Category Archives: Articles

Subdean’s Message July 2020

Dear chapter members,

We are in what my Episcopal rector calls “the new liturgical season of Covid-tide”. It’s a season of waiting—far longer than the four weeks of Advent! I hope that you are able to find some patience and growth during this time, and please know that the guild is still working behind the scenes to serve you. A few things to note this month:

Board Meeting Monday, July 13th, 7:00 PM

The Tacoma chapter board will be meeting (online) to discuss programming for next year and the postponed chapter election. Please contact me at if

  • you would like to attend (I’ll send the Zoom link)
  • you have programming ideas or needs
  • you have nominations for chapter leadership

Your input and suggestions are very welcome!

Online resources from AGO

The AGO national website has a lot of educational resources. One page you might not make it to is Chapter Leader Toolkits. There have been a number of meetings/presentations about current topics—online streaming in particular—and this page includes recordings of those meetings and supplementary materials.

Upcoming AGO Conventions

The 2020 National Convention in Atlanta, which was to have been next week, has been cancelled. For those who dream of travel, gatherings, and concerts: here are long-term dates, which don’t actually involve much travel!

  • 2021 West Region Convention: Portland, OR July 5-8
  • 2022 National Convention: Seattle, WA July 3-7

Website Activity May 2020

Interest in our website has remained strong during the pandemic. Maybe all of those people who are supposed to be working from home are getting bored. In any case, you might be interested in a snapshot of our May activity in the following tables:

May Activity by Day

May Activity by Country

Thoughts on a Virtual Choir

The “virtual choir” thing can actually work, but it carries with it an immense time investment on the part of the person who does the construction. Here is one of the recent “virtual choir” anthems I’ve done with my St. Mark’s singers:

Hymn of Praise by Natalie Sleeth

I chose Natalie Sleeth’s best-known hymn in SATB format as a good entry-level option, as this was the first one I tried with the choir. There are a lot of pure unison sections, which made it a bit simpler. If you listen to it, I believe it actually sounds somewhat convincing as an analog to a choir singing together in a common space. What it involved:

  • I lay down the piano track by itself.
  • I record myself singing each SATB voice part over the piano track, which becomes a sound file for each (e.g. “Soprano Track”, “Alto Track”, etc.)
  • I mail the tracks and a scan of the music to my choir with instructions on how to record their voice part and send it back to me.
  • I then collect all the sound files that people mail me.
  • I then use the free sound editing software Audacity to layer each voice track over the piano part.
  • I do surgery on each voice part, making sure that people’s timing lines up. It can take up to 20 minutes per voice part.
  • I then have the finished product. It can take 5-10 hours for this process.

Here are the instructions I send to the choir:

  1. Print out the music
  2. Get one device to play the track and one device to record your voice.
  3. Use headphones with your playing device. Put headphones on one ear, and have your other ear open to hear your own voice.
  4. Do a bunch of dry runs to get confident with your part.
  5. Begin recording on your recording device, and hit play on your listening device.
  6. Record your voice singing so that the recording picks up your voice, but not what you are listening to.
  7. Send me the sound file you have created of your own voice.

If any of you have not yet tried this, and would like assistance or tips, I am happy to answer questions.

When I feature recordings like this in worship, I make double-sure to stress that it was a “VIRTUAL CHOIR” so that no one mistakes this for us having all gotten together and recorded a song together against the health and safety guidelines. Those types of optics are very important, I suspect.

Subdean’s Message June 2020

Dear chapter members,

Greetings from your board during these challenging times! Tacoma chapter programs and activities are currently on hiatus, but if you have ideas of things you’d like to see from your chapter–either right now, or for next year–please feel free to contact me.

For those who are able to take this time as a kind of sabbatical/study leave, I commend to you David Dahl’s excellent article on studying Bach cantatas. I’m adding to the study theme with a list of some online resources for continuing education & artistic enjoyment-

Organ Resources

The AGO national website has an education page, which includes classes on many topics, for many levels.

AGO has also entered into a reciprocal agreement with the Royal College of Organists, so we should soon be able to access the RCO educational materials. Pipedreams, the weekly radio broadcast of organ music from American Public Media, has recently-released shows on its website.

Streamed Performances

Seattle’s Pacific Music Works Underground (early music organization) is live streaming on Facebook. Another early music ensemble, Voices of Music, is posting a weekly performance video . For opera fans, Seattle Opera has an online recital series on their website, plus Saturday morning broadcasts on KING FM. Additionally, Metropolitan Opera has a nightly streamed show, and The Royal Opera House is posting videos regularly (opera & ballet).

Resources for Composers

Lastly, as a composer, I’d like to mention a couple of sources for viewing performances of brand-new music: American Composers Forum has all manner of streamed events listed on their calendar, and the British Columbia branch of the Canadian Music Centre has a video performance series of new works for solo performers, “Unaccompanied”.

Handwashingly yours,
Sheila Bristow
Sub Dean

Exploring Bach Cantatas

During this sheltered in place time, I felt I needed a project. So together with a friend who also loves the music of J. S. Bach, we decided to try to listen to all of his sacred cantatas, allowing two days for each one. We write down our observations and exchange results. This is a somewhat daunting task in that Bach wrote some 300 cantatas. Of the 300, about 75 were lost, and 25 of the rest are secular. The sacred cantatas were composed for most all the Sundays of the three-year liturgical cycle as well as festival days (Christmas, Ascension Day, etc.) No cantatas were needed during Lent or Advent 2, 3, 4.

We began with BWV 1, and we’re now at BWV 36. A typical cantata is about 20 -30 minutes in length, intended to support the scriptural lessons of the day. The cantata was sung just before the sermon, or split in two parts surrounding the sermon.

The typical musical forces include a small orchestra consisting of 2 violins, viola, 1-3 oboes, 1-2 flutes (transverse or recorder), cello (or viola de gamba), violone (double bass), and organ for the basso continuo. All of the finest performance groups today use Baroque instruments. The vocal forces include a small size SATB choir and one or more vocal soloists. For more festive occasions, Bach would add 1-3 high register trumpets, and timpani. Some cantatas might also make use of the horn (without valves).

Many of the cantatas are structured with these components:

  • Sinfonia (purely orchestral introduction) or Chorus (choir with orchestra)
  • Recitative: describing the essence of a lesson
  • Aria: vocal solo (or duet) reflecting on that lesson (two types: slow (caantible) or quick (vravura)
  • Recitative
  • Aria
  • Chorale (one of the large body of German Lutheran hymnody, harmonized by Bach and with orchestra or Chorus (with orchestra, and which may or may not include a chorale melody)

What makes the cantata exploration especially interesting is that there always seems to be a surprise element, often related to the “text painting” of the libretto (text, supplied by one of several of Bach’s librettists). Classic examples of this would be music that suggests joy, sorrow, contentment, anger, longing etc.), which could involve unusual orchestration, unexpected interruptions by the chorus in an aria or recitative.

Each cantata might be regarded as a mini sacred drama

How do we go about exploring a cantata? We listen to the cantata (fine free performances are available online) we read commentary (Wikipedia is one source for basic information), then perhaps listen again, but to a different performance, and finally write down our observations and send off to our colleague.

BTW: Good performances may be heard by the following:

Gardiner, Suzuki, Van Veldhoven, Lutz, and Harnoncourt (at times you may have to click off an ad to resume the performance).

You may find a Bach cantata exploration as a gratifying adventure. I certainly have found it so. Some of the least known Bach works are the cantatas; they are filled with musical gems.

David P. Dahl