I recently asked our Director of Music, Mark Hinton Stewart, about the planning and preparation for the All Saint’s Carol services. Here’s what he had to say:
As Director of Music, it’s my job to oversee all the wonderful music that takes place throughout the year at All Saints’ Church. The key to the smooth running of everything that we do is prayer and careful planning.
The busiest time by far is the Christmas season and the planning for that usually starts, for me, during the Summer – quite surreal, sometimes, when it’s baking hot outside and I’m having cold, wintery, snow-laden thoughts! For the choir, I usually try to compose a few new carols and also do some new arrangements of existing carols so that we keep the repertoire fresh whilst still including some old favourites. The choir has a well deserved rest during August and on our return in September, we start to learn the new music to ensure that, by December, it’s well and truly ingrained in all our singers.
The vicar (Ginny during the interregnum) and I usually meet in October to discuss the format of the Carol Service, to decide a theme, and to think about what readings we think will be suitable which we then pass on to Liz McGregor-Johnson to assimilate and gather together members of the congregation to do the readings on the night.
2014 saw the birth of a second, new style of Carol Service, that was more in keeping with the style of worship from the 11:30am Sunday service and was led by the musicians who play for that service. I wasn’t able to play a part in 2014 as I was away with the family in Brazil (my wife’s from there) but I was here for 2015 and very keen to be involved.
Ginny and I met in October to pray about and plan both services and we decided that, rather than use the words ‘traditional’and ‘contemporary’to differentiate between the two services, we thought that choir-led and band-led sounded better and that the band-led service would be called ‘Sing Christmas’- a great name that we’ll probably use going forward. The planning of the choir-led Carol Service was pretty straight forward as I’ve done that for many years, but ‘Sing Christmas’proved to be quite a challenge as it meant starting from scratch with all the carols that we chose and doing brand new arrangements that would suit the style of the service and the musicians that would be involved. A huge amount of work on my part!
I started on arrangements straight away of a number of what Ginny delighted in calling ‘mash ups’ where we took two carols and worked out ways to run them seamlessly together. That was a challenge in itself as it meant taking into account different rhythmic styles and keys, but once it was all done I knew that it was going to be amazing.
We enlisted the help of Robyn Barnett to contact all the musicians to see who was up for playing and to coordinate the complicated task of ﬁnding rehearsal times that everyone would be able to do, and this sharing of the workload proved to be invaluable.
Our ﬁrst rehearsal for ‘Sing Christmas’was on December 1st where we played through all the music and immediately had the collective realisation that this was going to be something very special. To the great credit of all involved, they rose to the challenge of complex arrangements and a few nasty key changes! We had another rehearsal a week later and then our ﬁnal rehearsal with the full PA(sound equipment) was the day before the service on Saturday December 12th. We were ready! Aﬁnal sound check on the afternoon of Sunday December 13th led us straight into ‘Sing Christmas’ at 6:30pm. It was a resounding success with spontaneous applause and cheers after each of the band-led carols!! We had another chance to use the music from ‘Sing Christmas’ in our worship a week later when we all gathered again for the 11:30am service on Sunday December 20th.
The choir-led Carol Service saw us rehearsing every Thursday evening, as usual, and then a ﬁnal rehearsal at 10:00am on the morning of Saturday December 19th with the service itself at 6:30pm on Sunday December 20th. We had a slight departure from tradition for this Carol Service in that we decided to dispense with the choir robes in favour of the ladies wearing long black with a splash of red in the form of scarves and the gentlemen in dark suits and red ties. We loved this look and decided that it’s the way forward for our choral services.
We weren’t done yet! There was a crib service on the afternoon of December 24th, midnight Communion later that day at 11:00pm and then the Christmas Day service at 10:00am on December 25th.
One other annual event in our busy calendar was Carols in the Square on the evening of Thursday December 17th where we led the community carol singing organised by the Isleworth Society and accompanied by the Salvation Army band. I was very happy to take a back seat in that by joining the choir to sing bass and let Alan Gibbs (my incredibly able, and tireless, honorary assistant organist) take the starring role as our conductor for the evening.
Christmas 2015 was my busiest so far but at the same time incredibly rewarding. My ﬁnal note is to say that I was so inspired by the quality and enthusiasm of all involved that by December 26th I was already working on a new carol for Christmas 2016