to lead. With great power comes great responsibility.


The inauguration is intended to be a peaceful celebration of the transition of power. This is separate from the prayer service that comes on the next day. When the news first broke that the cathedral choir would be singing for the inauguration, many of us thought this naturally referred to the prayer service. The truth of the matter was gradually revealed, that the cathedral had also accepted an invitation to perform as part of the prelude music to Friday’s ceremony. This is not part of the choir’s official duties. At first, the articles all said that the Director of Music had agreed to do this. Well, all of us who have worked in large church institutions know that the musicians do not make these decisions alone! Since then, it has been clear that the Bishop and the Dean of the cathedral were in support of the plan, and both have issued statements to that effect. To me, these come across as reactionary statements rather than carefully considered rationales. The bottom line is this. It’s not enough to see both sides of the argument. It’s not enough to be all things to all people. It’s time to stand up against evil and hold fast to that which is good. In other words, don’t accept invitations to do things that run counter to your core values. You cannot be a strong leader of an institution, offer mere platitudes, and simply say that you see both sides of the situation.

Performing for a president in happier times, with the Cathedral Choir of Men and Boys in 1994 at the Lighting of the National Christmas Tree. That was Trisha Yearwood with Bill Clinton – not Monica Lewinsky! Oh, and Aretha Franklin was there too.  Good times…

We have the right as rational thinking humans to be dismayed and terrified about what a Trump presidency means. We have the right as deeply committed Episcopalians to be hurt and angry by decisions made by the current custodians of our cherished tradition. This is not a normal situation. This is not business as usual. The majority of American voters did not want this to happen.  It will probably take just a short time for many of those who thought they did want it to realize how great an error this was. But it happened. We can protest it. We can fear it. We can be angry about it. We can go high. We can go low. We cannot change it. We will even have to accept it. However, we do not have to endorse it.

The National Cathedral, having already espoused a chaotic, whimsical and often highly watered down liturgical life – in the name of moving with the times and seeking relevance –  is now endorsing the inauguration of the next president by agreeing to take part. There could be no clearer example than this of the church falling into line with society when, more than ever, the church needs to step up and be a confident leader of culture, perhaps counter-cultural, and stop being a follower. People will come to church to find respite from the failings of secular society, not to find more ties to it.

Lightning nearly strikes the already earthquake-damaged cathedral last July. (Photo: Jeff Scheller)

I will be watching the inauguration on Friday because I am required to do so as part of my job. The entire school will gather and watch it together. For many it will be like watching a train wreck. I will be watching under duress, spending the time mourning the departure of a kind, thoughtful and intelligent president as America moves into a period of self-imposed tyranny, recklessness and painful regression. The American People did not want this, but somewhere along the line it was allowed to happen anyway. Something is horribly wrong with this picture.

What can I do? I can be honest about my feelings, without being reactionary. I can engage in difficult conversations without being cruel and unkind. I can be clear about my beliefs, true to myself, transparent in my dealings, and firm in my commitment to my own core identity.  Without that, I am of no use to anyone. I will strive to create beautiful music. I will preserve, uphold and contribute to the power and beauty of the very best of the tradition in which I grew up. I will keep my own priorities and expectations better in focus. I will live in hope that we will return to a time when clear, confident, humble voices of authority were respected, not constantly questioned; that those with experience and qualifications will be respected and trusted to perform their jobs; that those who are unqualified, with no experience, who are sensationalists or gas-lighters, are put in their place, and are held at arm’s length, whether artists or businessmen, teachers or politicians; that people are hired or elected to perform a job for the right reasons, and not to satisfy a quota, a whim, or to appeal to the lowest common denominator; and that those in religious authority may find the strength to say…

“This is who I am, this is what I offer you, I believe in this, and you are welcome to join me in this experience.”

Equally, I hope we might responsibly say…

“No, I will not agree to this, for it goes against my core beliefs and values.”

Without saying these things, with confidence and appropriate forethought, we are trying to be all things to all people. But actually we are nothing. We are lacking in substance and dismissive of our own integrity. Or worse, we are negligent and irresponsible in our actions which, as I fear we are about to see, can result in disaster.

At the start of this week we will celebrate the life of a man who said things like…


At the end of the week we will be putting a man in power who says things like…


To which I say…


I first came to the USA in 1987, exactly 30 years ago, when Ronald Reagan was finishing his presidency. I was the organist on a choir tour for which this beautiful setting of that text was composed by John Rutter. More than ever, I believe, it’s time to hold fast to that which is good!