Monday, August 24, 2009

Hymn-ing it up at the Hymn Society

This summer I had the great pleasure of attending my first-ever conference of the Hymn Society in Canada and the United States. It was held at St. Olaf College in Northfield, outside of Minneapolis-Saint Paul, MN. I was lucky enough (along with my friend Chelsea from school – yay!) to be accepted as one of nine Lovelace Scholars, whose conference fees are provided by the Hymn Society in honour of the work of composer (and native Texan) Austin C. Lovelace.

Going to the Hymn Society was like meeting someone your friends have talked up to you for years. My parents have been going to the conferences for quite a while now, as my Dad served as President on the executive committee, a six-year undertaking. That made my Mom the First Lady.

My parents, you can imagine, were getting a pretty big kick out of my being there, and I had a great time meeting friends of theirs whom I've heard about for years (all of them delightful. Oh, and Richard Leach, I know you're reading this: I never got to sing "Waiting for Messiah" to you. *single tear*)

It was a great conference. The Hymn Society is a meeting of all those across North America who love singing, love congregational song, love hymnological organ literature, love historical hymnology, and so forth. I had thought it would be fun, but I wasn't prepared for how moving it would be to arrive at the first evening hymn festival and join three hundred and fifty people in singing "Joyful, joyful, we adore thee." It was electrifying. That experience was preceded by my sitting down in a pew next to Pat Michaels, who just happens to be the writer of "Sometimes a healing word is comfort." Not only do I happen to love that text, but I did a paper last year on the tune with which that text is paired in the PCC Book of Praise, Wer Nur Den Lieben Gott. I proceeded to tell Pat Michaels this, of course. And he told me the story of how he came to write that text. How cool is that?? That's what happens at the Hymn Society.

Cooler still was, later in the hymn festival, opening our hymnals to "God the sculptor of the mountains," written by my Dallas buddy John Thornburg, and all singing it together. And he was there in the room, singing it too! We were, like, singing it to him! So cool! (Sidebar: you may be reading this thinking, "this girl is a real nerd." To that I say two things, one: we are all nerds at the Hymn Society. We have embraced our nerddom. Some to a greater degree than others. I, for one, choose to celebrate it. Two: it took you that long to figure me out? You are slow.)

My parents both have laughed to me that so many talented people, who are highly regarded in their field, come to the Hymn Society and sweat through the week until it is their turn to present. And I thought "aaw, that's cute." I mean, this is people like John Thornburg and Michael Hawn and Jorge Lockward and David Eicher, and they are all brilliant and then get all nervous at the thought of actually doing something up in front of each other. Well, we get there on the first night and all these people start coming and saying hello to my parents and me, and you know, I started to sweat. Most of these people were either my current professors, or had written books I am studying, or wrote hymns I have done research papers on. And, I had been asked to do a dramatized reading of the "Prodigal Son" story at the Wednesday night hymn festival. Eep!

It made it that much more fun being there with Chelsea – we were roomies, of course. And, we made a new friend, Meredith, who is doing her master's in Appalachian music, specializing in seven-shape shapenote music (read: hymn nerd.)

On Tuesday morning Chelsea and I helped my mom and dad put on their sectional workshop. The theme for the overall conference was "And a Little Child Shall Lead Them." Dad's title for the workshop was "And a Child Shall Sing the Lead." We gave people some ideas for involving young people in music within worship. Dr. Hawn came and sat in the back. No pressure or anything. It was way fun.

On Tuesday afternoon (I think. I may be getting the order of things mixed up) we had an activity time in Minneapolis, with three choices. People could either go on a tour of the churches of Minneapolis (with a mini organ recital at each one), tour the art galleries in the area, or... go shopping at the Mall of America.

Chelsea and I figured this one was a no-brainer. You know it's a big deal when they put "of America" in the name. However, we began to detect a note of sarcasm and even open derision as we walked toward our bus marked "Mall". People made snide comments as they loftily climbed onto their "Churches" bus. How do you like that?? Ha ha – we even noticed that our bus (which was sparsely filled) was parked the furthest away in the driveway.

Well, Chelsea and I had an awesome time at the mall. It is the second biggest mall in North America – second only to, you guessed it, the West Edmonton Mall. We walked all around, did some shopping, had a latte, shopped some more, had a nice slow dinner – it was great! It's a huge mall, but very nicely laid out. It's so big it has a small amusement park, indoors, in the centre of the mall. With roller coasters.

[Sidebar: I also saw, for the first time, a mall cart selling pet crabs. Little pet crustaceans in terrariums with – get ready – their shells custom-painted. You can get a baseball crab, a Pikachu crab, a rainbow crab, a Spiderman crab, you name it. I'm not even kidding. It's a hermit crab, so you pick the shell, and the crab will crawl into it. Insane.]

On Wednesday afternoon the Lovelace Scholars were asked to attend the Annual General Meeting of the Hymn Society. There we were introduced to the assembly – amazingly, Austin Lovelace himself was in attendance, which was pretty amazing since he is turning ninety in the fall. We all felt pretty privileged to be there with him. He, on the other hand, was telling us all that he was handing off the torch to us and that the future of hymnody was in our hands. Again, no pressure or anything.

It's Austin Lovelace, OMG quick, take a picture!!

That evening was my big night to participate in the Hymn Festival. It was also the big farewell banquet for Carl P. Daw Jr., who has been the Executive Director of the Hymn Society for fifteen years. Everybody is very sad to see him go, but very excited for Deborah Loftis to assume his post. I ducked out of the banquet before dessert to change and get wired up for the festival. It was a really well put-together festival, organized and led by present and former Lovelace Scholars – I was so excited to get to participate, à la the Network of Biblical Storytellers. Lucky for us, the university was kind enough to stream our hymn festivals live on the internet – some of my blog readers may have seen me doing my thing live. :) If you're interested, you can watch the video of it here on the St. Olaf site – my part starts around 7:23 if you want to skip to it.

The week wrapped up with a fun night at the pub with some of my favourite hymn...nologists. We took over the Contented Cow in Northfield and talked and sang the night away. It was so great to be with both my parents, my good friend Chelsea, and some really amazing musicians and people.

Hope I can go again next year!