My first musical experience was listening to “Macavity” from “Cats” on vinyl. My second was the frustration with the note G when playing the recorder, resulting in me playing A with my right hand and my left pointy finger making the G. But my most profound and lasting musical experiences are directly from the church.
I had a rather strange religious upbringing – my grandparents who raised me were atheists but I loved going to the local farmer’s evangelical church where there was lively worship, people danced and clapped, spoke in weird angelic languages and it all got quite intense and some people strangely fell over. I remember this cool new song that had just come out called “Shine Jesus Shine”, which was totally awesome and we sang it over and over again with the overhead projector showing us the verses in red and the chorus in blue and a lady called Glynis playing enthusiastically on the guitar. Graham Kendrick the songwriter was my hero – his songs were the dog’s bollocks.
But I was also sent to boarding school when I was 10, where I was a treble in a high Anglican chapel where we sang every Sunday and had choir practices three times a week. We had warmups that were designed to get us to sing everything in headvoice and we were given a diet of the rich British choral tradition with early music by Tallis, Byrd, Purcell, as well as European classics like “O for the wings of a dove” by Mendelssohn and Handel’s “Hallelujah Chorus”. There was a large variety from different ages spanning close to 500 years of music making where we learned about musical forms such as motets, anthems, psalms and sung responses. We had incense which added to the spiritual experience and a vicar who would do that thing where you sing the gospel on a monotone with a bit of a change at the end of line followed by an “Amen” plagal cadence. I basically learned to read music from the New English Hymnal – that green book was full of gems like “Tell out my soul” and “Hills of the North Rejoice”. I had no idea what most of the words were about but crickey they were stonking tunes. We used the little green book for the trebles and then the massive one when I was an alto and a tenor. It’s really that book that taught me harmony as well. Advent was the best time of the year, I loved parading in with a cassock and a surplice and a lit candle. We thought the choirmaster was mad to give us candles but no one set the chapel on fire, although I do remember Harriet Humphrey’s frizzly hair got burned by some prankster.
One of my first compositions was inspired by the chapel bell. As it bonged away I remember whistling a tune that fit nicely and later working it out on the piano. I also heard some fantastic improvisations from our organist as he played for time during communion. I experienced some playful creativity like singing “Amazing Grace” to the tune of “House of the Rising Sun” and the time when the organist put themes from “Star Wars” into our procession out of the chapel. At the evangelical church I also heard great improvisations from Glynis on the guitar as everyone started singing banana backwards. This really is a heavenly language – I never spoke in tongues myself, but it is beautiful to listen to. I also sang a song composed by one of church members called “Light of the World”, I can still remember the melody and every single word. Composition and improvisation were normal, regular things that I experienced every week no matter which church I was in.
Later on, at university I learned about how to play in a band with our worship group in a Pentecostal Church and how not to muddy the waters on the keyboards if you had a bass guitar in the band. Leaving space for other band members and playing with a variety of different people is something I learned from church worship where you can end up with a band of ten or sometimes a band of two with little to no notice. I learned about instrumentation and when the brass section and saxes are most effective in a song. Another important skill is to learn when not to play or when to play minimally – you have to be very sensitive when playing in church. Flexibility is vital like when you turn up late and the worship leader moves from the keys to the bass so you can slot in on the keys in the middle of a song without stopping. I learned about vocal harmonies, guitar solos and how to sight read from chords. My sight reading was terrible until I started playing at church, within a year it was pretty good. I also learned a huge amount about harmony when I started singing in our University’s gospel choir. This gospel choir also gave me my first experiences in conducting and arranging music. I was also in a Christian progressive rock band (we are still on Spotify) and that was great for learning about rehearsing, composing with others, writing lyrics, creating riffs, recording, sequencing, sampling religious speeches and playing in ridiculous time signatures. And collecting gear. And getting into debt…
If it wasn’t for church my musical experiences would have been dreadful as my grandparents just listened to Radio 4. I basically heard three pieces on the radio – “The Typewriter” by Leroy Anderson for the News Quiz, “By the Sleepy Lagoon” by Eric Coates for Desert Island Discs and “The Archers”, which really should be the UK’s national anthem. There was music on Desert Island Discs but you only got to hear about 45 seconds and they were normally pieces designed to make the listener think that the person being interviewed was high-brow and important so were incredibly boring. There really was no music in my house so I am very grateful for everything church taught me. Even my first metal experience was “To hell with the Devil” by the Christian metal band Stryper.
Many schools these days are moving away from religious music and I can understand why due to the expectations of the modern secular world that we live in. But a common theme on this blog is to caution us on what we can lose by going for the new and shiny. It’s one of the reasons why it is called “Traditional Primary Music”. It can be romantic and perhaps inaccurate looking backwards but it can also be inspiring and thought-provoking to consider what we could be losing or have lost. I am happy that I had a spiritual musical upbringing, against the wishes of my grandparents but in their favour, at least they allowed me to take part and follow my own path even if they thought it was poppycock. No one was ever saying that God was banned or it was inappropriate to sing songs about Him. Some people think an upbringing like mine would be woefully restricted but I hope I’ve been able to articulate how church helped me to listen, sing, play, improvise, compose and basically become the musician and person I am today.