I Went to a United Church Music Conference....

April 07, 2024
logos and words Music United

...And it was actually really cool!

I am sitting in Toronto Pearson Airport having just finished a three-day conference. Like at so many conferences, the food was plentiful, the transportation was slightly complicated, and there weren’t enough Atlantic Canadians. But perhaps a bit unusually, this was a conference entirely for United Church of Canada musicians and music ministers.

Music Matters is the annual conference of Music United, a branch of the United Church that deals entirely in music ministry. The United Church is the least “churchy” church you can go to in Canada, and the conference was full of people who like to have a good time, swear occasionally, and go to the pub after blasting out hymns. They like to talk about being affirming to LGBTQ+ folks, making efforts toward reconciliation, frequently noting that Jesus was a brown guy who wanted people to be humble and share their snacks. For a church conference, it’s pretty low-key (pardon the pun). I spotted this note outside the church when I arrived and it seemed like a good omen. It said, “Hi. I like to sing.”

Musicians in the United Church also tend to be a pretty low-key bunch. Many music leaders are asked to fill in for someone and end up leading the service or are pulled from the choir or other music ministry into leading a children’s choir or a bell choir. There’s not a huge amount of ego, and people are generally there to combine a love of music with some general enjoyment of being in church. People are also, basically, just really kind.

I arrived on the Thursday and was picked up from the airport by not just any old volunteer, but the music minister at our host church, Islington United. Top-notch service right there. I was one of five delegates from Atlantic Canada—the rest nearly all men, and all (much) older than I.

Serendipitously, an article about my singing group, the Halifax Newcomer Choir, had been published online in Broadview, a United Church of Canada magazine, just that morning, so when I arrived at the conference on Friday afternoon and launched into a conducting masterclass with Elaine Choi, introducing myself as the director of the Newcomer Choir, people really knew what I was talking about. The article had gone all through the United Church and choral Facebook worlds, and so between that and being tiny and one of the few under 30, I was very recognizable.

Day 1

The Friday afternoon was devoted to conducting masterclasses with Canadian conductor Elaine Choi (an immigrant to Canada). I was one of four conductors chosen to work with her—which would be hugely intimidating at the best of times, without my conducting training being very much zero. But she was gracious and patient and worked with us one-on-one in a small group before we went into the sanctuary to conduct all the delegates in song. Afterward, many other delegates told me that they would not have felt brave enough to conduct, but really, how often do you get to have a leading Canadian director give you feedback? You have to take the chances when they arise.

After a homestyle dinner prepared by the church volunteers, we all shuffled back to the sanctuary for a community hymn sing, which was open to the broader community. After three years of minimal music making, being in a room with 50 true musicians, sight reading more than a dozen hymns in four- or five-part harmony, with guitars, flute, piano, organ, accordion, and djembe players, was fantastic. We finished the evening glowing as only happy choral singers can.

Day 2

On Saturday, we worshipped first, led by the Reverend Maya at Islington United. Worship during a music conference consists mostly of…music, unsurprisingly, though Maya managed to slip in a little bit of church. If you’re a United Church musician, though, and not feeling especially “churchy,” this is a very safe conference to attend—the true God and Bible bits are limited and the music is emphasized above all.

Saturday was plenary day: we had a session on the new United Church hymnal (takeaway: it’s complicated to write a hymnal). Another session was on contemporary worship music (takeaway: let’s sing new songs; they’re great and catchy). And finally there was a session on why hymns might be racist and what we can do about it (takeaway: some hymns are racist; choose songs carefully; don’t be that White person who sings songs from other cultures without doing your research). Perhaps this is just a music nerd moment, but the plenaries were excellent, and the speakers really engaging.

Supper again followed by…more singing. We had a (very exciting—for us) read-through of newly published church music or “anthems” as they’re known in the church (the songs sung by the choir alone during a service). After so long not sight reading, it was clear that some of us were a bit rusty, but we got to take home a large packet of new music to consider bringing to our groups and churches.

Day 3

Though the conference officially ended Saturday evening, many of us stayed into Sunday to participate in a large hymn sing at Metropolitan United Church in downtown Toronto. Singing “Zadok the Priest” with an exceptional organist and revival hymns with 50 highly skilled musicians, and belting hymns with a six-piece brass band and the audience—pretty cool.

Rachel Manko Lutz is a community builder, facilitator, educator, and choral singer based in Nova Scotia. Through her company, Orchard View Coaching, she provides community-building workshops and training opportunities for groups and individuals (including United Churches!). She focuses on creating spaces where immigrants, refugees, and other newcomers feel welcome. Rachel is also the founder and co-director of the Halifax Newcomer Choir and the Executive Director of the Newcomer Choir Association – Canada. The Halifax Newcomer Choir is a singing group in Halifax that provides music instruction, English language practice, and community building for newcomers and locals. Choristers describe their experience with the choir as “amazing,” “life-changing,” and “super cool.” To talk with Rachel about training your church community or speaking at your event, email @email. To join the choir, or donate to the operating fund, visit www.halifaxnewcomerchoir.ca or find us on social media.