From our Music Director GA 2020

Two videos I created with the GA Virtual Choir:

“We Are” by Ysaye Barnwell

“Tomorrow” by Kate and Justin Miner

Hello, members of UUCP! Many of you heard that I was the Music Coordinator of this year’s General Assembly (GA), an annual convention and business meeting of thousands of Unitarian Universalists. This was the first fully online GA, and I want to share some highlights of my experience.

First, in order to create a common musical project, I created a GA Virtual Choir, and working with them was a joy. We had two rehearsals on Zoom, each with over 100 singers, and the completed videos included 150 singers and 10 instrumentalists. The composer of our opening hymn, Dr. Ysaye Barnwell, agreed to sing the lead part, and it was an honor to get to know her through the recording process. I “leveled up” my virtual choir skills both in pre-production (by making conducting videos for singers to record with) and in post-production (by hiring wonderful editors and working with them closely through multiple drafts.) Several UUCP members were involved in this project: Bill Snowden, Shelley Stephenson, Keith Brown, and Rev. Christine Dance sang in the choir, Nancy Schwartz played trumpet, Connie Jahrmarkt played violin, and Glenn Stallcop played bass. Sam Plattner (son of members Susan Morris and Richard Plattner) was our audio engineer. The videos premiered at the Sunday service to probably over 10,000 people – by far the largest audience for any music I’ve ever been involved in.

Second, one of the key aspects of General Assembly is a series of annual business meetings in which the board of the UUA (Unitarian Universalist Association) and delegates from UU congregations make decisions about the UUA’s work and positions. Whenever votes need to be counted, decisions get tense, or procedure is unclear, the board will call for a song. (What a humane policy! Can you imagine this happening in the U.S. Congress?) I provided this music myself, playing guitar through the computer live, as I’ve been doing for our Sunday services. There were over 2,000 people attending these sessions – the largest audience I’ve ever played for live – and I got lots of appreciation from attendees. The youth and young adult chat room enjoyed the musical breaks so much that they put my name on a T-shirt. I can’t imagine a higher honor.

Third, I invited music directors that I admire, whose talents I was excited to share with the world, to submit videos and perform live through the computer for the seven GA worship services. I was only able to do this because I’ve met so many UU music directors at summer conferences of the Association of Unitarian Universalist Music Ministries (AUUMM), so again, I appreciate UUCP sending me to those conferences.

Fourth, some of you may not know that before I accepted my current position at UUCP, I had been studying the use of music in film and television, and was considering moving to Los Angeles to pursue work in that field. That experience was very useful to both the worship leaders and the GA tech team as we figured out our editing process. And I recorded lots of original hymn arrangements to play before and after workshops and worship services as attendees tuned in- “mUUzak.”

Finally, I should mention that doing this job brought me into conflict with the board of my own professional organization, AUUMM. Music leaders have been mistreated at past GA’s, and the AUUMM board met with the GA planning committee many times this year about improving GA for musicians. (The reason I was hired so late in the year is that the Music Coordinator position was being rewritten during those meetings.) The AUUMM board and board president assured me in February and March that accepting the GA Music Coordinator job wouldn’t interfere with their negotiations- but then in May, without talking to me, they tried to mount a musicians’ boycott of GA. I felt this proposed boycott was a mistake. We had no set of shared demands, it was too late to threaten non-participation (since many musicians had already turned in their videos), and I felt it was unsupportive of both me and the other musicians who had been working on GA. Because I held the most central musical role in this year’s GA, I felt the need to speak publicly against the proposed boycott, and I wrote two online pieces about it- one on my Facebook page, and another in a forum for AUUMM members. Many musicians disagreed with me, but many others sent me private messages thanking me for standing up for myself and for musicians in the face of public criticism. It wasn’t easy to be in conflict, but I know that it often comes with being in leadership. Ultimately, I’m grateful for the chance to become more relaxed about being in conflict, and thus more able to take leadership in the future.

In the past, the role of GA Music Coordinator has been a three-year position that begins in September. When the GA Planning Committee hired me in March, I only agreed to do it for this year, and though I thoroughly enjoyed the job, I don’t plan to do it again next year. I’m very grateful to Rev. Christine for allowing me to take most of May off at UUCP to work on GA full-time, and even so, it was a busy month!

Rev. Christine asked me how this experience will affect my work at UUCP. First, it made me inspired about “Video Choir” pieces, and excited to do similar projects with UUCP members and friends. Second, it put me in touch with other UU music directors, so you may occasionally see some of them collaborating with me in our services. Finally, I’m pleased to report that after planning services with excellent ministers and musicians from around the country, and getting a broad perspective of the many ways that people are thinking about online worship, our UUCP team and services stack up really well: engaging, human, creative, and sometimes inspiring.

Because this job made me briefly “famous” among UU congregations, some of you have asked whether I’m applying to other jobs. Don’t worry, I’m not. I love my work at UUCP, my family is here in Phoenix, and I love living here. So you’ll be seeing me around for the foreseeable future!